Commons Council - Cumbria Farmer Article April 2013

The April Edition of the Cumbria Farmer published an article about the thinking behind setting up a Commons Council for Cumbria and why the Federation of Cumbria Commoners is working with Defra and Natural England to set up a single management system for commons.

Below is the text of the article - you can also download the published article

For centuries, common land was governed by Manor Courts and these gatherings of landowners and commoners made the decisions and implemented the judgements that affected local graziers.  Those days may be long gone – with just a handful of Manor Courts still in existence in the UK – but the Federation of Cumbria Commoners is working with Defra to recreate something along similar lines to support Cumbrian commoners associations for years, and perhaps centuries, to come.

Commons are an integral part of the Cumbrian upland farming economy, precious reserves for biodiversity and recreation and a strong feature of the Cumbrian landscape and culture, but there is no single management system for commons. Commoners work together on the overall management of the common (for instance, about disease control, or gathering animals for inspection, marking or sale) through commoners’ associations.  These are generally voluntary bodies, often with a constitution and appointed officers, but they don’t have any real powers of enforcement.

This lack of effective mechanisms to enable sustainable management at the local level was recognised by the Commons Act 2006.

Part 2 of the Act enables the creation of Commons Councils, with statutory powers to regulate grazing and other agricultural activities. They are created by order by the Secretary of State and need an Establishment Order from Parliament.

“At the moment, disputes on commons can cause problems and be very drawn out as there is no entity with powers to enforce decisions,” says Viv Lewis, Secretary to the Federation of Cumbria Commoners and a member of the team that is looking at a Commons Council for Cumbria.  “A Commons Council will have a binding dispute resolution service and and prevent a small minority disruption the livelihoods of the majority .”

Since 2008, the Federation has been working with Defra to see how the idea of a Commons Council can become a useful and effective reality in Cumbria.  It has taken time: there have been two rounds of consultation with encouraging results that are only now developing into actions.  From that consultation, several of the larger commons associations have committed to a new Council and the Federation team is working on the next stages, aiming to submit the case for an Establishment Order for a Commons Council to Parliament later this year.

“We were able to update members at the Federation’s AGM in February,” says Dave Smith, Chair of the Federation and a commons grazier on the Eastern Pennines.  “We had a vote in 2011 and 16 of the 34 commoners associations who took part in that consultation, including most of the larger commons, are supportive of creating a Commons Council. We’re now trying to get other commons involved before the process goes too far.  All the advice, including a presentation to the AGM by Margaret Read, Defra’s Head of Commons and Access Implementation, indicates that if new commons want to join, they will have to wait at least 5 years and it will be costly as it would need to go before Parliament again.”

The major benefit of creating a Commons Council is the advantage of having a body that can manage the agricultural  activites on the common, remove animals that are unlawfully grazing on commons, remove unlawful boundaries and other encroachmenst and regulate the use of commons rights. The Council can step in, when asked, if there are disputes within a local commons association. 

But there are other advantages too.

The current Commons registers created by the 1965 Commons Registration Act are a legal record, but there were many mistakes and anomalies.  Also, at the time, there was insufficient provision for any ongoing maintenance or correction of the registers so they have become dated and inaccurate.

“The registers haven’t really been updated since 1970,” says Viv Lewis, “and are an unreliable indicator of the present status of commons. This should be put right when Part 1 of the Commons Act is enacted in Cumbria but the government has not yet announced a timetable for this so, in the meantime, a Commons Council can develop and maintain an up-to-date register here in Cumbria.”

She continues: “As part of the funding for the Commons Council project, the Federation has money to pay for the development of  this ‘live’ register and we have engaged H&H Land and Property to help us with this. Even though it will be so useful, we can only include those commons that are committed to the Commons Council in the project.  It would be brilliant to cover 100% of Cumbria’s commons but that’s not going to happen.  However, I really hope that we can get a few more local associations involved now and include their areas in the new Common Council’s live register.”

Another pragmatic advantage of involving as many commons associations as possible is to reduce the costs for all: “We know it is going to cost money to run a Commons Council in parallel with the Federation,” says Dave Smith, “but we’re not in the business of creating cost burdens for our members.  We’re trying to make the cost structure work well for associations of all scales and we’re involving landowners as well. The simple fact is that the cost to any one organisation will be minimised by having more people involved to share the costs!”

Andrew Humphries, a former lecturer at Newton Rigg and an instigator of the national Foundation for Common Land, has seen the Commons Act and, more recently, the proposals for a Commons Council, take shape: “The demise of  manorial courts removed from our commons a key management forum and the capacity to respond to change. In a world of rapid change, the absence of such arrangements clearly limits the capacity to ensure sustainable and agreed management through the binding of interests through custom.”

“Commons Councils represent a core principle that is vital to future management, based on mutuality, trust and the capacity to ensure compliance among interested parties with secure legal rights. These principles have been strongly voiced and supported in the past few years and now action is urgently required to ensure that what we know works well can be put into practice on today’s commons.”

The process of creating a Commons Council for Cumbria has taken a long time and the Federation is keen to draw it to an end. They are hoping to submit an Establishment Order to Parliament by the end of the year. To do this they will need to know which commons are commited to joining the Counci by the end of May. For more information, please get in touch with Viv Lewis on 01931 713335 or e-mail http://viv@cumbriacommoners.org.uk www.cumbriacommoners.org.uk.