Open Spaces Society

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The Open Spaces Society, a registered charity, is a UK campaign group to protect public rights of way and common land. It was founded in 1865 as the Commons Preservation Society. It is Britain’s oldest national conservation body. 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.

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.

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.

Much of the Open Spaces Society's work is about the preservation and creation of public paths – '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 the paths were. The Open Spaces Society helped the successful campaign for paths to be shown on Ordnance Survey maps.

Today, the Open Spaces Society has its headquarters in the attractive town of Henley-on-Thames in Oxfordshire. It has over 2,600 members throughout England and Wales.

Their principal work includes helping protect local common land, town and village greens, open spaces and public paths. They advise the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and National Assembly for Wales on applications for works on common land, and local authorities are legally required to consult the OSS whenever there is a proposal to alter the route of a public right of way.

They campaign for changes in legislation when they consider it necessary to protect paths and spaces.

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.

As of 2011, the UK government was looking to make recording existing-but-unrecorded village greens more difficult so as to assist development, which formal village green status prevents.[citation needed]

Many other issues concern the Society. For example the trend of privatisation of UK city centres taking place as a part of urban regeneration, which it sees as a form of enclosure of urban streets.[when?][citation needed]

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.


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