A Derby Commercial Property Lawyer says that the legal wrangle concerning the ownership of Darley Abbey’s toll bridge is “a highly unusual” case that could take a long time to resolve because of its complexity.
Danielle Upton, an Associate Commercial Property Lawyer at Smith Partnership, said that there are likely to be many steps to take before the bridge can be repaired and reopened to the public.
The bridge was officially closed off to vehicles, cyclists and pedestrians last week following a structural survey which found it was in a weak and dangerous condition following recent flooding.
Danielle Upton, an associate commercial property lawyer at Smith Partnership in Derby, says:
"Darley Abbey’s closed bridge could take a while to reopen because its ownership issue will need to be resolved first.
The closure has meant that villagers are having to travel into the centre of Derby or up to the A38 in order to cross the River Derwent so that they can access Darley Abbey Mills and its bars, restaurants and businesses or visit Derby Rugby Club."
Although the Darley Abbey Mill complex belongs to Patterns Properties, it is understood that the bridge itself now belongs to the Crown Estate, and this is where the issues begin, says Danielle.
It is understood that ownership of the bridge has passed to the Crown Estate through escheat, which is a common law process by which freehold land that has no traceable owner reverts to the Crown.
The principle of escheat ensures that a piece of land or a structure is never without an owner and people cannot just claim it for themselves. There are thought to be about 7,000 pieces of escheated land in the country, however often the Crown Estate are not aware of them until issues like this arise.
However, although it has ownership, the Crown Estate will not usually take responsibility for the land – in this case the bridge structure – and so it is unlikely to take steps to repair the bridge itself.
Instead, it may agree to sell the bridge to an interested party, which would then have to pay for the work needed to repair the bridge and reopen it.
“Escheat is a very unusual situation and one I have only ever come across on very rare occasions, including a derelict social club that was no longer being used and whose previous owner no longer existed.
“I don’t know the circumstances under which the bridge escheated to the Crown Estate but it’s highly unlikely that any repairs will be made until somebody comes along and buys it.”
Councillors and cabinet members from Derby City Council attended a meeting arranged by Derby North MP Amanda Solloway over the weekend to seek a way forward and reopen the bridge as soon as possible.
“I have no doubt that Derby City Council will be doing all that it can to look into the situation, but it is not likely to reach a quick resolution because of the legal process which will need to be followed."
“The Council will need to liaise with the Crown Estate’s Solicitor who may wish to obtain a valuation for the bridge before agreeing to sell to a buyer that it considers has the bridge’s best interests in mind.
“The Crown Estate may also require a local consultation to ensure that the purchase will be in the best interests of the local area.
“The negotiations in respect of this would likely to be lengthy and the Crown Estate would be looking for the best price that is fair and reasonable in all the circumstances, and it would also expect its legal fees to be paid.”