What is Common Land? The laws relating to the use and protection of common land and open public spaces can be complex.
As well making it difficult to find specific answers, the cumbersome laws have often resulted in long and expensive court cases. Here at Ungoed-Thomas & King, we pride ourselves on being able to offer accurate and informative legal advice in relation to rural open spaces.
What is Common Land?
Common land is one of the few remnants of the medieval manorial system. It is basically land that is owned by one person, over which other people are entitled to exercise ‘rights of common’. A person who owns these rights is known as a ‘commoner’.
There are approximately 550,000 hectares registered of common land in England and Wales – around 176,000 of which are in Wales. Any owners of common land have the same basic rights as other landowners but are subject to the rights of the commoners and certain statutory controls, for example, land owners are not able to enclose the land to exclude the public.
Rights of common are often attached to nearby properties and allow the occupiers of those properties to exercise them. If occupiers leave their property, they generally do not take their rights with them and the new occupiers have the right to exercise them instead.
The general public have the right to access nearly all registered common land without confinement to paths. The right to access is accepted to include activities such as walking, picnicking, climbing and bird watching. It does not however include the right to participate in cycling, horse riding, fishing, camping, lighting a fire, driving a vehicle or holding a festival.
If you are unsure if any land is designated common, or whether someone has rights in common over your land, you can check the registers held by commons registrations authorities. These authorities are responsible for keeping registers of common land and town or village greens, along with information about rights over registered land. The relevant commons registration authority is very often the county council in which the land is situated.
What is a Town or Village Green?
Town or village greens have very similar origins to common land. These too are remnants of the old manorial system but were often areas of the town or village that could not support farming. Traditionally these areas are where local people have indulged in sport and other lawful pastimes.
A town or village green may be owned privately or by a local community or parish council but is subject to stringent statutory protection, for example, like common land, it cannot be enclosed. An owner can take steps to enhance the land by planting trees or even putting in a pond but these must not cause a nuisance or interfere with recreational enjoyment. Recreational enjoyment might include games such as football and cricket, kite flying, sledging, snow balling, berry foraging and dancing. It does not however include any commercial activity.
As with common land, it is possible to find out if an open green space near you is a town or village green by asking your local Commons Registration Authority. For more information, including how to register a town or village green, please telephone 01267 237441 to make an appointment.