In cities such as London and Brighton, a property with additional vacant land around it can be an attractive proposition but potential purchasers will need expert advice from a conveyancing solicitor to establish that there is no chance of the land being declared a village green.
Although most people have the idea of a village (or town) green or common being a central green field used for generations of nearby residents to graze cattle, play cricket or enjoy a picnic, in law that is not strictly the case and a number of court tests have continued to re-define the status of a green.
The land in question does not need to be green: it could be a boatyard, an unsurfaced area of land next to a football pitch, a school field, an overgrown plot covered in blackberry bushes or a popular route used by walkers and horse riders.
The important criterion is that a significant number of the inhabitants of any locality have indulged, as a right, in lawful sports and/or pastimes on the land for at least 20 years without interruption, unless that includes official closure for a reason such as an outbreak of foot and mouth disease which can be discounted from the total.
Even if other people had also used the land at the same time ‘without force, secrecy or permission’ then a public right has been established and the legal owner has accepted the use.
The law referring to village greens is the Commons Act 2006, which replaced the Commons Registration Act of 1965 and the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000. Previous legislation dating from the 19th Century forbade building on common land or preventing local people from enjoying its use.
The updated law allows any group of people to apply to register a piece of land as a village green if they, or previous residents of the neighbourhood, have used the area as set out in the statute.
Because public use of the land can be defined as some activity such as walking a dog or picking blackberries, a landowner who wishes to establish or re-establish his own rights to the land must either fence it off completely or ensure there are visible signs of the ownership and that other users only cross it by permission.
Development can be a criminal act
Any development of a registered village green, or land which has the potential to be registered, and prevents its use, is regarded as a criminal act and any buildings which have been erected may be required to be demolished.
A prospective buyer’s house purchase lawyer should be aware of these risks to the use of the site and give advice accordingly before a contract is signed.
An application to register land can be made even after the use has ceased. Up to two years after an owner has asserted his rights over the area nearby residents can apply for it to become a green, or up to five years if the land use ended before April 6, 2007.
Potential and current home owners will find it difficult, costly and time-consuming to oppose an application for village green registration of the land they either own or in which they have an interest. The registration is usually decided after a public inquiry hearing and, once registered, a green can only be removed by the High Court if it is believed a genuine mistake has been made.
It may be possible to apply to the Secretary of State for the Environment to remove the land from the register if a substitute area of similar size (and more than 200 square metres) is offered but this will not necessarily be acceptable.
If there is any chance of an area of land adjoining a home for sale becoming the subject of a village green registration, an experienced house purchase lawyer will be needed to ensure the contract with the seller contains a clause obliging him to reveal any knowledge about usage of the land and, possibly, to indemnify the buyer should a later attempt be made by nearby residents to apply for registration.
Preventative measures such as these should allow a house purchaser to be certain their new home and neighbouring land will be theirs to use as they wish within planning and other laws but without the risk of their land becoming a village or town green to add to the 3,600-plus in England so far.
Advice from Healys solicitors of London and Brighton
If you are thinking of buying a property or land in which there may be an issue concerning a village or town green or common which you believe may affect the value or use of the home, whether in a city such as London or Brighton or in the countryside, Healys team of experienced residential conveyancing solicitorsis ready to help.
With its links to other skilled professionals across its general legal practice, Healys can provide advice and representation on all aspects of the law regarding land and property.
For more information and advice on costs of Healys’ conveyancing services, you can request a call-back via the website, email partner Kiri Kkoshi, telephone 020 7822 4148 or associate solicitor Darina Gowen telephone 01273 669 115.