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This article was published on the Headline Environment website, On the Agenda, 12 October 2012.
Responding to a recent Department of Transport consultation, Kate Ashbrook explains why the Open Spaces Society has advocated a 40mph limit on all roads through commons and how this is an important step in maintaining the open and unenclosed nature of common land.
It’s not much to ask, that motorists slow down to no more than 40 miles per hour when travelling on an unfenced road across a common. After all, the common has been there for centuries, open and unenclosed. Fast cars are a relatively recent phenomenon. Why should the common’s special landscape be sacrificed just so that we can save a minute or two on our journey?
Commons are unique because their ownership is subject to the rights of commoners to graze animals, collect wood etc, and the public has a right to walk and, in many cases, to ride on them.
In its response to the Department for Transport’s recent consultation on the revision of its speed-limit circular, the Open Spaces Society has advocated a universal speed-limit of 40 mph on all open roads crossing commons.
The department says that it favours a speed limit of 40 mph for roads ‘with a predominantly local, access or recreational function, for example in national parks or areas of outstanding natural beauty’. This is commendable but it doesn’t go far enough. Common land is important for its landscape, history, archaeology, wildlife and opportunities for quiet recreation, on foot and horseback. So it fits within the department’s description.
Too many commons are now crossed by busy roads with speeding traffic. This makes it highly risky to exercise the age-old rights of grazing livestock here unless the stock is contained or the traffic slowed. On most lowland commons the practice of grazing has ceased, as people with common rights attached to their properties now have different lifestyles. So commons are becoming overgrown and losing their biodiversity, as well as their accessibility. If land managers reintroduce grazing, they can restore the commons’ habitats—but few land managers or commoners will want to turn out stock when it is in danger of being killed or injured or causing an accident.
Consequently, there is a call to fence the land—particularly when the fencing can be paid for by agri-environment grants. However fencing requires the consent of the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (in England) or the Minister for Environment and Sustainable Development (in Wales) and the Open Spaces Society, as a recognised authority on common-land, is a statutory consultee.
For the Open Spaces Society, fencing is the last resort. A vital feature of our commons, the last remnants of our medieval landscapes, are that they are open and unenclosed, so that we can enter them at any point and not have our view marred by fencing—a physical as well as a psychological barrier. So we want to see cattle-grids installed where this is feasible, and traffic slowed to respect the common, its life and traditions. Of course any speed limit must also be enforced by the police—a few high-profile prosecutions will help to get the message across.
There’s a 40 mph speed limit on the unfenced roads across the Dartmoor National Park for instance, and it helps to reduce accidents involving livestock. Recently cattle-grids were installed on the road crossing Litcham Common in Norfolk, with signs urging drivers to slow down. The roadside fencing has been removed and the land is open once more, thanks to the efforts of the Litcham Common Management Committee.
But it’s not all good news. Last year the Cornwall Wildlife Trust won permission to erect roadside fencing on Rosenannon Downs and Tregonetha Downs near St Columb in mid-Cornwall, and East Sussex County Council to fence Chailey Common near Haywards Heath; this year Coldhams Common in Cambridge has been fenced. Some of these fencing plans might have been avoided if the applicants could have been certain that traffic speeds would be reduced.
So we should like to return to the old ways on common land, with motorists encouraged to appreciate that commons are special, that they represent an era when the pace of life was more leisurely—and that we slow down for commons.