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Hampshire County Council has a long, solid record in good countryside-management.
For decades the council has led in providing better access for all and in countryside interpretation. It owns a number of well-managed country parks, commons and nature reserves. It pioneers a lottery-funded project, Providing Access to Hampshire’s Heritage (PATHH), to recruit and train volunteers to research claims for historic paths.
With us and others it produced a video on the management of commons. It processes greens applications in an applicant-friendly way. Hampshire exudes good practice.
But now it is adopting bad practice. It is depositing statements and placing notices on its land stating that it does not accept that any rights exist there beyond those already recorded on the definitive maps and commons and greens registers. It wants to protect itself against claims for paths and greens.
Once such notices have been displayed local people have only one year in which to gather evidence that they have used the land without permission or challenge for 20 years and to submit an application for a green. The council claims that it must display such notices because it is following the process laid down by the Growth Act 2013, but there is no requirement to spend public money to discourage people from claiming rights over public land. The council is copying landowners all over England (and Wales if the Welsh Government’s Planning Bill goes through).
If we could be certain that all the land will be safely owned by a benevolent council for ever it might be different, but authority-owned land all over the country is being flogged off for development.
The Infrastructure Bill, currently in parliament, enables government agencies to transfer surplus land to developers. Ministers have resisted our amendment to exempt commons, open spaces and public paths as well as amendments to protect the forest estate. If this muddled bill becomes law, it will then be only a small step to enabling local authorities to dispose of their land with no regard for the public’s rights and customs.
We have urged Hampshire County Council that rather than prevent people from acquiring rights on its land it should keep up its good practice and give them rights, by voluntarily dedicating the land as village greens. Then local people would by law enjoy ‘lawful sports and pastimes’ on county-council land and it would be protected from development.
Other councils will no doubt copy Hampshire. They must follow the good example of dedicating land, not the bad one of stopping people from winning rights there.
(This article was published as Opinion in Open Space, autumn 2014.)