A man has been forced to spend more than £20,000 in a battle with a neighbouring council to protect the land at Morecambe Bay he owns from being used illegally to race motorcycles, quad bikes, hovercraft and even microlites.
Steven Wells is one of a number of residents in Preesall Sands who have been fighting for several years to keep the coast on which they live free of the joyriders, boy racers and semi-professional off-road motorcycle teams that regularly tear up and down the beautiful stretch of the Fylde coast.
'At one point we had the air ambulance out here every weekend,' says Mr Wells, who owns a 50-acre section of coastal marshland that is an EU 'special protection area' because of its wildlife, as well as being a site of special scientific interest, and comes with a number of ownership responsibilities.
A privately commissioned report by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents found the 'potential for a serious incident' on the sands was 'extremely high', adding that 'many of the drivers were under age' and that 'some of the young adults were consuming large amounts of alcohol'.
Mr Wells has become embroiled in a legal fight with the neighbouring parish council, which is disputing the ownership of land that he says has been in his family since 1987. He claims the only reason Pilling Parish Council is disputing his title is because some councillors want to ensure access to the beach for the use of recreational vehicles. 'They think that the only way to guarantee access is to have ownership to the ramp that's on my land,' he explains. He says has no problem with public access in general, and only aims to keep out vehicles.
Mr Wells has not been able to shake off the legal challenge by the council, despite the fact that the land is not in Pilling parish and that the council does not appear to have any interest in it.
The legal action began in April 2005 when the council tried to seek 'rectification' of his title to the land. The Land Registry referred the dispute to an adjudicator - which means that, unlike most legal actions, where liability for costs is generally determined by the outcome, Mr Wells has to bear his own costs. His legal bill so far comes to £23,597.
'It is my land and I am protecting it, as I am supposed to according to my agreement with English Nature,' Mr Wells says. He owns the land subject to a management plan with English Nature and is liable for a fine of up to £20,000 if convicted for breaching its terms, such as allowing motor vehicles to use it.
'That legal responsibility lies on my head and I don't want anyone to be killed by some idiot on a motorbike,' he says. Mr Wells's father was hit by a motorbike on the beach and left unconscious two years ago. The rider didn't stop and the incident was reported to the police.
Mr Wells is supported by other local residents. 'On weekends we have had as many as 80 to 100 bikes, quad bikes and cars. We've even had snowploughs and hovercraft down here,' complains one resident, who lives 50 yards from the seafront. She declined to be named after having been physically assaulted by one of the bikers, as well as having had nails put in her tyres. For the last 18 months, the beach has been relatively vehicle-free after a police crackdown on illegal activity. 'Before that, I would literally shake when I went out there,' she says.
Captain Steve Gaunt, chairman of Pilling Parish Council, refuses to comment on his side of the case 'because it is in the hands of the lawyers at the moment'. However, a number of Pilling parishioners are objecting that their council tax bills have shot up to fund the legal action, which they fundamentally oppose.
'We own horses and one of the things we used to enjoy was riding on the beach,' says James Millross, who lives 500 yards from the beach access. 'For the best part of 18 months, we just couldn't take our horses out because they were scared. It was too dangerous.'
Mr Millross claims that council tax bills have increased, with the 'parish precept' rising from £40 to £100 solely to fund legal action. 'I am one of a growing number of residents that are appalled by the rise in our council tax to fight this legal issue for which there doesn't seem to be any good reason,' he says. 'The legal advice is that nothing will change even if the council wins, because the land is an open space and the police are entitled to police it in just the same way as they have been.'
A number of parishioners have complained to the Audit Commission asking it to investigate on the grounds that the legal action is, as Mr Millross puts it, 'a waste of public money'.
Councillor Gaunt acknowledges that the council tax increase is to fund legal action: 'The precept went up as a result of a parish poll, which was supported four to one in favour. It was done in a democratic way. Anyone who objects [to it] isn't democratic if they aren't prepared to accept the majority view.'
He adds that the poll was conducted independently by Wyre Borough Council. 'The issue was put to every household in the parish; everyone knows the facts and every parishioner had the opportunity to vote,' he says.
'The reality appears to be that at least one councillor is intent on effectively permitting illegal, highly dangerous and environmentally harmful activities on an internationally designated wildlife site,' says Paul Stookes, a partner at the environmental law specialist Richard Buxton, which is advising Mr Wells. 'If the Audit Commission has any teeth whatsoever it will take firm and decisive action to stop this fiasco.'
According to Lancashire Constabulary, Preesall Sands has been a crime hotspot; in June 2005, for example, over 58 incidents of criminal activity were reported to police.
John Smith, head of community safety at Wyre Borough Council, reckons that the vast majority of people who went driving on the beach came from outside both Pilling and Wyre. 'What I don't understand is why the parish council want to defend a situation where 90 per cent of the perpetrators are from outside the local area,' he says.
What you can do
· Contact the police. The police can assess if an offence is being committed, which could be dangerous driving, driving other than on a road, or driving without insurance.
· Alternatively, contact your local council, which can take action if the vehicle use constitutes a statutory nuisance (for example, noisy activities).
· The police and/or local council can apply for an anti-social behaviour order if any behaviour causes or is likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress.
· Police and local authorities are likely to have discretion as to whether or not to take certain steps. But if they are acting unreasonably in failing to take effective action, it may be possible to challenge them by judicial review
· Direct legal action (for nuisance) may be taken against the offender, although there are a number of criteria to satisfy before a court will grant an injunction against certain behaviour.