HC Deb 10 February 1964 vol 689 cc176-86

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Finlay.]

10.51 p.m.

Sir Henry Studholme (Tavistock)

As the House knows, the Royal Commission, after exhaustive inquiries, published in July, 1958, its Report on the whole question of common land and made recommendations as to its future use and control.

The Royal Commission recommended that there should be two stages in carrying out its proposals. The first stage should be the statutory registration of all persons and bodies having proprietary interests in and common rights over the soil of the commons. The second stage, to be embarked on after allowing a reasonable time for registration, should provide for the management and improvement of commons through schemes devised by appropriate management committees or local authorities.

Common rights go back far into the mists of time and are in many cases very complicated. Some of them may have lapsed or fallen into disuse. But woe betide anyone who attempts to interfere with the rights of commoners without statutory authority. That is why registration is an essential first step. One has to discover who the commoners are and exactly what are their rights.

I happen to be specially interested in this question owing to the fact that a large part of Dartmoor, which I have known since my childhood, is situated in my constituency, and the common rights on Dartmoor are as ancient and complicated as any. There would not be time for me to go into them tonight, and so I will not attempt to do so. I will only say that I have for some time been pressing the Government to introduce a Bill for registration of common land and interests.

I would have liked a special Act for Dartmoor, something on the lines of the New Forest Act. But the answer has always been that the Government would be prepared to deal with the question of common land not piecemeal but in a comprehensive Act covering the whole country. I can see the sense of that argument, though, of course, a comprehensive Act would only he satisfactory if it included provisions, by schedule or in some other way, to cover the particular needs and conditions of individual commons such as those on Dartmoor.

I am particularly interested in animal husbandry and the care of stock on Dartmoor, and it is chiefly in this connection that I have raised this matter tonight. I am glad that my hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture will be replying to the debate.

Many people have asked why, when the Royal Commission on Common Lands reported as long ago as July, 1958, nothing has been done yet to implement its decisions. I think that the answer is, first, that we had a General Election the following year and that, important though legislation on common land is, other more urgent problems have had priority. Secondly, from the point of view of animal welfare, which is the thing which has really stirred people up, we had from 1958 onwards a series of mild winters until two years ago. Indeed, the winter of 1960–61 was, I believe, the mildest of the century. I cannot recollect any par ticular pressure for action either in this House or locally during those years.

It was not until after the winter of 1961–62, which was severe and when the spring came very late, that most of us felt that something should be done. Then came last winter, the worst for 200 years. Animals everywhere had a hard time and on Dartmoor conditions were particularly arctic. Snow lay on the moor for many weeks with drifts of up to 20 ft. in places and moorland farmers had a terrible time trying to feed their stack, which in many cases would have been impossible but for the splendid help received from Service helicopters.

During 1962 and 1963, I had meetings with my hon. Friend and with representatives of the Dartmoor Commoners, the Duchy of Cornwall, the R.S.P.C.A. and others concerned, and all agreed that the time for action had come. I had understood from my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture that he would have liked to have introduced during the present Session of Parliament a Bill along the lines suggested by the Royal Commission, and I am very disappointed that this has not been possible.

What regulations do we propose to ensure proper care of animals on Dartmoor and the breeding of the hardy stock which it is so desirable that our uplands should produce? Recommendations are fully set out in the evidence presented to the Royal Commission by the Dartmoor Commoners Association in 1956. They include the calling of old cows and ewes, the dipping of all hill sheep aril the provision of adequate feed for stock in hard weather, the improvement of grazing and swaling, that is to say the burning of the heather, proper care of ponies and the control of the number and type of stallions.

This last recommendation, about stallions, would not, I understand, require new legislation, but could be carried out under the provisions of the Commons Act, 1908, by Order, as is done in the case of rams. I do not know whether I am right in that assumption, but no doubt my hon. Friend will correct me if I am not.

Besides being approved by the Dartmoor Commoners Association and its constituents' associations, these recommendations have the wholehearted support of the Duchy of Cornwall and the R.S.P.C.A., but until we get legislation, there is no means of enforcing them other than by persuasion. I am assured, however, that since these recommendations were formulated, there has been a considerable improvement in animal husbandry on the moor and everyone must welcome the latest excellent move by the Dartmoor Commoners Association to establish fodder banks to cover the whole of their area of the moor for feeding stock if we get a spell of hard weather.

I am convinced that the great majority of moorland farmers are very concerned for the proper care of their stock. Unfortunately, there is a small minority who are not so conscientious and whose bad name damages the whole farming community and leads to sweeping general accusations against moorland farmers which are neither fair nor true. These are the people—I repeat, a very small minority—who, having perhaps little or no "in by" land, run more stock than they should on the commons and thus tend to overstock them, although, taken as a whole, Dartmoor is probably not overstocked. Perhaps my hon. Friend could say something about this and also about the way in which the hill sheep subsidy is controlled, because there has been some criticism of this.

