Recent planning decisions and proposals for development in Diggle reveal how rapidly the character and identity of a village can be threatened by the urge to exploit land which has for centuries been taken for granted as part of the green heritage of the community.
For over a year the Diggle Community Association has been struggling to resist the proposal to build houses on Diggle Village Green (land adjacent to Huddersfield Road opposite the Diggle Chippy). After a year of legal arguments between the DCA and First Choice Homes Oldham (the owners of the land) Oldham Metropolitan Borough Council’s Commons Registration Committee has now rejected the application to register the land as an official village green, giving the green light for the bulldozers to move in and development of the site to begin in the New Year.
The land was acquired by Saddleworth Urban District Council on the eve of the First World War as part of its efforts to provide Council Housing for local people and the little patch of land left over after the construction of Moor Crescent seems to have been left for the residents to use to hang out their washing and for general recreation. Although FCHO employed a barrister from a prestigious Manchester Practice to mount their objection to the case for registering the land as a village green their claims, which included denying that Diggle was ‘an entity known to law’ and therefore not ‘a coherent community’, were not accepted in the Report prepared for the Committee by the Council’s legal advisors. Nonetheless the Council, following recent legal precedents, rejected the application on the basis that – when the land was acquired by Saddleworth Urban District Council – it was obtained with a view to providing an ‘Open Space’ for use by the community. Because residents had been using the land with the effective permission of the original and subsequent owners they were not using it ‘as of right’ and so it could not be viewed as a village green.
Commenting on the decision Nick Cox, who made the application and fought the case on behalf of the DCA said: ‘it is bitterly ironic that land which was, according to OMBC, originally intended to be ‘Open Space’ for use by the people of Diggle has now been taken from that very community and given over for development on the grounds that it was provided on that basis’. ‘If, as the Council argue, the land was laid out as open space for residents that would certainly have been in keeping with the spirit of the very early provision of local authority housing in Saddleworth, in which the health and well-being of the occupants of the houses being built by the District Council in the pre- and inter-war period was uppermost in the planners’ minds. By contrast OMBC’s planners and lawyers have really done all they can to enable the development of a small piece of land which was a real focal point for the community. On 8th December we will be holding the last ever Christingle service around the Christmas tree erected on the site, it’s earmarked for felling when development work starts and we have no other site as yet for this community event next year’.
The loss of the Village Green would, in any circumstances, have been a blow to those seeking to defend green space in the village but it comes at a time when green land close to the Huddersfield Narrow Canal at Ward Lane, owned by OMBC, has been earmarked for a development of ‘aspirational homes’ and a bitter dispute rages over plans to site a replacement for Saddleworth School on fields in front of the former Shaw’s Pallet Works adjacent to Huddersfield Road. If built, the school would occupy the field to the right of the former Pallet Works as seen from the road with sports facilities and playing fields being developed on green belt land in the Diggle valley towards Uppermill. Local opponents of the proposal to build a new school on the site argue that increased traffic, an unattractive two and three-storey building abutting the main road and the overloading of the village infrastructure it will give rise to are all strong arguments against the proposal. In the light of the development of the village green, though, the school proposal looks like another instance where a commitment to protect and secure ‘open space’ has been abandoned. The fields that would be absorbed by the proposed school development have been designated as green belt for the reason that they provide a green space that supposedly secures the integrity of Saddleworth’s villages and the rural character of the district. If the school were built according to the current plan, the open character of the village as it is entered from the Uppermill direction would be destroyed and the clear, green break between the two villages which helps to define their distinctiveness will be eroded.
With development seeming to encroach on Diggle from all sides, it is not surprising that anger within the community is growing about the extent to which its views and interests are acknowledged or respected. Local residents fear that the open spaces they have long cherished are increasingly vulnerable as opportunistic developers and a remote and unresponsive local authority conspire to degrade the landscape.
Executive Committee, Diggle Community Association
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