Frequently Asked Questions: Commons

Q. What is common land?

Common land is land that has an owner but over which other people have the right to use and take away certain natural produce. These people, known as commoners, hold a right of common which is also known as a common right. The type of natural produce that a commoner can take away depends on the physical character of the land and might for example include pasture for grazing animals, fallen wood, peat or bracken.

Q. What makes common land different?

Common land has a rich history and, in many places, has remained largely undisturbed through the centuries. In the past the land was highly valued by commoners, especially the poor who relied on its natural resources for grazing, heating and cooking. In addition to its economic value, common land was also valued for its heath benefits. As early as 1593, this was recognised in legislation against new building in London, which sought to prevent enclosure of commons and waste grounds for the benefit of the ‘recreation, comfort and health of her Majestie’s people’. Common land then, had and continues to serve a dual purpose. It is a place where in some places, common rights continue to be exercised while in others, particularly since 2000, the public have the right of access to enjoy the land for its own sake.

Q. Are there other kinds of common land?

Yes. The word common, refers to the legal status of the land. It is land owned by someone but subject to rights of common. In the past arable or meadow might hold the status of common land. In this case, commoners might have the right to graze their animals after the harvest had been collected but, with the exception of some meadow, this land does not survive as common land today. Most of the land that is registered as common land today is waste land of a manor which historically was subject to rights of common.

Q. How do I find out whether land is common land?

All common land is recorded on registers held by the county or unitary council, and these are open to the public.

Q. Is common land important for wildlife?

There are 1.3 million acres of common land in England and Wales, registered in over 9,000 separate units covering all types of landscape and habitat. A staggering 88 per cent of all commons in England have a national or international designation – for wildlife, landscape or archaeology.

Q. Is common land protected?

If anyone wants to erect a work on common land, they must apply for the consent of the Secretary of State for Environment in England or the Welsh Ministers (section 38 of the Commons Act 2006) in addition to any planning or other consent that is required. However, certain works are exempt from these requirements.

Q. Who owns common land?

All common land has an owner, whether it is a local authority, the National Trust or a private individual or individuals.

Sometimes, the owner cannot easily be identified, in which case local authorities have special powers to protect the land (under section 45 of the Commons Act 2006).

Q. What sort of land is common land?

Common land covers all types of landscape and habitat, from the moors of Dartmoor to the fells of the Lake District, the mountains of Snowdonia, the Surrey Heaths and the Norfolk coast. Commons are less frequently found in parts of the East Midlands, but in most of England and Wales, you are seldom far from a common!

Q. What rights do the public have on common land?

The public has the right to walk on all commons where previously there was no legal access, under the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000. Some commons already had a right for the public before that act and those rights endure. For example, on many commons, there is a right to ride horses under section 193 of the Law of Property Act 1925.

Q. What is waste land of a manor?

Waste land of a manor was usually land that was of poor quality which the lord or lady of the manor could not cultivate. It may have been difficult and too expensive to improve the soil or access the land because of its topography. However, despite this the vegetation of the waste did have a value and the land was usually subject to rights of common. Along with the common arable fields and common meadows, much of the waste was enclosed over time. Enclosure meant that common rights were extinguished and the land became private property. However, not all the waste was enclosed and today much of it survives as registered common land.

Q. How does the Open Spaces Society protect commons?

The Open Spaces Society has a special role when it comes to protecting commons in England and Wales.

We are notified of all applications for works on, and exchanges of, common land and will express a view.

If a work has been erected without consent on your local common, the landowner, commoners or local authority may be able to take action and, under certain circumstances, the public can too.

If you wish to take action against an unlawful work on your common, you can contact the Open Spaces Society or consider joining us.

Q. Can new commons be created?

Yes, the owner of land can grant a right of common exercisable over that land, which then becomes eligible for registration as common land.

The new right usually is specified to be attached to other land in the vicinity of the new common, and the right then is exercisable by the owner of the other land.

The Open Spaces Society can advise on the procedure, which provides special and lasting protection to land.