§ Order for Second Reading read.
§ 3.40 p.m.
§ The Minister of Land and Natural Resources (Mr. Frederick Willey)
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
This is an especially agreeable task. I am sure that the Bill will be generally welcome. After all, we have been waiting a very long time for it. In proceeding with the Bill the Government are showing that they intend to afford a high priority to the better use of our land and natural resources in place of the indifference they have suffered under the previous Administration. It is seven years since the Royal Commission on Common Land, in its lucid and comprehensive Report, made a whole series of recommendations designed to bring common land into fuller and more effective use.
During the war, the food production drive brought a sharp realisation of the neglect of much of our common land. In 1942, the Scott Committee on Rural Land Utilisation stressed the need for better records and of making fuller use of common land. But uncertainties, legal doubts, the disappearance of the old manorial courts, changing patterns of agricultural production, new social habits and the passing of old social orders of the countryside have made the management of common land an even greater problem in peace time.
It is not only a difficult, but also an important problem. Common land is very much part and parcel of our national heritage. To quote the opening 455 sentence of the Commission's Report:The traveller in England and Wales is seldom very far from a piece of common land.However, common land is unevenly spread over the country, and commons vary enormously in size and character—Wandsworth Common, Tooting Bec, Newcastle's Town Moor, the Malvern Hills, Bodmin Moor, and the vast fell commons in the Lakes.
In the northern counties we are particularly fortunate. Again to quote the Report:Strange as it may seem to the Londoner who thinks in terms of Clapham and Wandsworth Commons, or of the commons of Surrey and Hertfordshire, or to the citizen of Birmingham who remembers the Malvern Hills, the great extent of common land is found in the hill-sheep farming areas of the Pennines, the Lake District, the heart of Wales and the uplands of the South-Western Peninsula in Devon and Cornwall.The metropolitan commons, with their trim football and cricket pitches, and the wild moorlands of Northern England are equally commons. All told, the Commission reckoned that there remain about 1½ million acres of common land. Certainly, using the term in its widest sense, it is one of our greatest natural resources.
The Commission's conclusion, which we accept, was that, as the last reserve of uncommitted land in England and Wales, common land ought to be preserved in the public interest, and, as the Commission said, public interest embraces both the creation of wider facilities for public access and enjoyment, and an increase in the productivity of the land.
The Commission's Report warned us that often the village green grows from bad to worse, ceasing to be the centre of village life and deteriorating instead into an eyesore and a nuisance. We have also got to remember that nowadays those living in the cottages flanking the green very often are newcomers from the towns, having little or no knowledge of their ancient stake in the village greens.
The Commission reminded us of the neglect of the commons—the restriction of access and enjoyment of the commons by the encroachment of bush and scrub, finishing, as some commons have become—impenetrable to all save the adventurous or the foolhardy.
456 As the Report says:Taking common land as a whole we are left with the impression that it is the relic of an ancient system of land management which has caused it to lag behind other land in agricultural production.…Lacking vitality locally, the whole system which legislation over the last century aimed at preserving has tended to ossify instead. The result has all too often been the neglect of the land with the loss of production to the commoners and of amenity to the public.Since the Royal Commission's Report the neglect has continued. Of the commons selected for the recent Nuffield Survey, nearly 40 per cent. were the victims of an unchecked advance of scrub and infestation of weeds; 23 per cent. were marred by litter and debris; double that percentage were improperly grazed, and on 12 per cent. vandalism in varying degrees offended the sense of public decency. We really cannot afford to allow this to continue any longer.
The fundamental difficulty is the uncertainty which bedevils so many of the commons. Often enough, nobody is really sure whether the land is common at all. More often, the owner is unknown and the rights of common vague and uncertain. It is this general state of uncertainty that is the main stumbling block in improving the commons. No one can read the Commission's Report without being convinced of the necessity for a public record of common land, its boundaries and ownership and of common rights.
Our first task is to establish with certainty the facts. It is not surprising that, of the Commission's 70 recommendations, the first 22 concern the establishment of the facts by registration. This is the essential first step absolutely necessary to pave the way for further effective action.
First of all, we should create the machinery for establishing the facts by registration; that is the simple purpose of this Bill. Until the facts are authoritatively established and recorded it would be premature to frame the further legislation that will be required. What the Bill will do is to provide the foundation for further commons legislation making provision for statutory schemes for the management and improvement of common land.
As I have said, commons vary widely in character. In fact, the needs of two commons even in the same parish may 457 be totally different. Our first objective must be to establish the facts; then we can decide what must be done. The Bill, therefore, provides for the registration of common land and of town and village greens, the extent and ownership of the land, the identity of the commoners and their rights.
