The Easter weekend of 2007 was sunlit and full of promise. On Good Friday, 6 April, the new law for new greens in the Commons Act 2006 took effect. The Open Spaces Society celebrated ‘the doors opening’ for village greens with a customary press release. I was up at dawn on Easter Saturday for a cheerful interview with Jim Naughtie on the Today programme, urging people to get out there and record their greens.
By clarifying a somewhat confusing law, the 2006 act encouraged local people to try to register land which qualified as a green—where they have enjoyed informal recreation for 20 years, without interruption or permission—and for the first time it allowed a two-year grace period for applications after recreational use of the land had been challenged.
The law recognised that if people could demonstrate such use of the land, their rights to enjoy it should be confirmed. This is known as prescription, an ancient custom. And once a green was registered, it couldn’t be developed.
The 2006 act made it clear that a green application could be submitted after planning permission was mooted, or even granted, provided that the planning consent was not given, or construction begun, before 23 June 2006. Developers had to weigh up the likelihood that a green, and therefore access rights for local people, might be confirmed. After all, it can be argued that by using the green for all that time, local people had in effect acquired rights, they just hadn’t recorded them.
Six short years on and the story is very different. By the end of this month the Growth and Infrastructure Act 2013 will have reversed many good things in the Commons Act. Government has given way to developers and made a law which prevents applications for greens as soon as land is threatened with development, and reduced from two years to one the grace period for any other challenge to recreational use, making it difficult to register a green at all. This government cares nothing for the ancient practice of prescription.
The euphora of Easter weekend 2007, along with the venerable custom of prescription, has been swept away in the chilly winds of 2013.