In 1999, solicitor Nicola Hodgson was instructed by Sunningwell Parish Council, in Oxfordshire, to register a piece of land as a village green – thereby preventing two new houses being built on the site which had, for decades, been popular with families and dog walkers. The case went to the House of Lords, resulting in a victory for the parish council – who kept their public green space – and a change in government legislation.
‘Walking’s always been a hobby, so I was interested in the Sunningwell case personally, as well as professionally,’ she says. ‘After we got married, my husband Ian and I spent our honeymoon walking in the Lake District – our grown-up children have often asked, “Why on earth did you go there?”
“There are so many pressures in life; people need to be able to get away, and enjoy the physical and mental benefits of being outdoors,” says Nicola.
Nicola is no longer a practising solicitor but this year is celebrating twenty years as a Case Officer for the society. “Organisations like the Open Spaces Society are important because public access to our countryside needs protecting. We’re not afraid to take up important causes, and take on the big guys. People who contact us are often really distressed about what’s happening to land they love, so it’s rewarding when you’re able to preserve something valuable for communities.” As case officer for commons, greens and open spaces over the last 20 years she has experienced a huge volume and variety of issues and shared some of the frustrations, challenges and successes of members of the society.
“In my daily contact with members and other organisations, the range of inquiries and difficulties is still a surprise, even after all these years. It may be a simple question about the size of a map required for a village-green application, but it might be a thick bundle of documents to assess when objections have been submitted to a green application, or I may need to review new court cases to ensure up-to-date information is on our website.
Open-space concerns extend from planning applications to proposals for court action; all require research and careful analysis to determine whether it is appropriate for the society to intervene.
The past few years have seen an increase in inquiries about local green spaces (LGS). This designation started as a proposal for statutory protection for open space to mitigate the dreadful restrictions on village-green applications in the Growth and Infrastructure Act 2013. But there is little national guidance and nothing to stop a planning application from being made before an LGS is designated. Members can refer to my toolkit on the society’s website which offers guidance on designation.
Happily, in Wales the position is different and I spent a great deal of time putting together a brief and gave evidence to the environment committee when the Welsh planning bill was being considered. The hard work paid off and the Planning Act Wales 2015 is not as damaging as the 2013 act in England.'”
In addition to her case work Nicola represents the society on several external bodies. One of these is the National Common Land Stakeholder Group hosted by Defra, which was set up to assist and advise on the implementation of the Commons Act 2006. Nicola is also a member of the Advisory Board of the Wastes and Strays: The Past, Present & Future of English Urbans Commons three-year project which includes reference to the society’s publication Finding Common Ground about ascertaining local community interest on common land. She has welcomed this new initiative to explore the potential future of urban commons, which is both timely and important. “The aims and objectives of the Wastes and Strays project are strongly supported by the society as it will contribute to, and complement, our own aims to protect existing urban commons and to develop new urban green space with permanent legal protection.”
The common-land issues the society deals with daily include complaints about cows, encroachments, community involvement in consultations about the management of land, and applications for works on commons and deregistration and exchange land under sections 38 and 16 of the Commons Act 2006 respectively.
“Many of these can seem straightforward, but common-land proposals are seldom simple and we need fully to understand the background before being able to comment. So some time may be needed to research the registration, existing management arrangements and access rights—often even the applicants don’t understand the true position.”
Nicola is also involved with the Wildlife and Countryside Link legal strategy group and runs training days, usually for groups of local councils, which have proved popular in helping people through the complexities of the law and practice of common land, village greens and open spaces. The society makes a charge for time and travel, but this is reduced for members.
“Even after 20 years, I still find the work rewarding particularly when we receive feedback from members such as this recent quote, ‘We would particularly like to be remembered to Nicola Hodgson as our local residents group, and I personally, have remained members of Open Spaces Society because we were so grateful for all the help she gave us back in 2009 in successfully registering our village green’.”