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Last Updated: Tuesday, 31 July 2007, 10:37 GMT 11:37 UK
To the manor bought
Alstonefield, Peak District
Alstonefield, where there's a new lord of the manor

Ruth Alexander
BBC Radio 4's Law in Action

"Lord of the Manor" titles are being bought at auction for thousands of pounds, provoking bitter disputes over the ownership of village greens and grass verges, and prompting campaigners to call for the abolition of feudal laws.

A village in the Peak District has become an unlikely battleground between the country's old feudal laws and the modern British legal system.

The title of Lord of the Manor of Alstonefield was bought for 10,000 in 1999 by a business in Wales.

That business is owned by Mark Roberts, who also styles himself Lord Marcher of Trelleck, another title his company owns. It owns 60 titles in all.

It's been absolutely horrendous for ordinary families living within this situation
Sue Fowler
Parish councillor, Alstonefield
He claims ownership of grass verges and commons in Alstonefield, but the parish council has disputed this claim, saying it has an old legal document to prove a previous lord of the manor gave up rights to this land in the 1800s.

Mr Roberts initially had a caution put against first registration of the title across a 25,000-acre area covering the ancient parish, to make sure no-one else registered a lord of the manor title for the same area.

LORD OF THE MANOR
Title arose in feudal system after Norman Conquest
Estates of land called manors were still owned by the king
But they were handed to the (mostly Norman) lords in return for military service
They were all-powerful over the peasants who worked the land
Today people can call themselves 'The Lord of the Manor of... ' but the Passport Agency does not recognise them
Chris Eubank is Lord of the Manor of Brighton
But it had the unintended effect of stopping house sales because lenders and buyers were made aware that someone had some sort of claim or interest in the area of land.

Some villagers also found they didn't have right of way into their properties, as Mr Roberts was claiming ownership of grass verges, and they ended up paying him for access. In one case, a resident paid 15,000 for land next to his house.

"It's been absolutely horrendous for ordinary families living within this situation," says Sue Fowler, a parish councillor in Alstonefield, who believes Mr Roberts is imposing 11th Century laws on a 21st Century community.

"I think it's about time we made it a criminal offence to make money in such a way."

Arguments

A similar situation arose in a village near Newport in Wales, Peterstone Wentloog, where Mr Roberts is also lord of the manor.

Then in 2005, the law changed so that no-one can charge a person for accessing their property via common land any more, as long as they can show they have been doing so for 20 years or more.

Mark Roberts
Roberts denies causing a nuisance
This change put an end to the practice, but in Alstonefield the arguments continued, despite the fact the caution had been lifted.

Mr Roberts claimed ownership of common land too, which includes several greens. He said he would lease the land to the parish council for a nominal sum. But the council refused as that would effectively recognise him as landowner.

Instead, the council applied for village green status so it could protect the villagers' free use of the land, no matter who owned it.

The lord objected and a public inquiry was called, at a cost to the parish council of 16,000. Earlier this month, Staffordshire County Council granted village green status to just four of Alstonefield's many grassy areas. That means the arguments could continue over more than 10 other pieces of land.

"We do not buy titles. We buy manors, which are the oldest form of landed estate," says Mr Roberts.

"We buy these old landed estates for the land including demesne agricultural land, pasture land, quarries, common land, waste land and foreshore that go with them, which we manage in a traditional way as any other major landowner does and has done over the last 1,000 years.

"We are in essence akin to a small version of the Crown Estate or Duchy of Cornwall Estate."

St Peters Church, Alstonefield
Seven years of confusion have engulfed Alstonefield

Scores of titles are bought and sold every year. Often people buy them for fun, like ex-boxer Chris Eubank, but some people see a business opportunity.

This is entirely legal and there is no doubt the titles can be valuable. As well as rights to land like wastes and commons, they can also give the holder rights over land.

For example, mineral rights, hunting and fishing rights, the right to hold a market - even the right to a beached whale, should one wash up in your manor.

However, it can be difficult to exercise feudal rights in today's legal landscape. For example, you cannot build a mine without planning permission and the mining of gold, silver and oil are subject to statutory restrictions.

Campaigners around the country, as well as some politicians and legal professionals, say manorial rights are anachronistic and ought to be abolished.

People are looking at these rights for personal gain
Judith Bray
Land law expert

"This is a long way from the feudal system in the 13th Century," says Judith Bray, a land law expert from Buckingham University.

"People are looking at these rights for personal gain and for business opportunities. They no longer have the reciprocal duties that they owed in the 13th Century. It is now an opportunity to exploit their position."

She said the legal situation is very confusing because a piece of legislation in the 1920s separated manorial rights from the ownership of land.

