Open Spaces Society

The Open Spaces Society is a campaign group that works to protect public rights of way and open spaces in the United Kingdom, such as common land and village greens. It is Britain's oldest national conservation body and a registered charity.

Hampstead Heath


The society was founded as the Commons Preservation Society and merged with the National Footpaths Society in 1899, and adopted their present name. An early example of direct action taken by the society was its overnight removal of two miles of railings that enclosed Berkhamsted common in 1866 with the aid of 120 people. The society also campaigned for the creation of the National Trust.[1]

Its founders and early members included John Stuart Mill, Lord Eversley, William Morris, Sir Robert Hunter, and Octavia Hill. The last two founded the National Trust in 1895 along with Canon Rawnsley. Lord Eversley, as George Lefevre, was a Liberal MP and became a junior minister at the Board of Trade in Gladstone’s government. He held a variety of posts including Commissioner of Works. He opened Hampton Court Park, Kew Gardens and Regent’s Park to the public.[2]

Subsequent growthEdit

Over the last century and a half the Society has preserved commons for the enjoyment of the public. It has also been active in protecting the historical and vital rights-of-way network through England and Wales. Its early successes included saving Hampstead Heath from gravel extraction, Epping Forest, Wimbledon Common, Ashdown Forest, and the Malvern Hills. After both world wars the society’s difficult task was to reinstate much common land which had been used for defence and food production.[2]

In the late 1960s, following the enactment of the Commons Registration Act 1965, the Open Spaces Society worked hard to register common land and common rights, in the far-too-short three years allowed by the act. But still many commons were lost through failure to register them.[2]


The stated objectives of the Society are:[2]

  • To campaign for stronger protection and opportunities for everyone to enjoy commons, greens and paths.
  • To defend open spaces against loss and pressures from development.
  • To assist local communities so that they can safeguard their green spaces for future generations to enjoy.

Much of the Open Spaces Society's work is concerned with the preservation and creation of public paths. The word 'footpaths' was included in the Society’s title after it amalgamated with the National Footpaths Preservation Society in 1899. Before the introduction of official maps of public paths in the early 1950s, the public did not know where paths were, and the Open Spaces Society helped the successful campaign for paths to be shown on Ordnance Survey maps. Its work also includes helping to protect common land, town and village greens, open spaces and public paths. It advises the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and National Assembly for Wales on applications for works on common land. Local authorities are legally required to consult the Society whenever there is a proposal to alter the route of a public right of way. To facilitate part of its charitable aims, the Open Spaces Society is active in other areas; it has representatives on government working parties, national bodies, and more localised bodies.[citation needed] It also has some of its members representing it as local correspondents in various parts of the country.[2]

Today, the Society has its headquarters in Henley-on-Thames in Oxfordshire. It has over 2,600 members throughout England and Wales.[2] It publishes a members' magazine Open Spaces, with three issues per year.[3]

Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000Edit

In 1986, the "Common Land Forum", comprising all the interests in common land, recommended that there should be a public right to walk on all commons, coupled with management of the land. (All commons have a landowner, ranging from a public body to a private individual.) The then government backed the forum’s proposals for legislation and promised to introduce such a law – but it broke the promise. More than a decade later, with the Open Spaces Society's help the right was won under the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000, to walk on all those commons which previously had no access, subject to certain restrictions.[2]

UK Supreme Court decisionsEdit

On 11 December 2019, a Supreme Court decision put the future of some village greens at risk in England and Wales, a troublesome development according to the Society.[4] The primary case involved 13 hectares of land in south Lancaster, the Mooreside Fields, owned by Lancashire County Council. The land had been available for public use for over 50 years. According to the Commons Act 2006, land used for informal recreation for at least 20 years can be registered as a green and is then protected from development. (Granted, the Growth and Infrastructure Act of 2013 specified that land designated for planning applications could not be registered as a village green, but that did not apply in the Moorside Fields case.)

The Moorside Fields Community Group attempted to registered the lands in 2016 under the Commons Act. The local authority challenged the registration, wanting to retain control of the lands for future expansion of the nearby Moorside Primary School's playing fields. The Council's challenge failed in the High Court and then in the Court of Appeal; the registration of the land as a village green could proceed.[5] Lancashire County Council subsequently appealed to the UK Supreme Court.

In the appeal decision, cited as R (on the application of Lancashire County Council) (Appellant) v Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Respondent) the Court overturned the previous judgments. At the same time, the Supreme Court also ruled against the registration of lands in a separate case in Surrey involving the 2.9 hectare Leach Grove Wood at Leatherhead, owned by the National Health Service.[6][7] After publication of the decision in the Moorside Fields case, Lancashire County Council told the news media that the Court had "protect[ed] this land for future generations".[8]

In effect, the Supreme Court decision left lands owned by public authorities by their statutory powers open to development for any purpose that they deem to be appropriate.[9] This could have far-reaching ramifications in England and Wales, according to the Open Spaces Society. Case officer Nicola Hodgson made this comment to The Guardian: "This is a deeply worrying decision as it puts at risk countless publicly owned green spaces which local people have long enjoyed, but which, unknown to them, are held for purposes which are incompatible with recreational use".[10]


  1. ^ Peter Barberis; John McHugh; Mike Tyldesley (2000). Encyclopedia of British and Irish Political Organizations: Parties, Groups and Movements of the 20th Century. A&C Black. ISBN 978-0-8264-5814-8.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g Open Spaces Society
  3. ^ "Publications". Open Spaces Society. 31 August 2017. Retrieved 9 May 2021.
  4. ^ "'Village green' land at risk after ruling by supreme court". The Guardian. 14 December 2019. Retrieved 15 December 2019.
  5. ^ "'Village green' land at risk after ruling by supreme court". Lancaster Guardian. 24 April 2018. Retrieved 15 December 2019. The future of a Lancaster village green has been secured after its registration was upheld in court.
  6. ^ "Village Greens In The Balance Warns Open Spaces Society". Society of Local Council Clerks. 11 July 2019. Retrieved 15 December 2019. The question common to both cases was whether the fact that the land was held by a public body for the performance of its statutory powers and duties (by Lancashire County Council and the NHS in these instances) made the land incapable of being registered as a town or village green. Registration requires local people to have used the land for informal recreation for 20 years 'as of right', ie without being stopped or asking permission.
  7. ^ "Supreme Court allows appeals by land-owning public bodies in dispute over statutory incompatibility and village green registration". Local Government Lawyer. 11 December 2019. Retrieved 15 December 2019. [2019] UKSC 58
  8. ^ "'Village green' land at risk after ruling by supreme court". The Guardian. 14 December 2019. Retrieved 15 December 2019.
  9. ^ "WBD advises NHS Property Services on Supreme Court win for village green case". Womble Bond Dickinson. 11 December 2019. Retrieved 15 December 2019. the case has wide implications for land held for statutory purposes by public authorities.
  10. ^ "'Village green' land at risk after ruling by supreme court". The Guardian. 14 December 2019. Retrieved 15 December 2019. I think that this judgment totally redefines the way we understand land held in the public domain,” Bebbington said. “It affects every piece of land held by a statutory body, for example by the MoD, the NHS and local authorities.

External linksEdit