Contested Common Land: environmental governance, law and sustainable land management c.1600-2006

Lead Research Organisation: Newcastle University
Department Name: Newcastle Law School


The Common land of England and Wales is an important common resource with multiple (and often conflicting) land uses. It provides some of our most ecologically sensitive environments and landscapes; it is an important agricultural resource (especially in the uplands); and a recreational resource that provides public access to the countryside for walking and other recreational uses. The project has two interdisciplinary foci; (i) an examination of the management of common land since the 17th century using historical methods of enquiry. This will examine the legal mechanisms for regulating land use and the principles applied to the governance of common land eg. through the former manorial court system. And (ii) an examination of modern governance mechanisms and the emergence of sustainable land management as a discrete objective for the future of our Commons.

Modern farming methods, intense recreational use and other land use pressures have resulted in the degradation of much common land. This has important policy implications for the delivery of nature conservation, recreational access and other land use priorities for our commons. The Commons Bill 2006 will introduce a new legal framework for the governance of common land, aimed at improving the environmental governance of common land and improving the protection of both the biodiversity and landscape values of our commons. The Commons Bill 2006 is based on a self-regulatory model. It introduces measures enabling commoners to establish statutory commoners associations with legal powers to pass binding bylaws regulating land use on each common, and to enter into binding agreements with governmental agencies to promote sustainable management.

The research project will place the sustainable management of Commons in historical perspective by using four case studies to illustrate the changing patterns of land use, differing management principles and regulatory mechanisms applied to common land from c. 1600 to the modern day. These will be drawn from Commons in Cumbria, North Yorkshire, Norfolk and Powys. The research will marry archival evidence with qualitative data generated by semi-structured interviews with stakeholders in the four case study areas. Commoners, land managers, voluntary groups and the public agencies responsible for the governance of common land in each case study area, will be involved in the project through the process of qualitative data collection and through participation in seminars for stakeholders to be held in each case study area in the concluding phase of the research project. The project will conclude with an assessment of the impact of different models of self-regulation on the bio-diversity and landscape values of the commons in each of the four case study areas, and for the effective implementation of the wider objectives of the Commons Bill 2006. Virtual Reality imaging software will be used to illustrate the impacts on the biodiversity and landscape of each case study of different land management options for delivering sustainable management. The stakeholder meetings will, therefore, not only provide a forum for the dissemination of the research to key stakeholders and policy makers: they will also inform decision making by stakeholders seeking to improve the management of the commons in the case study areas, within the new self regulatory framework of the Commons Bill 2006.
Description . Key insights leading to the impacts described were:

(i) Common land is subject to more complex property rights than other land; and common property rights differ significantly in different localities,
(ii) Common property rights have changed and developed over time, and customary practices continue to have relevance to their definition, scope and exercise,
(iii) Statutory measures for the registration and management of common land (e.g. the Commons Act 2006) fail to recognise the complexity and mutability of common rights, and the importance of locally mediated social practice in developing strategies for improving the management of common land.
(iv) Public policy for the sustainable management of common land must recognise and accommodate common property rights when developing new models for the communal management of land. Unless this is done it will be difficult to implement public policy effectively and to improve the environmental quality of common land

The underpinning research was conducted during two projects: AHRC major grant project AH/0310/7215 "Contested Common Land - Environmental Governance, Law and Sustainable Land Management 1600-2010" (AHRC Landscape and Environment programme) 2007-2010; and AHRC On-Funding Project AH/J013951/1 "Building Commons Knowledge" 2012-13. The major grant project carried out fieldwork in 4 case studies in England and Wales in 2008-2010: Eskdale (Cumbria), Ingleborough (North Yorkshire), the Elan Valley (Powys) and the North Norfolk Grazing Marshes (Brancaster, Norfolk). Contemporary governance issues were examined through qualitative data generation and analysis, focus groups with stakeholders in each case study and doctrinal research on the interaction of governance instruments and property rights.
Exploitation Route These are being taken forward through work on creating new commons, undertaken during an ESRC Impact Accelerator grant in 2015.
Sectors Agriculture, Food and Drink,Environment,Leisure Activities, including Sports, Recreation and Tourism

Description 1. By stakeholders, community groups and public bodies in the 4 case study areas of the AHRC project. The project's work on property rights and on the continuing relevance of customary management have informed the way in which management issues have been considered and addressed in a modern context. In the Eskdale case study, for example, the research analysed manorial byelaws regulating land use on Eskdale common, Cumbria, dating from 1587 (the "Eskdale Twenty Four Book"): 'The project has effectively reintroduced this text to the commoner community as a whole, as part of the initiative to restore flexibility and local custom in the governance of Eskdale Common, and to address the new requirements of environmental law; a sustainable text for a sustainable landscape' (Daniels and Cowell, 2011). The research has also informed the development of a statutory commons council for Cumbria by the Federation of Cumbria Commoners under Part 2 Commons Act 2006. 2. By the policy community, national stakeholder groups and NGOs. (a) The AHRC research has had an important impact in altering the awareness of key members of the public policy community. This has resulted in them emphasising the need for locally mediated solutions to self-management that take account of property rights and the historical development of appropriators' rights and duties. The Common Land Research website ( has been used by public bodies, such as Natural England, to inform management guidance to stakeholders e.g. "The Contested Common Land project is developing ideas for the long term sustainable management of commonsthe amateur with an interest in the history of the local common ... will [also] find much there to inspire and guide research': Natural England, Exploring our Common's Past (Commons Factsheet No. 02, Natural England, 2010). Online via: (b). The research was used by the Foundation for Common Land and Natural England in the development of the "Commons Toolkit", which provides guidance for stakeholders, landowners and commoners on commons management: Natural England/Foundation for Common Land, 'Commons Toolkit' (Natural England, 2010). Catalogue Code: NE285-14GN. Online at 3. The National Trust is using the research to improve the governance of its common land estate in England and Wales, and to develop new governance arrangements for increasing community involvement in commons management. The research has helped the Trust to identify key issues that must be addressed in order to deliver the Trust's policies for the sustainable management and improvement of its common land estate, which encompasses 66000 hectares of common land (11% of all common land in England and 13% of common land in Wales). 4. The research contributed to the Final Report of the Foresight Land Use Futures research project: Land Use Futures: Making the Most of Land in the 21st Century. Final Project Report (Government Office for Science 2010). "The evidence base for the Foresight project final report provides the crucial scientific basis for the findings, and [Rodgers output in Land Use Policy] was a key component of that. The Foresight Report has been used to inform thinking across government since its publication...and the importance of the Land Use Report and its evidence base in informing policy is set to continue into the foreseeable future" (Government Office for Science, testimonial to PI 14 June 2013).
First Year Of Impact 2011
Sector Aerospace, Defence and Marine,Environment,Leisure Activities, including Sports, Recreation and Tourism,Government, Democracy and Justice
Impact Types Cultural,Societal,Policy & public services