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Mr. Llwyd: I am very much heartened by what the hon. Lady says, but I know of examples in my locality where the converse is true, and such agri-environment agreements go too far in lessening the number of sheep carried on the mountainsbut that may be by the by. None the less, I hear what she says, and I am pleased that that is so. I am sure that people who are aware of the agri-environment scene will realise that there is a need to keep a proper balance. For example, I was recently on a farm on the Berwyn mountains near Bala, where I live, and one of the problems there is that because of under-grazing, young gorse shoots are not being disposed of as they should be. That, in turn, has an effect on grouse. Of course, the whole thing is an ecosystem, so we must be aware of the need to graze responsibly, not only to do the best for the land, but to achieve the best return on the animals and generally to serve the three balancing acts to which I referred earlier. To that extent, I certainly agree with the hon. Lady.
I wish to refer briefly to management. We should find another name for the commons associations. That is a small point, but it might be an important one in avoiding confusion, and the Minister looks as though he is taking it on board. However, the point was made earlier, and I am sure that it can be discussed further in due course. There is good reason for doing so. Most commons already have graziers associations, and if it is the wish of those associations, they should be allowed and encouraged to take on the role of a commons associationpeople may call them what they willwith as few administrative obstacles as is humanly possible. Many relevant commons graziers associations wish there to be as few obstacles as possible so that a
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commons association can be responsible for more than one common, where it is proper for that to happen. That would be sensible in the circumstances.
Many of us believe that it is paramount that the main function of such an association is to protect the interests of all those whose livelihoods are reliant on the common rights. In particular, the non-business interests of those who have rights such as access should not take precedence over the interests of those whose incomes derive directly from the use of rights on the common. It is therefore essential that the majority of members of each association are drawn from the relevant business interests on the relevant commons. For example, the Farmers Union of Wales has mentioned a majority of 75 per cent.
We had quite a discussion earlier about the make-up of the associations. I do not know whether the document that I have in my hand, an example of a draft statutory instrument, has come to me surreptitiously. I hope that the Minister has seen it, otherwise it has come to me surreptitiously. [Interruption.] He is making me rather nervous. It is entitled "The West Barsetshire Commons Association Establishment Order 2006". Many Members have referred to this matter, so I hope that I am raising a point of information. Under the heading, "Establishment of the Association", in article 3(2), the order states:
Will the Minister tell me whether that is the kind of standard association that we are looking at? If so, I suggest that the balance is not quite right, but no doubt that is a matter not for Second Reading, but for Committee in due course.
Much has been said about the registration of greens, and quite rightly so. It is an important area of law, and another area that needs significant change and simplification. We need to consider further modifications. There is a possibility that the legislation could become an effective weapon for objectors to development, once the planning process has not had the desired outcome for them. It is not unheard ofunder previous laws and currentlyfor spurious claims to be made in a last-ditch attempt to prevent development. Depending on the quality of evidence, those claims can be extremely difficult for a landowner to refute.
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I was professionally involved in a case some four years ago on behalf of a county council that wanted to develop a corner of a parcel of land. As soon as the council made its intentions knownit wanted to use the land for affordable housing, for letting and part salethe people in the locality said, "No, this is a green and it always has been." Well, it never had been, but it cost many tens of thousands of pounds to prove that. Thirty or 40 people came along and each spent up to half a day in the tribunal hearing. The thing went on for about 12 or 14 days. Tens of thousands of pounds were thrown awayfor no good reason, it seems to me. We need to look again at that mechanism, to prevent that happening again.
We need a balance. We need to ensure that where greens have been used since time immemorial they continue to be used, for all the good reasons that they have been used in the past. Equally, if a part of a green is needed for some reasonable development, that should not be objected to and stopped in its tracks, per se. There should be a better means of dealing with those conflicts, rather than the current expensive litigation procedure. We need to strike a fairer compromise between the residents of a locality and possible developments.
My next point has already been made, so I will be brief. It is about what was referred to as the common land policy statement. There are occasions when a landowner is willing to permit the general public to have access to a piece of unfarmed land for recreation, where that would be of benefit to the community. There is now great anxiety among people who would be willing to do that. I could name names from my own locality. People are happy for that to happen, but they are concerned that over time, it will become a right capable of registration and that the land could become something akin to a green. Paragraph 50 of the common land policy statement 2002 says clearly that that will be legislated for in primary legislation, and that when the landowner makes it clear that people have limited recreational access, that is not to be transferred into a public right. The highway example given earlier is the same. Many of us are disappointed that that provision is not in the Bill. It would have freed up more access for the public, because landowners would not be concerned that public rights would be created, adverse to their own. I hope that even at this late stage, with a very limited Committee stage, that matter can be revisited.
In general, despite some of the things that I said earlier, this is a good Bill, which is overdue. However, other hon. Members and I have raised points that need to be addressed. The Bill will not succeed if the additional costs that will follow are not met. I was encouraged by what the Minister said when I intervened on him at the beginning. I welcomed that response and I hope that there will be some new money available. Otherwise there will be confusion, and we will have misleading plans and, potentially, lots of litigation, which nobody wants to see being pursued unnecessarily.
