In November 1993 the Bodmin Moor Commons Bill, a private bill promoted by Cornwall County Council, entered parliament. It was ill-conceived and driven by money: the council wanted to create a body which could be legally responsible for managing the moor and receiving the agri-environment grants. The bill threatened public access and eventually, after five years and much expenditure, the council withdrew it.
Commons are privately owned land over which others have rights, usually connected to their properties, of grazing, digging peat or collecting wood etc, for use on their holdings. Of the 61,000 acres of Bodmin Moor about 17,500 acres (nearly 30 per cent) are common land. The commons are registered in 71 units with Cornwall Council (now a unitary council), the registration authority.
Cornwall County Council had seen its neighbouring granite upland, Dartmoor, successfully promote a private bill in 1985. The Dartmoor Commons Act gives the public the right to walk and ride over all the Dartmoor commons, the access being managed by the Dartmoor National Park Authority. This is coupled with management of the moor by the Dartmoor Commoners’ Council. Access and management should go hand in hand: this was the recommendation of the Royal Commission on Common Land in 1958 and the Common Land Forum in 1986.
But Cornwall County Council and the Bodmin landowners and commoners wanted the management without access. The bill not only failed to provide access, but it gave the commoners and landowners powers to make regulations barring the public from certain areas and it made trespass a criminal offence! No wonder the access lobby opposed it. Indeed, we had not even been consulted. We urged the council to follow Dartmoor’s example of giving a right of access along with the management but it refused.
The bill started life in the House of Lords. When it reached the House of Commons, Andrew Bennett MP, chairman of the House of Commons Environment Committee and a whizz with private bills, objected at report stage. No time could be found for debate before the 1997 election and it needed a carry-over motion to continue. Andrew objected to this too, saying that the objectors would withdraw once access agreements were in place. Nothing further happened and eventually the bill was removed from parliament.
Twenty years on things are very different. There is a right of public access to the Bodmin Moor commons and other open country under the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000. So now all that is needed is an effective regime for management which exists alongside public access and is sensitive to the needs of the moor, its splendid landscape, biodiversity and archaeology and animal welfare.
Part two of the Commons Act 2006 allows for the establishment of commons councils, democratically elected bodies which can oversee the management of the commons by majority voting and receive grants. In fact, seven years on, only one such council has been formed, for the Brendon Commons in north Devon. The Bodmin council will be the second, provided the Secretary of State is satisfied that there is substantial support for it.
The consultation to establish that support runs until 13 April. The election will result in delays but the plan is to have the council in place on 1 March 2016. Thus the jigsaw for the Bodmin Moor commons will be complete. This is all good news.
The lesson of the last 20 years is that there is a sensible sequence for dealing with commons. If you cannot introduce legal access and management simultaneously, it’s best to introduce the access first and then management. This is what is happening bit by bit on the 1,544 square miles of English commons, and if the Welsh Assembly implements part two of the Commons Act, it will happen on the 668 square miles of Welsh commons too.