Although the purpose of the Bill is simple enough, it is fairly complex and, rather than guide the House through the Bill Clause by Clause, I think that it will be more helpful to outline its main proposals. Under Clause 2, registration authorities will be set up—they will he the Greater London Council and the county and county borough councils—which will maintain the registers required Ly Clause 3. They will register claims, which will be one of three kinds: first, land which is a common or a town or village green—and anyone can make such a claim even if he or she has no legal iaterest in the land—or; secondly, rights of common over the common or green; or, thirdly, the ownership of such land.
All claims will have to be attested before a commissioner of oaths. If common land or a green is not claimed it will lose its status, and similarly, if anyone does not claim his common rights, they will be lost, except for common rights already registered at the Land Registry. This is provided in Clause 1. Three years will be allowed for claims to be made, and this period should begin in January, 1967. This will give me good time in which to publicise the steps that people will have to take to secure their rights.
We propose to divide this registration period into two consecutive periods each of 18 months.
There will be no charge for claims made in the first 18 months' period, but people who delay putting in their claims until the second 18 months will be charged£5, although this fee will be waived if the claimant gave prior notice of his intention to claim.
Each period of 18 months will then be followed by a further period of two years for the lodging of objections with the registration authorities. This is provided in Clause 5, which also provides for the public to be notified of registration. Claims will be advertised in the local Press and the registration authorities will send extracts from their registers to their 458 district and parish councils, who will also make them available for inspection. An undisputed claim—that is where a registered claim is not contested during the time it is open to objection—will under Clause 7 automatically become final and under Clause 9 this final registration will be conclusive evidence of matters registered, except that claims to the ownership of land will never constitute evidence of title.
We have divided the three-year registration period into two periods of 18 months so that if no objections are made in the first period and no further claims are registered in the second claims period the registered claims will become established and indefeasible at the end of the first objection period: that is, within four years from the start of registration. And as further incentive we have made no charge for registration in the first period. In any case, there will be no charge for objections.
Disputed claims will be referred to commons commissioners—barristers or solicitors of at least seven years' standing appointed from a panel drawn up by the Lord Chancellor. Where the dispute involves difficult technical points, for example, relating to special farming practices in a particular area, the commons commissioner can be assisted by an assessor. The decision of the commons commissioner will be final and subject to appeal only on a point of law.
In addition to settling disputed claims, the commons commissioners, under Clause 8, will inquire into the ownership of land registered as common or a green where nobody has come forward to claim the land. Where the commons commissioner cannot establish who the owner is, the land, if it is a green, will be vested in the parish or district council. If it is a common, it will be vested as Parliament may later decide. Unclaimed town or village greens can be vested straightaway because they all provide local amenities and are similar in character—and clearly their responsibility is with the local authorities.
Commons, on the other hand, as I have said, vary widely in character and type, and we ought to wait until we have learnt more about the commons and the rights over them from their registration before we decide in whom the unclaimed commons should be vested. Commons, where 459 the facts are already recorded under statutory schemes or local Acts, can be exempted by Order. I shall need to be satisfied that the land is regulated statutorily, that no common rights have been exercised for at least 30 years and that the owner is known. All this is contained in Clause 10. I expect a fair number of commons, especially in urban areas will meet these requirements and there will be applications for exemption.
I have not fully accepted all the recommendations of the Royal Commission. The most important change is the shortening of the registration period. The Royal Commission recommended 12 years—eight years for registration of claims and four years for objections—but this has been reconsidered and discussed with all those concerned. There was general agreement that 12 years is too long and would provide unnecessary delay. I am sure that in the Bill we are affording sufficient and ample time both for claims and objections.
The Commission also recommended that the ownership of any common to which no claim had been registered should be vested in the Public Trustee. This would have placed unfamiliar duties on the Public Trustee and, in any case, as I have said, it seems better to leave the question of vesting until after registration has generally established the facts. Small commons used mainly for recreation might well be vested in the local authorities—like the greens: other areas suitable for example for conservation or research might be vested in suitable responsible authorities.
§ Mr. James Scott-Hopkins (Cornwall, North)
Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that his noble Friend in another place gave an undertaking concerned with where ownership was not established and the word "lacuna" was used there? The undertaking was that power should be vested in local authorities for the purpose of criminal proceedings if necessary. Does the right hon. Gentleman intend to run away from that undertaking or does he intend to honour it?
§ Mr. Willey
The hon. Member will be delighted to know that I shall not run away from it, and in due course I will reach that point in my speech.
460 The Bill does not set out to make any changes in the extent of the commons or of the rights over them. It seeks to provide a public record of those which now exist. I know that some holders of common rights are wondering how they will be affected by the Bill—especially those whose grazing rights are not limited by actual numbers and who will be asked to state the numbers of stock to which their claims relate. They need not be apprehensive. The Bill seeks only to establish their rights as they now legally exist and this should be the basis of their claims.
