The public's mission to protect all our open spaces
What is this country's oldest conservation group? The National Trust? A mere stripling, founded in 1895. How about the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB)? Only middle-aged, founded as it was in 1877. No; the title of patriarch of the conservation family goes to The Open Spaces Society, founded 151 years ago, in 1865.
It started life as the Commons Preservation Society – the name indicates its early concerns. Among its founders and early members were the economist John Stuart Mill, Octavia Hill and Sir Robert Hunter; the last two joined forces with Canon Hardwicke Rawnsley to found the National Trust.
Another early member of the Commons Preservation Society was William Morris (founder of SPAB); he was especially grateful to the Society for one of its earliest victories, preventing the enclosure of his childhood playground, Epping Forest.
In 1899 the Commons Preservation Society amalgamated with the National Footpaths Preservation Society – and, after a few name changes, eventually became the Open Spaces Society.
It’s an appropriate title, as it draws attention to one of the most important features of our crowded island – the value of our open spaces.
Open spaces are under constant threat. Currently in the news is a proposal by City of York Council to take over part of an inner-city open area called Scarcroft Green to create a MUGA – multiple-use games area – for the adjacent Scarcroft Road Primary School.
The objectors are not against the school’s having space for children to play games, but they are concerned that such a ‘green lung’ in the city should not be lost; a spokesman said: “It’s a community hub and thoroughfare and is used by the whole community from picnics to kite flying, and it would be a huge loss.”
Urban pressures are a constant threat to open spaces. Developers, encouraged by the government’s planning policies to build on sites within built-up areas rather than on ‘greenfield’ sites on the edges, are constantly eyeing the open spaces that offer pleasure to many people.
Battles to save such spaces are frequent, and civic societies around the country report of their struggles, alongside local people and other conservation bodies, to protect the threatened areas.
It’s only when open spaces are under threat that we tend to recognise their value.
As the Open Spaces Society notes on its website, ‘Open spaces are to be found in urban and rural areas and they provide an important amenity. We play, cycle and run on them. They are where we walk our dogs, enjoy a picnic or sit and enjoy the view. We use them in all kinds of ways that make a big difference to our lives.’
And it doesn’t need to be a large space – or a formal one: ‘It could be a traditional village green, a meadow or a scruffy, neglected patch behind the housing estate where you pick blackberries,’ says the Society.
So the small, undistinguished patch of land on which your children or grandchildren play can have as much value as zealously-guarded expanses of openness like The Stray in Harrogate.
Ripon is a small city – yet our open spaces are just as valuable. Some of them are the result of the city’s odd geology and of the topography in which the city has developed.
We have pockets of land like Goose Green, beside North Road, which is open space because the gypsum beneath provides unstable building ground.
And we have areas beside the three rivers that trisect the city that are there to help take the floodwaters (though, as we know from floods in other places, greedy developers and careless councils have regularly allowed housing to be constructed on flood plains).
And we have easy access to country walks on the city edge – think of Quarry Moor, for example, or the riverside walks from North Bridge, or the continuation of Whitcliffe Lane beyond West Lane (where 450 houses threaten the agricultural land). We should value these assets as much as we value the formality of the Spa Park.
We should also be looking to enhance our open spaces. When a gypsum sink hole devoured a house on the edge of Ripon’s former auction market site it led to the rapid disappearance of an ambitious, and probably highly unwise, plan to construct almost 100 houses there.
But this is one of the Ripon sites that could be transformed into an informal park for the people of Ripon.
So could the field to the north of the garden behind the Workhouse in Allhallowgate – an attractive, tree-surrounded area that has little current use. And there are plenty of other open spaces in the city that could be treated in the same way.
It’s understandable that many landowners look on the open spaces in their possession as development sites.
We have only to look at the maps, produced by Harrogate Borough Council, of sites put forward as possible development land to see how just many people are tempted by the possible profits if planning permission is given for their site.
We need to be vigilant in protecting our open spaces. The latest iteration of our planning laws, the National Planning Policy Framework of 2012, gives local people the ability to protect their valuable open spaces, particularly through the development of a Neighbourhood Plan.
Here in Ripon we are well on the way with our own Neighbourhood Plan – the City Plan, as it is called – which will have policies for such protection.
Yet the City Plan, even when it is in force (after a referendum of local people has agreed it), will need our support by everyone keeping an eye on our open spaces and flagging up any threats to them.
In 1883 William Morris wrote that ‘all who assert public rights against private greed are helping us; every foil given to common-stealers, or railway-Philistines, or smoke-nuisance-breeders, is a victory scored to us’.
The threats may have slightly altered; but the mission remains the same.