New plans for designating green spaces could mean communities lose out on being able to protect local areas they cherish, the UK's oldest conservation organisation has warned.
The Open Spaces Society is concerned that ministers are set to weaken, abolish or completely change the rules that allow people to register a local space as a new "village green" if they have used it for recreation for more than 20 years.
Once it is registered as a green, it is protected from development.
Options for changing the village green legislation, published for consultation by the Environment Department (Defra), include introducing additional requirements on land for it to qualify, preventing registration of sites where development is planned and introducing charges.
Defra says concerns over the cost, number of applications and controversy surrounding the registering of village green had prompted the review, which aims to achieve a better balance between community green spaces and "enabling legitimate development to occur".
At the same time, draft planning policy framework, published last month by the Department for Communities and Local Government, has proposals which would allow people to nominate green areas for "local green space" designation.
But the Open Spaces Society, which campaigns to protect public land and footpaths, said the new designation must not replace the current laws which protect village greens.
The society fears that the local green space designation could undermine the process for registering new village greens and may not ensure permanent protection.
As the draft reforms state that the local green space designation "will not be appropriate for most green areas or open space", the society warns it is unlikely to work in practice.
The campaign group also said it was dismayed by the consultation on the village green legislation.
General secretary Kate Ashbrook said the plans were a "muddle" and she was concerned Defra was planning to "weaken, or abolish or completely change" the way land was registered as a new green, making it secondary to planning rules.
"Our concern is that the proposed local green space designation is nothing, it's just a lot of talk - and they say it isn't going to affect most areas," she said.
She said that the two processes of registering village greens and the new local green space proposals could perform different functions - for example, the green space designation could apply to land that has not been in use for 20 years.
But she said: "There's a real danger we lose out on both counts."
The society's case officer, Nicola Hodgson, added that the proposed local green space designation "must not be a replacement for national designations, or for the current laws which protect village greens".
"Existing environmental protection must be maintained," she added.