VILLAGE GREENS and how to establish them: part 1

Most people visualise a Village Green as an open area in the middle of a community, probably with a fence around it, and possibly with a cricket pitch or a children’s play area.  Well, forget the stereotype …That’s not how the law sees a Village Green.

When Menston came under threat of excessive housing development in 2008, at first we didn’t imagine that the green fields which were proposed for development were a Village Green. One of our Committee members was travelling into Leeds on the train one day when another passenger approached him, asked if he was aware of the legal definition of a Village Green and gave him a document which provided information. On reading how the law sees a Village Green, an Application was put before Bradford Council for the threatened fields to be considered for Village Green status.

Through WARD, I’d like to let you know how Menston has gone about applying for Village Green status for the threatened fields, and what our experience has been.  This is the first of three (or possibly four) short instalments.  It’s been frighteningly complex in parts and highly amusing in other parts, so I propose to tell it with a little humour. So, are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin with the legal situation …..

What the law says is that “any person may apply to register land … as a town or village green” where “a significant number of the inhabitants of any locality, or of any neighbourhood within a locality, have indulged as of right in lawful sports and pastimes for a period of at least 20 years, and they continue to do so at the time of the application”  [Section 15, The Commons Act 2006].

It does not matter who owns the land or to what use it is customarily put, so as in the case of Derry Hill Fields in Menston, the facts that cattle may graze part of the land for some periods of the year, or that occasionally a cut of hay is taken off the fields are not part of the test in law as to whether an area is used as a Village Green, whether or not people call it a Village Green or even think of it in that way. Nor does it matter that the activities undertaken on the land are not formal or organised: playing on the area, walking dogs, kicking a ball about or playing tennis or other ball-games, hide & seek, flying kites, having picnics, sledging in winter all count as recreational activities which can count as “lawful sports and pastimes”.

There are a number of strands to the legal test, including:

  • Is the land part of a neighbourhood or locality (ie. not just part of moorland or fields away from a community)?
  • Is the number of people using the land sufficient to indicate that it is in general use by the local community for informal recreation?  That is to say, do “a significant number” of people use it relative to the size of the community?
  • Do they use it “as of right”?  If they climb over a wall, break through a fence or enter through or over a secured gate, the law will probably see that as being “entry by force”.  To use the land “as of right” means that people go onto the land without being challenged, without being prevented, and without going onto the land contrary to a clear notice indicating that it is a private area.  If the landowner does not take steps to prevent the land being used, and thus to assert his exclusivity of use of the land, he might be taken to have acquiesced in use of the land by local inhabitants and therefore to have lost his claim to prevent continuing use of the land by the community.
  • Use by the community over at least 20 years would have to be proven by witness evidence and/or photographic evidence, and if the land was not used for a lengthy period (other than for a brief interruption, such an closure of the land during an outbreak of Foot & Mouth Disease, for example), the public would forfeit their right to a claim of continuous use.

In the case of Derry Hill Fields at Menston, there are four fields rising from the housing at the edge of the village up to the moor top. One of these fields has a Public Footpath running through it, adjacent to the housing. If you’ve got Google, you can see the area on Google Maps if you enter “Derry Hill, Menston”, and then look to the fields to the south and west of the housing in Derry Hill and Mount Pleasant.  You’ll see three larger fields of rectangular shape and a smaller one which is triangular.  The field on the right (eastern side) is a darker green colour: that’s because it’s a swamp! More of that in the next blog, when I”ll tell the tale of Menston’s venture into the Village Green Application process.