Twenty years ago this month the Open Spaces Society published its Charter for Open Spaces. The peg was, in 1993, the 400th anniversary of the first Act of Parliament to protect open spaces.
The 1593 Act was ‘for restraint of new buildings, converting of great houses into several tenements and for restraint of inmates and enclosures in and near unto the Cities of London and Westminster’. The Act made it unlawful ‘to inclose or take in any part of the commons or waste grounds, situate, lying or being within three miles of any of the gates of the said city of London …’.
It was also the centenary of one of Octavia Hill’s many speeches about open spaces. She was an early committee member of the Commons Preservation Society, as the OSS was then known. In 1893 she said: ‘It remains the hardest of all things to get either workers or money for the preservation of paths and commons, which are among our people’s best possessions, and are being yearly, yes monthly snatched from us.’
And so 1993 was a good year in which to publish a Charter for Open Spaces. Here is the charter with a note of what has happened in the last 20 years to achieve it.
What we want
1. Full laws to protect common land, give public rights of access and provide for management—as recommended by the Common Land Forum in 1986.
We won the right to walk on all commons which did not already have access rights (Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000). Management regimes for commons are not universal, indeed the first commons council under the Commons Act 2006 is only just being confirmed.
2 Legislation to prevent deregistration of, and encroachment on, common land.
It is now more difficult to deregister common land, although part 1 of the Commons Act 2006 (which has only been implemented in seven English pioneer authorities) allows for correction of the registers. The law against encroachment has been strengthened in that the public may now take action, but there is still no duty on local authorities to act to protect commons.
3. Legislation to facilitate the creation and registration of new common land.
There has been no progress.
4. A change of practice by Ordnance Survey to show, on its walking-scale maps, all common land and other access land.
This has come about because all access land under the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 is shown in yellow on 1:25000 OS maps, although commons are not distinguished from other access land.
5. Legislation to protect all village greens from encroachment and to give the public a right to enjoy lawful sports and pastimes on them.
The law has been clarified so all village greens are protected and local people have a right of recreation on them.
6. Legislation to improve the procedure for registering land as greens where lawful sports and pastimes have been enjoyed for many years.
Legislation was improved, by the Commons Act 2006 and case law, but has subsequently been severely damaged by the Growth and Infrastructure Act 2013 in England which makes it impossible to register land as a green if it’s threatened with development.
Other open spaces
7. Legislation to ensure that the change of ownership or use of all land open to the public and all playing-fields requires (a) confirmation by the Secretary of State and (b) equal exchange land or special parliamentary procedure.
There has been no change.
8. The extension of the national register of recreational land—which at present includes only sports-pitches—to cover open spaces used for informal recreation.
I don’t know what has happened to this register but I’m pretty certain we got nowhere with this.
9. Public funding to ensure that new public open spaces can be created where the need is great, as it is in inner cities.
No progress here.
10. Legislation to require any unclaimed open space to be vested in the local authority, with a duty to protect it.
Again, no progress.
Today, our spaces are being snatched from us just as they were in Octavia Hill’s time. The Open Spaces Society battles on with undiminished ardour.