Communities across Yorkshire are being urged to protect their local recreational areas by applying to make them village greens ahead of controversial planning reforms.
Conservationists say people should act now to ensure that their local parks, fields and green spaces are protected from development by applying to make them village or town greens as current law prevents development on land which is registered as such.
Campaigners at the Open Spaces Society, the nation’s oldest conservation group, said new Government proposals in the Localism Act will make it more difficult to create such greens and is urging the public to put in applications now before the new rules take effect.
The Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) denied the changes were designed to make it more difficult but rather said they wanted to revamp the system to make sure only genuine applications could be made – saying that councils were spending £1m a year in legal fees regarding applications.
Currently a village green can be created if residents can demonstrate to councils that local people have enjoyed informal recreation for 20 years, without being stopped or given permission.
The OSS said: “We have called on communities throughout England to ‘get a green’ as part of the new neighbourhood planning system.
“This year communities throughout England will be developing their new neighbourhood development plans under the Localism Act 2011.
“It is vital that local people identify those areas of land where they have enjoyed at least 20 years of informal recreation, before the land is threatened with development.
“Then they can apply to register them as greens and protect the land and their rights for the future. Once planning permission has been given it may be too late.”
The OSS was recently involved in campaigning on behalf of residents in Yeadon, Leeds, to create a five acre green at Yeadon Banks. Last month an Appeal Court hearing rejected attempts to block its creation.
Kate Ashbrook, general secretary of the society, told the Yorkshire Post: “The whole planning system is in upheaval at the moment to the point where ordinary citizens are being asked to put together neighbourhood plans and being asked their advice on where development should go.
“When the planning development system is changed it will much more difficult and much more contentious to stop it. It will also become incredibly expensive and complicated.
“The new neighbourhood development plans provide a wonderful opportunity for people to think about how they use the land in their area and, if they believe they have land which qualifies as a green to gather evidence of its use and submit an application to the county or unitary council to register it as a green.”
Ms Ashbrook also said that Defra was seeking to make it more difficult to create a village or town green under pressure from developers.
A Government spokeswoman, however, denied this, saying that it wanted to make sure genuine village greens were created.
In the past few years there have been attempts to create village greens on a disused railway line, a beach, a churchyard, part of a golf course and even former council offices by campaigners.
The Defra spokeswoman said: “We have consulted on a new system that will ensure that only genuine applications to protect green spaces are made.
“The current system has seen local authorities’ time and money wasted on applications for council offices and disused railway lines to be classified as village greens.
“In total, local authorities have spent more than £1m a year in legal fees for village green applications – on top of their own processing costs.”
It is not the first time that the Localism Act has run into difficulty. In October the National Farmers’ Union had to lobby to create new amendments to the Bill which will mean farmers and landowners can continue to allow their land to be used for community events without it hampering their ability to sell in the future.
Defra is expected to publish a revised Localism Bill later in the year.