It is not known how many manorial rights are even held, although the Land Registration Act 2002 set a 10-year window in which all such rights have to be registered.

Trespass

Mark Roberts strongly rebuts any suggestion that his pursuit of manorial rights causes a nuisance.

"I have a right to protect my land against modern encroachment and trespass," he told the BBC Radio 4's Law in Action programme. "The majority of listeners would not countenance a trespass in their back garden and neither will I, no matter how big the perpetrator."

The Law Commission in England and Wales is considering a project to abolish feudal land law, acknowledging the remnants cause "uncertainty" to the public, legal professionals and the courts. But any such project would not include a review of manorial rights.

Law in Action was broadcast on Tuesday 31 July on BBC Radio 4 at 1600 BST.

Listen to the programme


A selection of your comments appears below.

What we really need is an Act of Parliament which makes it illegal for these titles to be enforced- you can have the title but without the benefits currently acquired.
Christopher Trefor Davies, Caerdydd, Cardiff

Such titles should not be free for sale and purchase. In this day and age of consumerism and greed, the concept belittles the idea of manorial lordships and the reciprocal rights carried therein. Such titles should only be granted by the monarch (not even by the PM on her behalf - as this would result in political appointments), and the duties of the title holder should be enforced.
Leigh, Bekasi Indonesia

I see a company that has found a cheeky loophole and a way to make an easy buck. Good luck I say, I wish I had thought of that. What I don't get is the resident who paid 15,000 quid for a bit of land down the side of their property. Why didn't they just buy the title and save a few quid or all the locals get together and buy it. Doh!!!
Colin, Leeds

Surely, as a feudal title, Lordship of any Manor is held from the Monarch - so all that needs to be done is for the queen to strip these petty lordlings of their titles? The land could then be held in common as a village green or, as has been suggested by the NT.
Dominic Newton, Bristol, UK

Paying for right of access is pretty normal, the council will charge you for that right when the land belongs to them. As long as any changes limiting the rights of land owners also apply to the councils.. then i would agree with it. :)
Timothy O'Brien, Thatcham

It could only happen in the great democracy we call England. Give ALL these titled deeds to the National Trust. It's the only JUST way to deal with this. We cannot continue Thacherite ideals, look at our roads and housing, a bloody mess caused by greed and government idleness.
Mike Preston, Blackpool, UK

The problem of these people buying titles would not come about had the owner of those titles not put them up for sale. If the original landowners hadn't been greedy and put them up for sale then perhaps the purchasers wouldn't have got their hands on them in the first place. Out of all the people that are bleating on about their rights etc how many of them wouldn't do exactly the same thing should they be in the same position. It really smacks of double standards
Karen Shield, Swaton, Lincolnshire

To Karen in Swaton, I think these titles have not been sold by greedy land owners, from what I gather many of them are from families who died out and have not been in use for many, many years. I think that people should be allowed to buy the titles but they should also have a commensurate responsibility which comes with the title. When someone purchases a title it should be clear what comes along with the title, certainly this will add to the cost of them. New title deeds will have to be drawn up in consultation with local councils and heritage agencies at the time of purchase and the cost of all this should be borne by the person who is buying the title. This means councils get their say, vanity buyers get their titles, work is created and all is fair :o)
Michelle, Derby

There is a fairly simple way to make this less of a viable option. The locals should embrace the fact they have a lord, and make use of his services. 1: For minor issues on the manor, enforce your right for the lord to hear your case in the "Manorial Court" a forum for dealing with the day to day running of the Manor, which he must provide at his expense. The lord MUST also ensure all tenants are informed of the details of the manorial courts. 2: Ensure the lord is keeping proper records of all tenures, eg numbers of chickens, goats cattle etc (this is a required duty) The added expense of running these tasks as well as the many others that a Lord is required to provide would make the fact of having this title more trouble than it is worth.
Mark Scott, Camberley Surrey.

The lady from Birmingham University is wrong to asy that 1920s legislation separated moanorial rights from the land - they had always been severable and the 19th century saw many instances of impecunious landed families selling the land and retaining the lordship rights, or if more modern in their approach selling the rights (in the belief they were only of interest to moneyed snobs) but retaining the land. Some country solcitors and estate agents built up large portfolios of manorial titles as a result. The 1920s land law reforms abolished manorial tenure (called copyhold) but was not able to abolish lordships of the manor because the interests in them were too many, too varied and too untraceable for the necessary compensation scheme to be a viable option. It is hard to see how this could be got around now, especially as there is now a European dimension to the uncompensated loss of legal rights or privileges.
Emma Badian, London




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