Mr. Dan Rogerson (North Cornwall) (LD):
I am delighted to be called to speak in the debate. It is always unfortunate to be called late, when so many of the points
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that I was hoping to make have been made by other hon. Members, but that is a reflection of the consensus that exists. There is a consensus that the Bill is to be welcomed, but that some issues need to be addressed in Committee, and I am sure that that will happen.
It was a pleasure to listen to the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs. Moon). I think I have told her in the past that my mother is from the neighbouring constituency of Ogmore, so it is good to hear so much work going on in that part of south Wales to preserve the natural environment.
Given the name of the Bill, which will appear on the Annunciator screens around the Palace of Westminsterthe Commons BillI wondered whether we might have had more interest from hon. Members who might have thought that their livelihoods were at stake. That did not prove to be the case, but it is important that we discuss the Bill because many people's livelihoods are at stake. As hon. Members pointed out, it is 40 years since the legislation on common land was last debated, so we must get it right, as it may be a long time before the issues are debated again. I hope that hon. Members' comments, and those that I shall make, will be taken on board by the Minister in Committee.
My constituency includes many areas of common land, including 7,000 hectares on Bodmin moor. Most of the moor therefore consists of common land, which accounts for most of the common land in Cornwall. There are many sites of archaeological significance on Bodmin moor, so land management must take account of such sites as well as the natural environment and the implications for biodiversity. Archaeologists have already raised the problems that under-grazing will cause in the management of those sites. There are ponies on Bodmin moor, as there are on other moorlands in the south-west, which adds another dimension to the management of grazing.
Many such areas are already covered by countryside stewardship schemes, and it is important to point out that commoners' associations and groups work closely with existing agencies to ensure good stewardship of the environment. However, they are eager to undertake further work once the Bill is enacted. The common land on Bodmin moor makes a substantial contribution to agriculture and to the wider economy, and it plays a significant part in the life of rural communities on the moor, just as it does in other communities, including those in the constituency of the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd). Biodiversity is an important issue, given the historic patterns of land use, and sustainable management is of interest to a wide variety of users of common land.
Management involves private owners and, on Bodmin moor, people with grazing rights, as well as groups who are concerned to meet the challenge of preserving and enhancing the environment in an area as vital as Bodmin moor. The Government have taken a positive approach, and I welcome the Bill's presumption against the severance of common rights from land when it is sold. As hon. Members have said, common rights ought to be exercised by local people who, it is to be hoped, will be encouraged to take an interest in the management of common lands. Like many hon.
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Members, however, I have some concerns, as there are omissions in the Bill and other problems that I hope will be addressed in Committee.
I am concerned that local authorities have been given increasing responsibilities to make decisions about common land, which will add to the burden on local taxpayers. I welcome the fact that the Department has allocated money for the transition period to assist with new ways of working, but it remains to be seen whether that is sufficient for local authorities to be able to deliver their new responsibilities, including responsibilities in disputes about the keeping of records on rights, as the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy said. Some cases may take a long time to resolve, and will involve a great deal of work.
The commons commissioners operate a system that has been criticisedno doubt, it has been frustrating for people who have had to resort to the commissioners to try to resolve problemsbut which is none the less trusted and well used. If the commissioners are abolished by the Bill, there is no alternative other than the courts, which is worrying for people involved in land management. The Bill creates new opportunities for statutory commons associations to take greater responsibility and to access resources to improve and maintain the land. However, many groups are not ready to become statutory associations. That is the biggest problem with the Bill, as much of the land is managed by smaller associationsindeed, there are some areas where there are no associations at all. Statutory associations will allow us to make progress, but it would be a shame if other areas were left behind, so I hope that amendments are tabled to encourage voluntary associations to work more effectively. We should look at ways in which they can be supported as a whole, so that they, too, can take advantage of the powers that will be given to the new statutory commons associations.
I welcome the powers that will be given to local authorities to resolve problems with unclaimed land, including cases in which land is used in a way to which the local community objects. Such cases cannot be resolved while the ownership of the land is unclear, so I welcome the opportunities for local authorities to step in and play a role in resolving those issues. Commoners in the Bodmin moor area look forward to the opportunities that will be extended to them following the introduction of the Bill, but they are concerned about the repeal of the Commons Registration Act 1965, as they do not want an open season on rights. If Natural England and the Countryside Council for Wales acquire commons rights, grazing in some areas may be reduced, so people wish to work with archaeologists and other groups to ensure that the correct level of grazing is secured and common land is maintained in the best possible way.
There should be more explanation of the way in which new commons associations will be supported, and how they will be encouraged to fund their activities. Again, in many cases, volunteers are involved, and I would hate to think that opportunities will not be taken up because there is no support for them. I am pleased that we are considering the issues that affect common land. The Bill has been a long time coming, and many people will be watching its speedy progress in Committee. I have some
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concerns, as I have outlined, but I am glad that hon. Members will seek to make a contribution in Committee. I hope that the Minister has taken our concerns on board, and I look forward to the Bill's progress in Committee.
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