The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) takes pride in having good evidence on which to base its policies. Unfortunately, in the case of town and village greens, this pride is misplaced.
See its webpage on Research at Defra. Grammar is not Defra’s strong point, so here we have a singular verb with a plural subject, but the message is clear: Research and analysis provides (sic) evidence for decision-making, ensuring Defra’s policies are based on a sound, comprehensive understanding of current evidence. …We use the term ‘evidence’ to encompass material from a variety of disciplines—science research, statistics, economics, social research or operational research, and geographical information. We use a variety of quality assurance processes.
So let’s look at Defra’s statement yesterday on greens, New measures to increase rural home-building. This announces further implementation of the menacing provisions in the Growth and Infrastructure Act 2013 which severely restrict the opportunities to register new greens in England. Where is the evidence for Defra’s rash claims?
Village green status protects land that is regularly used for recreation but loopholes in the system have increasingly been abused by people looking to stop local development. Glossing over the fact that to abuse a loophole is impossible, where is Defra’s sound evidence that the system has increasingly been abused?
There is evidence that the number of village green applications a year has steadily declined from 2008 to 2011 (2008: 196, 2009: 139, 2010: 134, 2011: 103, based on extrapolation from a 23 per cent return from a biennial survey of local authorities). This was a written answer by Richard Benyon, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Natural Environment, Water and Rural Affairs, to George Freeman MP, 19 November 2012.
In other words, over those three years, village green applications declined by nearly a third. So perhaps they shot up in 2012? Defra doesn’t know: it only carries out the survey every two years and has not done one since September 2011. It is therefore quite impossible to claim that the system has been ‘increasingly abused’ when the number of cases on which abuse might be based is in decline. Defra’s claim to rely on sound, comprehensive understanding of current evidence is plain dishonest.
In addition, the number of greens applications in relation to the number of planning applications (over 400,000 a year) is minuscule.
Next, and again ungrammatically, we read: The changes that come in today means (sic) it will no longer be possible to block local development by making spurious village green applications. How does Defra know they are spurious? If local people can demonstrate 20 years’ use of the land for informal recreation, without challenge or permission, the application is not spurious. And an application can block local development whether or not it is spurious. The changes to the law affect both spurious and legitimate applications.
Defra doesn’t think so. The next sentence is While legitimate applications will remain well-protected … They won’t. The changes brought in yesterday mean that local people must gather evidence and submit their claim within one year of a challenge to their use of the land. Previously they had two years. And now a landowner can deposit a statement with his or her registration authority (county or unitary council) to bring an end to any period of recreational use of land. The notice is supposed to be posted on the site for six weeks but if it’s removed, no one is required to replace it. So people may not know that their use has been challenged. Legitimate applications are not well-protected at all.
Then there’s a sweeping claim from rural affairs minister Richard Benyon: Towns across the country have been held back from getting the developments they want through misuse of the village green system. This is pure speculation. How does he know what development a ‘town’ wants? How does he define ‘town’? His press release refers to ‘rural home-building’ (my emphasis). How does he know there has been what he calls misuse of the village green system?
He goes on to argue that the changes will allow [schools and housing] to be built, creating jobs and economic growth. In other words, Defra is unashamedly crushing local people and their much-loved greens in favour of development.
While Defra could correct its grammar, I fear it won’t correct its attitude to greens. It seems hellbent on destroying them, regardless of the science.