“We are the Village Green Preservation Society,” sang Ray Davies nearly half a century ago in his celebrated paean to the rapidly disappearing delights of quintessential Englishness.
Now campaigners say the battle to safeguard the verdant squares which have typified a way of life since the time of King Alfred has suffered a major blow, after the Supreme Court put an end to a long-running campaign to preserve one such public space in Whitby, North Yorkshire.
The two-hectare field on Helredale Road might not at first glance evoke the spirit of Albion. There is no spreading oak tree, not even a duck pond – rather just a municipal patch of grass with a sloping football pitch in an otherwise unremarkable post-war local authority housing estate on the outskirts of town.
However, for Viv Wright, 67, a retired charity chief officer who recalls celebrating the Queen’s coronation there as a toddler, the findings of Lord Neuberger and four others earlier this month signals the crushing end of a seven-year campaign which has cost local people some £50,000 to wage.
Mrs Wright has seen three generations of children and parents play, walk dogs and generally while away summer evenings on the field which will now make way for the building of 105 affordable homes.
“I’m really very sad. People said we were Nimbys but we are not. We just didn’t want to lose this vital piece of green land,” she said. “It was somewhere to go. You brought your kids out there. You had bonfires on bonfire night – you could roast your potatoes in the embers. It used to be packed in the summer. People would have barbecues. Now children are all on computers,” she added.
In 2007, Mrs Wright applied on behalf of the neighbourhood council to have the field registered as a village green under the 2006 Commons Act and make it exempt from development. North Yorkshire County Council rejected the application, as did the High Court and the Court of Appeal.
Now the Supreme Court has concurred, ruling that while local people used the space “as right” they did not do so “as of right”. This meant that although residents had enjoyed unfettered use of the space for more than the requisite 20 years, they did so with the approval of its council owners and therefore failed to qualify under the terms of the act.
But an additional finding by the Supreme Court could have ramifications likely to be felt much further afield. The judges clarified a previous ruling involving Sunderland City Council which means that the Helredale Road case will inform all future decisions on attempts to have areas designated as protected greens.
Mrs Wright said: “It means that the majority of council-owned land in the country which is used for leisure purposes can now be used for houses and that goes completely against the Government, which says we need our green spaces and we need our children to get out and play.”
The Open Spaces Society said this was a serious setback coming days after the Court of Appeal threw out an application to register as a village green land owned by the church commissioners in Winchester, Hampshire.
Case officer Nicola Hodgson said: “The Government has already outlawed registration of land which is threatened with development in its Growth and Infrastructure Act 2013. Now the courts are severely narrowing the opportunities for registration. All this is happening at a time when our green spaces have never been more important.”