For many, village greens conjure images of grassy areas in quiet locations used for jogging, walking the dog and children’s games. For property developers however, village greens can be a costly nightmare, increasingly so after the Commons Act 2006 came into effect.
Land can be registered as a ‘village green’ if it has been used by a significant number of residents in a locality for lawful sports and pastimes for a period in excess of 20 years as of right. Applications for registration can be protective (i.e. to warn potential buyers that the land is a village green) or reactive (i.e. in response to development on the land).
The Commons Act 2006, which recently came into effect, makes village greens even more of a danger to developers. The Act allows residents a ‘grace period’ in which to apply for registration of land as a village green, even after their use of the land has been prevented by the owner. The condition to this is that 20 years’ worth of use must have accumulated prior to the steps taken to prevent access.
I recently registered the first village green in the Blackburn with Darwen borough in response to a proposed development on land in Darwen. The built up area is neither a village, nor a green, rather it could best be described as a flagged wide pavement which has been used as by the residents in the locality for recreational activities such as BBQs, children’s games and parties.
During the process of registering the land as a ‘village green’, statements were collected from residents and an application was sent to the Council, evidencing the use of the land for recreational activities. During the period whilst the application was being considered by the Council and them making their decision, the developer in question erected houses to the rear of the land – with the intention of access across the proposed ‘green’.
Now that the application has been approved and the land has village green status, the developer will have to alter the access arrangements and reinstate the land to its previous state. The residents will retain their quiet road and free use of the land.
This case shows that whilst village greens are extremely valuable tools in the hands of residents who oppose development, they continue to be a source of angst to developers.
Village green status dramatically affects the rights of the owner of the land – especially with regards to the way in which they can use the land – so that it does not interfere with the recreational rights of others. Any interference with these rights leaves the perpetrator liable to prosecution in the criminal courts.
Developers would be well advised to:
- Thoroughly inspect a site before purchasing it and ask local residents about the history and use of the land
- Take prompt action to prevent unauthorised use of the land, such as by erecting notices and fences to restrict access
- Not ignore threats by residents to apply for registration of the land as a village green. If a development goes ahead regardless, any (potentially costly) works to remedy interference with the land will have to be borne by the developers
- Take specialist advice from a commercial property solicitor as soon as any suspicion arises that the land may qualify for registration as a village green
Ultimately however, the risk to developers will remain for the foreseeable future – at least until the law is changed.