Village greens

Village greens: the law covers greens which are extensive, extending to many acres, and those which are very small – just a tiny corner of land. They are common in much of England but less so in Wales and Cornwall. Their origins have been much debated. Some say that arranging houses around a central open area had a defensive purpose long ago. Some say that village greens were the location of the villages water supply, and it is true that ancient water pumps survive on some village greens. Perhaps the most natural explanation is that village greens were (as they still are) spaces for communal activities, whether to do with work or recreation, or military training – centuries ago, village greens were training grounds for archers.

Legislation in 1965, in the form of the Commons Registration Act, introduced two important changes. First, village greens (and town greens – there is no difference between the two, save that town greens were to be found in towns rather than villages) had to be shown on a register to be kept by the county council. If there was no known owner of the green, the county council was to be shown as the owner.

Secondly, it became possible to create new village greens in modern times. (Previously, the public’s right to use a green had to be either created by an Act or to date from “time immemorial”.) This would occur when “the inhabitants of any locality [had] indulged in lawful sports and pastimes as of right for not less than twenty years “.

The Act now regulating village greens (and common land) is the Commons Act 2006. The test is essentially the same, though the use must be by “…a significant number of the inhabitants of any locality, or of any neighbourhood within a locality”. Use by the non-local public does not count. Again, the use must be “as of right”, meaning as though the people in question had a legal right, not under protest from the owner of the land, or secretly, or by permission of the landowner. “Lawful sports and pastimes” includes informal activities such as dog-walking, and children playing.

The fact that land has other uses does not mean that it cannot be registered as a village green if the necessary use has taken place. In recent years, there have been cases relating to:

  • A golf course, which local people had for 20 years or more use for exercise and walking dogs, generally giving way to golfers so as not to disturb their place. The court decided that the land could be registered as a village green.
  • A dockside area. Again, there had been recreational use by the public; but it was decided that this was not incompatible with use for storing goods in transit, So the land could be registered as a village green.

Village greens are protected by the law in various ways. Old Acts stil in force (the Inclosure Acts 1857 and the Commons Act 1876) create specific offence which including damaging fences, depositing waste, damaging the land, encroaching on a green and building on the green. Other offences, which are part of the general law, include littering and abandoning vehicles.

Local authorities can set up schemes to manage village greens and thus arrange for any necessary mowing, clearance of ditches, and so forth.

in the past, registering land as a village green was seen as an effective way of resisting unwanted development. This tactic might apply to large areas of land, as well as to small pieces of land, within towns or villages, which might be earmarked by the owner as development sites. Legislation now limits this approach. Landowners can deposit a statement with the local authority, which has the effect of bringing to an end the sort of use which would ultimately justify an application to register the land as a green.

The legislation now also specify certain “trigger events”, which have the effect of suspending the right to apply to register land as a village green. These include the making of a planning application in relation to the land, and other steps which might lead to the development of the land.

Once a village green has been registered, there are limited grounds upon which it can be taken off the register. However it is possible for a landowner who owns a village green to exchange the green for other land, which will then become a village green. An application has to be made to the relevant government department. A substantial fee is payable, and the result of the application will depend upon a number of factors including the interests of local people, and of the neighbourhood generally and other matters such as nature conservation and landscaping. If the application is successful the original village green is de- registered, the rights of local people over it cities, and the land is available for other uses.

Village greens and the law is thus a subject of considerable legal complexity, which has come along way from its mediaeval origins. Ancient rights are protected, but changes can be made to meet current conditions. A further complication is that village greens may also be commons – that is, subject to rights of common – as to which see our page on common land.

Possible the questions which may arise in relation to village greens include:

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See also: Obtaining advice, Common land, Ransom strips, Restrictive covenants.

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Village greens:  the law