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Housing Act 2004 (Amendment)

Mr. Ian Liddell-Grainger accordingly presented a Bill to amend the Housing Act 2004 so as to repeal provisions relating to Home Information Packs: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 12 May, and to be printed [Bill 167].

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Orders of the Day

Commons Bill [Lords]

Order for Second Reading read.

4.42 pm

The Minister for Climate Change and the Environment (Mr. Elliot Morley): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

The Bill will provide for the better management of common land in England and Wales. It will ensure that some of our most valued uplands, open spaces and conservation sites remain effectively protected and recorded, and overhauls the existing patchwork of antiquated controls to bring them up to 21st century standards of better regulation. I know that the general principles behind the Bill have been widely welcomed, and I pay tribute to the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Jim Knight), who has done a great deal of work on the Bill.

At the core of the Bill are more than 2,000 square miles of registered common land in England and Wales, representing around 4 per cent. of our land area. Those places are fundamental to the character of our countryside. Some people might have in mind the ponies of Dartmoor, walkers will think of the high fells of the lake district, and families perhaps cherish the local common for games and walks on a Sunday afternoon. All these places are common land, and the Bill seeks to ensure that such places will be properly protected and managed for future generations. The Government have already undertaken limited legislation for common land in the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000, providing a general public right of access to commons. This Bill deals with other substantive issues on common land, such as their management and protection.

It might be helpful to explain what is meant by the term "common land". There is a popular misconception that common land is land owned by all of us, or even by no one—that it is, in effect, a public resource. It is not quite that simple. All common land is owned by someone, often a private landowner. Since time immemorial, however, common land has been subject to rights for certain people other than the landowner to use the land for their own benefit—for example, to graze livestock or take fallen wood for fuel. It is those rights over another person's land that make common land special.

Common land is important for many reasons. I have already spoken of the tremendous recreational resource that it provides. It also remains a fundamental part of the agricultural economy for many upland farmers, for whom commoning has been a way of life for generations. However, common land is also a crucial reservoir of biodiversity. Much of it has never been improved or enclosed, so many commons are havens for wildlife, while the absence of ploughing leaves many prehistoric remains intact.

Remarkably, around half the common land in England is designated as a site of special scientific interest. The wealth of information that we now have about both commons and SSSIs, and the action that we are taking to improve their condition, is vital to our
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overall work on biodiversity. We need to take action to protect biodiversity across the whole of the countryside, as well as in our most special and valuable sites.

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): Will the regulations provided for in clause 3(5) appertaining to the register of common land be subject to the negative procedure of the House or to its affirmative counterpart?

Mr. Morley: I will deal with those details later in my speech.

I do not need to tell the House that protecting our biodiversity is important, or that healthy, thriving and diverse ecosystems are essential to a healthy, thriving and diverse society. Biodiversity should be valued not just for its own sake but for all its benefits and opportunities—not only environmental benefits, but economic and social benefits, such as health, recreation and education.

Surveys have told us that people are more concerned about the quality of their natural environment than anything else, and biodiversity is a major part of that. Natural green spaces such as commons provide whole communities with access to recreation and a chance to experience nature at first hand. In the Cotswolds—at Minchinhampton common, for example—there is a strong sense of identity and community. The limestone downland is maintained through grazing by commons animals. Early purple orchids and cowslips can be seen there now, and later in the year there will be orchids, chalkhill blue butterflies and fritillaries. Large numbers of people visit from Stroud, Gloucester and the surrounding area, making use of local facilities and bringing many benefits to the local economy.

That all makes biodiversity an essential component of sustainable development. That is why the Government are firmly committed to achieving all our biodiversity targets for 2010, both at home and internationally. The England biodiversity strategy sets out our plans to integrate biodiversity into policy making and practice across all sectors and at all levels. We have achieved much already, including through new measures in the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006, but more is needed. We must also continue to report on and measure our progress, and to communicate and demonstrate clearly the value of biodiversity so that all its benefits can be realised.

In the context of common land, that poses a particular challenge. A lack of effective management has resulted in only 57 per cent. of SSSI commons being in good or improving condition—significantly less than the 72 per cent. of all SSSIs in similar condition. That is why the Commons Bill is one of our key tools for promoting biodiversity in this country. It will facilitate local management of commons where none has been achievable in the past, helping us to achieve our public service agreement target to get 95 per cent. of SSSIs into favourable condition by 2010.

As I have discovered, however, common land is never a straightforward subject. There is a complex web of interaction on our commons, which we must address holistically. This Bill provides for improved management and protection of commons, and brings the registration system up to date. Let me explain briefly how it works, and I will be glad to touch on the point raised by the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow).
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Part 1 of the Bill is about the registration of common land. It builds on the Commons Registration Act 1965, which created registers of every common and town or village green in England and Wales. Unfortunately, the 1965 Act was flawed: registration was a snapshot only, with little provision for keeping records up to date. The Bill provides for the registers to be updated, and kept that way, with provision for electronic registers.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) (PC): As one who used to practise in this area of law, I agree with the Minister that the 1965 Act was flawed. However, the proper implementation of the provisions in this welcome Bill will require some finance for local government. The problem in the past has been that there has been a Cinderella service, usually involving one man and his dog.

Mr. Morley: The Government accept that there may be financial implications, and we are prepared to put money into the start of the process, particularly for the purpose of professional skill building. I shall say more about that shortly. There will be an opportunity to rectify past mistakes relating to the 1965 Act, which have been raised by a number of organisations and people. The idea is to balance the scope to remove or add land to registers.

Part 1 also prohibits the severance of rights of common. Severance happens when rights of common attached to a farm adjoining a common are sold separately from the farm itself. That can mean that rights are exercised by people with no ties or obligations to the commoning community. It can lead to disruptive and damaging grazing practices. Our stakeholders asked us to ban severance, which we have done, but we have also listened to those who have said in another place that some local exceptions are needed. We propose to table amendments in the Standing Committee to respond to fears expressed by the Dartmoor Commoners' Council that it will not be able to exercise certain powers of a commons association. We take those fears seriously.

I can tell the hon. Member for Buckingham that the regulations for which clause 3(5) provides will be subject to negative resolution.

Clause 15 updates and clarifies the law relating to the registration of town or village greens. Greens are a vital part of our culture: they provide invaluable breathing space, right on the doorstep. The concept is ancient, but those areas remain as relevant today as they were when the locals used them for archery practice and community dancing. Yet greens are also a cause of controversy, particularly when development proposals arise. We have tried to strike a fair balance, and to provide certainty by consolidating the existing law on new registration of greens based on long use.

Significant Government amendments were tabled to clause 15 in another place, where we were told that there was a lack of clarity. We shall return to one or two of them in Committee. In the background is the high-profile greens registration case known as Trap Grounds, which was recently heard by the Judicial Committee of the other place and now awaits its ruling.

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