In the case of a dispute, the commissioner will be concerned only to determine the extent of their rights. It may be that later there will be a need for rights to be adjusted, for example, following an increase in the stocking capacity of a common arising from the improvement of the grazing, but this is not affected by this Bill. It will be one of the problems which we shall have to tackle in the further commons legislation.
Unavoidably, a great deal of the detailed administration is left to regulations to be made under the Bill, but I assure the House that in drafting the regulations we intend to keen in close touch with the bodies affected.
The hon. Member for Cornwall, North (Mr. Scott-Hopkins) mentioned the discussions which we had in another place. We are fortunate that the Bill has already been subjected to close scrutiny by their Lordships and improved. The Government were encouraged to introduce Amendments strengthening the Bill. For example, Clause 4 now says in express terms that anyone may apply for land to be registered as common or a green: and anyone can do this even though he has no legal interest in the land. Then again, we have altered Clause 12 to enable any land which may in future be turned into common to be brought on to the registers.
More important, and this is the point which the hon. Member anticipated, the Government gave an undertaking to consider an amendment to enable local authorities to bring proceedings against anyone damaging or pillaging a common the ownership of which is not registered. The hon. Member will be delighted to know that an Amendment has now been 461 drafted which I hope will satisfy both the local authorities' associations as well as the Commons, Open Spaces and Footpaths Preservation Society, and I will be putting this down during the Committee stage.
This is a modest but necessary measure urgently needed. It is not an end in itself but a beginning. It is the first essential step towards recovering many thousands of acres of common land from neglect and preventing thousands more from falling into wasteful decay.
The Bill owes much to the work of many, most of all to the Royal Commission and its Chairman, Sir Ivor Jennings. The Bill is based on their massive and comprehensive Report. The Ramblers' Association and the Commons, Open Spaces and Footpaths Preservation Society ought to find comfort in its provisions, some of which owe a great deal to their officers and officials. Aptly enough, the Commons Preservation Society is this year celebrating its centenary. Everyone who enjoys our most ancient institution—our common land—owes a debt to their persistent vigilance.
I am aware of the interest of Ministers of Agriculture in the previous Government, in particular, the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Bedford (Mr. Soames) and his Parliamentary Secretary. I am encouraged by the concern for the countryside shared by many hon. Members on both sides of the House. These acknowledgments should commend the Bill to the House.
I do not often see eye to eye with Dr. Denman, but I conclude with the words with which he concluded his paper to the Royal Society of Arts: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 sandals. 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.
§ 4.2 p.m.
§ Mr. F. V. Corfield (Gloucestershire, South)
This is a somewhat unusual Bill from a Parliamentary point of view, not 462 because it is unusual, or even as unusual as we sometimes like to pretend, that we have important Measures before us which are not controversial across party lines, but because it is unusual to find a Bill which deals with an immensely complex subject—no one can describe commons legislation as anything but that—which does not produce great controversy among outside interests and across party lines.
My mind is taken back to a somewhat similar subject, the Water Resources Bill which, happily, was extremely free of party political controversy, but which, nevertheless, produced vigorous clashes of interests outside. I must say that, in trying to handle that Bill, I was not sure that the absence of party controversy made it, necessarily, any easier to resolve the differences.
But, however that may be, we can congratulate the right hon. Gentleman because, in introducing this as the first Bill from his new Department, he appears to have steered clear, at least for the time being, of any very noticeable apprehension or opposition from any of the very large number of interests which can arise in connection with commons and village greens. This is because he has very wisely followed the decision of his Conservative predecessors to tackle the problem by stages.
As the right hon. Gentleman reminded us, the Bill is the outcome of recommendations of the Royal Commission which was appointed as long ago as 1955 and presented its Report to Parliament in 1958. Again, as the right hon. Gentleman reminded us, it is fair to say that that Report was welcomed on both sides of the House as a painstaking and very thorough investigation of the matter and, above all—this is something which, unfortunately, cannot always be said of such publications—a very readable account of a subject which derives not only its complexity but also, I suggest, its fascination from the fact that it has been so intimately connected with the evolution of our society since very early times.
We owe Sir Ivor Jennings and his fellow commissioners a deep debt of gratitude, and we on this side wish to be associated with the sentiments expressed by the right hon. Gentleman. As I remember them, 463 the Royal Commission's actual recommendations ran into two full chapters and the summary to something like 70 different items. It is, perhaps, good for us to bear in mind that the Bill, as I understand it, implements only 16 of the first 17 of those items, those grouped together under the two broad headings, "Registration" and "Commons Commissioners". Plainly, we must expect quite a long further stage in the journey towards the improvement and better use of our common land.
