Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Tom Levitt (High Peak) (Lab): I support the principle of the Bill, but I should like my hon. Friend to clarify
18 Apr 2006 : Column 42
one aspect of the registration of town greens. In two cases in my constituency—in Fairfield, where planning permission exists for some social housing, and in New Mills, where planning permission exists for a magistrates court—applications for town green status have been lodged after the granting of planning permission. Clearly the purpose is not to respect and preserve the sites, but to frustrate a planning application. In both cases the development has already been delayed by several years, with no end in sight. I hope my hon. Friend can assure me that the Bill will clarify the position, and will make it less easy for town green applications to be used maliciously to frustrate the legitimate planning process.

Mr. Morley: I understand my hon. Friend's point. It is possible that people will use the Bill's provisions to frustrate developments that are important to communities, but the advantage of the Bill is that it will speed up the process, so it will not be possible to drag cases out for long periods. If my hon. Friend writes to me or to the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset, we shall be happy to examine the cases that he mentioned, and to contact him when we have done so.

We recognise the importance of the role of commons registration authorities in delivering the objectives of part 1. That is why we announced last year—this is relevant to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Tom Levitt)—that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs was providing £100,000 to set up a professional association for commons registration officers, to help promote dialogue between local and central government on the implementation of the Bill. We will also fund the new burdens that the Bill will impose on local authorities.

A reliable registration system is key to the proper management of common land, and part 2 of the Bill is the key to that improved management. It allows the creation of commons associations with powers to manage commons locally and sustainably. Many of the benefits of common land come from its use in agriculture. It is the use of locally adapted breeds and customary practices such as hefting that has created the high landscape and biodiversity values in areas such as the Welsh and Cumbrian uplands. However, agriculture is changing. Many commons have deteriorated because of a lack of effective management. Some upland commons are being over-grazed, and under-grazing on lowland commons has led to scrubbing up and a consequent decline in their biodiversity and accessibility. However, those are not areas in which the Government can intervene easily. The Department is making common land eligible for entry into the higher level environmental stewardship scheme, as well as providing a supplement that recognises difficulties for communally managed land. However, financial incentives alone will not bring about improved management.

Commons can be managed from day to day only by those who share and have a real stake in the resource. Part 2 will recognise that, by putting in place a framework for resolving agricultural management problems on common land. It will allow the creation of local management bodies—commons associations—to manage agriculture, vegetation and the exercising of
18 Apr 2006 : Column 43
common rights. Some commons are already managed through voluntary local bodies, but they lack the powers to enforce their management decisions on everyone. At the moment, just one disagreeing voice can upset the management of a whole common. The statutory powers that will be given to commons associations will overcome that by enabling them to make and enforce rules.

I should stress that a commons association will be established only with the support of those who use and manage a common. A top-down approach cannot be imposed on those with an interest in a common, and we want to work with the grain, not against it.

Paddy Tipping (Sherwood) (Lab): My hon. Friend talks about support for the new associations. How will he gauge that support? Will there have to be 100 per cent. support, or substantial support? He knows the agricultural sector as well as I do, and finding agreement on a way forward is not always easy.

Mr. Morley: Yes, I have met the odd difficult farmer, so I know what my hon. Friend is talking about. We will be looking for majority support. We will not have a situation in which one person or a minority could have a veto. However, there will have to be a way of establishing majority support. Such issues are best explored in Committee, and I know that my hon. Friend will have an interest in that.

Mr. Peter Atkinson (Hexham) (Con): In the case of a large upland common in which most interest was from those with common rights, does the Minister envisage that those people would form a substantial majority of the association, or that they would have, for example, 50 per cent. of the vote?

Mr. Morley: Obviously, I would expect people with a direct involvement in a common to have a majority, but there are many people with interests in commons. I do not think that it is unreasonable that the structure of a commons association should be modelled on successful bodies that exist now, with a range of interests represented. For example, I think that there is a veterinary surgeon on the Dartmoor Commoners Council, who can give advice on animal welfare. I am not saying that that would be needed for every single association, but there should be flexibility so that the make-up of an association reflects its local area. Again, we can explore such matters in Committee.

Bill Wiggin (Leominster) (Con): Will the Minister say a little more about the higher level stewardship scheme that he mentioned a few minutes ago? How many commons have applied for the money already? What will happen to the money? Will it go to the people with grazing rights, or a committee, and will that distort the dynamics of the management?

Mr. Morley: Few commons are in the higher level scheme, although there are one or two. There are few commons in the scheme because that requires a management agreement, which means that there must be grazing at a certain stocking density, or specific kinds
18 Apr 2006 : Column 44
of management. Such an agreement thus requires the support of the majority of commoners on meeting the obligations of the agreement.

At the moment, there is no way of enforcing any agreement on the common. Many commoners would like to be in the higher level scheme, but they have not been able to join it because they have not been able to reach their side of the legally binding agreement on the management of the land. Under the Bill, the commons association will be able to agree the rules, apply them and meet its obligations under the terms of the agri-environment schemes. It will also be able to share the income out according to a formula that it decides. The Bill will give commons associations the power to enter into such arrangements and decide how they are going to share out the income, as they cannot do at present. That is one of the advantages of the Bill, as I know from talking to commoners and from my days of dealing with agri-environment schemes.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): Is my hon. Friend envisaging some democratic representation on commons associations? Parish councils, in particular, often take responsibility for commons. My hon. Friend mentioned Minchinhampton, and I hope to talk more about that later. However, organisations mentioned in the Bill, such as the National Trust, have management responsibilities but are not always thought well of by those who have conflicting responsibilities. How will the associations evolve? Those are key issues.

Mr. Morley: They are important issues. Generally speaking, we would expect the associations to be elected so that they represent the interests of the groups for which they speak. We do not want to be too prescriptive at this stage, because different circumstances apply in different parts of the country, and the make-up of the associations may also need to be different. However, we want the systems to be democratic, open and transparent, and I know that my hon. Friend will lead on such details in Committee.

The Bill also deals with controls over works and fencing on common land. For 80 years, we have had a consent regime under the Law of Property Act 1925. It was recognised even then that commons required special protection to keep them open, unspoilt and accessible. That approach remains as relevant and necessary as ever—perhaps more so in this modern world. But the fact that commons are unique and warrant that extra protection does not mean that the system is perfect.

We have listened extensively to those who have said that the consent regime is at times unnecessarily slow and bureaucratic. The controls must be proportionate to the impact of proposed works. The Bill will enable us to modernise and streamline the system so that it is truly fit for purpose in the 21st century.

Students of section 194 of the 1925 Act will find much in part 3 of the Bill familiar. But in consolidating the existing controls into the Bill, we have done our best to iron out inconsistencies and provide clarity. We also aim to resolve situations in which works that might make sense on a common were completely prohibited by the existing management rules on certain commons.

There was considerable debate in the other place about whether minor works should be excluded from the consent regime. The reality is that enforcement
18 Apr 2006 : Column 45
against works with no material effect on access is extremely unlikely. But we have taken powers in the Bill to prescribe works that ought to be exempted from the consenting regime, and we will consult on the use of this power.

There were also strong views in the other place about who may take enforcement action against unlawful works on commons. The Bill will allow any person to ask the court to enforce against future unlawful works on commons. This is our response to arguments that those currently entitled to seek court action often fail to do so.

Part 3 of the Bill also re-enacts existing powers for local authorities to protect common land with no known owner. We shall also bring forward some minor amendments in Standing Committee to ensure that local authorities' existing powers to make management schemes for unclaimed common land remain relevant and up to date.

Next Section IndexHome Page