In the next week or so, the House of Lords will determine the fate of a multitude of open spaces, when it debates clause 22 of the Growth and Infrastructure Bill. The clause removes parliament’s right to intervene when open space is threatened with compulsory purchase.
Wycombe Rye is a stretch of public open space on the east side of High Wycombe, Bucks, extending alongside the River Wye. On its southern boundary is an attractive tree-lined watercourse, the Dyke, with the backdrop of a wooded hillside, the grounds of Wycombe Abbey public school.
To the north is the busy A40 London Road, the main route through High Wycombe. The rye is a treasured spot, 68 acres of land vested in Wycombe District Council and its predecessor body, High Wycombe Borough Council, since 1927.
Looking at it now you might think it had always been safe. Not so. In 1962 part of the land was threatened with a compulsory purchase order, to enable the inner-relief road to be built across it, the A40 being thought unable to accommodate the necessary traffic.
A local schoolmaster, Jack Scruton, secretary of the newly-formed High Wycombe Rye Protection Society, wrote to the Commons, Open Spaces and Footpaths Preservation Society (now the Open Spaces Society) in March 1962, urgently seeking its help against the invasion by the road. The society did help, but the road had already been approved following a public inquiry.
There was a further inquiry into the appropriation of 2.4 acres of open space, but on the inspector’s recommendation, the minister confirmed the appropriation order, under the Acquisition of Land (Authorisation Procedure) Act 1946, on 5 February 1965. Fortunately no land was offered in exchange, so the order was subject to special parliamentary procedure (SPP). That meant that objectors could petition parliament and present their case to a joint committee of both houses.
The joint committee heard the evidence in June 1965. The Wycombe Rye Society was eloquent. ‘The rye is a broad meadow, green and unspoiled, and at present preserved as an open space for the recreation and enjoyment of members of the public, and protected by a natural boundary of the River Wye which provides a barrier from the hurly-burly of the town. It is an ideal place of recreation for children.’
Magnificently, the committee ruled that the orders be annulled. The rye has remained intact to this day, saved by legislation which gives parliament the final say on the theft of open space where no suitable alternative is provided.
But the legislation may give that protection no more. Clause 22 of the government’s Growth and Infrastructure Bill, which is now racing through parliament, proposes that instead of such cases being referred to a parliamentary committee, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government himself can decide the fate of open space. In future, when compulsory purchase of open space is proposed for development which the government thinks should go ahead quickly, and there is no suitable exchange land or that land is considered to be too expensive, the minister can cast aside SPP and rule that the development proceeds without regard to the open space.
Thus a decision which was vested in parliament, because of the importance of public open space, will now be taken by the executive – because nothing must get in the way of development.
Open space is defined as ‘any land … used for the purposes of public recreation’. In other words, the many acres of intricately-mapped access land under the Countryside and Rights of Way Act could be vulnerable as well as the thousands of informal spaces. Even the public parks are at risk.
However, government appears not to have realised that whereas SPP cannot be subject to judicial review, an injudicious decision by the Secretary of State can be challenged, taking far longer to resolve than SPP. Government can most certainly expect judicial reviews if the Secretary of State ignores open space.
It is excellent that Lord Faulkner of Worcester has tabled an amendment that clause 22 should be removed from the Growth Bill. It may be our last chance to save the law which saved Wycombe Rye.