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Legal protection of parks and green spaces

Parks and green spaces have been vital during the coronavirus pandemic as places to exercise, relax and reflect and as the only safe place to meet loved ones and connect with friends and neighbours. They will continue to be important as part of our recovery. The new-found appreciation of our parks and green spaces has increased interest in ensuring that they will always be available for community use. Legal protection with Fields in Trust ensures that green spaces cannot be lost to building or development.

Fields in Trust champions and supports the UK’s parks and green spaces by protecting them for people to enjoy in perpetuity – because once lost, they are lost forever. As an independent charity with 95 years’ experience protecting parks and green spaces, it has a track record of working with landowners, councils and community groups to legally protect local parks and green spaces for future generations.

Deed of Dedication

Fields in Trust works in partnership with landowners to protect land through a Deed of Dedication, a binding legal commitment with the landowner that the land will be retained for use as a green space, usually a public park, playing field or recreation ground, in perpetuity and securing it for current and future generations to enjoy. We have outline minimum criteria for protection, including size, public access and recreational purpose – but most green spaces are in scope for inclusion.  

The Deed is agreed with the landowner and sets out what they can and cannot do with the land, without needing to consult Fields in Trust. We think it is important that the local community remains fully involved in the space and so the ownership and management of the land remain locally with the existing landowner, usually the local authority or town or parish council. There is no requirement to rename the space, but we provide a plaque which we ask is installed somewhere on it to let everyone who uses it know that it is protected in perpetuity.

The legal dedication process is straightforward: it involves the Fields in Trust team checking that the applying organisation owns the land to be dedicated and that there are no covenants or third-party rights that conflict with the recreational purpose of the green space. Our in-house solicitor will then draft a Deed and discuss this with the applicant to make any amendments. For example, as every space has different facilities and uses, we make sure that buildings that are not ancillary to the recreational purpose are left out of the dedication.

Once the Deed is agreed and signed by all parties, we complete the process by registering a restriction and a notice at the Land Registry, which is an effective way of legally protecting the land in perpetuity for public recreational use. It prevents registration of a dealing with the property such as a transfer, lease or easement without the written consent of Fields in Trust.

Online self-service process

The protection process begins with completion of a short online application form. Our website has recently been updated with a self-service, six-step eligibility checker to streamline the process for non-specialists; we include guidance notes and an explanatory video. The online form guides applicants through the process, detailing what information needs to be supplied, but our staff will also be on hand to advise on obtaining title documents from the Land Registry, to assist with preparation of the plan for the Deed and to explain the provisions that the Deed contains. We will always help to translate legal phrases into plain English. Sometimes we encounter problems such as missing documents or an existing covenant on the land, but our team can work with the landowner to find a solution, ensuring that local communities will have their green space protected for future generations to enjoy.

Legal work on the Deed of Dedication is performed by Fields in Trust’s own staff team, although we do recommend seeking independent legal advice and support from a solicitor if you do not have this kind of expertise in-house. There is no cost involved, except for registering the protection at the Land Registry; this varies depending on the number of titles involved, but is generally £80. We will require the Deed of Dedication to be signed within six months of us confirming that your green space is eligible.

Robust and flexible protection

We have worked hard over the years to strike the right balance and produce a Deed of Dedication that is as robust as it is flexible and that enables local owners and communities to do what they do best and manage the green space. In protecting land, Fields in Trust will work with the landowner to draw up an agreement that provides sufficient protection but which also takes account of local circumstances. It is for this reason that each Deed will be unique to the specific space.

We do recognise that circumstances can change, however, and for this reason the Deed does have a certain level of flexibility built into it. In general, changes to the space which are ancillary to its use – i.e. supporting the primary activities taking place – are usually fine and do not require our consent.  Anything which is not ancillary to a space’s use, such as buildings, commercial leases and changes of use, can be permissible but would require our consent. A landowner can seek this consent by making an application through our established Field Change Request procedure, with any such applications being considered by our experienced Land and Planning Committee of Trustees.

In rare cases a landowner may wish to remove a piece of land from protection. This can be possible, through a Field Change Request application, but we would expect a new green space, which is of equal or better quality than the existing space and which serves the same community, to be protected in return.

Fundamentally, we want to support landowners to maximise the legal protection of publicly accessible recreational green space which can make a difference for local communities and create a legacy for current and future generations. We know green spaces are good, they do good, and they should be protected for good.

Details of Fields in Trust’s legal protection and an online eligibility checker can be found at www.fieldsintrust.org/protect-now.

Case study: Stradishall Parish Council

Stradishall is a village set in the in beautiful West Suffolk countryside, and is home to around 500 people. It is well served with local amenities but is split into two, being divided by a major road. The local playing field and playground had become a focus for community events, connecting the separate parts.

However, the owner of the village playing field wanted to dispose of it, and property developers had expressed an interest. Threatened with the loss of their green space, the villagers rallied together and conducted a huge fundraising campaign to buy the land. The campaign brought the community together and fostered a sense of local pride. Local residents valued their green space so much that they were willing to make a financial contribution to save it.

With the playing field site now owned by the parish council and increasingly important to village life, the community wanted to protect it as an open space for future generations – so a legal protection with Fields in Trust was completed. This has ensured that whatever changes take place in the village in future, there will always be publicly accessible green space, forever.

Case study: Borough Council of King’s Lynn & West Norfolk

The Borough Council of King’s Lynn & West Norfolk comprises the urban area of King’s Lynn itself, together with over 100 surrounding parishes. Some years ago, the borough council drew up plans for additional housing on a playing field site in the town. A community campaign opposed to the loss of this green space wanted the area to remain available for recreational use.

The council was able to redesign the scheme, reduce the scope of development and secure protection for the remaining playing fields. A legally binding Deed of Dedication is now registered with the property deeds, which gives residents confidence that nothing can happen to the site without the prior authorisation of Fields in Trust.

Not only has the site been saved for the community, but securing this designation has enabled additional investment to fund a series of activities that have helped local people to feel less isolated during lockdown and will help to encourage its use and help keep people active. Using green spaces in this way really helps to motivate people to adopt a more active lifestyle, enabling them to enjoy the benefits of physical activity into the future.

Fields in Trust

Alison McCann is Fields in Trust’s Policy Manager. Her current role focuses on research around the value of green space to better inform policy-making, as well as overseeing the legal support function for sites protected with Fields in Trust. An independent charity with 95 years’ experience of protecting parks and green spaces across the UK, Fields in Trust champions and supports parks and green spaces by protecting them for people to enjoy in perpetuity. For more information visit the Fields in Trust website at www.fieldsintrust.org, or email info@fieldintrust.org