The Open Spaces Society has been campaigning for the commons and against enclosures for the last 150 years. Founded in 1865 as the Commons Preservation Society it is the oldest national conservation body in Britain.
Commons in England and Wales are defined by law. All commons have an owner, but others have rights there too, of grazing, walking, collecting wood, mushrooms and berries for instance. In the past, most commoners were dependent on the common's resources for their livelihoods. Now, having survived through history, many commons fulfill a different, or additional, purpose, of providing recreational enjoyment. They are also peaceful habitats for a recovering wildlife and often rich in historic remains.
The Open Spaces Society's campaign for the commons has focused on collective action in defense of common lands and influencing decision-makers, by gathering evidence of the cultural and ecological importance and value of commons and galvanizing support for the cause.
The theft of the commons
Once, much of England and Wales was common land. During the parliamentary enclosure movement of the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, landowners seized the commons, fenced them in and ploughed them up. Now we have only a remnant of the former commons, a mere 1,200 square miles. However, what remains is immensely valuable and rich in public interest.
The Commons Preservation Society was founded just at the end of the enclosures, when the commons began to be taken for development purposes. The Society backed the common right holders and the public in saving Hampstead Heath, Wimbledon Common and Epping Forest in and around London, and many other commons further afield. It commissioned a trainload of tough men in 1866 to march from Tring Station to Berkhamsted Common in Hertfordshire and pull down the two miles of five-foot-high iron railings unlawfully erected by Lord Brownlow. Thus the Society restored the common to the people (it now belongs to the National Trust, a charity which was founded by members of the Commons Preservation Society in 1895).
Thanks to successful campaigns by the Society, all our commons are now recorded on registers; the public has the right to walk on all commons and to ride horses on many, and the commons have legal protection from development or encroachment. All works there need the consent of government ministers. Because of its expertise in common-land law, the Open Spaces Society is consulted on applications for works on common land. But the commons are still under threat, of unlawful development and by neighbors filching bits into their gardens. The Society is campaigning for local authorities to have a duty to deal with encroachments as, at present, no one takes any action.
We all have much to learn from our leader and mentor, the late Elinor Ostrom. She believed in the power of collective action, listened to all the arguments, gathered sound evidence and championed the cause. We take up her torch in our battle for that unique, invaluable, shared resource—our commons.
"Commons in action" is a joint program by the IASC and the Elinor Ostrom Award.
For more information visit iasc-commons.org.
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The animation was done by the Viumasters. Get to know their work at viumasters.com