Townies turn urban scrub into 'village greens'

Marie Woolf on a campaign to save scarce inner-city land
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The Independent Online
ACRES of urban scrub, without a cricket pitch in sight, are being registered as "village greens" because of a legal quirk exploited by conservationists.

In London, Birmingham, Merseyside and Manchester, local authorities are granting derelict inner-city land "village green" status, as residents lodge applications to protect scarce urban space.

The trend follows the publication three months ago of a guide on how to register recreation areas - even those without a blade of grass - as village greens.

Getting Greens Registered, published by The Open Spaces Society, shows how to exploit a clause in the Commons Registration Act 1965, allowing an area used for 20 years since 1970 for lawful sports and past-times to become a village green. "Some of these are just strips of land alongside a road that you couldn't swing a cat on," said the society's Edgar Powell.

Many are in deprived, inner-city areas where recreational facilities and parks are scarce. One of the newest is "The Fields" in Birmingham, described by the society as "a scrubby, overgrown space lodged between council tower blocks". But it has been used for decades by local children as a football pitch and is facing development.

Other applications now being considered include a 12-acre space surrounded by private and local-authority housing near Worcester. "It would be terrible if this were built on," said Janet Roberts, one of the residents fighting for village-green recognition. "It has been used for kite-flying and picnicking for ages. A football team has put in a proposal to build a stadium on it."

In Lewisham, south London, residents have applied for village-green status for April Glen, a small open space in a residential area.

Park Way Fields, in Knowsely, outside Liverpool, is a popular weekend retreat for those living on nearby council housing estates, but it faces possible development unless village-green status is secured.

Residents in Greater Manchester, angry at the loss of a patch of land used as a play area by low-income families in 1992, have lodged several claims. They recently won a bid to register a strip in Oldham, known as Constantine Street, as a village green, and are now fighting to have a patch of grass about 100 yards square recognised.

The small square two miles from the city centre is surrounded by council blocks and roads. Donald Lee, a local officer with the Open Spaces Society, said: "It's just a small patch of grass, but the locals prize it. It doesn't even have a name."

Conservationists hope that registering plots of land as village greens will help stop development and slow the trend that has led to the loss of two million acres of countryside in the past 20 years. "This will stop the piecemeal whittling away of the last open spaces in towns," said Simon Festing, conservation officer at Friends of the Earth. "They must be preserved for the public to use and enjoy."