5 min read

“The Heavens Valley is soon to be sold”

For decades Stroudies have walked, foraged, partied, picnicked, camped, cried and canoodled in the Heavens without permission or payment.
“The Heavens Valley is soon to be sold”

by Ben Challis

THIS NEWS SPREAD SHOCK, concern and determination through our community. Like many in Stroud, for me, the Heavens is a place deeply interwoven with memories from childhood and continues to be a defining part of life in “Stroud” as an adult. It is somewhere to escape peacefully in nature, to meet friends for picnics and parties, to watch the sunset over town and the place you take visitors to show off just how ‘special’ Stroud is. 

Ilustration of the Heavens by Val Saunders

For decades Stroudies have walked, foraged, partied, picnicked, camped, cried and canoodled in the Heavens without permission or payment. It is our shared space, where people across our community and between generations form common memories and experiences. It is a special place…

Only it isn’t.

Right across the UK, communities are discovering that, in law, our green spaces are little more than a commodity to be bought and sold on the open market.

More importantly, they are finding that the value they provide by bringing people together and connecting them with nature has little protection and is systematically ignored.

The enclosure of Verney Fields in Stonehouse; the paywalling of Cirencester Park; and the parcelling of Juniper Hill provide a fistful of lost community rights within spitting distance of the Heavens.

Protesters to hold mass trespass of Cirencester Park over charging plans
Right to roam campaigners organise demonstration amid anger at Bathurst Estate’s introduction of £4 fee to visit park

News that the Grace Network face eviction from Brimscombe Mill shows that the same problems affect our built community spaces. The picture is similar nationally. The ongoing challenge to the long-established right to wild camp on Dartmoor has grabbed national headlines.

Community ‘broken’ following shock sale of Brimscombe Mill | Stroud Times
A community enterprise organisation is looking for a new home for the second time in under three years after the shock sale of their headquarters.

The New Economics Foundation have warned of a collapse in Green Space provision, while Locality have dubbed the privatisation of community assets (which includes buildings and open spaces) as “the Great British sell-off”. 

The Great British Sell Off - Locality

This all comes at a time when access to nature and green space is increasingly being recognised as crucial both to mental and physical health, and to enabling people and communities to mobilise in response to the biodiversity and climate crises.

The public cost of privatising and enclosing our green spaces and community assets seems not to be counted. 

How frequently visiting green spaces benefits our mental health

So what can be done?

1. Support the work of the Heavens Valley Action Group

A group of local residents, Councillors and other relevant organisations is working to preserve community access to the Heavens and ensure the site is managed for biodiversity and nature, with a preference for securing community ownership.

Also, if you live in Stonehouse, look out for the County Council’s consultation on an application for Village Green status for Verney Fields.

Stonehouse residents to be consulted on Verney Fields plans
RESIDENTS are expected to be consulted on a contentious town green application next year.

Our public meeting at the Subscription Rooms is now oversubscribed, so if you have registered for a space please make sure you come along or cancel your ticket so another can take your place. If you are not among the 500 respondents so far, please complete our community survey which is helping to build the evidence of community use. You can also follow our Facebook page to keep up to date with the campaign. 

  1. Register your community spaces (and demand a Community Right to Buy)

Community groups who have successfully registered an ‘asset of community value’ (ACV) can currently bid if they come up for sale, and are granted 6 months to fundraise.

If you believe an open space or building in your area could be a community asset, you can find more guidance on how to register them here. However, be aware that the current system disincentivises Councils from granting ACV-status and community groups are given no preference over other potential buyers. As a result, successful ‘ACV’ purchases by community groups are low. 

Strengthening this right to give viable community bids preference over private competition (as is already the case in Scotland) would better reflect the social costs associated with the privatisation of community assets, strengthen community placemaking and ensure the social capital generated by shared spaces stays with communities.

Labour have committed to introducing this Right to Buy in England should they come to power but further change is needed, particularly to ensure the system doesn’t deepen inequalities by favouring wealthier communities better able to raise funds.

You can help to keep the pressure on any future government by writing to your MP and other influential figures to demand these changes are brought into force.

Community Right to Buy: stay focussed, go further | CLES
  1. Move to a presumption of access rights

Our current system excludes the public from 92% of England’s countryside. Existing footpaths are routinely blocked or fall into disrepair, and enforcement of public rights of way is weak. Paradoxically our open access system favours public use of our most sensitive ecological places, heaping pressure on internationally important sites such as Rodborough Common while protecting private land of lesser ecological importance.

“The response to this problem is to expand and distribute access more broadly, rather than further deny people the right to exist in nature.”

The Right to Roam campaign are championing reform to introduce a system based on the presumption that the public could access open countryside - with accompanying responsibilities and sensible exceptions where required.

HOME | Right to Roam

This would provide a more balanced and equitable system, better reflect traditional access rights in England, and be more capable of recognising the importance of places like the Heavens to communities like ours.