The battlefields of England

Village greens are disappearing. But campaigners are using ancient laws to protect their public spaces - and claw back land for new ones
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The Independent Online

The village green is the very emblem of English summertime. It evokes memories of warm beer, cricket and morris men dancing round the maypole. But over the last few decades this prime location at the heart of village life has become increasingly under threat from the spectre of development.

The village green is the very emblem of English summertime. It evokes memories of warm beer, cricket and morris men dancing round the maypole. But over the last few decades this prime location at the heart of village life has become increasingly under threat from the spectre of development.

Once, thousands of acres of prime communal land were given over to villagers to pursue their pastimes. Now there are just 3,650 registered village greens in England, covering about 8,150 acres. Many of these are under threat from the Government's plans to build 200,000 new homes in the South-east within the next 20 years.

But local communities are fighting back. Village green campaign groups, which have sprung up all over the country, are turning to the law to block the bulldozers, and establish new village greens from old communal land. A woodland, a field of hay, a golf club, abandoned school playing-fields or derelict ground near a new town or school are a far cry from the image of the traditional village green. Yet hundreds of people are trying to protect these open spaces from the building plans of property speculators or local authorities.

The campaigners, mainly middle class, are relying on statutory rights to use land that they do not own but upon which they believe they have a legitimate claim.

Examples include Malvern in Worcestershire, where locals want land owned by Malvern Girls' College to remain a community amenity.

Land can be registered as a "town or village green" under the Commons Registration Act 1965 if it has been used "for at least 20 years" by local people for "lawful sports and pastimes" - such as kicking a ball, walking the dog or bird-watching. The use has to be open and without special permission. Under 19th-century laws it is an offence to encroach on a green, so if land is registered as a green it is safe from development.

By using this law, a number of village green campaign groups have successfully reclaimed disused land for themselves. Their resolve has been steeled by a recent ruling from the House of Lords that found in favour of villagers in Sunningwell, Oxfordshire, who won a case against the Church of England, which wanted to build two new houses on glebe land. Villagers argued that the land was a village green and opposed the development plans.

The judicial committee of the House of Lords agreed and said that, under the Commons Registration Act 1965, local people could indeed register the land as a green. The holding of formal sporting events was not an essential requirement: walking the dog or children playing were still sufficient to qualify the land as a green, said the court.

The ruling led to a rush of applications for village greens. Planning experts predict many more disputes in the future.

Then, last year, the people of Washington, Tyne and Wear, won another historic legal battle when the House of Lords overturned plans by Sunderland City Council to use a local site to build a further education college. The campaign group, Washington First Forum, applied to Sunderland City Council in 2000 to register the sports arena as a green. The council, which wanted to build the college, rejected the application, despite the fact that a poll showed that 89 per cent of local people were in favour. The campaigners lost an appeal at the High Court and a further case in the Court of Appeal, but ultimately succeeded in the House of Lords.

Nicola Hodgson, of the Open Spaces Society, which backed the campaign, says the decision by the Law Lords "will secure thousands of acres of land for public enjoyment. This case is of vital importance to those many people who want to rescue threatened land by registering it as a green."

In many of these disputes the land is worth millions of pounds. Property developers, advised by their lawyers, have no intention of meekly surrendering huge profits. One law firm is telling property development companies: "The most obvious way to ensure that no claim is brought is to exclude the public from the land completely. This requires not only sturdy and secure fencing but regular security checks to ensure that any breaches in the fences are quickly and effectively sealed."

In a briefing note to its clients, the law firm Wragge & Co warns that "developers need to take this potential threat seriously".

But Nicola Hodgson counters: "There has always been a threat in respect of development of open spaces and potential loss of open space. We would support members of the society in making an application to register land as a village green."

The romance of the village green and idyllic countryside have long been celebrated by great artists and writers including Virgil and Constable. And The Kinks, the Sixties British rock band, sang: "We are the Village Green Preservation Society... preserving the old ways from being abused. Protecting the new ways for me and for you. What more can we do. God save the village green."

During medieval times, recreational areas in most parishes were allocated for the poor to use without charge, and there were once many thousands of these original greens. Today there are about 9,000 parishes and 50,000 villages, most of which will have a community recreation area or open ground. The status of such areas had led to so many disputes that in 1958 a Royal Commission suggested a registration scheme for them. This long history and cultural affection has helped to create strong emotional bonds between villagers and their cherished greens. But the seemingly polarised issues between village green campaigners and developers are not always as black and white as they often appear.

For example, summertime spent on a playing-field in Kent will now almost certainly be less idyllic for some because it has become a village green. Registration of the Booth Field as a village green in Harrietsham, Kent, by Kent County Council in May was perhaps the final blow for its owner, a children's charity that had planned to develop the field to raise money for a new school and playing-field. The case clearly shows that village greens are not always easy areas to cross for lawyers as well as villagers.

Local amenities such as a village green, may be gained, but at what cost? The cricket club that operated on the village green for decades will now have to close. The Booth Field dispute highlights the factual and legal difficulties that can occur nationwide in village green registration by local authorities.

The village green has become the battleground in the fight to keep England's green and pleasant land free from change.