Creating a 21st century commons

Who should own and manage our woodlands, waterways and green spaces? Our responses to this question seems to depend on which bit of our environment we are talking about, and who we think will be the likely beneficiaries.

Last year Defra’s consultation on the transfer of our canals and waterways to a new charity had a relatively smooth passage through the court of public opinion, resulting in the creation of the Canal and River Trust in July. In contrast proposals to ‘sell off’ our woodlands to a mixture of private and charitable organisations raised such a storm of outrage that the consultation was withdrawn. An Independent Panel was hurriedly convened to consider the future of our forests.

Meanwhile recent work by GreenSpace on the impact of the comprehensive spending review shows that local authorities report that budgets for managing green spaces face cuts proportionately greater than their overall budget reductions.

It would seem that government sees transferring ownership and control of our environmental assets out of public hands as one way of shrinking the state and cutting the deficit. But what of localism and greater community control when it comes to our environment?

During 2010 I co-founded The Waterways Project in response to the government’s proposals to create a new waterways charity. The project focused on the potential for social enterprise and community organisations to manage some of the land and buildings associated with their local waterways in order to deliver a range of local benefits such as sustainable housing, renewable energy and local food. Such local management could deliver new jobs and training opportunities, strengthen local economies, reconnect people to their local waterways and provide cost savings to the new charity.

During the life of the project we made contact with communities working to gain more access and control to other parts of their local environment such as woodlands and green spaces. Some large asset owners were also keen to explore how to engage local communities in their day-to-day management. It became clear that, whether owned by a public body, a national charity, or a private company, many of our environmental assets are undermanaged, providing a limited range of benefits and resources to the communities that surround them. They are often less vibrant, healthy and diverse than if they were actively managed for a wider range of benefits.

Whilst the localism act creates new rights for communities to bid to buy land and buildings, and to challenge for the right to run services, it is our experience that that environmental assets are something of a special case. For practical or political reasons local ownership may not be possible or desirable, and their management often cannot be challenged under the terms of the act. So how can we create new opportunities for community management of the local environment within the existing complex patterns of ownership?

We established Shared Assets in order to address this question, specifically to work with asset owners and local communities to help to create new shared approaches to the management of our environmental assets.

We believe that asset owners, whether public, private or charitable, have a key role to play in rethinking how they see their role as owners and managers. Approaches to local engagement that move beyond encouraging ‘visitors’ and ‘volunteers’ and towards a ‘presumption in favour of community use’ could create more shared local management of our woodlands, waterways, coasts and green spaces.

Such approaches will require changes in culture and practice, but could create long-term benefits by improving the quality of the environment, reducing the costs of management and creating a real connection between people and a local environment that provides renewable resources and helps meet local needs in ways that are sustainable.

In the longer term such approaches may change our view of what ‘ownership’ means, creating new forms of environmental ‘commons’ where shared governance results in local environments being managed not solely for either exploitation or protection, but for replenishment.


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Kevin Lloyd
Kevin Lloyd
11 years ago

It is heartening to see an approach that focuses not on ownership but on active involvement in management (although of course it was enclosure by landowners that massively reduced the common land that had been in use across England!). The obsession of successive governments with choice as primarily concerned with provider and power as a matter of rights to ownership have always been deeply unhelpful. I’ve always been positive about the waterways proposals and indeed councils could consider the lessons for more collective or mutual or trust structures for the running of parks and open spaces. I recall there being some interest in whether that kind of approach might run even in a London context a few years back. The trick would have to be to ensure that the assets in each locality clearly feel local in terms of the way that they are run and that is the beauty of the kind of approach that you advocate.

Mark Walton
Mark Walton
11 years ago

I think ownership of land and buildings can be a powerful tool for local communities, but in cases where it is neither necessary nor possible we should not overlook opportunities for management or novel approaches shared governance. This can reduce the barrier of access for communities, enabling them to gain effective control without the need to raise the same level of finance or take on the responsibilities of ownership. It can also enable improved understanding between owners, users and local communities. Like you I think there are opportunities for new models of mutual or trust ownership for local green spaces in both urban and rural settings. There are also opportunities to draw on and adapt other emerging approaches to shared ownership, governance and management e.g. community land trusts, community supported agriculture and meanwhile use of buildings.

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