On 2 April 1984 I became general secretary of the Open Spaces Society (OSS). As I write this, exactly 30 years on, I am listening to the supreme court case on a village green at Whitby, North Yorkshire. I certainly could not have envisaged then that it would be possible to watch a court case live on my computer!
I was appointed to the OSS because I was a campaigner and the committee reckoned such skills were needed. I followed some distinguished lawyers—Paul Clayden and Ian Campbell were my immediate predecessors. Knowledge of the law of commons, greens and paths is important to the OSS, but the skills do not necessarily have to be vested in its general secretary. I had until then been the (unpaid) secretary of the Dartmoor Preservation Association.
My diary records that on that first day I arrived early at the office in Henley-on-Thames, only to find I couldn’t get in because I hadn’t yet got keys. So I had to loiter in our rather gloomy passage until someone arrived. Things improved after that!
I was particularly busy in those first months. Not only did I have the new job and all the work associated with that, but also I was fighting the Okehampton bypass. This threatened to desecrate the northern boundary of the Dartmoor National Park. Because it involved the exchange of open space, it had been referred to special parliamentary procedure. I was already working for Anthony Steen, MP for the South Hams, who was piloting the Dartmoor Commons Bill through parliament, to become an act the following year. Later in 1984 I attended the public inquiry, objecting to path closures on the Larkhill military ranges in Wiltshire; this entailed many trips to Devizes.
The Okehampton bypass battle enabled me to get my first picture in the Times, on 19 November 1985. My partner Chris Hall cleverly suggested that the press release should report that the campaign was co-ordinated from my ‘attic office’. It worked, and the Times photographer visited the attic office for a photo.
In 1984, life was exciting for commons. The Common Land Forum, a gathering of all the interests in commons, had just started its work—it did not reach agreement until 1986 when its report, advocating access to and management of commons, was published It was signed by the OSS and Ramblers, Country Landowners’ Association and National Farmers’ Union, among others. It was another 14 years before we got the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 giving us the right to walk on all commons in England and Wales.
Then there was little prospect of registering land as village greens. During my time here that has developed into a major area of work, we have seen countless greens registered and open spaces saved for local people, and countless court cases clarifying the law. The current Whitby case is almost the last in the line of such cases, for the government has now made it much more difficult to register land.
I have probably had the most fun in my work on public rights of way. It has been immensely rewarding to get illegally-blocked paths reopened, and when the land was associated with a famous name, publicity was that much easier.
Here are some examples
- Wormsley estate on the Buckinghamshire/Oxfordshire border (Paul Getty) 1986;
- Waddesdon estate, Buckinghamshire (Rothschilds) 1986
- Althorp estate, Northamptonshire (Lord Spencer), 1987
- Burwarton, Shropshire (Lord Boyne) 1987,
- Great Barrington, Gloucestershire (Charles Wingfield) 1987
- Fawley, Staffordshire (JC Bamford) 1993
- Hidcote Gardens, Gloucestershire (National Trust) 1989
- Kilnholme, Cumbria (misleading notice on land owned by the environment secretary Nicholas Ridley) 1989
- Henley Regatta, Bucks (marquee over footpath) 1990
- Framfield, East Sussex (Nicholas van Hoogstraten) 2003
- Luckington, Wiltshire (Andrew Sells, then prospective chairman of Natural England) 2013.
There have been many path-change proposals where the OSS has been the sole objector, or one of few, and we have saved paths from diversion or extinguishment—at Sydmonton, Hampshire (Andrew Lloyd Webber); Hilmarton, Wiltshire; Oundle School, Northamptonshire; Manaccan, Cornwall; West Wittering, West Sussex (Keith Richards’s land), and Langham, Essex, where Colchester Borough Council was promoting a rationalisation scheme for blocked paths. We saw them all off.
And of course there was the infamous Ombersley rationalisation scheme, involving over 100 paths in Worcestershire (then Hereford & Worcester) which, with the Ramblers, we finally defeated in 1997 after a 15-year battle. For the society much of the work was done by our excellent and indefatigable local correspondent Edgar Powell. He dubbed the scheme Omrat, a well-deserved name.
Twenty years ago, to celebrate my first decade, I led a walk in Chesterton, Warwickshire, and came across an illegally-blocked path. It was necessary to remove part of the obstruction so that the group could pass in safety.
In the last 30 years we have issued 1,675 press releases—not bad when, for the first half of that time we had to photocopy, stuff, address envelopes and post. Issuing a press release was a day’s work. We got a fax machine in about 1992, but that didn’t make the process much quicker at our end. Similarly, in 1984, we addressed all the envelopes for Open Space by hand.
The great thing about the OSS is that it can act swiftly; it is not bogged down in bureaucracy, so we can take on a range of battles at short notice.
However, our role in the protection of commons and greens remains unique.
On 2 April 1984 I issued a press release announcing my appointment, with the headline ‘Young campaigner for old organisation’. I declared: ‘I intend that the Open Spaces Society will put the 1½ million acres of common land on the map. Our principal aim must be to generate public awareness of the enormous value and vulnerability of commons and thereby to protect them from being preyed upon by voracious farming and forestry interests. The Open Spaces Society will bring commons into the public arena and champion their cause in the corridors of Westminster.’
History will judge whether we achieved that aim.