Yesterday I spoke at the case study launch and celebratory event for the brilliant Our Green Space project, which has worked with five communities in Cumbria to carry out improvements to their local environment and their green spaces.
‘Village greens and green spaces are core work for us at the Open Spaces Society. But I am well aware, as a campaigning body which constantly advises and helps its members to save their spaces, that we don’t celebrate enough. As a member of the Countryside Agency board I was involved in a predecessor of Our Green Space, the Local Heritage Initiative, and I fear that when that was, sadly, wound up much of its legacy was lost. I feel confident that this will not apply to the five projects in Our Green Space.
‘I wish the government would start here in Cumbria and look at what you’ve achieved, with your energy, enthusiasm and sheer determination. It should base its policies for green spaces on that it finds in your communities. Instead, it is motivated by the demands of developers and industry to change laws which protect our green spaces, through the planning system and through registration as town or village greens.
‘Greens have always been places where local people have enjoyed recreation. They can be registered if there is evidence of 20 years without being stopped and without asking permission. The Open Spaces Society was involved in their recording after the Commons Registration Act 1965 defined greens and allowed three years for them to be registered (along with common land). Many greens which ought to have been registered were not. The law said that if they were not registered by 1 August 1970 they ceased to be greens, but then the greens registers reopened on 1 August 1990 because many of those which were not registered attained a further 20 years’ use and once again became greens.
‘Greens are protected by nineteenth-century laws which clearly outlaw encroachments, other than for lawful sports and pastimes. Government now claims that greens registration is being used to frustrate development, but it has little evidence of this. However, of course when land we love and have long enjoyed is threatened, we want to record our rights and save it.
‘Defra, in its recent consultation, proposed all or nothing. We know that the registration process needs improvement, but that doesn’t mean we want the whole package.
‘For instance, Defra advocates a ‘character test’ so that applications can only be made for traditional greens in the heart of villages, but the whole point of greens registration is that it is based on evidence of use, so any land which has attained that use should qualify, including scruffy, out-of-the-way places. It says that the land should be open and unenclosed—so the much-loved Isobel’s Field at Seatoller Close, Morton near Carlisle, which was registered in 2007, would not have qualified. Worse still, it proposes to interfere with the rights of landowners voluntarily to register land, applying the character test to them too. So Burgh-by-Sands [one of the communities in the project, which plans to register its green] needs to get on with the voluntary registration of its green before it’s too late!
‘Defra wants to stop applications where sites are designated for development or have planning permission. We have said there should be a period of, say, six months, before anything happens to the land, to allow local people to gather evidence if they believe the land is a green, and to put in an application.
‘It also wants to charge a fee, which would be unfair on those from poorer communities, whether in town or country.
‘Defra makes a false connection between greens and the Local Green Space designation in the Department for Communities and Local Government’s National Planning Policy Framework. The framework has a presumption in favour of sustainable development (which is not defined). The green space designation is severely restricted: it is ‘not appropriate for most green areas of open space’, it must be in reasonably close proximity to centres of population, it must hold particular significance, and it must not be extensive nor in green belt. We have no idea how it will be designated, protected or managed.
‘Over recent months, the Open Spaces Society has put forward proposals, both for the green space designation and for improving the registration process for greens, but these have been ignored.
‘At the same time, government is trying to reduce so-called red tape and is required to justify all its regulations, most of which are essential for the protection of our environment.
‘So although there is plenty of talk about green space from government, where are its values? Its concerns are the economy and business with no recognition of how essential green spaces are for our daily living, for health and happiness, freedom and fresh air.
‘Times are tough, and what you are doing in your communities is of vital importance. You have demonstrated what can be achieved, by your enthusiasm and hard work.
‘Each one of you is now a campaigner—campaigning is working for beneficial change, for the public. That’s what you have achieved in your communities. Now we need to tell everyone else how to do it.’