Wales wants to be different from England—but only when it suits it. When it comes to allowing developers to destroy green space, Wales is only too happy to copy England’s laws.
Yesterday the Welsh Government published its Planning Bill which apes the Westminster government’s Growth and Infrastructure Act in prohibiting registration of village greens* when land is threatened with development (see here). It follows a draft planning bill published last December which contained similar proposals and was condemned by many organisations including Wales Environment Link, an umbrella for conservation bodies.
Yet less than six months ago, Alun Davies, then Welsh Government Minister for Natural Resources and Food, said that he had ‘no proposals at all’ to amend the Commons Act 2006 so as to make it more difficult to register village greens. This was a debate on 30 April, initiated by Suzy Davies, Conservative Assembly Member (AM) for South Wales West and Shadow Minister for Welsh Culture, Language and Tourism. Suzy asked the natural resources minister if he would consider introducing a presumption in favour of village greens where local authorities threaten to appropriate land for development.
AMs of all parties backed Suzy: Julie Morgan (Cardiff North, Labour), Elin Jones (Ceredigion, Plaid Cymru) and Peter Black (South Wales West, Lib Dem) all spoke up for greens, leading the minister to deny that he had plans.
Over the summer the Open Spaces Society’s case officer Nicola Hodgson, local correspondent Jay Kynch, and Wales Link rep Beverley Penney twice met the planning minister Carl Sargeant and officials from the Welsh Government. Mr Sargeant claimed that he had evidence to show that people were using the greens process vexatiously to thwart development. When at last he gave Nicola this ‘evidence’ she could see that it did not show this at all and provided a detailed rebuttal.
She gave him the Open Spaces Society’s proposals for speeding up the village greens process so that it would not delay development, inserting time limits at every stage and ensuring greater dialogue between the registration and planning departments. Since Wales is entirely unitary, these departments are in the same council so dialogue ought to be easy. The OSS’s package did not require a change in the law.
Disgracefully the minister has ignored those suggestions and steamed ahead regardless. However, the explanatory notes to the bill are somewhat circumspect: ‘Applications for greens are sometimes controversial as in some cases applications to register land appear to have been made to frustrate development rather than to protect rights.’ (my emphasis). This is hardly evidence of a problem. The notes go on to assert that ‘there is no mechanism for discouraging vexatious or speculative applications’ and the ‘timescale for deciding applications is indeterminate’. Our proposals were designed to address these concerns but without changing the law.
We had thought the Welsh Government would show a more enlightened attitude than the coalition towards its green spaces but it too tugs its forelock to developers. We can only hope that those splendid AMs who backed greens in Suzy’s debate will fight the government’s plans to prevent us from registering new ones.
*A village green is land where local people have enjoyed 20 years informal recreation, without challenge or permission. Once registered the land is protected from development. The Growth and Infrastructure Act 2013 prevents registration of land which is threatened with development, and the Welsh Planning Bill intends to do likewise.