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Mr. Drew: My hon. Friend has discussed the wonderful notion of devolution to the appropriate authority, which surely includes a role for parish and town councils rather than district and country councils. Does he agree that parish and town councils are likely to have the greatest interest vested in them, because such matters are germane to their immediate localities?

Paddy Tipping: I certainly agree with that. I believe that the local environment is extremely important to local people and that the more we can localise decision making around relatively small pieces of land, the more issues can be identified and resolved. I very much look forward to town and parish councils having greater responsibilities and powers.

I want to return to a matter on which I intervened on the Minister earlier—the cut-off date of 28 June 2005 for unlawful works. I am delighted to be told that that does not apply to local authorities. However, I know from direct experience that large areas of land where the public have a right to roam freely under the CROW Act are fenced off. I seek assurances that the 28 June cut-off date will not prevent action on that. It would be a travesty if the monumental piece of legislation that delivered the right to roam were to be frustrated.

On making an application to a county court as regards obstruction, I am not entirely clear what powers the court will have. I presume that if the order is not complied with, there can be a reapplication for a breach. Under rights of way legislation, magistrates courts have the power to fine. Highways authorities now have the opportunity to come and remove obstructions. What are the powers of the county court if unlawful restrictions are not removed?

Mr. Llwyd : I think that I can help the hon. Gentleman. A court would have an inherent power to apply a fine and/or to imprison for a breach of its own order.

Paddy Tipping: I am grateful for that advice and look forward to the Minister making the Government's position clearer.

I am conscious that I have highlighted a whole range of aspects of the Bill that can be strengthened and improved, but I want to reinforce the fact that it is a good piece of legislation that builds on the royal commission's work, with registration, access, and now biodiversity.

There is a view in the countryside that the countryside should never change—that it should be preserved in aspic. That cannot be right. The countryside needs to change to survive. A changing, working countryside is a
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healthy countryside. I am pleased that the Bill is a piece of revising legislation that will enable change to take place. What is important for the countryside is not that change should take place, but the scope, scale and timetable of that change.

5.48 pm

Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): At this stage in a debate on agricultural matters, I usually draw the House's attention to my entry in the Register of Members' Interests. On this occasion, I do not believe that I have an interest to declare. Having scrutinised the register of common rights, I can find no mention of the dominant tenement that I occupy. I therefore presume that I have no common rights—nor, as I understand it, am I likely to be able to acquire new common rights under the Bill.

Commons are a relic of the old manorial system of land tenure. It is not surprising that it is a complex subject, because the history goes back a very long way and people have huge attachment to their common rights and to any commons on which they exercise them.

Liberal Democrats will support the Bill because we believe that town and village greens are important for the communities in which they are situated and provide them with opportunities to exercise and to enjoy pastimes. Unfortunately, such greens are often encroached upon. We welcome the powers in the Bill to ensure that that does not continue. We recognise the importance of commons, particularly to agriculture and to remote farming communities whose common rights are the backbone of their business. Without those rights, the business would often not survive. Commoners are fiercely possessive of their rights and their commons, and know them well. In many families those rights go back generations and the attachment is great.

Because of the huge size of commons, many of the activities that take place there are co-operative. Farmers come together to gather sheep or to shepherd, which builds up a feeling of community and togetherness. In Wales, as I am sure the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) will agree, the Welsh language is an important part of those activities and contributes to the feeling of being Welsh and being part of the agricultural community.

It has been pointed out that commons represent a not insignificant amount of land in both England and Wales—about 3 per cent. in England and 8 per cent. in Wales. It is important for us to understand how that land is to be managed and how it can be best organised for the benefit of the people who have rights and ownership. Of the 540,000 hectares of common land in England and Wales, almost 70,000 hectares are situated in Brecon and Radnorshire, so in my constituency I have about 12 per cent. of all the common land in England and Wales.

When I spent an interesting couple of years as chairman of the Brecon Beacons national park, I got to know commoners and their common land well. One issue that is often raised is overgrazing. I know areas where overgrazing takes place, but it is not to the benefit of anybody. It is not beneficial to farmers, whose stock does not flourish, or to biodiversity, to the appearance of the landscape or to the
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people who want to enjoy it for recreational purposes. A far bigger danger will be undergrazing, particularly as a result of the reform of the common agricultural policy. I hope that one outcome of the Bill will be the development of management techniques to overcome undergrazing, which threatens our common land. Common land is important for agriculture, recreation, nature conservation, landscape and archaeology. The Bill provides a way forward for management plans to protect all those aspects.

There are one or two omissions from the Bill. We are disappointed that the commons commissioners are abolished by the Bill. They did excellent work following the Commons Registration Act 1965, and although there has been criticism of that Act and of some of the inaccuracies and associated difficulties, much good work was done and the commissioners became proficient and knowledgeable about commons and the related legislation.

