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A 21st Century Commons?

Mark Walton
A 21st century vision of the commons  could help reconnect people to their natural environment in a meaningful way and provide a basis for social change.

A long time ago, in a land not so very far away, local people were able to
 use open or common land (including that which was privately owned) to help them meet their basic needs. This included activities such as cultivation, grazing of livestock, fishing and the collection of timber and turf.
From the 12th century onwards a series of Enclosure Acts resulted in the enclosure of land, removing it from public access and common use. Despite the protests of movements such as the Diggers in the 17th century this process gathered pace in the 18th and 19th centuries with a series of Acts resulting in the enclosure of over 20% of common land.
Even against the backdrop of such a wholesale land grab the ancient rights of ‘commoners’ to graze livestock and undertake traditional activities on unenclosed common land, including that in private ownership, remained in place.

20th century trends in land ownership
Through the 19th and into the 20th century the ‘land question’ (basically feudal tenure, the ownership of Crown estates and the concentration of landed wealth) was a major political issue. After the First World War however a rise in home ownership, the break up of many large estates and land reform laws took the heat out of land ownership issues as far as public and political debate was concerned.

Trends in State Ownership
During the 20th century, in particular in the period following the Second World War, many countries saw an increase in state
 land ownership (up to a sixth of the UK land area at its mid-century peak). Since the 1980s, however, neoliberal ideology has promoted the transfer of much state land into private hands;  significant land holdings were transferred to the private sector during the 1980’s. Currently the largest government owners are the Defense Estate and the Forestry Commission.

Trends in Community Ownership
Community ownership or access to land has risen from being a marginal debate to an increasingly significant area
 of new policy and practice in recent years. The Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 brought in the ‘right to roam’, enabling greater public access to private land ,and in Scotland, the Land Reform Act of 2003.
Recent years have seen community organisations, led by the development trust movement, engaging in significant asset based community development, and promoting and developing the practice of ‘asset transfer’ of public property (usually local authority assets) to local community organisations.

A new politics of land ownership?
Asset transfer and asset based development has stimulated a new 
era of debate and discussion about 
the empowering effects of ownership including the potential it has to support economic and social development and turn failing assets into successful ventures.
The current Government sees community ownership of land an assets as a
 key part of its ‘localism’ and ‘big society’ agendas with new rights being brought forward to enable the building of homes by community land trusts and the purchase of land and buildings for community use.

Concurrently however, another strand
 of the Coalition’s agenda has been 
less welcomed by communities. Defra provoked a furious public reaction with its plans to ‘sell off’ significant parts of the publicly owned forestry estate. The department was forced into a humiliating climb-down despite assurances that the management or ownership of much-loved community woodlands would be undertaken by charities and community organisations rather than private sector commercial operators.
The fallout from the forestry debacle reportedly put paid to plans for externalising the ownership of state owned nature reserves and other environmental assets.
Proposals to transfer 2,200 of inland waterways from the management of British Waterways (a public body) to a new charitable structure have survived and the majority of the navigable inland waterways in England and Wales are expected to pass to the new Canals and Rivers Trust this year. However whilst meeting one Government agenda (shrinking the role of the state) the proposals as they currently stand fail to address another agenda (localism) by creating a new ‘big beast’ in the charity sector with a limited role for local communities.

Are environmental assets a special case?
There seem to be a number of 
issues which arise in relation to community ownership of environmental assets. These are both practical and emotional.
Habitats and waterways networks are often large with strong arguments in favour of managing the assets and policies consistently over wide areas. The waterways network for example often requires the diversion of resources to address issues like breaches, tunnel collapses or other engineering works. It may be that fragmentation of ownership to a community scale would raise practical issues.
The forestry sell off, and to a lesser extent the externalisation of the waterways, have tapped a deep public emotional response which seems to feel that these are ‘public’ assets for which government’s should be held accountable and even charitable ownership is seen as a form of ‘privatisation’. This, despite the fact that some of our best loved and best supported charitable organisations, the National Trust, Wildlife Trusts and Woodland Trust own hundreds of thousands of hectares of land in the UK.
In practice, however, management of environmental assets focuses on conservation, heritage and access, seeming to wish to preserve them in aspic rather than managing them to maximise public benefit.

The current embrace of localism principles recognises that the initiative, imagination, knowledge
 and capability of communities can often deliver better services, more viable businesses and better-managed assets. The incentive for such community-led activity is the ability to utilise the asset to deliver a range of local benefits – social, economic and environmental. However, whilst environmental assets remain dominated by an expert led approach to conservation and the preservation of heritage, they are often inaccessible those who live alongside them.

A 21st century commons?
If we are not prepared to accept a patchwork of local ownership of our environmental assets, whether for practical or emotional reasons, perhaps we can enable access in other ways.
A ‘right to manage’ or ‘presumption 
in favour of community use’ could create a straightforward mechanism for communities to negotiate with the owner of the local wood or waterway and agree a lease or management agreement that would deliver cost savings to the owner, and create jobs, training, and social value for the community.
In addition to creating mutual benefit, such a right would lower the high 
bar of ownership, enabling time and financial resources to be committed to generating a viable social business.
It seems unlikely that communities 
in 2011 are champing at the bit to exercise rights to graze livestock or cut turf for fuel. There is, however, 
an appetite for low-impact housing on waterways, woodland enterprises, local food growth and a range of other activities that could reconnect people in a meaningful way with their environment and form the basis of sustainable social enterprise.
Perhaps what we need to reinvent a vision of the commons that is fit for the 21st century.

A version of this post was first published in popSE!: bursting policy bubbles in September 2011

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