We understand that the periods for registration and objection, which the right hon. Gentleman, purely by a slip of the tongue, rather indicated were written into the Bill, which they are not, are intended to be substantially shorter than those recommended by the Royal Commission. Apart from that, the only other departure from the Royal Commission's recommendations which the right hon. Gentleman mentioned is the Government's refusal to accept the suggestion that, in the interim, commons should vest in the Public Trustee. We do not quarrel with him on that. I agree that the Public Trustee's office is not really suited for this type of function.
In their decision to shorten the periods and to confine their initial Bill to registration of commons and town and village greens and of the rights of common over them, the Government have, again, followed my right hon. Friends; and this we welcome. But, as the right hon. Gentleman said, there are many different types of common right. There are wide variations of custom between one part of the country and another and between one common and another. Many of the claims both to common rights and to the rights of the public in regard to access are vague and ill-defined. In addition, there are quite a number of important rights which are not really common rights at all in any legal sense. I hope that the Joint Parliamentary Secretary will be able to mention some of these other rights and the proposals he has for, so to speak, voluntary registration of such matters as the right or custom to play golf on a common. Clearly, although these are not common rights as such, they are important rights.
In the circumstances, it is clear that, before any serious consideration can be 464 given to the ways and means of improving the management of common lands so that better use can be made of them in the interests of the community, we shall require very much more accurate information in regard to the common rights which subsist over them, the extent to which those rights are still enjoyed, their value to individuals, and the extent to which rights of relatively small value may be interfering with better use of commons for something of greater value. We fully accept that registration is the first stage and that it can usefully be provided for as a separate operation, leaving the details by which improvement can be secured for the future.
We have also to accept that the proposed shortening of the periods for registration of claims and subsequent objections has been bought at a price. In paragraphs 284 to 286 of their Report, the Royal Commission made specific recommendations with regard to determination of ownership. Briefly, its suggestions were that the registration authority should register claims to ownership and then, at the end of the relevant period—the Royal Commission's proposal was 12 years—full particulars both of uncontested claims and of claims which had been contested but had been found good should be submitted along with the necessary plans to the Land Registry which would accept the prescribed forms and documents as sufficient evidence of title, inform owners of the relevant Land Registry number and the details entered on the Register, in that way assimilating the registration of common lands into the general Land Registry.
It seems to me that the question of finding out and recording ownership is of the essence of the operation. When we come to the end of the periods which the Government have in mind under the Bill, and the Government of the day come to consider, in the light of the material collected, how best to devise further legislation to ensure better use of common land, the first essential for any authority charged with the responsibility may well be to try to discover who is the owner.
We all know that there is a gulf between the two sides of the House on questions of nationalisation versus private ownership. Sometimes we think 465 that hon. Members opposite have rather scant regard for certain private property rights. But we certainly do not accuse them here of having gone through the process of setting up the registration machinery and burdening county and county borough councils with the task of carrying it out all for the purposes of establishing private rights and then to ignore what most people would regard as the fundamental private right, namely, the ownership of the land or, in ordinary parlance, the ownership of the freehold.
But, as I understand the Bill and the right hon. Gentleman, at the end of the day we shall be no further forward at all in knowing more about the ownership of common land. Of course, it is true, as he says, that Clause 1 provides for the registration under three heads, of which one is ownership. The others are, first, the registration of commons, village greens, town greens, and so on, which we might regard as registration of status, and, secondly, the registration of individual rights of common. But whereas failure to register either status or any particular common right results in the loss of that status or common right, there is no sanction against failure to register ownership. Even if it is registered, the register, even when all objections to the claim have been heard and determined, is in no way evidence as to ownership. As the right hon. Gentleman pointed out, Clause 9 makes clear that it is conclusive evidence only as to status and as to particular rights of common. So as far as I can see, even entries with regard to ownership really mean absolutely nothing.
I fully agree with the right hon. Gentleman that it may be undesirable for a number of reasons to duplicate any registration which has already been effected through the Land Registry. But it seems a pity that we are not taking the opportunity to supplement the information which the Land Registry has, which I understand is meagre in any case.
Again, I appreciate that claims of ownership to common land may in many cases be immensely complicated in law. It could well be that it could take more than five years to establish them. Some might prove more costly to establish than owners felt their value justified. Indeed, the mere fact of registration might 466 almost invite objection and, possibly, costly litigation. In these circumstances, I would be prepared to concede that it might be over-harsh to make failure to register result in permanent loss of rights, and I would concede that to include ownership in the same category as status and common rights with a view to producing a definitive result in, say, five years might well be unrealistic and that there may well be disadvantages—I think there would be—in prolonging that five-year period generally for that purpose.
