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‘Opinion’ by our general secretary, Kate Ashbrook, was published in the summer 2015 issue of Open Space.
When David Cameron announced on 8 May that he was forming a government, he boasted of his achievements over the last five years and what he would do in the next five.
Not surprisingly there was no mention of the environment. Indeed, it is hard to think of much that the coalition government did do for the environment—beyond the welcome Deregulation Act which will aid the addition of paths to the definitive maps and the acceleration of coastal access.
For the government schmoozed with its cronies, the developers. By the Growth and Infrastructure Act 2013 it outlawed registration of land as a green where it was threatened with development—without evidence to support the claim that people were abusing the greens process to stop building. This has put green spaces under greater threat in England (the Welsh Government is more enlightened: thanks to our efforts it now seems unlikely to copy the egregious 2013 act).
Ministers offered ‘local green space’ in mitigation without explaining how such spaces can be achieved. Consequently they are few. We have published advice to encourage designation.
In a move to crush free speech, the government legislated to make it more difficult for charities to lobby parliament and to challenge decisions by judicial review.
The Conservatives give environmental undertakings in their 2015 manifesto. They promise to ‘put in place stronger protections for our natural landscapes … launch a programme of pocket parks in towns and cities … ensure that our public forests and woodland are kept in trust for the nation and plant another 11 million trees’ and provide ‘free, comprehensive maps of all open-access green space.’
That may sound good but it relies on public funding which is shrinking fast. The continuing swingeing cuts to local authorities’ and national park authorities’ budgets mean that our fragile and vital landscapes, open spaces and public paths will suffer as never before.
Highway authorities are farming out their work to profit-chasing contractors who are accustomed to vast infrastructure projects and for whom our public paths are small beer, insignificant and easily overlooked. Public accountability becomes fuzzy. Councils are looking to commercialise open spaces—Clapham and Ealing Commons host inappropriate events and Surrey County Council threatens to use Chobham Common, a national nature reserve, for money-raising activities. Public funding for our spaces and paths should be boosted, as an investment in our health and well-being.
For the last 150 years the Open Spaces Society has fought for the public’s rights against private interests. Our appetite for the continuing fight is unabated.