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We have today (17 October) set out our action plan for dealing with unlawful encroachments on common land.
Our general secretary, Kate Ashbrook, is speaking at the annual meeting of the Association of Commons Registration Authorities in Birmingham.
Says Kate: ‘Common land is at risk from being eaten away by encroachment. Too often adjoining property-owners think that they can extend their gardens or chuck their rubbish onto the common. They plant trees or move out their garden fence, hoping no one will notice. In many cases, the development is more serious: we have examples of a builder’s yard, a Christmas tree plantation, and car-parks on common land for instance.
‘Such works are only lawful if they have the consent of the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in England and the Minister for the Environment and Sustainable Development in Wales, under section 38 of the Commons Act 2006,’ Kate explains.
‘Common land is hugely important for its history, wildlife and opportunities for quiet recreation. It is the last vestige of unenclosed land surviving from the inclosure movement of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. We should treasure it, not allow it to be filched from us.
‘The Open Spaces Society wants to see local authorities taking tougher action against those who try to steal our commons. We have long argued, without success, that local authorities should have a legal duty to protect commons from encroachment. At present they have a power, along with owners, commoners and the public under section 41 of the Commons Act 2006.
‘In the absence of such a duty there are still actions to take. We propose the following.
• County and unitary authorities to appoint a Commons Enforcement Officer who will be responsible for taking action against unlawful works or encroachments on common land.
• Where there is two-tier government, agreement between authorities as to which will be responsible—it is too easy to pass the buck.
• Planning authorities to check if land is registered as a common before they consider the application and, if they do give permission, to inform the applicant of his responsibility to obtain common-land consent under section 38 of the Commons Act 2006 before proceeding.
• Communities regularly to check the boundaries of their local commons—they could revive the tradition of beating the bounds on Rogation Sunday for instance—and report any encroachments to the authority.
• Publicity for encroachments—naming and shaming often has results.
‘There are many examples of good practice among local authorities, and we should publicise these too’, Kate continues. ‘Last year Essex County Council, with Rayne Parish Council, helped to secure the removal of an unlawful picket-fence on Braintree Green Common.
‘The enforcement officer with the Brecon Beacons National Park Authority helped to ensure that encroachment of a domestic curtilage on the tiny Lower Common at Gilwern in Monmouthshire was removed. It would be good if she could be equally effective in removing the four-mile-long unauthorised fence across open country in the Brecon Beacons National Park.
‘West Sussex County Council has been investigating unlawful tracks on Horsebridge Common near Steyning. The legal officer has advised all the planning authorities in West Sussex of the need to check whether applications affect common land and has offered them an up-to-date GIS layer for their maps.
‘Hart District Council in Hampshire has restored an unlawful garden to Odiham Common, with removal of fencing, and is pursuing another case. Guildford Borough Council is investigating hedges and gardens on St Catherine’s Common.
‘But there are places where encroachments remain unresolved, such as Gembling Common, Foston on the Wolds in East Yorkshire. If our five-point plan were adopted, our unique commons would be better protected’ Kate concludes.