Mr. Llwyd: I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman's comments and I appeared many times in tribunals. The main flaw of the 1965 Act is that, when mistakes were made, it was a devil of a job to rectify them without, for example, an application to the High Court, which was beyond most people's means.

Mr. Williams: Indeed. As the hon. Gentleman says, the main difficulty was to rectify mistakes. That was a complaint not about the commissioners, who were implementing the legislation, but about the legislation itself. The Bill will ensure that some matters, such as severance, attachment, creation and variation, can be addressed by commons registration authorities. I am not clear how those issues will be determined, mostly by county councils, but in some cases by district councils, and in Wales by unitary authorities. Does the Minister anticipate that decisions will be taken by officers of the authority or by elected members, or will there always have to be an independent inquiry to determine applications, to give both applicants and objectors confidence that the process is conducted in an entirely appropriate manner?

If there are to be numerous local inquiries, we will need a body of people who have the necessary commitment and expertise to decide those matters. When statutory commons associations are set up, the Bill provides that, if there is an objection, there should be a local inquiry. My noble Friends in the other place suggested the creation of commons inspectors for that purpose. It seems that there will be considerable work for them to do.

There is no reference in the Bill to the huge contribution that commons could make to food production. Last week, the Government's chief scientific adviser, David King, warned that an increase of 3° C in global temperature could mean that 400 million would go hungry. The present Government have been more cavalier in their disregard for food security than almost any British Government for the past 100 years. In the 1920s and 1930s, Governments believed that we could raid the global larder, so to speak, and buy food from wherever we wanted to satisfy our needs. That was confounded by the second world war and the destruction of shipping.

Town and village greens were dug up and turned into allotments in the "Dig for Victory" campaigns, and the commons were ploughed, especially in our area, where
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Llandefalle common and Hay Bluff were ploughed up to provide potatoes and corn for the country. In an emergency, that might have to happen again. Such activities took place under emergency powers during the war, and perhaps the Bill should provide for such a possibility in future.

We welcome the opportunity to rectify some mistakes that were made under the previous registration system, but we are concerned about the provisions for common land to be exchanged—for instance, when it is compulsorily purchased for road building. The land for which it is exchanged should be contiguous with the original common. Commoners often complain that the land for which it is exchanged is so remote from the existing common or is divided from the common by a fenced main road that it is of little use to the commoners for stock grazing.

The most important aspect of the Bill is the powers given to national authorities to set up statutory commons associations. We welcome that, because in many cases commons have been unable to make use of grants through environmental schemes, as it has not been possible to get the agreement of every commoner on that common. However, the Bill is unclear about who might initiate the formation of a statutory commons association. I presume that it could be the people with common rights, local authorities, national authorities or organisations with interests in conservation. Will the Minister state whom he believes will initiate the process? Given commoners' sensitivity, the method of electing commoners' representatives to the associations' management boards could be a difficult matter.

The Bill mentions elections. Would inactive graziers have the same rights as active graziers? If a dominant tenement was owned by a sole trader, would that constitute one vote? If it was owned by a partnership, would that constitute two votes? If one person had more than one dominant tenement on a common, would there be a vote for each dominant tenement? Would the size of the vote vary with that of the registration? For example, would someone who was registered for 100 sheep have fewer votes than someone who was registered for 5,000? The Minister would be well advised to resolve the matter before the Bill becomes law because establishing statutory commons associations could flounder on it.

If statutory commons associations have the power to order the management of commons, and it meant a reduction of commoners' rights in order to comply with a specific environmental scheme, that might be all right for commoners who agreed with entry into the scheme, but if an individual commoner did not agree, what would be the effect on his human rights of the reduction of his grazing rights without his agreement? The Bill does not mention that human rights aspect. Will the Minister comment on that?

We welcome the protection of village and town greens and commons. The repeal of the Law of Property Act 1925 is a good step forward. However, several commoners complain to me that planning authorities give planning permission for developments on commons without informing the applicants that they should have applied under the 1925 legislation. When planning authorities receive planning applications for a common, they should be required to inform the national authority, or possibly to put a condition precedent on the planning permission, if it is issued, requiring the
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applicant to make the proper application to the national authority. If the planning permission is granted, it could mean injustice for those who value the common or the green. It would be much better if the Bill included a process to ensure that applicants made a proper approach to the national authority.

I agree with the comments of the hon. Member for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping) on requiring a person who is responsible for illegal developments on commons simply to take down or remove the development is an insufficient punishment. People should be deterred from taking illegal action by some sort of penalty, if appropriate. I bow to the legal knowledge of the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy on that. The point has been made to me on several occasions.

The Bill is welcome but it has taken a long time to arrive. The 1965 Act gave us registration and we were told that the second tranche would quickly follow. It is 35 years late, but welcome, although much damage has been done.

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