What should Britain do with its common land?

Chris Bowlby examines the history behind the notion of common land

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Who owns our land? The answer may seem simple: mainly private home-owners, companies or local authorities in urban areas, and larger landowners as well as individuals and the state in our countryside.

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But in a growing contemporary debate about ‘sustainable’ development, the idea of ‘common’ interests and ownership has resurfaced as another element in the mix. It reminds us that the idea of the ‘common’ has historic roots in our law and custom, and was never eradicated as thoroughly as many might assume. And the survival of ‘common land’ – over half a million hectares in England and Wales – symbolises this everywhere, from urban spaces used for recreation to vast hill-farming uplands.

Angus Winchester is co-author of a book, Contested Common Land, which arose from a project studying its history and contemporary management. There is a “fascination” in its survival, he says, “in a world dominated by private property”.

But he points out that the nature of common land is easily misunderstood. It rarely means equal ownership by every member of a local community. Instead, it developed historically as a system whereby land beyond the fields and meadows of farms belonging to the lord of a manor (heathland or marsh, for example), was used communally by a number of individuals who shared joint rights of exploitation. And its management, protecting against overexploitation, evolved through subtle interplay between law and local custom, governing everything from rights of access and grazing to the digging of peat or picking of plants.

Some national statutes applied to common land. Ever mindful of the nation’s military resources, Henry VIII passed legislation specifying a minimum size for stallions grazing on commons. However, the use of common land was also shaped by the most local of customs or village by-laws.

The greatest challenge came during the 18th and early 19th centuries with extensive enclosures. Changes in agricultural techniques and pressure for increased food production led to great swathes of land that was previously subject to communal rights being divided and transferred to narrower private ownership.

Substantial areas of common land were, however, left unenclosed. And, by the second half of the 19th century, common land attracted renewed public interest. This was due partly, says Dr Winchester, to cultural angst about spreading urbanisation. Open spaces were championed as a way of protecting people’s well-being in an industrialising society.

A Commons Preservation Society was founded. And from 1876 the Commons Act prevented landowners from incorporating surviving common land into their estates.

But this kind of initiative, which focused especially on green spaces in and around areas like Hampstead Heath in London, still left the management of much common land neglected. By the time a Royal Commission investigated in the 1950s there was little of knowledge of exactly where surviving common land was, and who owned it. The passing of new legislation in the 1960s, inviting everyone eligible to register precisely their interest, is widely seen, says Dr Winchester, as a “disaster”. Individuals were tempted to register and specify far more in terms of, say, grazing rights, than the land could sustain.

Only in recent years has action been taken to find new ways of sustaining common ownership. Dr Winchester disagrees that ‘commons’ are “inherently unsustainable and anachronistic in the modern world” – as suggested in the 1960s by the ecologist Garrett Hardin in his article, ‘The Tragedy of the Commons’. Hardin argued that everyone pursuing their own interests while believing in the freedom of the commons would ruin common resources. Yet research, counters Dr Winchester, shows that “communities across the globe have developed enduring systems of self-regulation”.

The question of how to manage such resources – whether land, fisheries or clean air – will challenge future societies as it did those in the past. Just as we still talk about the importance of ‘common law’, or the ‘House of Commons’, so common land keeps its resonance today, as we seek the best balance between private enterprise and ‘the common good’ in the development of the country’s land.

Chris Bowlby is a presenter on BBC radio, specialising in history

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This series is produced with History & Policy. You can find out more about them and read their papers at www.historyandpolicy.org