But if every effort were made to encourage registration of ownership, I find it difficult to understand why details of such registrations as remained, after a reasonable period of time, unopposed, or, if opposed, after the claims had been adjudicated upon by the commons commissioner, should not be passed to the Land Registry and accepted as evidence of title. Nor, for that matter, do I really understand the difficulties in prescribing a different period for the registration of ownership, or for the hearing of objections to ownership, from those that are prescribed in relation to status and common rights. At least, we should be setting the matter in train. I hope that the Joint Parliamentary Secretary will deal with this aspect of the matter.
There is one further major point which seems to me to require considerably more explanation. I refer to Clause 14. As I understand, common rights of pasturage, pannage, and so forth, are sometimes limited to a definite number of animals, and sometimes they are unlimited. If these rights are attached to particular holdings—I think that "rights appendent" is the technical term—a number of unlimited rights will often be limited in practice by the old custom by which the total was limited by the carrying capacity of the common after taking into account the "levant and couchant" rights—I believe those are the terms—in other words, the number of animals which could be wintered on the holdings. But I do not think that this is always the case, and even if it is always the case, obviously such a limitation can only be extremely imprecise.
Again, the grazing capacity of land, particularly of common land, which, by definition, is often neglected agriculturally and does not have very generous treatment with fertilisers and so on, 467 changes very largely from one season to another and presumably, too, the limit on any one commoner must depend to some extent on the extent to which other commoners take up their rights, whether they are "appendent" or "appurtenant", "levant" or "couchant", or otherwise.
In any case, I think that I am right in saying that the rights that are "appurtenant"—that is, not attached to the holding—would presumably have no limit at all or there will be nothing by which to measure the limit if they are not limited in the deed of grant or whatever the document is, because there is no holding by which one can measure the wintering capacity. In any event, I would think that in this day and age the wintering capacity of a holding for this purpose would be fairly difficult to assess. I should think that there are very few livestock holdings which in these days find it economic to attempt to be self-supporting.
What I want to ask the Joint Parliamentary Secretary is how he envisages the setting of limits in accordance with the requirements of Clause 14. I do not, of course, deny that at any rate on the face of it such a limit is probably a desirable objective, but there seem to be very considerable difficulties, particularly in circumstances where there may be a large number of claims which in toto add up to something clearly well in excess of what the common is likely to be able to carry. One also has to question in this regard whether there is much of a case for trying to fix such a limit for all time.
Although I appreciate the importance of common lands in very many cases as places primarily of public recreation, the value of very many others will remain primarily agricultural, and in the case of many more agriculture will continue to have very considerable potential importance even if only in a secondary rôle. Surely one of the objectives of this exercise on which we are embarking is to enable the commoners eventually to manage these sometimes very considerable areas for greater productivity and for the maintenance not of a fixed number of beasts but of a steadily increasing number. It seems to me, therefore, that what is required in this connection is, first, some indication as to how the commons commissioner is to decide on a limit to an un- 468 limited right or unlimited claim, and, secondly, an assurance that even when such a limit has been arrived at there will be opportunities for review.
I have taken up a little longer than I intended, but there are certainly other matters on which we shall want further information and on which no doubt we shall have suggestions to make for improvement in Committee. For the moment, I would only say that I hope that the Government are already looking to the next stage and will be able to give us some idea of what they have in mind. In particular, I ask them not to be too dogmatic, let alone doctrinaire, on this.
Recommendation No. 23 in the Report of the Royal Commission stated thatLand which is common at the passing of the Act should remain common. There should be no inclosure…except in cases of compulsory acquisition by public authorities in accordance with Special Parliamentary Procedure and of unimportant pieces of roadside strip…Recommendation No. 24 was that…Inclosure Acts and of other Acts authorising inclosure without the sanction of Parliament should be repealed but without prejudice to schemes made under them.That is a recommendation that I very much hope will not be adopted too literally. It seems to me, even from my own somewhat casual observations about the countryside, that a number of commons in rural areas are either too small or too remote or otherwise inappropriately situated to provide anything of real amenity or recreational value to local residents, let alone to the public at large.
These commons are quite literally waste and, as the right hon. Gentleman mentioned, all too often they become dumping grounds for refuse, generally of the most bulky and indestructible sort, and really would, in some cases, be infinitely better enclosed and merged with neighbouring agricultural land in private ownership.
§ Mr. J. T. Price (Westhoughton)
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way, because he is only partially stating the question at issue. Commons may be used as dumping grounds in certain cases, but is not he aware, from his reading of history, of what took place, for example, under enclosure from 1760 to 1832, when vast areas of the Pennines 469 were enclosed by landowners' Parliaments under special Acts? The result was that, though this had been free common land for many hundreds of years, it was enclosed and became grouse moors and very valuable property to those who assumed ownership against the public interest. This is a very important matter. It is not doctrinaire, but simply a matter of history.
