Devon scholar, W G Hoskins

According to the great Devon scholar, W G Hoskins, the common land of England is the oldest institution we now possess, older by far than Parliament, and older even than the manorial system which subsequently assumed control of commons. What is remarkable is that features of this ancient form of land tenure, pre-dating the concept of land as private property, have survived into the 21st century. And not just in a fragmentary way; there are over …

According to the great Devon scholar, W G Hoskins, the common land of England is the oldest institution we now possess, older by far than Parliament, and older even than the manorial system which subsequently assumed control of commons. What is remarkable is that features of this ancient form of land tenure, pre-dating the concept of land as private property, have survived into the 21st century. And not just in a fragmentary way; there are over 7000 separate commons in England, totalling one million acres, equivalent in area to the county of Suffolk. As Kate Ashbrook of the Open Spaces Society says, no one is ever far from a common.

Commons vary immensely, from the extensive grazed upland commons of Dartmoor or Cumbria, to metropolitan commons and village greens. But they share important characteristics. First, and contrary to public belief, commons do not generally belong to the state or local authority. They have private owners, but for centuries commons have been used and enjoyed not just by those who have registered rights, for example to graze livestock, but by all the people of the neighbourhood, particularly for walking and recreation.

“We probably owe some of our most unaltered commons to a few awkward old men here and there, who refused to agree to what seemed a desirable change in the eyes of the majority.”

Second, commons are distinguished by their richness and diversity. Nearly 90% of all common land is nationally or internationally designated for its landscape, habitat or archaeology. 55% of common land in England is designated as Sites of Special Scientific Interest. Kate Ashbrook says, “People value commons for many different reasons, for their history, their scruffy unkempt nature, their lack of disturbance through the ages, their lovely landscapes, rich wildlife and fascinating archaeology, and for the right to walk over all of them and to ride on many.”

Thanks to the efforts of previous generations who fought to preserve them, we still have a precious inheritance of intact commons. They have been described as the last reservoir of uncommitted land in England, but in 21st century this description carries dangers. In our crowded island there are many challenges to the use of land. Defra’s first priority is to encourage sustainable food production. The Forestry Commission’s is to expand the area given over to trees, and Natural England’s is to reconnect people with nature.

The Department of Energy and Climate Change has its eyes on the commons of Dartmoor as a carbon store, and would no doubt support wind farms on many exposed uplands. South West Water wants to manage common land on Exmoor and Dartmoor for the purification of water and prevention of floods. Since 1985, Dartmoor with 37% of its area common land, has had its own statutory Commoners Council with powers to regulate livestock.

Then there is the National Park authority itself, which has statutory duties to conserve and enhance the natural beauty, wildlife and cultural heritage of the Park, and to promote public understanding and enjoyment. The Authority is also required to foster the economic and social well-being of local communities. The Park is currently consulting on a management plan which would designate a new special quality for Dartmoor as “a place for discovery, challenge and adventure.” Abseiling, hang gliding and mountain biking are activities which were unheard of 60 years ago when the National Parks were first designated. All these objectives and activities have their place and few would wish any of them to be shelved entirely, but there are two concerns.

The first, is whether the overlapping web of Government departments, national quangos, local authorities including the National Parks, and numerous other stakeholders can deliver the sensible and sensitive policies needed to keep places like Dartmoor special. The second is whether one of the defining principles of the National Park movement from 60 years ago – that established farming use should be effectively maintained – is at risk of being crowded out.

Reference has been made to the high proportion of common land – over half – which is designated SSSI. Owners and occupiers including commoners have to seek consent from Natural England for virtually any operation affecting a SSSI. A typical list of operations likely to damage the special interest has 28 headings including “Grazing and changes in the grazing regime including type of stock, intensity or seasonal pattern of grazing and cessation of grazing; stock feeding and changes in stock feeding practice; mowing or other methods of cutting vegetation and changes in the mowing or cutting regime.”  So much for the 1000 year old rights of commoners!

To some, this is a breathtaking State land grab over an area where for centuries the triumvirate of private ownership, commoners rights and the public interest has worked for the common good. The commons owners and the commoners have now been sidelined by a narrowly focussed quango with no practical experience in land management. There are growing complaints from the public that they can no longer walk at will or observe archaeological features because of the spread of scrub and invasive vegetation. The irony is that it was the stewardship of the owners and commoners over centuries which produced the special qualities of commons, which they are now deemed no longer capable of managing.

This is not an academic point; Natural England is currently insisting on no more than 100 ewes on a 500 hectare common which in times past grazed thousands of sheep.
It is not the fault of the officials who work for the various agencies, but the system. When Natural England are considering the right number of sheep to graze on an upland SSSI they cannot take into consideration the effect on the viability of the struggling hill farmer, or the risk of interrupting a centuries old way of life. That is not the task they have been given – it is someone else’s problem

Professor Ian Mercer is a man who knows a thing or two about quangos. He was for 17 years the Chief Executive of the Dartmoor National Park Authority, and then of the Countryside Council of Wales. His comprehensive book “Dartmoor” published in 2009 concludes that there is an organisational problem on Dartmoor, which can be summarised as “too many cooks”. He suggests that in areas that are already statutorily protected, such as a National Park, logic calls for one body of conservation agents on the ground. “One body, in Dartmoor’s case the National Park Authority… could be that agent and deliver all the advice, regulation and financial support available to farmers, who alone have what is needed to maintain the Park’s publicly valued attributes. They would then know with which single authority they were dealing, and that its officers were accessibly based and on the spot. A working relationship between officer and farmer would be developed anew, which the original National Park plan claimed was necessary.”

In 1963, WG Hoskins wrote, “We probably owe some of our most unaltered commons to a few awkward old men here and there, who refused to agree to what seemed a desirable change in the eyes of the majority.” Is it time for a few more awkward men, and women, to step forward?