CHANGES aimed at making it easier to build housing in rural towns and villages have met a mixed reaction.
The government says changes to stop the village green system being abused will make it easier for towns and villages to get the development they need.
Housing association representatives welcomed the move, saying it would help sustain rural communities hit by high prices and lack of available homes.
But conservationists reacted angrily – saying there was little evidence to support Defra's claim that the system to protect village greens was being increasingly exploited.
Village green status protects land that is regularly used for recreation but Defra said "loopholes in the system" were increasingly abused by people looking to stop local development.
As well as having a negative effect on the rural economy and reducing the value of land – often by over 90% – Defra said this reduced the availability of rural homes, facilities and hospitals.
The changes meant it would no longer be possible to block local development by making spurious village green applications, said the department.
While legitimate applications would remain well-protected, changes to the system would also save local authorities £1.3m a year, as expensive inquiries and court cases would be avoided.
Money saved could be invested in local amenities, transport and other much-needed rural provision, Defra suggested. At the same time, businesses would help boost regional job creation, it said.
Rural affairs minister Richard Benyon said: "Towns across the country have been held back from getting the developments they want through misuse of the village green system.
"Rural communities need access to services like healthcare, schools and housing just as much as urban areas.
"These changes will allow that infrastructure to be built, creating jobs and economic growth."
Stuart Ropke, assistant director of policy and research at the National Housing Federation, said rural communities were some of the hardest hit by a lack of affordable housing.
"A lack of housing means young people can't stay where they grew up and couples can't put down roots in their village and raise a family," said Mr Ropke.
Many people wanted new homes, but opponents had often abused the system and attempted to declare available land a village green, he added.
"Closing this loophole will help rural communities get the homes they so desperately need – housing local people, keeping schools and post offices open and helping rural communities to stay alive.
"From now on, applications relating to land which is regularly used for local recreation will have to be made within a year of the land's use, rather than two."
But the Open Spaces Society, which works to protect village greens and other open spaces, said the number of "greens applications" made in relation to planning applications was minuscule.
In a statement issued in response to the government's announcement, the society rejected Defra claims that legitimate applications would remain well-protected.
It said: "What Defra fails to acknowledge is that when local people have used land for a long time for informal recreation, they grow to love it, and they assume it will always be there.
"When it is threatened, of course they want to protect their rights to enjoy it — and greens registration is the means to record their rights.
"Communities may want some developments but they also want their village greens which they have enjoyed for decades."
It was vital that communities identified any land which might be eligible as a town and village green immediately and applied to register it, said the society.
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