£238k council payout paves way for end to Leeds nature spot land wrangle

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A POPULAR wildlife visitor centre could be reopened after it was controversially closed earlier this year amidst a land wrangle between Leeds City Council and a major charity.

The authority has now agreed to make a £238,000 payment to the RSPB in relation to its leasing and running of the visitor centre and car park at the St Aidan’s nature reserve and wetland in Great Preston.

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

The facility’s future was left in limbo after the RSPB ‘scaled down’ its involvement with the project in the wake of the row, leading to closure of the visitor centre and car park.

Bosses told the YEP in April that “unfortunately, a number of issues around the land transfer are unresolved, hence we have not yet taken up the lease”.

Now it has emerged that a £238,000 payment will be made to the charity and managers say it is the first “significant step” to the re-opening of the visitor centre.

Chris Woolner, RSPB Aire Valley Visitor Experience Manager, said: “The payment to the RSPB for the work carried out last year is one of several significant steps that need to take place in order for the visitor operation at St Aidan’s to be reopened, which is what all parties involved in the site are aiming towards.

“We are still a little way off overcoming all the barriers that led to the closure of the visitor centre and car park, however, things are now moving forward with the help of LCC. Unfortunately, we can’t give a timescale for re-opening just yet, but we hope to be able to soon.”

The site became an RSPB run nature reserve last year, 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.

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 was then due to lease it to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) for 99 years, on a peppercorn rent - but delays in the transfer led to the suseqent issues.

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 Richard Lewis, Leeds City Council’s executive board member with responsibility for transport and the economy said: “The council works with the RSPB as a partner for delivering green infrastructure within the lower Aire valley. Moving forward, RSPB will manage the St Aidan’s trust site in terms of nature conservation, public access and public engagement.

“The RSPB completed the visitor centre and car park project in May 2013, and the council has agreed to own the Visitor Centre on behalf of the St Aidan’s Trust, which manages the land for the enjoyment of the people of south Leeds.”

He added: “This is a terrific asset to the local area for the enjoyment of nearby communities who have had to endure opencast coal working for many years.”

The council is the sole trustee of the St Aidan’s Trust, which will own the site on which the visitor centre has been built. It has been agreed the council will be the owner of the visitor centre.

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