Commons Bill [Lords]


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Mr.Williams: I listened very carefully to the points that theMinister made. We may refer to the matter again later in Committee. Onthat basis I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave,withdrawn.
Questionproposed, That the clause stand part of theBill.
JimKnight: The clause ensures continuity between theregisters prepared under the Commons Registration Act 1965 and thoserequired to be kept under this Bill. It provides that registrationauthorities may roll forward the existing registers and they willbecome the registers held under the Commons Act.
The clause provides clarityabout what can be included in the registers. It provides for the registers to include information about the extent of common land and town or village greens and rights of common and the attachment of suchrights to land, such as farm holding. It also provides for regulationsto amplify those requirements, as we have just debated.
Question put and agreedto.
Clause3 ordered to stand part of theBill.

Clause4

Commonsregistrationauthorities
Mr.Dan Rogerson (North Cornwall) (LD): I beg to moveamendment No. 95, in page 2, line 37, at endinsert—
‘(4) By agreement alocal authority may delegate its responsibility as a commonsregistration authority to another commons registrationauthority.'.
Inevitably, somelocal authorities, acting as commons registrations authorities, willhave an area of specialism in such matters because they are responsiblefor large areas. I fear that I may refer to Bodmin moor a few timesduring our proceedings. Cornwall, my own commons registrationauthority, has large areas of common land and therefore has officesdedicated to dealing with it. However, I am sure that smaller or indeedurban local authorities have far fewer commons within their boundariesand therefore may not be able to devote resources to having specificofficer expertise to deal with commonsregistration.
The hopeis that if the Minister accepts the amendment, the commons registrationauthorities will co-operate. Those with more specialism could offer tosupport those that have less. Presumably, there would need to be someagreement on resources on that, should that be a problem. It wouldensure that landowners and people who have rights over common land, inwhichever authority the commons are based, would be able to haverecourse to specialist officers with the time and resources to resolveany issues that may need to be resolved. That would allow a sensiblepooling of resources and expertise so that all commons, their users andthe homes on them, will benefit from the advice and support ofspecialists.
Mr.Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) (PC): It is a greatpleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Miss Begg. I support theamendment, as it is logical and sensible. In effect, it is a slightextension of subsection (3). The hon. Member for North Cornwall madehis points well.
Wales has 22 districtauthorities. Some have only the tiniest of commons; others, such asGwynedd, Brecon and Radnor and Powys, have huge swathes of common land.It would be sensible to introduce flexibility into the Bill.
It was mentioned on SecondReading that in times gone by, land rights were the Cinderella serviceof local government. Very often, one or at most two people manned anoffice responsible for important rights such as grazing, ownership andso on. I am sure that we all want a system that will guarantee freeaccess to adequate and accurate information for members of the publicand registered owners of land and rights. For that reason, amendmentNo. 95 issensible.
The Ministerresponded helpfully to questions about additional funding for properoperation of the duties. That is obviously a key point, but someauthorities are already far more proficient at those services thanothers. I return to the Welsh example of 22 district councils. Do theGovernment honestly foresee 22 different registration authorities, or will there be sensibledelegation, which is eminently reasonable? For that reason, I fullysupport theamendment.
Mr.Williams: I support my hon. Friend the Member for NorthCornwall as well. On Second Reading, many hon. Members made the pointthat they were pleased that the duties of the commons registrationauthority would remain with local government, and I support that. Partof the purpose of the amendment is to ensure that if a power is givento a local authority to use another organisation to carry out itsfunctions as a commons registration authority, that organisation wouldbe another commons registration authority, not an agency.
To help the Minister a littlebit, I can say that such informal arrangements are already carried outin Wales. The Swansea unitary authority and the Neath Port Talbotunitary authority share a commons registration officer. The Blackmountains in Powys are a series of contiguous commons for which thePowys commons registration officer also holds the registerforthe Herefordshire part. It is a transnational arrangement, not just across-authority arrangement.
Such arrangements happen inpractice. It would be good to put them into the Bill so that thatsolution would be available to local authorities. They could then makethe best use of the expertise available and give confidence to commonsowners, rights holders and the public that a good service is in placefor theiruse.
JimKnight: I am grateful for amendment No. 95, and I amgrateful to the hon. Member for North Cornwall for acknowledging themany powers that have been passed down to local authorities in theexcellent spirit of delegation to local government that this Governmentbelieve in.
I alsoagree with the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) thatthe amendment is, in many ways, logical and sensible. Indeed, it is soperfectly reasonable that it is already the law, generally, relating tothe undertaking of local authority functions. Section 101 of the LocalGovernment Act 1972provides:
“a localauthority may arrange for the discharge of any of theirfunctions...by a committee, a sub committee or an officer of theauthority; or...by any other localauthority.”
As thingsstand, Mrs. Griffiths will continue to be able to act as the commonsregistration officer for Herefordshire, even though she is the officerfor Powys. In general, the purpose of the amendment is already a matterof law, which is why I resistit.
I have announcedfunding and support for an association to represent commonsregistration officers in England and Wales, so that they can exchangetheir expertise and improve it. Subsection (3) provides flexibility toenable one commons registration authority to assume full responsibilityfor an area of common land that straddles the border between twoauthorities’ areas. On that basis, I hope that the hon.Gentleman will ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Mr.David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): Will my hon. Friendexplain what the default position is? If a registration authority isnot doing the job properly, what happens to an area that wishes to come out of that agreement?Presumably, a contract can be broken and a new one can be enteredinto.
JimKnight: It is up to the local authority to make thedecision as to how it would delegate its functions within theauthority, or whether to delegate to another authority. Equally, it hasthe power to terminate the agreement at any time. I hope that thathelps my hon.Friend.
I hope that,on the basis of this useful debate, the hon. Member for North Cornwallwill ask leave to withdraw hisamendment.
Mr.Rogerson: I am grateful for the Minister’s kindwords on the spirit of the amendment. I acknowledge that the Governmenthave passed many responsibilities to local government, but whether theyhave passed with them the money to act on them is another matter. Nonethe less, I am grateful to the Minister for considering the amendmentin detail. I am pleased to hear that under the Bill, should it passinto law, local authorities and commons registration authorities willstill be able to co-operate and work together effectively and come upwith whatever agency agreement they feel to be appropriate. On thatbasis, I beg to ask leave to withdraw theamendment.
Amendment,by leave,withdrawn.
Questionproposed, That the clause stand part of theBill.
JimKnight: The clause maintains the existing arrangements forcommons registration authorities. We believe that these functionsremain best undertaken at the county level in two-tier local governmentareas.
Question putand agreedto.
Clause 4ordered to stand part of theBill.

