Page last updated at 10:50 GMT, Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Village green laws prevent affordable housing plans

Melanie Abbott
Reporter, You and Yours

The village green Walberswick in Suffolk
Land can be labelled a village green if locals have used it for 20 years

Housing developers claim ancient laws designed to protect village greens are being misused to stop them building affordable homes on disused land.

They say that all kinds of areas, such as derelict railway land and former sugar beet fields, are suddenly being designated as village greens.

The National Housing Federation, which represents not-for-profit housing associations, wants a law change.

But those fighting to save land say it has been used recreationally for years.

'Frivolous applications'

Cameron Watt, the National Housing Federation's policy leader, said: "We are seeing many more frivolous applications in a cynical attempt to block the development of much needed affordable homes."

The legislation covering England and Wales dates back to 1876 and was updated in 2006.

It means people can register open spaces as town or village greens if they prove the area has been used by local people for at least 20 years, without the permission of the landowner but without being secretive or forcing their way on to the land.

But a village green application can go in after planning permission has been granted, as it did in Saham Toney in Norfolk last July.

Beet field Saham Toney in Norfolk
It is not a village green. At the moment it's a muddy swamp
Ed Buscall, farmer

Hastoe Housing Association is building 10 affordable homes on former agricultural land in Saham Toney, which a group of villagers want registered as a green.

The farmer who sold the land, Ed Buscall, said: "My family have been farming this for four generations.

"The sugar beet has just come up and now it is being drilled for barley.

"I have never suffered any crop damage so don't see how people can have used it.

"It is not a village green. At the moment it's a muddy swamp."

Villager Brian Hinkins, who lives nearby, is supporting the village green application.

He said he was worried about further home building but denied the registration was simply sparked by the development.

"People have been flying kites there and walking their dogs for years but always been very careful about the crops."

Norfolk County Council has sent the application back twice to the villagers, saying it needs further clarification, but they plan to submit it again.

A snowy village green in Hartley Wintney, Hampshire
The Open Spaces Society says very few green applications are spurious

Sue Chalkley, the chief executive of Hastoe Housing Association, said: "We saw the farmer's crop records so took the risk to go ahead, but even so, it is still costing us a fortune in legal fees."

Kate Ashbrook, the general secretary of the Open Spaces Society, a charity campaigning to protect common land, said: "It would be wrong for a planning application to stop a green.

"Very few of them are spurious - most are genuine applications from people who have used and enjoyed the land and firmly believe that it should be registered as a green."

In Oswestry in Shropshire, an application to turn former railway land into a green has been successful after two public inquiries.

The regional development agency Advantage West Midlands paid £600,000 for the site to build a new health centre, flats and offices.

Former beauty

But now the land has been registered as a village green the development agency has given it to the council for nothing.

And it can never be built on.

Advantage West Midlands said it has spent £2.5 million in total on the abandoned scheme, including the cost of purchase, clearing the land and building an access road.

One of the applicants, June McCarthy said: "This land was beautiful and well-used before the developers moved on to it.

"The money could have been saved if trouble had been taken to find out exactly how the land was used."

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has said it is planning a review of how the village green legislation is being used.

A study done for Defra last March looking at 48 different sites in England and Wales found that just under half of them involved planning applications, of which 11 went to public inquiry and 34 of the applications were turned down.

The National Housing Federation is calling for the process to be linked to planning permission.

You and Yours is broadcast on Radio Four weekdays at 12.04 GMT. Listen via the BBC iplayer or the programme podcast .

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