§ Mr. Corfield
I do not think that the ho 1. Gentleman's history is very sound. Practically the whole of English agriculture—I do not know about Welsh and Scottish agriculture—sprang from the manorial system. Practically every village had its own land which was common to the owners. Our situation both in 1917 and 1943 would have been very grave indeed if we had not had the enclosures. There is no doubt that to have gone on with what the hon. Gentleman has in mind, with large quantities of our best agricultural land retained as open runs, would have greatly impoverished this country and the evolution of the society which has been built upon it.
I think that the only thing to do with the commons which would be better enclosed—there may not be many of them—is to throw them together with neighbouring land. That is purely why I ask the right hon. Gentleman not to take a doctrinaire approach when he comes to the second or maybe the third stage of this operation. It may be that, occasionally, similar considerations will apply to small plots of common land in urban areas, but in any case, if we can have an open mind, they should be dealt with on their merits. I hope that, in considering the ultimate use and management of these common lands, the way will be left open to consider each common on its merits, since commons vary enormously both in type and in the rights exercised on them.
We welcome the Bill and congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on introducing it, on taking it down gratefully from the pigeon-hole without asking too much about its political ownership—indeed, on finding a useful purpose for his Ministry. We say that without personal offence to him. He must blame the Prime Minister for putting him in a position in which he is teased and in 470 which he will go on being teased. Nevertheless, I would add that one of the problems involved here is the further increase, although perhaps marginal, of the burden on local authorities.
There is no doubt that the staffing position in many areas is quite difficult and it is perhaps a little strange that the right hon. Gentleman, having been denied planning powers on the ground that these must be looked after by the Minister of Housing and Local Government, should be presenting a Measure which apparently puts duties exclusively on the local authorities. But we can assure him of our co-operation in Standing Committee in scrutinising the Bill in the utmost detail and helping him, as he will be anxious to have our help, in its improvement.
§ 4.25 p.m.
§ Mr. Carol Johnson (Lewisham, South)
I join with the hon. Member for Gloucestershire, South (Mr. Corfield) in welcoming the Bill and congratulating the Government on introducing it at the present time. As the hon. Member pointed out, this is the first Bill to be presented by my right hon. Friend as Minister of Land and Natural Resources, and from what I hear about other Bills in the pipeline it may well be less controversial than some that we shall deal with later.
As my right hon. Friend pointed out, it is nearly seven years since publication of the Report of the Royal Commission on Common Land. Since then, previous Administrations have often been pressed to take action but it has been left to a Labour Government, in this as in so many other cases, to make progress where there has been delay for so long. If what the hon. Member for Gloucestershire, South has said about the Bill having been in a pigeon-hole is correct, I am very surprised that we were quite unable to get from the Minister previously responsible—the former Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food—any assurance at all about the introduction of legislation.
This is a very important matter. The Royal Commission referred to common land as being the last reserve of uncommitted land in the country. As my right hon. Friend pointed out, no one really knows the exact extent of common land, 471 although it may well be approximately 1½million acres, as he indicated. The difficulty in making any accurate assessment can be illustrated by the reply given to the Royal Commission by representatives of a county council when the Commission was trying to find out the exact extent of common land in that county. They said that it was quite impossible to state this with any precision and that the common land in the county might be anything between 100,000 and 200,000 acres.
It is this element of uncertainty and, indeed, ignorance of the exact position which is one of the main justifications for the Bill, for clearly, in a small island, with a large and rapidly growing population, it is imperative to have a far more exact knowledge about our land. I have no doubt that the Bill is a step in the right direction.
However, although we may all agree that the clouds of ignorance must be dispersed, this is not likely to prove in every way an easy operation. As my right hon. Friend pointed out, quite a number of serious problems are connected with common land and I want to refer to one or two of these. I hope that my right hon. Friend will not feel that I am being too critical if I say that much of his speech could only be appreciated by someone familiar at least with the outlines of the Royal Commission Report. I think that there is so much public ignorance about the position in regard to common land that it may be as well in this debate to state in simple terms what the exact position is in law, as I see it.
As I understand, common land is simply land owned by a private individual over which other private individuals have certain rights. Indeed, the very word "common" is derived from the community of interest which arises between the parties directly concerned and does not, as so many people assume, denote land available for the use of the public, although there are, of course, many commons in the country which, by Statute, have become dedicated to public use and enjoyment. However, one must keep in mind that it is the legal position which makes the Bill necessary, and by taking the first step of registering 472 these various private interests we shall at least have a starting point.
Despite what I have said about the legal position, there is no doubt that, in practice, for the past century or so, common land has been regarded as of the greatest importance from the point of view of public access for recreational purposes. The Commons, Open Spaces and Footpaths Preservation Society, with which I have been associated for many years, celebrates its centenary this year, and throughout the whole of the past century it has resisted any untoward attack on or threat to commons, primarily in the interests of the general public. Moreover, from time to time Parliament itself has accepted the need to consider commons from the same viewpoint.
