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Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): I am delighted to take part in the debate on Second Reading. I congratulate the hon. Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) on bringing a slight note of disagreement to the proceedings. So far, there has been a rather mushy compromise, with a level of consensus that perhaps this place does well to achieve on occasions. I want to take a slightly more robust approach to the defence of our commons, which matter to me.
I am in the fortuitous position of having a large number of commons in my constituency. My hon. Friend the Minister of State mentioned one of them in his opening remarksMinchinhampton, about which he spoke in glowing terms. He referred to biodiversity and people coming from Gloucester and Stroud to visit it. I thought that we would hear about the warm beer and the maids riding to church, so glowing were his comments.
Commons and common land are not exempt from controversy, however. I think that it behoves those of us who look at history to bear in mind the basis on which land has been allotted, and also the fact that, for what I consider to be dishonourable reasons, there has been an attempt to brush it under the carpet rather than
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defending it. It is deeply ironic that the other place spent five days in a Grand Committee and two days on Second Reading, Report and Third Readingstages that we will no doubt handle as wellgiven that the predecessors of those peers stole common land from people. It is wonderful that the other place can spend all that time on detailed consideration, but some of us feel that the Commons, which contains the representatives of the commoners, is the place that should uphold the right of every person to have access to the land and use it purposefully.
David Taylor: Is it not somewhat ironic that those peers of bygone times have been replaced by peers of modern times who, instead of stealing land from the people, steal state schools from the people for a pittance of £2 million?
Mr. Drew: I will not go down that path, Madam Deputy Speaker, although I am sure it would be interesting. I will, however, take my hon. Friend back to the age of the Diggers and the Levellers. The Diggers in particular fought to maintain common land. In those days, in the mid-17th century, three fifths of land was common land; now the proportion is 3 per cent. The remaining land has gone somewhere. In fact, it has gone into private ownershipand 80 per cent. of the 3 per cent. is now privately owned. We are hardly talking about the legacy that many of us would like to see, involving rights of access and use. The maintaining and enhancing of democratic accountability has not been a great success story.
Mr. Roger Williams : Although I supported the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000, I saw no evidence that access to common land had ever been denied. I understood that people had de facto access, even if they did not have legal access. I tried to explain to farmers that people would not get off their sofas and stop watching television just to walk on common land because they had been given the legal right to do so.
Mr. Drew: I understand what the hon. Gentleman is saying. I am merely saying that there should be more common land, because by right that land is common. We have found numerous ways of taking it away from people in the past. I see the Bill as an opportunity to rebalance the way in which we can grant not just access but rights in perpetuity, so that people can use the land meaningfully.
I will not dwell on history for too long, but those who do not wish to consider the mid-17th century should refer to the late 19th century. Those of us who know a bit about rural socialism will be aware that the Clarion group encouraged people to cycle out of the urban centres. People would often go to the commons, because
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the land was available to them. More recently, there was the great Kinder Scout trespass. That was all about what I would like to see: not a division between town and countryside, but the nexus that really exists. As many earlier generations were driven from the countryside, people want to revisit it now. They want to know that they have rights to do that, and that those rights are enshrined in statute. The hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams) spoke of the voluntary aspectthe way in which we British tend to compromise and to be tolerant, but tolerance goes only so far on occasion. We see dreadful legal disputes over who owns what, and who has the right of access.
The Bill provides valuable opportunities for us to return to some of the issues that I have raised. I am fortunate in that my constituency contains not just Minchinhampton common, but Selsley, Edge, Amberley, Painswick and Stinchcombe commons. It used to contain a common called Eastcombe, but that is now a major housing estate. I met a wonderful lady, whose name escapes me for the moment, who spent many years investigating what had happened to that common. The developers continued to develop it without giving a second thought to the nature of the land, and there was no recourse for anyone else. Those who think that such land is sacrosanct and cannot be taken away are somewhat naive.
In general this is a good Bill, but I want to draw attention to some of the dividing lines. As was pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping) and by the Minister, this is the third part of the tripod. We had the legs in the form of the CROW Act and the seat in the form of the NERC Bill. This Bill bolts the tripod together: without statutory underpinning of the way in which commons, and village greens in particular, are allowed to operate, the whole system is meaningless.
It is welcome that the new organisation, Natural England, will undertake many of the detailed responsibilities. I hope that it will indeed be a new organisation, rather than a rebadged version of English Nature, and that it will do genuinely interesting things. As my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood pointed out, the requirements for biodiversity and protection of SSSIs are absolute commitments made by the Government. If the Government do not meet those commitments, the Opposition or anyone else will have every right to beat the Government. They have set themselves onerous tasks, but they must perform those tasks.
It is a pity that the right hon. Member for Bracknell (Mr. Mackay) is not present today, because he has done sterling work. At the time of the NERC Bill, he raised the question of easements. It just happens that for some years Minchinhampton has been a source of great disagreement between those who, for what they would term a long period, have had vehicular access to the common and across it, and the National Trust, which is responsible for management of the common. I hope that the NERC Bill has lain to rest the dreadful issue of easements. It is a dreadful issue because I wish I understood it. It is very complicated, and whenever people explain it to me it seems to change and become even more complicated and confrontational. Nevertheless, I hope that it has been laid to rest. I hope
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that it is clear that age-old rights will be maintained, and will not be removed for apparently unfair, money-raising reasons.
As for the question of maintenance, we could talk about over-grazing and under-grazing, but I am more interested in how we can make common land fit for purpose. Everyone accepts that common land must be managed: it does not manage itself, which is why the National Trust has taken responsibility for many commons. It has become the managing agent, although there are controversial issues relating to the curtailment of some of its responsibilities in the Bill. I should like maintenance and management to be appropriate to the time in which we live. As some legislation demonstrates, some people wish further to denude common ownership by putting all land into some form of private ownership. I should like to see an opening up, with responsibility given to representative bodies in areas where commons existusually parish and town councils.
I link that directly to the question of the commons associations. Whether we call the bodies commons associations or commons councils, I want them to be genuinely democratic, and that will be one of the tests for the Government. I want those who are responsible for commons to have a voice in the way in which their management is taken forward. That will not be easy because we must consider not only agricultural interests, but golf clubs, cricket clubs and hand gliding clubs, all of which use common land in my area alone. Such clubs might have a view, so they might wish to have a voice. The way in which they are incorporated in the process will be a test. Given that the Minister said that the arrangements would be ad hoc, we will have to work that out. Perhaps there will be new localism in action, but someone will have to give the matter serious thought.
I would not want to exclude in any way the political voice of democratically elected representatives. Those people are important because they can have an overview and examine the way in which things should be done in a wide sphere, unlike people with a self-interest, or who wish to pursue a specific interest.
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