The following question has come from a member of a Commons Association.

The common in question was registered under the 1965 Registration Act and ownership (which it is popularly believed rested with a large aristocratic landowner who owned most of the village) was registered as unknown.  The suspected owner has been approached and refused to confirm or deny his ownership.  Under the 1965 Act the District Council can act, in these circumstances, as if it were the owner, and has done so over the last 45 or so years.

The common is grazed (cows and horses) but by very few farmers.  There are several hundred rights owners.  The Commoners Association constitution requires it to represent the community (which uses the common for many and varied purposes of which grazing is only one) and typically the people who are elected are people who are prepared to work for the good of the common and the community - but not necessarily graziers. 

The proposal is to register the Association as owner with the Land Registry.  Almost all the burden of monitoring and improving the common falls on the committee, which obtained agri-environment scheme grants for this purpose.  The District Council might welcome the opportunity to shed some of its responsibilities - but this is not certain.

Proponents of the proposal argue that (a) unless the Association claims ownership, some other body might and conflict could then occur between the new owners and the manager (the Association) (b) with planning laws being relaxed the land could well be a target for developers (who might offer alternative less local land in lieu) (c) it would give the Association greater control over the common.

Opponents argue that (a) the land is protected as SSSI and SAC (b) ownership could bring expensive obligations with it (c) the ownership/management division has worked well for a century or more.

I would be most glad if you could identify other commoners committees who have faced this dilemma and let me know of their experiences (preferably both those who have embraced ownership and those who have rejected it).  There is some urgency about this as the Association has put the matter in the hands of solicitors who are pressing ahead with the proposal.

 

 

Comments

There are many commoners and others who have experienced difficulties because they are precluded from doing something on a common without a registered owner, or because concocting some sort of work-around is difficult in such circumstances, involving the 1899 Commons Act and trying to persuade local authorities to manage land on behalf of the owner.  Such locations are very unevenly distributed, and there seem to be a lot of cases in some areas, like Cornwall for example, where perhaps land ownership was less well known at the time of the 1965 Commons Registration Act.

I think you have set out the arguments well.  Overall, I think that the greatest argument for doing it is that it simplifies matters.  Defra and everyone else assumes there must be an owner, and it raises fewer difficulties in AE schemes.  We do not know whether such difficulties might become greater or fewer with new rules in the future.  Even with the local authority acting on behalf of the owner there are limitations on what they can do.

I sense no alarm bells with this, and feel, overall, it is worth doing. I think there may be issues to consider with regard to who the association is who actually will own the land, and how it is constituted long term, who its members are, how they are elected, and in whose interests they are acting (private/public).