John Crossan - University of Glasgow
Over the last 40 years, many people with an interest in the matter have understood ‘the commons’ as a resource and/or a failed resource management regime. This is in part due to Garret Hardin’s highly influential 1968 article The Tragedy of the Commons, which presents the parable of a shared pasture on which no single herder has a “rational” incentive to limit their grazing activities. The result is selfish overuse by each herder and ultimately the ruination of the resource. The solution to avoiding the tragedy of the commons put forward by the author is the allocation of private property rights to the resource in question. Proponents of neoliberalism have enthusiastically applauded Hardin’s thesis.
Scots law up until very recently mirrored this limited understanding of the commons. It reduced common assets (all assets - including land, buildings and artefacts - that were once gifted to the territorial administration known as the Burgh and are now under the ‘stewardship’ of highly centralised local authorities) to a resource and as such made them highly susceptible to the wants and needs of the market. Recent legislation in the form of the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015 has the potential to revitalise, protect and extend the commons. This new Act also has particular relevance for the urban environment.
Before looking at the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015 in a little more detail, let’s consider an alternative version of Hardin’s tragedy. An enlightened observer understands the commons as more than simply a resource, and a re-reading of Hardin’s parable illuminates this fuller understanding. While Hardin identifies a resource in the form of a pasture, he omits any sense of community and management structure. The herders are competing and isolated individuals with little or no contact with one another. As Lewis Hyde points out, Hardin’s tragedy is “The Tragedy of Unmanaged, Laissez-Faire, Common-Pool Resources with Easy Access for Noncommunicating, Self-Interested Individuals” (2010: 44).
The commons must be understood as both user and producer space where the users and producers are one and the same. For example, individuals and groups in need of particular services have long employed disused land in the UK as food growing sites and recreational spaces. Similarly, derelict housing has been reclaimed by squatters and housing co-operatives. The added dimension of production moves our understanding of the commons onto more politically radical ground than the idea of a resource administered by the state or any other external authority. David Bollier argues that the commons must be understood as a “living social system of creative agents” that counters the “faux regularities and worldview […] of modernity…”. He writes:
The complicated reality is that a commons arises whenever a given community decides that it wishes to manage a resource collectively, with an accent on fair access, use, and long-term sustainability. This can happen in countless unpredictable ways (Bollier 2016: 7).
In this sense we see the commons as a process – what historian Peter Linebaugh calls commoning. In creating a verb for the commons Linebaugh is describing a set of relationships between people, resources and organisational processes. He writes, “I want to portray it as an activity, not just an idea or a material resource” (Linebaugh 2009). The struggle for the commons is a struggle against forces – political, economic, and cultural – that separate communities from the activity of managing their resources.
The Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015
There are three major elements of this Act, as summarised here by the Scottish Community Development Centre: (1) strengthening of community planning, to give communities more of a say in how public services are provided; (2) new rights enabling communities to identify needs and issues and to request action to be taken on these; (3) extension of community ‘right to buy’, for the purpose of gaining greater control over assets. It is the most recent development in a long line of legislative initiatives concerned with Scottish land reform, stretching back to The Crofters Holdings (Scotland) Act of 1886. Of particular relevance to discussion of the commons in an urban context is, firstly, that the Act promotes a community-centric approach to land reform and, secondly, that it extends pre-existing legislative and financial support (established in 1999, in the form of the Scottish Land Fund, for assisting rural communities to acquire and develop land and buildings) into the urban environment. Thus, through the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015, Scottish urban communities have a legislative framework in place and some financial support to enable them to have a greater say in the management of urban land and buildings. Implementation of the provisions of the Act is very much in its infancy. How it plays out in the messy realties of urban life remains to be seen. But I suggest the following as points of consideration regarding revitalising commoning practices in the management of urban resources.
When discussing the Act, there is a tendency for people to get hung-up on the ‘right to buy’. This is problematic for a number of reasons. Firstly, it further entrenches the hegemony of the private property model. For example, a community group buys an underused public building and its lands. The process of sale privatizes that resource. Secondly, outright community ownership leaves the owners vulnerable to the vagaries of the market. This may result in the reconstitution of the traditional private property model, if the community group is forced to sell to individual or club based owners motivated by profit maximization. Thirdly, the right to buy in the city could result in extending the privileges of already privileged urban groups. Those communities with higher levels of social and financial capital are better placed to navigate the legal landscape of acquisition and post-acquisition development. Finally, from a practical perspective, the overinflated price of urban land and buildings make community buy-outs in cities and large towns on a scale witnessed in rural Scotland highly unlikely .
More promising by way of enacting and sustaining an urban commons are a range of measures in the Act that offer the possibility of producing robust partnerships between community groups and other institutions, such as NHS trusts, municipal authorities and housing associations. For example, participation requests allow a community group to make a request to a public service authority to permit the group to participate in an outcome improvement process. This might take the form of community group delegates sitting in as members of planning boards on a range of matters, from designing new social housing complexes to designating areas of land to be ring-fenced for urban agricultural activities. This moves us from a culture of consultation to one of active participation. It has the potential to empower communities by making them active participants in the management of the city and it offers a level of protection from market forces that is missing from a model of community land ownership as an extension of the private property model.
What we might see developing in Scottish cities is a form of community-centric partnership governance. Resonating with the concept of progressive localism, which reimagines local–central governance relations as “mutually-productive and enabling” (Featherstone et al. 2010:2), this form of partnership holds much potential for protecting and extending Scotland’s urban commons.
 For example, Community Land Scotland, an NGO set up to provide a collective voice for community land owners in Scotland has 69 member groups, all rurally based.
References:Bollier D (2016) Commoning as a Transformative Social Paradigm, available online at http://thenextsystem.org/commoning-as-a-transformative-social-paradigm/
Featherstone, D., A. Ince, D. MacKinnon, A. Cumbers & K. Strauss (2012) Progressive Localism and the Construction of Political Alternatives, Transactions in the Institute of British Geographers, 37, 177-182.
Hardin G (1969) The Tragedy of the Commons, Science 162, no. 3859 (Dec. 13, 1968), pp. 1243-1248
Hyde L (2010) Common as Air: Revolution, Art and Ownership, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Linebaugh P (2009) The Magna Carta Manifesto: Liberties and Commons for All, Berkeley: University of California Press
Scottish Community Development Centre (2015) Briefing: The Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015, available online at www.scdc.org.uk