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Working towards a 21st Century Commons

Tom Kenny

Shared Assets’ vision is the creation of a ‘21st Century Commons’. In this latest blog in our policy series we explain what we mean by that and why we think ‘ the commons’ can provide an excellent framework for thinking about ways in which collaborative land and natural resource management can be promoted and supported.

Historically, common land is land over which not just the owners, but also ‘commoners’ hold rights. For centuries, people relied on common land to meet their basic needs, for example by grazing livestock or collecting firewood. The ‘enclosure’, or privatisation of most of this common land is central to our history. More recently, the term ‘commons’ has been an increasingly popular way of analysing and managing a wide range of shared resources, from the internet and open source software to health and even theatres. We want to explore ways in which both traditional and modern approaches to the commons can inform the development of new models of management and governance of land and natural resources. Here are three suggestions:

(1) Promoting people’s right meet their needs through land management:

Discussions around community involvement in land often focus on environmental volunteering, or conservation. While these are both important, enabling people to use their local land productively is crucial to them being able to create livelihoods and sustainable local economies. Our basic needs have changed little over the centuries but our relationship to the land has changed. Most people do not have livestock to graze, but we do look to land to meet our recreation, education and physical and mental health needs. Ideas like ‘new commons’ can inform our approach to land management and allow people to meet our 21st century needs.

The commons offers us a way around the false choice between public and private ownership and management. The commons provides a framework that recognises that land can have multiple uses, users and stakeholders. Our current approaches to ownership are often based on principles of exclusivity and control. Using the commons model could inspire collaboration between landowners, communities and social entrepreneurs in ways that encourage innovation, creativity and openness. A more flexible approach to ownership might enable more rights of use to be held by people other than the landowner. Such an approach would give local communities greater control to use land to meet their needs, without requiring changes in land ownership.

Creating a climate of collaboration between landowners and social entrepreneurs is really at the core of many of the different areas this policy work is looking at. We have already proposed a ‘community right to manage’ as one step in the right direction. This would enable communities to propose new management arrangements for environmental assets currently held or delivered by government or other institutions. Even without policy change, government and other large landowners could adopt a presumption in favour of community use when making decisions.

(2) Commons as an inspiration to collective action:

For those interested in land, it can be frustrating how low on the agenda it currently is with politicians and the general public. The history and narrative of ‘the commons’, and how we best manage land and other resources for the common good, has long provided inspiration for debate and practical collective action.

Whilst historically it is often associated with calls for radical land reform, the commons framework touches on issues that engage public interest across the political spectrum. It highlights the value of putting community back at the centre of society, and giving more control to local people. A history of popular struggle against enclosure resonates with ongoing concerns about the privatisation of public space. A comparable example of how a concept can provide a narrative for action across all sectors of society is ‘sustainability’, which came into prominence in the late 80s and now informs everything from corporate practices to planning policy.

(3) Commons principles informing collaborative land management:

We want to explore how studies of the management and governance of common pool resources can inform social enterprise land management today. Commons of various kinds have existed around the world for thousands of years, and this rich history can provide insight into various different kinds of contemporary land management.

It is here that the work of Elinor Ostrom and those who worked alongside her and have been inspired by her informs our work. To what extent can the principles that she outlined for successfully managing common pool resources be applied to social enterprise management of land? What are the challenges and issues that arise when trying to develop the conditions for new commons-based approaches to managing land rather than simply observing those that have evolved over time? How do we build the trust and the cultures that Ostrom identified as critical to successful community management of common pool resources in circumstances that are often characterised by cuts, conflict and rapid change?

The idea of the commons, in both its traditional and more modern incarnations, was a major inspiration for the creation of Shared Assets. However, the ideas and principles of commons management are not widely known or understood, and little consideration has currently been given to exactly how these ideas can practically benefit social enterprises managing land. We believe the commons may have transformative power and could inform the creation of new forms of management and governance of land that benefit people and the environment. With your help we hope this process can go some way to testing and perhaps demonstrating this.

The next blog in the series looks at how improving access to data on land and land ownership in particular can help social enterprises. You can also check out last weeks blog introducing our policy work here.

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