The Federation Press

Reinventing the Common

Cross-boundary farming for a sustainable future


Across Australia, farmers and rural communities are seeking ways to salvage ailing land and struggling communities. Many farms are too small to be economically viable and region’s environmental issues cannot usually be resolved within a single farm’s boundaries.

This book suggests a potential solution, a possible means of achieving better land care, more sustainable and profitable production, and greater community. It argues that common property resource systems, where neighbouring landowners make decisions together to manage their land as a common region, should be set up, and shows how this can be done.

The authors, a scientist and specialist property lawyers, explain how the old idea of “commons” works and how it fits into modern Australian real property law. They recount the experience of four grazing families in the New England Tablelands who got together to form Tilbusters Commons on their adjoining properties. They finish with two chapters discussing the major legal issues, particularly business structures and leases, and including precedents.


The book provides an interesting blend of theory, justifying the move towards common property agricultural systems, and practical aspects of how to set one up. It is well-written, well-researched and informative.
As such, it will be interesting to students and landholders alike. For anyone wanting to move towards a common property system of agricultural land management, the book provides highly valuable reading. - Australasian Journal of Environmental Management, Vol 13(2), June 2006

The fact that Williamson et al have been able to draw on a working empirical example from rural Australia, and specify in some detail the legal frameworks available to construct common property regimes, makes this a very important, and practical, contribution. The fact that the book is relatively short will also enhance its practical appeal. - Rural Society (Aust), Vol 14 No 1, 2004

The authors argue ... that common property resource management systems may provide landowners with the principles to achieve sustainable land management. ... [it] has been thoroughly researched and contains an extensive bibliography. ...
Its style is far too academic and technical for [secondary students] but the book could provide excellent background reading for teachers of VCE Units 1,3 1nd 4 if they teach agriculture in any part of their course. It is a highly readable account of the possible benefits of commons. Complex issues are carefully analysed and legal terms are clearly explained. - Interaction (Geography Teachers Asscn Vic Jnl), Vol 32(1), March 2004

...Much has been written about environmental degradation in rural Australia. The problem is manifest, but the solutions are complex, unclear and elusive. It is not only an ecological problem. It also has significant social, political, economic and legal dimensions. Progress involves changing the fundamental paradigms under which rural Australia functions.
Williamson, Brunckhorst and Kelly come together through the University of New England, at Armidale. Williamson is a solicitor, specialising in environmental law. Professor Brunckhorst is a landscape ecologist and holds the Chair in Rural Futures at the University. Kelly is a senior lecturer at the University, specialising in property law.
Together, in Reinventing the Common: Cross-boundary farming for a sustainable future, the authors detail the problems facing Australia’s rural communities; give reasons why many endeavours to address these problems have been unsuccessful; and put the case for utilising a common property resource system (CPRS) for future management of rural land.
The authors discuss the breakdown of ecological and production systems on which farms rely, followed by social breakdown of the related rural communities. Biophysical limitations of individual farms, debt repayments, declining returns and necessary government regulation combine to create a downward spiral. Land-holders are forced to focus on current consumption at the expense of sustainability and therefore future productivity. Many farms are too small to be economically viable or to be managed sustainably. Large land-holdings are required, which are beyond the capacity of many. There is no available capital to rehabilitate degraded land.
The authors put forward CPRSs as a solution. The concept involves separate landowners pooling their holdings to achieve economies of scale. Expertise and resources are shared and their collective land is used more in line with its capability.
The authors refer to a CPRS project in the Tilbuster Valley in New England, Northern New South Wales, as illustrative of what can be achieved. In that case, four grazing families owning four adjacent properties of widely varying sizes and land types formed a contemporary “common”. They refer to themselves as the Tilbuster Commoners and manage the collective land through a corporate vehicle, Tilbuster Commons Pty Ltd, which leases the collective land from the four landowners. Each landowner contributes land, livestock, infrastructure and labour. Resources are managed collectively as a single enterprise by the entire group. They use the motto “Beyond the Boundary Fence”.
The authors of Reinventing the Common give much detail about how the landowners overcame the host of problems that arose, when putting the concept into practice. They detail the environmental, social and economic benefits that the Tilbuster Commoners now enjoy and why the whole is better than the sum of the collective parts.
The “common” is, of course, not a new concept. Chapter Four of the book contains a remarkably detailed history of the English commons; the sophisticated and intelligent manner in which they were managed; and the privatisation of the commons through the enclosure movements to arrive at today’s concepts of private property and exclusive ownership which Australia inherited and developed as an integral part of its real property law.
The legal, social and economic structures built around the concept of private property are manifest and substantial. Reinventing the Common explores ways in which a modern common (or CPRS) can operate in this environment. A third of the book is devoted to Australian real property law and the arrangements that best suit the ownership and management of a CPRS. The authors conclude that “the most favourable property law structure is either a tenancy at will or a fixed-term tenancy with the CPRS as the tenant and the land-holders as landlords”. They then devote a chapter to necessary or desirable clauses of such a lease that will have regard for both the interests of the individual landlords and the success of the CPRS.
Reinventing the Common is much more than a good idea put forward by its authors. The research behind it is enormous. Every fact and proposition is underpinned by detailed legal, economic and/or environmental authority. There is an extensive bibliography, table of cases, table of statutes and a detailed index.
The argument for CPRSs is emphatically put. However, it would appear that the real challenge is adoption and implementation. CPRSs involve fundamental and far-reaching changes in conduct and mind-set for land-holders. A CPRS turns the concept of “my land” on its head and requires landowners not just to accept it, but to embrace it.
I commend the book and the proposition it puts forward, but do so from the viewpoint of a bystander. It is the viewpoint of rural land-holders that will count. - Ethos (ACT Law Society Newsletter), September 2003

Table of Contents

Part I The Potential of Modern Agricultural Commons

Australia’s rural landscape crisis: The need for a different approach
A grazing commons in rural Australia
A future for contemporary commons

Part II Historical and Contemporary Principles of Commons

From the common fields of England to the rural Australian real property system: Applying common principles
Principles of Common Property Resource Systems

Part III Property Law for Commons

Property law arrangements to support a Common Property Resource System
Use and development of leases for a Common Property Resource System

Table of Cases
Table of Statutes

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