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Bill Wiggin: Forty-one years.

Mr. Williams: I allowed six years to achieve the registration—I believed that that was a reasonable time. However, thirty-five years later, we have no way of ensuring that commons are managed properly. Much of the damage to the sites of special scientific interest has been done in that time.

Although we support the Bill, we shall make suggestions in Committee about ways in which it can be improved so that commoners can be engaged more fully and have the confidence that their interests will be taken into account and that the commons that they have loved and on which they have worked for so long will not be taken over by somebody with a different vision from theirs. In most cases—I would say 90 per cent.—the commoners' interests encompass not only agriculture but conservation. We want to encourage sensible commoners who are committed to that work to have the opportunity to do it.

6.6 pm

Mr. Paul Truswell (Pudsey) (Lab): I appreciate that Second Reading debates are supposed to take a panoramic view of proposed legislation, and I shall therefore begin by saying that I welcome all the Bill's provisions.

However, I make no apology for now becoming more specific and parochial. I want to examine whether the Bill will assist with town green applications that have already been submitted, as well as those to be made in future. I shall concentrate on an application for an area called Yeadon Banks in my constituency. If applications such as the Yeadon Banks proposal for registration are successful, they will benefit from the range of measures in the Bill.

Yeadon Banks comprises three fields in the town of Yeadon in my constituency. Leeds city council owns two and the other is in private ownership. Local people greatly value the area, for the reasons that other hon. Members have cited when considering commons. Until the 1990s the whole of Yeadon Banks was in the green belt. Then came the Conservative Government's lengthy, byzantine and expensive unitary development
 
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plan process. There was no problem with the two city council-owned fields remaining in the green belt. However, at the public inquiry into the unitary development plan, the owners of the private field successfully appealed against their field remaining in the green belt. It therefore became a protected area of search. That meant that the field would be reconsidered for possible housing development when the UDP came up for review.

The review took place from the end of 2004 to early 2005. The owners of the field were unsuccessful in their appeal to have the land designated for housing, so it remained a protected area of search. Its future is therefore uncertain. The people of Yeadon want to retain that cherished area of green space. The idea that it should be buried under bricks and mortar for the simple pursuit of profit by developers is repugnant to them. Is it such a bad thing for communities, such as Yeadon in my constituency, to attempt to use the registration process to protect a valuable green jewel from the developers' bulldozers? That is the background to the application.

After the original removal of the land from the green belt, local residents and I explored the possibility of getting the whole of Yeadon Banks—all three fields—designated as a town green. It appeared to fulfil the criteria. It had been used for generations—indeed, throughout living memory—for various relevant recreational purposes. No one can remember any "Keep Out" signs or other restrictions on public access. No one had been challenged or given express permission to use the area. Local people had used it, to all intents and purposes, as of right, without force, without secrecy and without permission—to cite the legal jargon.

I have worked closely with local residents on this issue, and following several well-attended public meetings we formed a community group called Keep Yeadon Banks Green—or KEYBAG, as it came to be known. With assistance from the Open Spaces Society, and in particular its esteemed local legal adviser, Jerry Pearlman, we began to put together an application for designation.

At this point, I must pay tribute to the chair of KEYBAG, Doug Jones. He has been tireless in his work, and played a huge role in collecting statements of evidence from residents, drawing up maps and filling in application forms. He has done all this while caring for his seriously ill wife and suffering from a protracted period of ill health himself. He is truly a local hero. This is relevant not because I want to eulogise Doug, but because I want to touch on some of the points that have already been raised in the debate. The work involved in the application has fallen on a few volunteers, and it is much more time-consuming than anyone might assume, especially if significant numbers of statements of evidence need to be collected in order to put forward the most cogent possible application for designation.

There are immense legal complexities involved. They are not quite beyond the lay person, but they are incredibly arcane and we have needed time and assistance to get to grips with them. For that reason, among others, I would ask my hon. Friend the Minister to reject the advice of those who seek to restrict the limits relating to land being closed off to the community and
 
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applications being submitted. That is the other side of the coin to that described by my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Tom Levitt) and by the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice).

Eventually, in July 2004, Doug and I had the pleasure of presenting our application to the council. We had no illusions about the difficulties involved. We realised that many applications fail, for any number of reasons. However, we did not expect our application to run aground as a result of the so-called Trap Grounds Appeal Court judgment of February 2005. That judgment effectively gives landowners an absolute block on applications for town greens. All they have to do is erect fences and "Keep Out" signs between the date of the application being submitted and the day on which the case is heard, as has been done on Yeadon Banks and in many other locations throughout the country. Under the Trap Grounds judgment, terminating access in that way before an application is heard automatically defeats it. That is obviously nonsense, and is clearly completely contrary to the intention of the Commons Registration Act 1965.

The community was devastated by that action by the landowners. I would not go so far as to say that the residents of Yeadon took to the streets, but many were moved to demonstrate in palpable terms what they thought of the landowners, the fences and the "Keep Out" signs. It felt a bit like the local team getting to the cup final, only to turn up at the ground and find that the gates had been locked and that someone had put up "Keep Out" signs and threatened that if the players insisted on playing the game, victory would be awarded to the other side. This is why clause 15 is so welcome to so many communities throughout the country, not just to those living in the vicinity of Yeadon Banks. It will not make applications any stronger, but it will give applicants something approaching a level playing field, and the ability to have the evidence properly weighed.

I am delighted that the Government have taken this initiative. They could have waited for the outcome of the appeal to the Lords on the Trap Grounds case that was heard at the end of last month. They could also have considered making regulations under the existing legislation. However, they have seized the issue and recognised the legal loophole—the black hole, as I would call it—and are tackling the matter with primary legislation that I hope will restore the status quo.

I realise that my hon. Friend the Minister cannot comment on individual applications, for a whole host of reasons. My purpose is simply to flag up the issue of applications that were left in limbo by the Trap Grounds judgment, including that involving Yeadon Banks. There are a number of scenarios for applications in that state of limbo. Rather than rehearsing them now, as my hon. Friend has not had an adequate opportunity to seek advice that would enable him to respond in a considered way, I should like to meet him and his officials at the earliest opportunity to discuss them. I would welcome a commitment from him that he is prepared to do that.

6.14 pm

Mr. Peter Atkinson (Hexham) (Con): I should like to say to the hon. Member for Pudsey (Mr. Truswell) that one of the problems involved in using the town green
 
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method of trying to obstruct or prevent a development on a particular site is that more and more landowners who have allowed a certain amount of informal use of a piece of waste land will be far more reluctant to do so. One of the reasons why we have a planning process is precisely to deal with such situations. I appreciate that he has a problem in his constituency—we all have problems from time to time—but he should be very careful about encouraging people to use the town green clause, as it were, as a way of blocking a planning development. In the north, such developments often involve much-needed social housing.


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