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Bill Wiggin (Leominster) (Con): The Minister for Climate Change and the Environment opened the debate with his definition of common land, which involved the rights of people other than the landlord. He talked about havens for wildlife, the number of sites of special interest and the state of them. He talked, too, about the Dartmoor commoners council amendments that will be tabled in Committee, and clause 15, which applies to village greens. We welcome his acknowledgement of the need to provide certainty in Committee.
The Minister discussed the higher-level stewardship scheme, on which I intervened, and the need to meet obligations. His remarks were well intentioned, but I suspect and fear that they are likely to create new problems in addition to solving some of the old ones. He also discussed the good and constructive scrutiny in the other place. I think that he is absolutely right, and I add my congratulations to Baroness Byford and her team on their hard work.
My hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) discussed local commons in his constituency, which are, by and large, small, and pointed out that under-grazing is a problem as well as over-grazing. He talked about village greens, deficiencies within the registers and registered rights, and he talked about severance rights and increased rights over and above existing rights. Importantly, he pointed out why Natural England needs to receive severed rights, and he talked about human rights being used as an excuse not to remove fraudulently acquired rights, although confiscation opportunities are being implemented against private landowners. I think that in Committee we will explore how much land is eligible under the 20-year rule. My hon. Friend also made a helpful point about the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs being a point of contact where people can go for co-ordination and expertise. He welcomed the Minister's funding commitment to establish electronic registers, but pointed out that DEFRA cannot take an enormous amount of pride in its track record on, for example, cattle movement and the Rural Payments Agency. Questions will obviously be asked about how much the Minister's funding commitment will cost and whether the scheme will work. The issues of fencing and of the difference between consequential and inconsequential works are also important, but my hon. Friend was right broadly to welcome the Bill.
The hon. Member for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping) suggested that the Bill would have benefited from pre-legislative scrutiny, which was a helpful suggestion given that the Minister has said that the Government want to make a number of amendments in Committee. He also expressed concern about the eating away of small amounts of common land, which I am not so sure aboutwhen he said that he did not understand some of the detail, the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) kindly helped him.
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The hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams) has no common rights and is unlikely to get anyknowing his interest in farming, I feel for himand he talked about the importance of town and village greens. He has been chairman of the Brecon Beacons national park, and he discussed the difficulties caused by over and under-grazingpeople do not always realise that over and under-grazing depend on the weather, and he will know that the grass has not been growing particularly well this year. He also discussed the abolition of the commons commissioners, which is a serious loss, and we should not throw the baby out with the bath water. I hope that he was more right about the loss of commoners than he was about ploughing up Hay bluff. The votes on the commons, which will decide who gets what and how much they get, have been discussed by hon. Members on both sides of the House, because there is a serious concern about how the commons will be managed.
The hon. Member for Pudsey (Mr. Truswell) welcomed the Bill, which was no great surprise. He talked about village greens, but he seemed to fall into the local pitfall trapwhat is good in some areas is not good in others. He spoke passionately about village greens in his constituency, and it took my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) to point out that although his view is attractive in Pudsey, it creates problems in other parts of the UK. As always, the key is getting the balance right, and I hope that we achieve that with this Bill.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hexham made an excellent speech. He attacked the programme motion and talked about the 1235 Act and the problems therein. He spoke with passion about the problems with common land and, in particular, errors and false entitlement. He welcomed the provisions to clear up anomalies, which, as hon. Members on both sides of the House have pointed out, will make a tremendous difference, especially when constituents' drives, access or homes are on common land. At the moment, there is no way to unlock that problem, and we want the Bill to clarify the situation. My hon. Friend also discussed the distance that sheep stray, the fences that have been put up and that are now due to be taken down and the need for balance and judgment. His constituency contains a 20 square mile common, and it was clear that he knows exactly what he is talking about. He questioned whether the National Trust Act 1971 should be changed without proper scrutiny, and I agree with him that we should tread carefully. I enjoyed his excellent and informed speech.
The hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) light-heartedly discussed the length of time the Bill spent in another place. He then made a joke about the Commons, and he was doing really well until the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) got all excited and intervened on the theft of state schools. At that point, the hon. Member for Stroud became misty-eyed about rural socialism. He is normally very good on these issues, but this time he got a bit muddledperhaps his emotional moment on rural socialism caused him to forget his own constituent's name. By the time he got to Minchinhampton common, he was even more confusedhe discussed "a common fit for purpose", which confused me. He clarified his position by calling for genuine democracy in the
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management of commons, which is, again, a unifying point on both sides of the House. He is also frustrated by the Woodland Trust issue. Finally, he discussed the length and complexity of the Bill, but his entertaining speech lasted for about 20 minutes.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr. Dunne) has common and grazing rights, so he knows what he is talking about. He discussed the problem of unregistered land, which is very important, and welcomed the council's role in overseeing the registration of such land. He then mentioned his 43.3 cattlehe is a superb breeder of Charolais cattle, but even he cannot breed 0.3 of a cow, and I am sure that the Minister will sort out that extraordinary anomaly when he has a moment. He also discussed the RPA fiasco and IT projects, the escalating cost of which is causing growing worry on both sides of the House. He talked about the conflict between people who are concerned about development on village greens, people who want to see more affordable housing and people who own land. He also talked about the protection of landowners' interests in the Highways Act 1980, the value of land, which is the key to the problem, and the transfer of land to public ownership. His constituency case involving the Glebe land in Clun, which was owned by the Church and accessed by villagers, was skilfully handled, because he avoided getting stuck in the firing line. He also discussed concern about the entity that may be imposed to run common landagain, almost every hon. Member who spoke mentioned that worry. He talked about English Nature and grazing opportunities being reduced under clause 31, which will weaken the livestock sector.
The hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs. Moon) pointed out the need for legislation to rectify the fault lines, but I am not sure whether we rectify all problems when we introduce new legislation, because in rectifying some problems we may create others. Although the history of nature reserves in her constituency was fascinating, I think that there is a problem with Welsh SSSIs. I agreed with her when she said that she does not want Wales to be behind in anything, and particularly not in such a wonderful thing as biodiversity.
The hon. Member for Bridgend also discussed off-road motor cycling, which is another subject that I care about. When we discuss common land, we must be careful whom we discriminate against in addition to whom we try to protect. Motor cyclists also have a right to enjoy common land, providing that they do not cause damage or distress to other people. She also suggested that the Bill should be reviewed after five years.
Mr. Roger Williams: Will the repeal of the Law of Property Act 1925, which, as far as I understand it, precludes motor vehicles from going more than 10 m from a right of way or road, make common land more vulnerable to off-road activities?
The hon. Member for Bridgend suggested that the Bill be reviewed after five years and then after 10 years. I thought that that was an interesting and important suggestion but not one that inspired a great deal of confidence. We should try to get the Bill right here and now.
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The hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy talked about the Bill's importance to Wales. He mentioned the problems of complexity in the old rules. His contribution was extremely helpful, because he has been involved in the legal side of this for a long time. He referred to enclosed common land up a mountain, with registered commoners who cannot access their rights yet have a claim should that common land ever be sold. The nub of his argument is that if we can unlock the complexities of this legislation, it will have a knock-on benefit for everybody who enjoys, lives off or uses common land. He talked about severance of grazing rights and welcomed the ending of that practice. He rightly referred to the balance that is essential as regards over-grazing or under-grazing, and the resulting gorse that may grow if that is got wrong.
I am concerned about the cost of the legislation, the brunt of which will fall on local authorities and is estimated at between £5 million and £9.5 million. The Government have talked about extra funding, but I do not think that it was that much. If I am wrong, I am more than happy to give way to the Minister so that he can tell us how much he is going to give.
On the substance of the Bill, there are several concerns regarding the roles of the statutory commons associations that will be established under clause 26. As we have heard, situations may arise whereby voluntary bodies such as the Dartmoor commoners council could find its activities curtailed by the presence of a commons association. The National Farmers Union has expressed concerns over the confusion that could arise from statutory commons associations and non-statutory and voluntary groups wanting to care for common land. It is not clear how the membership of those statutory commons associations is to be constituted. No one would want certain interest groups or charities to dominate such groups at the expense of others. We must get that balance right.
When looking at the role of statutory commons associations, we must also consider the rights of the landowners. This seems to be a fairly inflammatory matter for some Members of the House, but 80 per cent. of common land is owned privately, and it does not rest well with human rights legislation for a statutory body to be able to impose on a landowner certain designs and plans on that land with which the owner, or other interested parties, may not be comfortable. We must have a fair resolution mechanism whereby conflicts between the landowner and statutory commons associations over the use of the land can be dealt with within the framework of the Bill.
The issue of executive powers has already been taken up, but it is worth reiterating with regard to commons associations. The National Trust has expressed concerns that under clauses 36(2)(e) and 44(2), a future Government may take away some of its powers and
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hand them over by ministerial order to a statutory commons association without sufficient parliamentary scrutiny.
Another concern is the retrospective nature of clause 15. As has been said here and in the other place, that could affect planning decisions and often much-needed planning developments. It is also unclear what constitutes a
and, for that matter, who counts as a "local inhabitant". Would two people walking their dogs on the same patch of grass every day for 20 years be able to prevent a housing development by having it designated as a "town green"?
Those are important matters of definition and clarity that the Bill does not fully address at the moment. However, we are in favour of the Bill and will work throughout the Committee stage to make it much better.
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