Thirty years ago the access bodies suffered a blow. We had been waiting for more than three years for the Conservative government to fulfil its manifesto promise of May 1987 to legislate for common land in England and Wales. But when the announcement was made, by environment minister David Trippier on 26 July, it was a broken promise with no mention of legislation.
In 1986 the Common Land Forum published its report to government. The forum was a multi-interest gathering which deliberated on comprehensive legislation for common land over a three-year period (I wrote about it here). The government promised to legislate if the forum reached agreement. Against the odds it did, advocating a right of public access to all commons and a model management regime. And so it was over to government to act.
In its 1987 manifesto the Conservative party pledged: We will … legislate to safeguard common land on the basis of the Common Land Forum.
Over the following years, the Open Spaces Society, Ramblers and others pressed ministers on this promise and gained a series of commitments, albeit with excuses for delay built in, which I published on the cover of Open Space magazine in summer 1990.
The main problem was the Moorland Association, a body of grouse-moor owners which was formed as a reaction to the Country Landowners’ Association support for the Common Land Forum package. The Moorland Association lobbied the Countryside Commission and ministers for the restriction of access on grouse moors to existing public paths. The result was that ministers wobbled on their promise and began saying things like the government ‘must balance all interests’—which was precisely what the Common Land Forum had done. There was intense lobbying by all sides.
On the last day of the summer 1990 parliamentary session, David Trippier made his announcement before running off on holiday. The news release was headed ‘Government clarifies intentions towards common land’. After some introductory blather about the importance and value of commons, he made a vague statement about the need to reach agreement locally for better management and improved public access. Where a management association could not reach agreement, the matter should be referred to the secretary of state for a decision. Gone was the undertaking for a universal right of access to commons, everything was to be subject to local circumstances without public involvement—ie landowners rule.
It was clear that the reason why the government reneged on the agreement was the pressure from 150 grouse-moor owners (many of whom had seats in the House of Lords). Trippier said: ‘There has been disagreement about the arrangements for access to many upland commons, especially those managed for commercial shooting. Such commons are very important and I place full emphasis on the need to take account of the proper interests of owners and commoners.’
The Open Spaces Society and Ramblers issued a joint press release, condemning the government statement and pledging to continue to press for legislation as agreed by the forum.
The OSS chairman, Rodney Legg, had a letter in the Times on 4 August 1990 in which he wrote: ‘Paradoxically, although we have led the campaign for a new law for common land, we would fight legislation as now proposed by government. If it cannot deliver the forum’s recommendations it should not tamper with commons legislation at all, but should leave it to a future, more sympathetic, administration’.
The upshot was that the OSS turned its attention to rectifying the flaws in commons registration, by promoting private member’s bills and amendments to other legislation.
It was to be another ten years before we achieved the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000, giving a public right to walk on all commons where such a right did not already exist. As for management, there is still no universal scheme, and although the Commons Act 2006 purported to address this by enabling commons councils to be established, the process is resource-intensive and involves ministers. There are so far only two: Bodmin Moor in Cornwall and the Brendon Hills in Devon. The Commons Act 2006 also partially addressed some registration issues, but inadequately.
Only last week, commons were debated in the House of Lords, when the ever-willing Lord Greaves (Lib Dem) promoted amendments to the Agriculture Bill largely drafted by the Open Spaces Society and Foundation for Common Land. These are to ensure that the new environmental land management schemes are sufficiently flexible to take account of the multiple interests on common land. The agricultural funding regime post Brexit must be applicable to common land. The response by the baroness in waiting, Baroness Bloomfield of Hinton Waldrist was sympathetic but unhelpful, and we shall have to return to the matter at report stage.
Commons are immensely important, for their cultural history, wildlife habitats and landscape and for public enjoyment, but they never get the attention and protection they deserve.
I ended the article in autumn 1990 Open Space, in which I bemoaned the treachery of government, with the final verse of W H Auden’s poem, ‘No change of place’:
… For no one goes
Further than railhead or the end of piers,
Will neither go nor send his son
Further through foothills than the rotting stack
Where gaitered gamekeeper with dog and gun
Will shout ‘Turn back’.
Thirty years on, the gaitered gamekeepers can no longer keep us off the commons, but there is still much to do to ensure that commons are properly recognised by government.