Legislation has created a legal right of access to some commons. These are those in the metropolitan area, commons wholly or partly within boroughs or urban districts, commons where the rural district council has made a scheme of regulation, commons where the owner has executed a deed to give the public a right of access—and such owners should be honoured for it—National Trust commons and certain commons which are regulated by private Acts. All these commons taken together cover only approximately 300,000 to 350,000 acres, representing only one-quarter of the probable total acreage of commons
Apart from these specific cases which I have mentioned, over all the rest of the commons the public in law has no right of access at all, but in practice, as we all know, the general public expects and is accustomed to use nearly all commons and would no doubt be very surprised to learn that it had no right to do so. One of the reasons why this situation has developed may be that neither owners nor commoners enjoying private rights can in general fence the land so as to keep out the public. In the light of all this, it seems high time that Parliament intervened to regularise the position generally, and the Bill marks the first stage of what may well be a very lengthy process.
Part of the process is finding ways and means of telling the public exactly what the position is and what the Bill and future legislation will seek to do. There is no doubt that most members 473 of the public if questioned about commons would say that they regarded them as some kind of public land. Though they might be completely wrong in law, we all know that in practice there is this misconception and it is quite understandable, but as there is a clear case where law and practice are completely out of date, it seems necessary for Parliament to intervene to protect the public interest which has been enjoyed for so long.
The Royal Commission included a specific recommendation that the public should be given a right of access to all lands subject to the usual byelaws which are made in respect of land open to access. It is a great pity that this recommendation has not been included in the Bill and I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will be able to give us a firm assurance that the Government intend to implement this recommendation in future legislation.
I should like now to turn to the important subject of applications for the registration of common land by members of the public. On this subject the original Bill was greatly improved in another place by an Amendment to enable members of the public, as well as voluntary societies like the Commons Preservation Society, to apply for registration. We particularly welcome this change, for it would have been disastrous if applications for registration had been limited to those having a legal interest in the commons. Having said that, I think that it should be appreciated that members of the public who seek to apply for registration may well find themselves faced with grave difficulties.
It is clear that for many people the real use and value of common land is its recreational use by members of the public, but under the Bill no such use, no matter for how long it has been exercised, will be a ground for registration. On the other hand, it will be a good ground for registration if it can be shown that a farmer in the 1920s turned out animals to graze, or that a cottager cut bean sticks for his garden. I do not want to underrate these rights in any way; on the contrary, they are extremely important and it is greatly to be hoped that those who enjoy them will take proper steps to register.
474 But in the light of this it should be appreciated that there will inevitably be many members of the public who will find it puzzling to understand why the exercise of private rights over commons 30 or 40 years ago is a good ground for registration, and rightly so, while extensive and continuous modern recreational use is not. That is why I referred earlier to the necessity for keeping the public informed and I press the Minister directly the Bill becomes law to see that explanatory memoranda and leaflets are readily available to those who are interested.
I should like to refer briefly to the agricultural use of commons. Although I have been dealing mainly with their recreational use, I am not unmindful of this other aspect. It is frequently said today that the main problem of the countryside is to harmonise the interests of the farmer with those of the townsman and the commuter. Generally, commons are areas where agricultural and recreational interests can be harmonised.
I will go further and suggest that they are often essential one to the other. If common rights, particularly those of grazing, cease to be exercised, a common can quickly become overgrown with scrub and bracken and be practically useless to both the commoner and members of the public. Where there is considerable use of a common the local authority will often undertake drainage and returfing and so on to the benefit of the commoners as well as the public and I am sure that this is the sort of thing which the Minister has in mind. For this reason it is important not to regard the Bill as an end in itself, but merely as a step towards the proper management of commons in the joint interests of commoners and the public.
I had intended to refer to some of the problems likely to arise with unclaimed commons, but, in view of the clear assurance of my right hon. Friend that he will introduce an Amendment so that local authorities may protect such commons from encroachment and damage and so on, I think that we must wait and see what he has to propose, although I should like to thank him on behalf of the Commons Preservation Society and other bodies who made representations to him on this matter.
The last matter to which I wish to refer is the adequacy of the definition of 475 "common rights", contained in Clause 21. I know that this question bristles with difficulties, but I sat this morning in the Library with the definition before me and looked up in the law books and law dictionaries' statements on what are common rights. It seems to me that, comparing the two, the definition needs to be broadened a little. As at present drafted, it seems to refer only to rights of grazing.