Tonight, I have only had time to deal with the agricultural aspect of this question, but in conclusion I should like to quote the closing words of a recent address to the Royal Society of Arts by Professor Denman, head of the Department of Land Economy at Cambridge, who, for the last three years, under the auspices of the Nuffield Foundation and Cambridge University, has been engaged in field research into the history and the future use of common land following the Royal Commission's Report.

This is what he said: Every week that passes aggravates the problem of our commons, deepens the confusions, blurs the land titles, encourages the loss of commons by illegal enclosure, strengthens the thickets of scrub, gorse, and bracken, and leaves unchecked the public vandals. Even the existing statutory facilities are rusting for want of use. Nothing will be done until Parliament acts. Action on the lines of the Royal Commission's recommendation is urgently necessary. Get the common rights registered without delay. Then we can marshal the management committees and open a new chapter to the ancient and traditional story of our common lands. The Royal Commission suggests 12 years for the completion of registration. That, surely, is far too long, and I ask my hon. Friend whether he thinks that it could not be done in three or perhaps four years. I am very disappointed that we have not yet started on the registration and I hope that my hon. Friend will be able to assure me that when the Government get back after the next election common land will be one of the first questions to which they will direct their attention.

11.1 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. James Scott-Hopkins)

I am sure that the House will wish to join me in thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Tavistock (Sir H. Studholme) for raising this very important subject of the control of common land. It is one that we need to keep in the public eye all the time.

The land surface of England and Wales comprises about 37½ million acres, or under four-fifths of an acre per person. The best calculation which the Royal Commission on Common Land could make of the area of common land in the two countries was about 1½ million acres. With land so scarce, the House will see that this is too large an area, and too precious a heritage, to be allowed to go to waste.

The Government do not regard the present situation as satisfactory. That is why the Royal Commission, to which my hon. Friend referred, was appointed in 1955 and why my right hon. Friend announced in general the acceptance of the Commission's first set of recommendations in 1961. We have said—and I am glad to have the opportunity of reaffirming this, since my hon. Friend has specifically asked me—that it is our intention to legislate broadly on the lines of those recommendations as soon as parliamentary time permits. I share the regret of my hon. Friend that this has not been possible up to now, and I take his point that as soon as we win the next General Election we should turn our attention to this matter.

I shall say a little more about our proposals later, but, first, I should like to underline some of my hon. Friend's remarks. Common land is a problem which is to a large extent the responsibility of each and every one of us, as most of us use it or visit it at some time or another. It is, therefore, all the more welcome that in the past year there have been two important studies which have amplified the Royal Commission's account of the state of our commons, and have served to keep the public's interest in this matter alive.

First, there was the absorbing volume written by two former members of the Commission, Professor Dudley Stamp, a constituent of mine, and Dr. W. G. Hoskins, and more recently we have had the valuable address, to which my hon. Friend referred, by Dr. Denman, of Cambridge University, to the Royal Society of Arts, reporting the interim findings of the very thorough survey of common land which he is conducting under the sponsorship of the Nuffield Foundation and the University of Cambridge. I am sure that it would be the wish of the House that I should express our gratitude to the Foundation and to the University for their generous support of this imaginative undertaking.

I think that the House will agree that some of the figures given by Dr. Denman are rather startling. Out of 361 commons which were examined by the survey, half suffer from general neglect, nearly one quarter from litter and dumping and about an eighth from vandalism. I said just now that the public use these commons, and it is a startling commentary that we should have such figures as these. They represent acts of commission or omission by the public using the commons. Whatever is done by way of legislation, its ultimate success must depend to a great extent, especially in the areas most exposed to urban pressures, on the public's standard of behaviour when it goes on common land.

Here I would make one point very quickly about my right hon. Friend's responsibility. He has often been described as the custodian or guardian of common land, but he is no such thing. His responsibilities, as laid down by Statute, are to authorise—or not to authorise—applications put to him by the legal interests and certain classes of local authority to do certain things, such as erecting structures, on common land. When his authorisation is given he has no power to intervene further, or to enforce.

As I have said, the future of the common thereafter rests with the private users and the public. For example, my hon. Friend has specifically raised the question of regulating the turning out of stallions and other entire animals on Dartmoor, under the Commons Act, 1908. That Net provides for such regulation, but it is for the commoners to take the initiative, and my right hon. Friend can only consider what they choose to put forward.

However, I would not want to leave the House with the impression that even today the picture is uniformly black. Dr. Denman has found that about one-third of the commons surveyed are satisfactorily mar aged. I have no doubt that this is true of many of the very extensive upland commons which play a vital part in the economy of our hill sheep and hill cattle farms, and I am sure that each one of is will know commons that are admirably managed by local authorities and others under schemes in the public interest made under the 1899 Commons Act, the various Metropolitan Commons Acts, or local legislation. Not a few owners have also taken steps to regulate the public use of common land by obtaining an order of limitation under Section 193 of the Law of Property Ac., 1925.

