A FARMER from Winterslow who is at the centre of a bitter row over 19 acres of his land in the village is close to victory.

Richard Sheppard has had to spend £20,000 over the last two years fighting legal action brought by residents which sought to register a 7.5 acre copse and an adjacent 11.5 acre field as a village green.

The dispute has cost taxpayers at least £15,000 with a planning inquiry, led by an independent inspector, being held in November.

Mr Sheppard, who has lived and worked on the family farm in the village all his life, jointly owns the land next to the village hall with his wife, Patricia.

For many years, they have allowed Browns Copse and the field to be used by villagers but in 2012, they were hit by an application brought by an action group of local residents called Winterslow Opposed to Overdevelopment (WOOD).

WOOD was set up in response to development proposals on the field which included homes, a children's nursery, an employment hub and accommodation for elderly people.

Using a section under the Commons Act 2006, its case hinged on whether residents had been using the site for "lawful sports and pastimes" for a period of at least 20 years.

The five-day inquiry included signed statements from 63 residents citing activities such as dog walking and picking blackberries over time dating from December 1990 to April 2011.

But while the inspector concluded that the field be dismissed from the village green rights application due to WOOD not having proved "sufficiently" qualifying uses, he recommended the copse be classified as a village green.

It was pointed out that Mr Sheppard, a parish councillor, had donated land free of charge for the village hall, car park and tennis courts and made land available for a doctor's surgery in the village and that there was also a recreation ground, Barry's Fields Sports Ground and a cricket ground nearby.

Last Thursday, the Southern Area Planning Committee met to rule on the inspector's recommendation with parties on each side representing their case.

Tim Crossland, WOOD vice-chairman, who moved to Winterslow in 2005 and can see the land from his home, said the proposed development on the field would "destroy the rural nature of the village", adding: "Registering the land as a village green would reduce the scale of any future development."

Mr Sheppard told councillors the inquiry had been an "expensive waste of time and money", had placed "great stress" on his family and was "nothing short of legalised theft".

He said: "How can it be right that a land owner, who is not even aware that such a law exists, may, at the whim of any unaccountable individual be summoned with the loss of his land. "This, because he thought he was being kind and neighbourly to his fellow villagers by allowing them access to his land."

Ward cllr Chris Devine said Mr Sheppard was a long-term philanthropist and the situation was a "tragedy" for the village but agreed with the inspector's recommendation. However, the majority of councillors supported Mr Sheppard with John Smale calling the law "an ass" and the application "downright robbery".

Cllr Richard Clewer said: "That someone should be forced to give up their own land is deeply wrong."

Committee chairman Fred Westmoreland added: "I believe this is an attempt to use a piece of legislation which was never intended for these purposes to pursue a planning agenda that failed at the inspector point and now we are stuck here picking up the pieces."

Councillors deferred their decision until the next planning meeting but signalled they would be voting against the transfer once the exact reasons for refusal had been drawn up by officers.