Chris Short, from CCRI recently attended and presented at a conference hosted by the Chilterns Conservation Board and Chilterns Commons Project. Here are his thoughts on the day, and how the conference related to management of common land…Determining and setting out a future for key areas of open space, like the 200 commons scattered across the Chilterns, is essential, but a daunting challenge for any individual. What characterizes these places is the struggle to retain grazing and in many this core activity has long since ceased. The final conference of the Chilterns Conservation Board three year Heritage Lottery funded Chilterns Commons Project (CCP) looked at this key issue.
In starting the conference I pointing out that whilst many people will recognize their value and importance, that does not make the task of securing a sustainable future for them any easier. The value of such places can be quantified in many ways; it might be their importance for health activities such as walking, riding or cycling, or more peaceful activities such as enjoying fresh air. The CCP has struck a very popular theme by unravelling the cultural and historical importance of these places in Our Common Heritage. The biodiversity value of these places is well known but none of these attributes alone will ensure that these dispersed areas remain ‘local open spaces’. Moreover, if you add all of these together you would not reach their true value.
Imagine, if you can, that the lowland commons had gone, replaced by a housing estate or enclosed farmland or even an industrial estate. What would you have lost? Whilst there is robust legislation that protects commons there is no doubt that in many lowland commons a new era has arrived. For many commons in south eastern England agriculture, through grazing, is not a reality – so how should these places be governed? If they are not then they face three threats:
- Enjoyment without responsibility – used but not appreciated
- Preserved neglect – pickled in a way that prevents any management
- Creeping enclosure – through extended gardens and dumped waste.
All of these options would mean the loss of the common either through no management so to becomes impenetrable to access or a few organisations or people raise barriers in the area being open to all. A new agenda is needed that secures commons as the:
- Centre of community life
- Provider of meaning to the everyday
This will ensure that commons and other local spaces remain open, used and treasured for generations to come. But in order for this to happen we need to change our attitudes to commons, the by-laws and local governance should be enabling rather than preventative. Such places should not be managed from afar by people who have little or no local connection, nor lack the funds for management because of constraints on the public purse because the vital knowledge, skills, creativeness and determination all exist much closer to local commons. The Chilterns CCP has shown this to be the case.
Lowland commons should be inclusive places, open to all, but especially the most disadvantaged, those with poor health and low levels of social interaction as the evidence, such as that provided by the Measuring Engagement with the Natural Environment, shows that they benefit most from access to high quality local open spaces. Where these interactions take place, the results can be transformative. In the past, common land has kept those most in need alive and provided a backbone to society.
So perhaps we should look to commons as a logical base to Forest Schools, a place to camp and engage with nature in a really meaningful way. For those looking to start out in life could commons provide the natural material for a hurdle making business, charcoal production, short courses on arts, a green gym or planty identification courses.These were some of the activities explored at the conference and the overwhelming view was that commons should stand for these activities and the governance of such places needs to think differently to enable them rather than prevent them.
Other speakers at the conference set out their own ideas, Alister Will, of Natural Connections sees commons as an amazing educational resource. A chance for science and nature, as well as art, history, geography, maths and physics to come alive. Vicky Myers, Visiting Fellow at Reading University asked, why, when we say that we value being in the natural environment more than ever, do we have the lowest physical and mental health? Because people are less sure of what they are ‘permitted’ to do and a sense of ‘fear’ towards the natural environment. We need to breaking these barriers and work together to enhance our enjoyment across all generations. Victoria Edwards, also of Reading University, spoke of the potential to fund the management of commons by creatively linking the management of the common with producing valuable local products, such as sustainable charcoal. Valuing an open space according to its true worth means that people will pay if they can see that the money is reinvested back into the site management.
The conference was aiming to re-invigorate those living in the Chilterns and further afield to think and act positively about the lowland commons and local spaces around them. These commons, may be small and spread widely throughout the Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, but that means they are closer to their local communities and collectively are more important. For them to stay important, people need to value them, not just use them, and act to enhance them. The CCRI is looking at a range of ways to support such changes and help achieve this – the most important aspect is to share individual stories and experiences.