It is true that the use of the word "includes" indicates that other rights are intended to be covered, but surely, having regard to the past history of commons, it would be appropriate, in a Bill of this character, to refer to those important rights of common which have such a delightful medieval flavour, such as turbary, which is the cutting of turf or peat; piscary, which is the taking of fish; pannage, which is the turning out of pigs; and estovers, which apparently cover much more than the taking of wood and timber.
For these reasons, I hope that the Minister and his legal advisers will consider whether at a later stage they can find a definition which will clearly as well as implicitly cover these other rights which can be of considerable importance both to the farmer and to the cottager.
I have tried to be constructive in my approach to this Measure, but I also wish to emphasise my firm support for the main purpose of the Bill. By and large, it is a very good Bill, and if in Committee hon. Members on both sides of the House can co-operate in making it even better I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Minister will welcome our efforts. A distinguished Member of the House in the last century, Mr. George Shaw-Lefevre, who afterwards became Lord Everslev, and who held high Ministerial office for most of his life, nevertheless found time to help in establishing the Commons Preservation Society and being its chairman for very many years. He was passionately devoted to protecting the commons.
I can confirm what my hon. Friend the Member for Westhoughton (Mr. J. T. Price) recently said, that during the nineteenth century these fights were long and very grim. Lord Eversley once referred to commons asreservoirs of fresh air and health. whence tresh breezes blow into the adjoining town. 476 They bring home to the poorest something of the sense and beauty of nature.They are, in my view, as important today as ever they were.
In this Bill, Parliament is taking the first step to preserve and improve a community asset, and its efforts will, I am sure, be welcomed everywhere.
§ 4.44 p.m.
§ Sir Henry Studholme (Tavistock)
I am very glad to welcome the Bill. To all intents and purposes, I think that it must be pretty well the same Bill which the Conservative Government had on the stocks and which my right hon. Friend the Member for Bedford (Mr. Soames), the then Minister of Agriculture, assured me, contrary to what the hon. Member for Lewisham, South (Mr. Carol Johnson) said, a Conservative Government would introduce at an early date had we been returned to power last October.
In particular, I am interested in the Bill for the effect that it will have on hill farming in Devon. As my hon. Friend the Member for Cornwall, North (Mr. Scott-Hopkins) knows, having been Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture in the last Government, I have been campaigning for a long time for legislation to ensure that there was a proper standard of animal husbandry on Dartmoor, a large part of which lies in my constituency. That is an aim which many people have been pursuing, not least among them being the Dartmoor Commoners' Association, which is composed of farmers who run stock upon Dartmoor and who, in their memorandum of evidence to the Royal Commission on common lands, laid down an admirable set of rules for good animal husbandry on the Moor.
It is only fair to the Dartmoor Commoners' Association to say that it is not its fault that we are still without legislation to enforce these rules, although, thanks to its efforts, much has been done to improve the standard of hill farming in that area. I should like to pay tribute to the work of its secretary, my friend and constituent, Mr. Tom Brown, of Tavistock.
Many of us on and around Dartmoor would have liked to see a special Act introduced for Dartmoor on the lines of the New Forest Act, which works 477 extremely well. However, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bedford and his predecessor, now Lord Blakenham, made it clear that they were not prepared to tackle the question of common land piecemeal and that it was a nation-wide problem and should be considered as such. No doubt they were right. As I have said, legislation was already prepared for introduction this year.
The problem, as anybody who has taken the trouble to study it knows, is extremely complicated because of the ancient grazing rights and other rights of commoners which go back for centuries into the midst of time. The first step before any detailed legislation can be introduced is to discover who exactly the commoners are and what are their rights and obligations. In the case of the New Forest, the task was comparatively easy because the new atlas of the commoners, as it is called, was based on the Registration of Common Rights Act, 1853. I see that Clause 10 of the Bill exempts the New Forest from registration because registration has already been carried out there.
There is no such register in the case of Dartmoor. Indeed, I believe that technically anybody living in Devon, except the burgesses of Totnes and Barnstaple, for some reason, is entitled to pasture animals on Dartmoor, though in practice it is only those who live adjacent who do so.
The Bill provides the first step, which is the registration of rights. I am glad that in Clause I the Minister confirms the opinion expressed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bedford that three years be allowed for registration and that two years should be allowed afterwards for objections instead of the 12 years in all recommended by the Royal Commission. Surely five years should be long enough. That means that by about the early 1970s—perhaps 1972, judging from the date which the Minister gave us—a Conservative Government—and of course there will be one long before that—will be able to proceed with legislation for the proper management and improvement of common land.
Meantime, I hope that we shall hear from the Minister or the Parliamentary Secretary what further legislation the 478 Government have in mind. We should like to know, for instance, whether on Dartmoor the Minister recommends that a code of animal husbandry similar to that drawn up by the Dartmoor Commoners Association be made enforceable. At present, there are no legal sanctions against anyone not conforming to the required standard. