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Contested Common Land: Environmental Governance, Law and Sustainable Land Management, c. 1600-2006


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Main topic

Common land in England and Wales, which is an important communal resource with multiple (and often conflicting) land uses.  It provides some of the UK’s most ecologically sensitive environments and landscapes, it is an important agricultural resource (especially in upland areas) and a recreational resource that provides public access to the countryside for walking and other recreational uses.  

Description of project

This inter-disciplinary project, involving collaboration between historians from Lancaster University and environmental lawyers in Newcastle Law School, examined:

  • the management of common land since the 17th century using historical methods of enquiry. This involved the legal mechanisms for regulating land use and the principles applied to the governance of common land e.g. through the former manorial court system;
  • modern governance mechanisms and the emergence of sustainable land management as a discrete objective for the future of English and Welsh commons.


The methodology centered on the study of common land in four case study areas, using a micro-historical approach to illustrate the changing patterns of land use, differing management principles and regulatory mechanisms applied to common land from c. 1600 to the present day.  The research married archival evidence with qualitative data generated by semi-structured interviews with stakeholders in the four case study areas, which were in the following locations:

  • Cumbria: Eskdale Common, an extensive upland common in the English Lake District;
  • North Yorkshire: Ingleborough and Scales Moor commons in the Yorkshire Dales National Park;
  • Powys: Cwmdeuddwr Common and the Elan Valley estate in the hills of mid-Wales;
  • Norfolk: Brancaster and Thornham commons, lowland heath and coastal marshes in East Anglia.


The project took has contributed to ongoing policy discussions surrounding the future management of common land in England and Wales.  Modern farming methods, intense recreational use and other land use pressures have resulted in the ecological degradation of much common land. The United Kingdoms Commons Act 2006 has introduced a new legal framework for the governance of common land, aimed at improving environmental governance and the protection of both the biodiversity and landscape values of common land. The Act is based on a self-regulatory model, which introduces measures enabling commoners to establish statutory commoners associations with legal powers to pass binding bylaws regulating land use on each common, and to enter into binding agreements with governmental agencies to promote sustainable management.


Commoners, land managers, voluntary groups and the public agencies responsible for the governance of common land were involved in the project through the process of qualitative data collection and through participation in seminars for stakeholders held in the concluding phase of the research project.


  • Symposium for scholars and those involved in policy discussions, held at Lancaster 11-12 September 2008 on the theme of ‘Sustainability and the Commons, Past and Present’;
  • Symposium for scholars and those involved in policy discussions, held at Newcastle 7-8 September 2009 on theme of ‘Environmental Governance of the Commons, Past and Present’;
  • Workshops for stakeholders held in each of the four case study areas, to present project findings to commoners, land managers, voluntary groups and the public agencies responsible for the governance of common land;
  • Writing monograph: Contested Common Land: Environmental Governance, Past and Present, London: Earthscan Ltd. (in press, 2010; authors: C.P. Rodgers, E.A. Straughton, A.J.L. Winchester and M. Pieraccini).


  • Newcastle University: Chris Rodgers, Margherita Pieraccini
  • Lancaster University: Angus Winchester, Eleanor Straughton

Funding body

Arts and Humanities Research Council,  funded as a large research grant under the ‘Landscape and Environment’ programme.


Prof. dr. Christopher P. Rodgers (Newcastle Law School)

Contact details

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