Leeds nature reserve in legal limbo after land ownership row

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THE operation of a huge nature reserve and wetland is in limbo, after a leading wildlife charity ‘scaled down’ its involvement with the project in the wake of a land ownership wrangle.

The visitor centre and car park at St Aidan’s nature reserve in Great Preston, east Leeds, has been closed following issues over land ownership and legal holds ups.

St Aidan’s stretches over 400 hectares between Leeds and Castleford, on former opencast mining land.

Last year it became an RSPB run nature reserve, a huge wetland for birds and wildlife with 12 km of public walkways, to much acclaim.

It is also a washland area for villages surrounding the beauty spot, which are at risk of flooding.

St Aidan’s was opened in May 2013, under the belief that transfer of the land to Leeds City Council – and subsequent lease to the RSPB - was imminent and the visitor centre and car park was built.

A spokeswoman for the RSPB said: “Unfortunately, a number of issues around the land transfer are unresolved, hence we have not yet taken up the lease. The RSPB has removed its visitor-facing presence from St Aidan’s.

“The land is currently owned by Harworth Estates and isn’t yet an official RSPB site. To lessen any confusion over land ownership, we will be removing RSPB-branded signs from St Aidan’s and reducing our staff on site.

“Harworth Estates are currently working with Leeds City Council to resolve these issues. But until the land has transferred to LCC, and we have secured a lease, we cannot run visitor operations on site, and therefore the car park and visitor centre has had to close.”

Ownership of the land was due to be transferred in 2013 from UK Coal to the St Aidan’s Trust, a charity administered by Leeds City Council.

The trust is then due to lease it to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) for 99 years, on a peppercorn rent.

The public can still visit the area but have no official place to park. They can access the 12km of public footpaths, bridleways and cycle routes at St Aidan’s.

Councillor Keith Wakefield, the leader of Leeds City Council, said on behalf of the council: “This is a real tragedy for the local residents who suffered for decades with coal trucks from 6am, six days a week. They welcomed this nature reserve which is a fantastic beauty spot for Leeds and that LCC is now trying to sort it all out and hoping to move forward so the RSPB can be back on board.”

The RSPB says it will continue to do some habitat management work to ensure the site reamins in good conditions for the wildlife, until land issues are resolved.