Clause5

Landto which Part 1applies
Questionproposed, That the clause stand part of theBill.
JimKnight: The clause applies part 1 of the Bill to land inEngland and Wales, with exceptions made for the New Forest, EppingForest, the Forest of Dean and land exempted from registration by orderunder section 11 of the Commons Registration Act 1965, listed in anannexe in the explanatory notes, including Victoria gardens in Portlandin my constituency. The excepted areas set out in the clause areidentical to those excluded from the operation of the 1965Act.
Question putand agreedto.
Clause 5ordered to stand part of theBill.

Clause6

Creation
Questionproposed, That the clause stand part of theBill.
11am
JimKnight: This is the first of several clauses dealing withthe registration of dispositions affecting rights of common. Theseprovisions would require the registration of any disposition for it tobe effective in law. The clause sets out to ensure that the grant of anew right of common will not be effective until it has been registeredon application to the commons registration authority. It is essentialto regulate the grant of new rights in that way to ensure that theregisters are comprehensive of all rights of common exercisable overthe land and that no claim can be made to latent prescriptive rightsthat subsist over the land but have yet to be registered.
The clause makes it impossibleto create a right by prescription or to create a new right that is notattached to land. Abolition of the acquisition of rights of common byprescription ensures that there is certainty as to whether land issubject to rights ofcommon.
Mr.Williams: Although we welcome the clause, subsection (6)gives a duty to a local authority to make a judgment and that judgmentwill be about whether it is possible to exercise or sustain theexercise of that rightor
“if the land isalready registered as common land, any other rights of commonregistered as exercisable over theland.”
We are worriedabout how the commons registration authority will reach a conclusion onthe matter. Whether a common is appropriately grazed, over-grazed orunder-grazed is often a contentious issue, and there will be as manydifferent opinions as there are people. I know that the Bill sets outlater that an appropriate national authority may appoint people tocarry out the exercise on behalf of the commons registration authority.However, we are concerned about the loss of the commons commissionersas set out in the debate on SecondReading.
In the otherplace, amendments were tabled on inspectors and other ways ofaddressing such issues, but we want to flag matters up at this stagebecause it is an onerous burden for local authority officers, electedmembers, ad hoc tribunals or whatever to have to make such judgments.We want to put in place a much more appropriate system for making thesedecisions.
Mr.Llwyd: I have just one question for the Minister. We aretalking about the creation of rights. In our debate on Second Reading,we referred to estovers, pannage and piscary. One thing that worries meis that the notes on clauses make no reference to turbary. I did notsay that to raise a laugh in Committee. It is an important right forpeople in my area. They still dig peat and use it for domesticpurposes. Will the Minister confirm that that was just an oversight andsay that there is no intention to extinguish the registration of suchrights, which are still important in many uplandareas?
JimKnight: I will reflect on turbary rights, while I respondto the point made by the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire. Thelocal authority, acting as the commons registration authority, willperform its duties in a quasi-judicial form, much as it does in respect of planning. From my experience of chairing a planning committeeon a local authority, I recall that issues were often controversialwith views held strongly on both sides. I have no reason to doubt thatthat was anything but thenorm.
Localauthorities are in a good position to perform such duties as long asthey are performed subject to advice. In the same way, when theyperform their duties as a planning authority, they carry out thosefunctions with advice. We have made it possible for those authoritiesto take advice on technical issues under part 1, and we amended theBill in another place to introduce a power to require it to consultunder clause 24(2)(h).
I hope that, on that basis, thehon. Gentleman is reassured that we consider local authoritiesperfectly able to perform that function. If the issue is sufficientlytechnical that they do not feel that they have the expertise, despitethe investment in expertise that the Government are making, they canrefer it to the panel. We will discuss that later when we discuss thewisdom or otherwise of replacing commons commissioners under thearrangements set out.
For those who need anexplanation, turbary is defined in annex A of the explanatory notes. Ifthat is not adequate, I can write to the hon. Member for MeirionnyddNant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) but he is indicating that he is happy with it. Ihope that the Committee will support clause6.
Question put andagreedto.
Clause 6ordered to stand part of theBill.
 
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