Octavia Hill campaigned to save open spaces. Now the government intends to destroy them.
Today I went to the service in Westminster Abbey, where a memorial was dedicated to the open spaces champion Octavia Hill. Octavia, who founded the National Trust, died a hundred years ago.
The memorial is a tablet, carved by Rory Young, in a prime position in the nave.
It was an unusual and uplifting event. There was a wide range of speakers. Wyn Davies, the warden of Dinefwr, the National Trust’s property near Llandeilo in Carmarthenshire, filled the abbey with a glorious Welsh accent, saying how the trust has continued Octavia’s work in ‘creating a little bit of heaven in a troubled world’.
Julia Bradbury, former president of the Ramblers, said how Octavia had inspired others to follow, she urged us to ‘find your inspiration and nurture that person’. I thought of my inspiration, Sylvia Sayer, who taught me so much about campaigning.
The director-general Fiona Reynolds gave an excellent address about Octavia and her legacy. It’s not the organisations that matter most, it’s what they achieve; Fiona cited protection of green belts and rights of access. She questioned whether we think enough about why we do things. Octavia met the future with judgement, trust and hope, a quick eye, a true soul and greater ideals.
Sadly there was no mention in the service of the Open Spaces Society. Octavia was active in the Commons Preservation Society, as the OSS was then known, 20 years before she founded the trust but gets little recognition for this.
Simon Jenkins, National Trust chairman, read from Octavia’s ‘Space for the people‘ written in 1875 when she was campaigning to save Swiss Cottage Fields, London, from development.
She wrote: ‘There on a summer Sunday or Saturday evening, you might see hundreds of working people spread over the green open space like a stream that has just escaped from between rocks’. She was anxious to buy the fields because ‘to my mind they will be more and more valuable every year—valuable in the deepest sense of the word; health-giving, joy-inspiring, peace-bringing’.
How ironic that four days earlier, the government published its Growth and Infrastructure Bill which sets out to prevent people from saving their open spaces. The bill outlaws applications to register land as town or village greens once it has been earmarked for development in a local or neighbourhood plan. Yet many people won’t know about these plans and the first they learn that their much-loved open space is threatened is when there is an application for planning permission. By then it will be too late to try to save it, and they will lose their rights of recreation there.
This oppressive new law not only stamps on local people and their rights, it stamps on Octavia’s legacy. We shall fight it.