THE LIE OF THE LAND

February 2012

THE LIE OF THE LAND

We all know that an Act of Parliament was required to save the view from Richmond Hill. Or was it? Historian and journalist Nik Darlington reveals the truth behind the Act and its lessons for planning law today

 

Any visitor knows at once that there is something special about the view from Richmond Hill. It wrenches your gaze south-westwards, out across a rustic arcadia unsurpassed on the threshold of London.

And every local knows the story of the campaign to preserve it. A plaque on The Terrace recalls the oft-told tale: how residents, politicians and open spaces societies – including a fledgling National Trust – came together to save “the rural tranquillity of this celebrated view” from developers; and how the campaign culminated in the Richmond, Ham and Petersham Open Spaces Act, rendering the view the only one in Britain protected by an Act of Parliament.

Yet all is not as it seems. For this standard version of the story is actually a romantic fib. The 1902 Act was not primarily about preservation at all – it was a private enclosure act. Through forgetfulness of the facts, we have for years consumed a civic white lie.

It was back in 1896 that the Earl of Dysart, Lord of the Manor of Ham, first submitted a private enclosure bill to Parliament. The Petersham and Ham Lands Bill was defeated by 144 votes, as it had an unlawful objective: to enclose nearly 200 acres of common land in Ham – the ‘Ham Fields’ – for a housing scheme, worth £10m in today’s money to the Earl.

The Ham Fields were an ancient type of common land known as Lammas, cultivated in strips separately occupied by commoners from April to August, then thrown open from Lammas Day (Aug 1) until Lady Day (Mar 25). The Metropolitan Commons Acts (1866, 1878) had outlawed the enclosure of commons within 15 miles of Charing Cross.

As a saccharine ruse, the 1896 bill proposed to give Petersham Meadows and Common to the public in perpetuity. Parliament, however, deemed this insufficient to excuse the cavalier rupture of planning laws entailed by the overall bill – especially as there was no perceived threat to the Meadows and Common.

By 1902, however, perceptions had changed. Proposed developments on the Middlesex side of the Thames – at Cambridge Park, Marble Hill and Lebanon Park – threatened to mar the view from the top of the Hill. Following spirited protests, the London County Council (General Powers) Act 1901 permitted the purchase of Marble Hill for the public, and there was an agreement not to develop the other two sites. Yet the mood remained panicked, and with prophecies of tragedy appearing regularly in the local and national press, Lord Dysart had the pretext he required for another attempt at enclosing Ham Fields.

Thus the 1896 bill was resubmitted almost verbatim – but with two crucial modifications. Firstly, public access would be improved by providing wider and more extensive riverside footpaths. This appeased the open spaces societies. Secondly, to make the whole thing more vendible to politicians, the title became the Richmond Hill (Preservation of View) Bill.

That title, remarked Henry Du Pré Labouchère, Liberal MP for Northampton, was “absolutely misleading”. As in 1896, the legislation was “in breach of the law” – a fact corroborated by the Attorney-General, Sir Robert Bannatyne Finlay, in a June 1902 memorandum to the House of Lords, unrevealed until now.

“It will be for your Lordships to consider whether or not the provisions of the (Metropolitan Commons) Acts ought in the present case to be relaxed,” he wrote. For “relaxed”,  read ‘broken’.

From a preservation point of view, the Act was desperately unnecessary. The Middlesex shore, along with Glover’s Island (now Petersham Ait) in the river, was now secure; the Metropolitan Commons Acts already protected Petersham Common; and Petersham Meadows were worth little to developers, as their waterlogged nature would have seen them scheduled under the Low-lying Land Act of 1894 as an“insanitary and undesirable area”. They had also recently been leased to the Richmond Corporation. The whole thing was a brazen façade.

Yet the story of the 1902 Act provides a curious parallel with events today. The Government is shortly to finalise its National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), a lean scrag end of a document that whittles down existing planning guidance from more than 1,000 pages to just 52. Opponents of the NPPF – which include the National Trust – do not deny the need for more houses, with building at its lowest rate since 1924. However, a presumption in favour of sustainable development alters the default planning setting from ‘why?’ to ‘why not?’, turning traditional planning upside down.

The impasse will not be resolved until, first, opponents accept that preservation and progress must go hand in hand, and that this can involve painful compromise; and second, the Government concedes that ordinary landscapes need protection every bit as much as National Parks.

In the past, commonplace tracts of land – fields singly unremarkable but collectively priceless – have been recognised for their ‘intrinsic character and beauty’. The NPPF carries no such safeguard. Thousands of little Ham Fields are under threat. More than ever, in a time of population growth and increasing pressures on natural resources, fragile open spaces need our protection.

More than ever too, this country needs to build houses. The Victorian pioneers of preservationism, such as Octavia Hill, saw preservation as a form of progress.

Planning is often a messy compromise: both sides in this current debate need to learn from history and give ground. As Edmund Burke, the great 18th century philosopher and statesman, put it: “We must all obey the great law of change. It is the most powerful law of nature, and the means perhaps of its conservation.”

In 1902, people believed that a compromise was required. It involved breaking the law by allowing Lord Dysart to enclose Ham Fields, but it allowed for greater public access and the building of extra homes for London’s mushrooming population – and put the preservation of Richmond Hill beyond reasonable doubt.

For more than a century, the 1902 Act has been masked in myth. Better to know the truth, with all its corruption and intrigue, and to restore Richmond Hill to its due place in the story of our land.


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