What do a slag heap from a disused mine, an ex-industrial brown-field site covered in shrubs and a beetroot field have in common? Not much, except all are being claimed as town and village greens as NIMBYs increasingly exploit legislation to protect genuine communal space to block legitimate developments. Among the hardest hit are small schemes of rural affordable housing which are desperately needed as 750,000 people in rural areas are languishing on housing waiting lists.
Village greens play an important part in community life in many villages and towns and genuine greens need the full protection of the law which has been offered since Victorian times. However since the passing of the Commons Act 2006 the problem of bogus applications has greatly escalated. Legislation states that for a piece of land to be designated as a ‘green’, is has to have been used ‘for lawful sports and pastimes’ by local people for a period of 20 years or more. Unfortunately the vague, complex and outdated law provides an effective cost and risk-free tactic to prevent development, even after public consultation and the granting of full planning permission. Recent Government research concludes that in almost half the cases it reviewed, the motivation for town or village green registration was motivated by a desire to block proposed developments.
Tory-controlled High Peak Borough Council in Derbyshire has been particularly badly affected. High Peak has seen a ‘snowballing’ of town and village green bids, frustrating its efforts to provide affordable housing and land for employment and leisure. Housing need is so acute in the borough that the council has 70 applications for every affordable home. However 18 live applications for town or village green status are delaying the building of 575 houses on allocated sites and are also preventing the development of a leisure centre and swimming pool. High Peak taxpayers are being hammered by the six-figure fees the Council has to pay to contest these spurious applications.
Not-for-profit housing associations that build most new affordable homes are also suffering. In February 2008, Hastoe Housing Association was granted planning permission to build eight affordable homes in Marsh Gibbon, Buckinghamshire. The half acre site is part of a 15 acre field, currently used as grazing pasture which has been continuously farmed for 200 years. In March 2008, once building contracts had been let and in spite of strong parish council opposition, a local pressure group applied to have the entire field registered as a village green. The county council, which must rule on the application, has called for a public enquiry but this will not be heard until later this year. Hastoe have already spent £90,000 on the scheme and estimate a further £671,000 is at risk as a result of the delays – money which should be getting used to build much-needed affordable homes.
Organisations including the landowners’ body the Country Land and Business Association agree that continued protection of genuine village greens is needed whilst addressing the flaws of the current system. Government is reviewing the registration process, but primary legislation will be needed to prevent further abuse of the system and the wasting of millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money. As well as tightening-up the definition of what constitutes a village green, reforms should prevent applications being registered after a planning application has been approved, set firm and sensible time frames for applications to be determined, and close the current loophole that allows for land to be registered bit by bit.
I hope the Conservative Party will include a commitment to address this problem in its imminent planning green paper. Grant Shapps’ proposals for Local Housing Trusts have great potential to help reinvigorate rural England and create a living, working countryside, but this potential will never be realised when developments can be effectively vetoed by just one person cynically exploiting our outdated and ineffective system of registering town and village greens.