Thirty years ago, on 17 July 1986, I had a partial victory on Plumstone Mountain common, north of Haverfordwest in Pembrokeshire. For the first time in living memory a county council resolved to take enforcement action against unlawful fencing of common land. The decision followed a meeting, at the foot of the jagged Plumstone Rocks, and a site inspection of the common by local authority officials and councillors, farmers and conservationists.
For the previous three years the Open Spaces Society had been pressing Dyfed County Council to use its powers to remove the unlawful fencing on this windswept common with its commanding views over Pembrokeshire.
OSS member and local resident David Bowen first raised the alarm in January 1984 that the land was being ploughed and fenced—by the commoners themselves—without the necessary ministerial consent under section 194 of the Law of Property Act 1925 (the relevant law at the time). The land had been registered with four commoners and no known owner and so was placed in the ‘protection’ of the county council under section 9 of the Commons Registration Act 1965. I was greatly assisted by Swansea solicitor Edward Harris who specialises in commons cases.
Then three of the commoners (Messrs Bevan, Griffiths and Pearce) claimed that, as they had fenced parts of the common more than 12 years ago (without permission) and had treated the land as their own, under the rules of adverse possession each owned the land he had enclosed.
The Chief Commons Commissioner, Mr George Squibb, reopened the ownership hearing and confirmed the commoners’ claims, although the fencing was, he said ‘in flagrant breach of section 194 of the Law of Property Act 1925’. In those days, if a landowner succeeded in removing common rights from the land he or she had a good chance of getting it struck off the commons register (as it was no longer ‘land subject to rights of common’—it was not until the Hazeley Heath case in 1990 that deregistration by these means was prevented). The risk therefore was that each of the commoners would buy out the other commoners on the land they were claiming as their own and then deregister it.
Dyfed County Council refused to appeal against this decision but agreed to call a site meeting of a plenipotentiary planning subcommittee on 17 July 1986.
And so we gathered at the foot of Plumstone Rocks. Present were the county planning officer and legal assisant, the chairman and vice-chairman of the planning committee, two officials from Preseli District Council, three from Camrose Community Council, farmers and their solicitors, and Aubrey Mason, Tom Goodall, David Bowen and me, for OSS and Ramblers.
The county planning officer and county secretary had produced a joint report recommending the removal of the fences on land placed under the protection of the council which the commoners were not claiming as their own. They considered that the fencing of the land claimed by the commoners should be kept under review.
I addressed the (all-male) gathering. I pointed out that all the fencing was equally unlawful. The council had powers under the Law of Property Act to take enforcement action, and the commons commissioner had agreed the fencing was illegal. If the council did not take action, the land would probably be removed from the commons register. Plumstone was an extremely important moorland area, there was little moorland left in the vicinity, neighbouring Treffgarne Mountain having recently been deregistered. From 1972 to 1985 the whole of Plumstone Mountain had been in the protection of Dyfed County Council yet the council had done nothing.
The farmers’ solicitor, Mr Hill said that there was a misconception about common land. The public had no legal access there so the fencing could not impede it and therefore it was not unlawful. The clerk of Camrose Community Council, Roy Warlow, supported us and said he had lived nearby all his life, the mountain was of outstanding natural beauty and he was concerned about the implications of the fencing. Aubrey Mason was concerned that the fencing obstructed public paths.
The party then walked around the site and the councillors were surprised to find that the farmers had cultivated the land in the council’s care without permission. The group then disbanded and I went to find a phone box to call the Western Mail and dictate my press release. My scribbled notes reveal that I argued that ‘too much of Plumstone Mountain has been consumed by cultivation … Dyfed County Council has neglected to protect the land and has let the farmers enclose and cultivate it. But it is not too late to save the mountain. Dyfed County Council can go to court for removal of the fencing. We urge it to do so.’
I stopped at Bridgend services on my way home to call the Western Mail again, to learn the outcome of the meeting. The councillors had agreed to remove the fencing which was less than 12 years old. ‘Not good enough’ I said, but actually I knew it was pretty good to get any action at all.
However, action took a long time to happen, and we had to continue pressing the council until at last, at the end of December 1986, the fences on council land were removed.
That was not the end of the story. Edward Harris did some prodigious research and discovered that the mountain had been handed down to the Henry family, via a nineteenth-century trust. The Henrys lived in Minnesota, USA, and three generations of the family came over in May 1992 for a formal deed signing, to put the land in the hands of trustees which included the Open Spaces Society.
While not all the unlawful fences have gone, the land is now in a much better state, a sweep of heather where Dartford warblers have been seen. The decision of Dyfed councillors on that breezy hilltop in July 1986 was a milestone in the history of this singular common.