Schemes of management and orders of limitation are not always readily enforced once they are made, as Dr. Denman has discovered. Nevertheless, during the past eight years we have approved 27 new schemes, with another 11 under consideration, making a grand total since the 1899 Act was passed of 285. In addition, there are now 50 orders of limitation. The House will also recall that last Session we removed one slight deterrent to the making of schemes and orders by taking powers to abolish the relevant fees in Section 16 of the Agriculture (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act of last year.

As I said, we do not pretend that all is now well. As the Royal Commission's Report showed, the changes in agricultural and social practices, the breakdown of manorial customs, and the great increase in public pressures have left the legal interests in many commons utterly uncertain of the rights and often unable to establish them except by formidably expensive processes in the courts or in Parliament. Nor it is surprising that schemes of co-operation, whether among commoners or others, do not often make much headway in the face of such uncertainties. For every common which is in active grazing use, as are the commons of Dartmoor, there cannot fail to be a multiplicity of private interests as well as the public use for recreation.

One or more persons own the soil, and other people—the commoners—have the right for their stock to take the natural produce. The position on Dartmoor is even more complex. I have been told of an ancient custom whereby any inhabitant of Devon may have a claim to grazing on Dartmoor, except the inhabitants of Totnes and Barnstaple. Goodness knows why they should be excluded. It would be idle to expect owners of the soil or commoners to undertake constructive schemes of management in the face of such an extraordinary position as seems to exist.

The first thing we must do—as the Royal Commission recommended—is to establish the facts; that is, to establish by registration what land is common, who owns the soil, who is entitled to common rights, and what is the extent of their rights. I can assure my hon. Friend that we believe we can greatly shorten the period of registration recommended by the Royal Commission by allowing broadly three years for the lodging of claims with the registration authorities and two years for the making of objections, instead of a total of 12 years which, as my hon. Friend rightly said, is a very long period. I hope that it will be a comfort to him that we fully intend—and I believe that it can be done—to shorten the period to five years. Provision must also be made for the quick and inexpensive determination of claims.

Registration will almost certainly remove some of the most serious impediments facing owners of the soil, com moners and local authorities who seek to improve the condition of common land. They, and anyone else who has work to do on common land, will be able to discover from the registers just where they stand and with whom they have to treat. I believe that we shall thus go a long way towards enabling commoners to get together on a voluntary basis and to agree among themselves ways and means for regulating and improving the land. This is the vital objective. I also believe that it will facilitate the task of local authorities who are anxious to make schemes or regulations under the 1899 Act.

In view of the short time at my disposal, I hope my hon. Friend will understand if I do not follow him in discussing at length the proper care of animals on Dartmoor. We debated this matter last year, as I am sure he remembers. I thought that it would be more helpful this evening if I took a broader look at the problem of common land generally. As he has indicated, the registration of common rights will be a great step forward in the efforts of Dartmoor farmers to make sure that their animals are well cared for.

My hon. Friend specifically mentioned the hill sheep subsidy and asked how we controlled its operation. The control is exercised by the Ministry's field officers, who check the flocks each year to make sure that they are being well managed in accordance with recognised hill-farming practice, that the ewes are kept in good condition, and that the elderly ewes past their prime for lambing and no longer so well able to take care of themselves under the rigorous conditions are sent down the hill.

My hon. Friend has expressed his concern in the past about the plight of the elderly, broken-mouthed ewe. He will be glad to know that as a result of the hard work and advice by the Ministry's county advisory officer and field officers there has been a significant increase in Devon in the number of elderly ewes culled.

My hon. Friend also mentioned overstocking. This is something we watch very carefully. I entirely agree that Dartmoor as a whole is not overstocked. Nor do I think this is true of parts of the moor either. Overstocking of individual areas is quite possible because, although the moor is unfenced, each hill flock normally sticks to its own particular area where its sheep are born and bred and where the best grazing at each season of the year is known to it. In view of the many allegations of overstocking on Dartmoor I think it important to tell the House that no less than 70 per cent. of hill flocks were counted last year and that in not a single case was it necessary to restrict the subsidy payment because of overstocking because none of the hefts was found to be overstocked. The charge is made that the hill cow subsidy also encourages overstocking, but this is not the case. Care is taken to check the hill herds to see that this should not be so.

As I have said, registration itself will be a very great step forward. But we regard registration in itself only as a first step, paving the way for further action on the Royal Commission's re maining recommendations. My hon. Friend will recall that these include proposals for schemes of management, whether for grazing or other agricultural use, or for public enjoyment and the like, promoted by local authorities and associations of commoners.

Out of this two-phased process we can confidently look forward to the time when the great majority of our commons will become once again a beneficial and, indeed, a beautiful part of our heritage, as they have been in the past. I am sure that my hon. Friend agrees that it is not only in the interests of the commoners and those who live near the commons, but also in the interests of the nation as a whole that we should have commons of the kind which I have described.

Question out and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at sixteen minutes pat Eleven o'clock.