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Our general secretary, Kate Ashbrook, writes of the government’s attack on the law of prescription, and on our open spaces.
Four days after the first reading of the government’s Growth and Infrastructure Bill, with its pernicious attack on town and village greens, I went to Westminster Abbey to celebrate the life of our early activist and National Trust founder Octavia Hill. A tablet, carved by Rory Young, was unveiled in the nave to commemorate her, 100 years after her death.
National Trust chairman Simon Jenkins read from Octavia’s Space for the People, which she wrote in 1875 while campaigning (unsuccessfully) to save Swiss Cottage Fields, London, from development.
‘There on a summer Sunday or Saturday evening, you might see hundreds of working people spread over the green open space like a stream that has just escaped from between rocks.’ As he read those liberating words, the Growth Bill was set to present the biggest-ever threat to our green spaces.
The Growth Bill will outlaw any application for village green on land which is earmarked for development— even though the earmarking may have been done in secret.
And that is not all. The government is striking at the very heart of prescription. This is the ancient right whereby an activity enjoyed for 20 years, unchecked, openly and without permission, acquires the sanction of the law.
That is how village greens are won, on the basis of 20 years’ enjoyment for recreation.
But this government doesn’t care much for the law of prescription. Now it proposes to do away with people’s ancient ‘right to light’, based on householders’ uninterrupted enjoyment of natural light for 20 years.
The Law Commission, with backing from ministers, is consulting on plans to axe the right to light, inspired by a court case which required the top storeys of a building to be removed because they blocked the neighbour’s daylight.
Village greens and rights to light: both are alleged, with little evidence, to stand in the way of development—which for this government is paramount.
And even where we still have greens and open spaces, we may find we can no longer enjoy them. The draft Anti-social Behaviour Bill proposes to replace the current, nasty, gating orders, with even nastier ‘public spaces protection orders’—in fact exclusion orders.
Unless the bill is amended, these orders may be applied to public paths and open spaces, including commons and greens. After limited consultation, they will make trespass there a criminal offence: unprecedented and oppressive.
So there is plenty to fight against—and fight we shall.