History of Community Asset Ownership

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* Report: A history of community asset ownership. by Steve Wyler. Development Trusts Association, 2009.

URL = http://www.communityplanning.net/pub-film/pdf/AHistoryofCommunityAssetOwnershipsmall.pdf


"In the last few years community ownership of land and buildings has become, alongside social enterprise, a hot topic across the political spectrum, evidenced by manifesto promises, government reports and White Papers, enabling legislation, regulation and guidance, new investment funds, community right to buy legislation in Scotland, a review by the Welsh Assembly and an Asset Transfer Unit for England.

Despite continuing resistance from state municipalists and free-market fanatics alike, practice has kept pace with the promise. Within the expanding development trusts movement there now exists nearly £500m of assets in community ownership – empty and derelict buildings transformed into busy workspace, training rooms, conference centres, community run shops and restaurants, affordable housing, wasteland reclaimed for parks, community woodland, farms and allotments.

An idea whose time has come? If so, it has been a long time coming.

For hundreds of years the idea of community owned assets has run like a golden thread though our social history. Generation after generation, people have called for a different way of doing things, where land and buildings would belong neither to private landowners nor to the state, but would be held instead in trust and controlled by local communities, to provide amenities and create prosperity for the common good.

If we go back far enough, communities really did own their assets – indeed there was a time when community ownership of land in particular was not the exception, but rather the rule."


Pre-1066: The Coerl system

'Before 1066 land in England was owned not by wealthy landlords, nor by the state, nor even by the monarchy, but rather by free peasant proprietors, or ‘coerls’. Each family cultivated its own smallholding and undertook communal activities within their own village. The ceorl was an independent ‘free born Englishman’, subject only to the king, to whom he had to provide military service when required, and the only tax was an annual food rent, a quantity of provision sufficient to maintain the king and his retinue for a day.

This system was beginning to break down even before the Norman conquest.

The Saxon kings rewarded supporters by making them ‘thegns’ or territorial lords, and bestowed charters transferring to the thegns the rights of claiming military service and food rent from the peasants. In some places, when harvests failed, thegns would take over land in return for providing relief from hardship, and were paid in labour instead of food rent. But extensive common lands remained, and all the people of a district or village shared the right to these lands."

After the Norman Invasion

"Though in relation to the lord of the manor they were serfs, in relation to each other the peasants were in many respects a self-governing community.

In most places, the landscape they worked was very unlike that of modern rural England. There were no hedges or fences; the cultivated land was a single large open field, and every year a communal gathering of villagers at the manor-court or court-leet would allot to each man several narrow strips, taking care to share out the good and bad land equally, and on these narrow strips each villager tried to grow enough food to feed himself and his family.

The nobility were expected to provide basic assistance in cases where the poor became ill, or a man died and left a widow and children. Anyone who did not work or who committed a transgression was punished, or outlawed and left to starve to death in the woods or wastelands. A rudimentary legal system did provide some limited safeguards for the common people, and above all ‘habeas corpus’ ensured that no man could be held in prison without being charged and put on trial by a jury of his peers. But the lord held power in his manor, and was, in practice, judge, jury and executioner. Moreover, there was also the church, which claimed its tithes from the poor, made its own laws and held its own courts."

The Commons

"Beyond the open field was unenclosed common land where the villagers had rights, granted not by statute but by immemorial custom, to cut the long grass to make hay, to gather fuel from the woodland, or to graze their cattle if they had any. There were also vast forests, but these belonged to the king and only the king and his nobility were allowed to hunt the deer, wild boar, rabbits, and other game. Poaching was a national sport, but punishable by death.

This system was, to a degree, sustainable. The villagers were allowed to gather wood for fuel, but only twigs and branches they could reach with a shepherd’s crook or a haymaker’s hook, and therefore the woodlands were not destroyed and would continue, winter after winter, providing fuel for the poor. It was nevertheless a subsistence economy. The villagers on their narrow strips, with rudimentary implements and limited farming methods, could barely grow enough to feed themselves.

There was little travel or trade between communities, let alone nations. What wealth the king and barons gathered to themselves was more often the pillage of war (the main purpose of the later crusades) than the produce of local economies. Only the monasteries grew rich, and were hated for it."