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Managing Common Land

September 8, 2012





The Open Spaces Society(1) is delighted that A Common Purpose, a guide to seeking agreement on England’s common land,(2) has been published in a revised edition on the Foundation for Common Land’s(3) website.  This follows endorsement by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs’ (Defra) National Common Land Stakeholder Group which consists of all the principal organisations with an interest in commons.(4)

A Common Purpose provides guidance to common-land managers on how to engage the community and achieve consensus when works, such as fencing or tree-felling, are contemplated. It encourages land managers to take a step-by-step approach to understanding people’s views and to allow plenty of time for discussion and reflection.

There are 1,544 square miles (400,000 hectares) of common land in England, an area about the size of Suffolk.  All commons have an owner.  They date back to pre-medieval times and there is no other type of land in which so much public interest is concentrated—landscape, wildlife, archaeology and recreation.

Says Kate Ashbrook, general secretary of the Open Spaces Society which was an initiator of A Common Purpose which was first published in 2005: ‘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 their right to walk over all of them and to ride on many.  Commons come in all shapes and sizes and are found throughout England and Wales—no one is ever far from a common.’

Times have changed and in the lowlands people no longer graze stock on commons as normal farming practice, while speeding traffic across commons makes it risky to graze livestock without fencing.  Hence many heathland commons are becoming overgrown with scrub.

Continues Kate: ‘Anyone wanting to manage the land—and it may be for the best of intentions, such as improving the habitat for wildlife and public access—should respect the different views of stakeholders.  Those stakeholders may have no legal interest in the land beyond a right of access, but they will certainly have strong emotional ties to it.

‘Plans for grazing, scrub-clearance and tree-felling can all meet opposition unless the community is involved in their making.  Fencing is often controversial: it may be desirable to enable the common to be grazed, but it’s a physical and psychological barrier and can change the nature of the common.’

The principles advocated in A Common Purpose are relevant both on lowland commons with no active graziers and on upland commons where stakeholders both with and without legal interests have different management objectives and there are different drivers for their involvement.  The document is commended by Defra and by the Planning Inspectorate which states: ‘You should follow the principles set out in the multi-agency document, A Common Purpose’ before applying for consent for works on common land.(5)

Although A Common Purpose refers only to England, the principles apply equally to Wales.


Notes for editors

1.         The Open Spaces Society was founded in 1865 and is Britain’s oldest national conservation body.  It campaigns to protect common land, village greens, open spaces and public paths, and people’s right to enjoy them.

2.         Common land goes back before medieval times and is land over which others have rights associated with their properties, to graze animals, collect wood or dig peat for instance.  Traditionally these rights were vital to people’s existence, but many have now fallen into disuse.  All commons have an owner and there is a public right to walk over all of them and on some a right to ride horses.  Works on common land require the consent of the Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (delegated to the Planning Inspectorate) in addition to any planning permission.  There are 1,544 square miles of commons in England, in 7,062 separate units, embracing all types of landscape and habitat from the moors of Dartmoor to the Norfolk coast.  Eighty eight per cent of all common land is nationally or internationally designated, for its landscape, habitat or archaeology.

Natural England has established that:

·         55 per cent of common land by area in England is designated as Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) (and 20 per cent of SSSIs are common land),

·         48 per cent by area fall within a National Park, ten per cent by number,

·         31 per cent by area (and 23 per cent by number) fall within an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB),

·         38 per cent of open access land is common land,

·         11 per cent of scheduled ancient monuments are on common land.

3.         The Foundation for Common Land is a gathering of those across Great Britain and beyond with a stake in pastoral commons and their future.  A Common Purpose is on its website at

4.         Details of Defra’s National Common Land Stakeholder Group can be found at

5.         The Planning Inspectorate is responsible for determining applications o works on common land.  It advocates the principles of A Common Purpose in its Common Land Guidance Sheet 1a, Consent to Construct Works on Common Land.



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