The so-called ‘village green’ is pictured above.

The following is a slightly abridged version of an article by Owen Paterson MP.  The article explains how the town and village green scam was used to frustrate approved plans to create a health village and a heritage railway, along with other socially valuable improvements, in his constituency.

‘Oswestry is the largest town in North Shropshire and for 100 years was the headquarters of the Cambrian Railway, which closed in the 1960s. Since the closure, the old railway yard has been a derelict eyesore.

‘In the 1930s, the Oswestry and District Hospital was built with the aid of local benefactors and the hard work of fundraisers in the town. When the NHS took it over, the people of Oswestry were promised that all its services would continue. In the 1980s, similar promises were made when the NHS closed the hospital in the teeth of bitter local opposition, and transferred most of the services three miles away to Gobowen.

‘The final blow came in 2003 when the maternity unit was closed. There was a spontaneous outburst of public anger, and 12,000 signatures were collected in a short time, with huge help from a small group who had campaigned heroically to keep the original Oswestry and District Hospital open. Shortly before, I had met the new Shropshire County Primary Care Trust to discuss health needs in Oswestry, and they commissioned a wide-ranging assessment.

‘This lengthy report reveals useful information, and clearly shows that health provision in Oswestry is deeply inadequate. In the last 10 years, the population has grown by 11.3 per cent to 38,200 and is projected to grow by four per cent by 2012, with a 15 per cent increase in people aged over 65. Eight wards in Oswestry fall in the 25 per cent most disadvantaged in England. And 39 per cent of households in central areas of Oswestry do not have a car.  It is completely unacceptable that a town like this does not have a substantial community health facility.

Having consulted all four GP practices in Oswestry, I proposed a phased plan which was overwhelmingly supported at a packed public meeting. Phase one would be a primary care centre built around a replacement surgery, but with the addition of all current NHS services such as dentistry, district nursing, audiology, health visiting, speech therapy, physiotherapy, chiropody, pharmacy and a fully equipped minor injuries unit enhanced by X-ray and plastering facilities.

‘Phase two would comprise a 60-bed care facility with intermediate care services, helping maintain people in their own homes. Fifteen beds would be paid for by the NHS for community use, and the maternity unit would move back into the centre of town. This would free up vital space for the redevelopment of the world-renowned RJ & AH Orthopaedic Hospital. 

‘It was also proposed that Shropshire County Council purchase the Gobowen to Llanymynech railway line and, in collaboration with local railway enthusiasts, establish a heritage railway. Similar projects have generated substantial income, and created several hundred jobs. I promised at the public meeting to chair regular meetings of all interested parties until all these projects, worth over £30m, came to fruition.

‘I never thought that by November 2006, I would have held 16 meetings without a conclusion. This is not from lack of help from public agencies. Oswestry Borough Council and Shropshire County Council have been immensely supportive. Shropshire County Primary Care Trust has shown extraordinary patience, as a whole variety of issues have caused delays. Advantage West Midlands have bought the five-acre site in the heart of Oswestry, on which, Oswestry Borough Council has renovated the old station buildings.

‘However, none of us had anticipated the Commons Act 2006, under which local people can have green spaces that are without claims of ownership designated as common land.

‘It is ironic that many of the same people who had campaigned so vociferously to keep the original hospital open, also applied for the five-acre site to be declared a village green, despite the development dedicating over one third of the site as an open space, and Oswestry being close to wonderful countryside.

The registration was rejected at a public inquiry held in October 2005. However, the inspector said that a further application could be made once the Commons Bill was enacted [n.b. this became the Commons Act 2006].  I raised the issue during the report stage of the bill, pointing out to environment minister Barry Gardiner the huge risk to the future development of brownfield sites across the country if a tiny number of people lodged successful green applications.

While 30 people had signed the petition for village green status, 38,000 people would have their lives improved if the projects went ahead.

I have since met senior Defra officials; the implications of the Commons Act 2006 have not been thought through.

‘It would be a tragedy if these flagship projects to bring hugely improved health provision, as well as new jobs and prosperity to Oswestry, were to founder because of a tiny number of well-meaning, but misguided enthusiasts using provisions in the new Commons Act, the implications of which have not been understood by Defra ministers.’

The above article originally published November 2006 in The House Magazine, the publication for Westminster and all those with an interest in politics, policy and Parliament.

Case Study:

Years of good work, ruined in a day

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The proposal to be frustrated using the scam:

Valuable new community facilities and a town centre regeneration

Proposer of development:

Various

Status of property owner:

The taxpayer (through regional development agency Advantage West Midlands)

Individuals claiming that the owner’s property is a ‘town or village green’ and making the application:

Ms Susan Davies, Ms June McCarthy

Place:

Oswestry, Shropshire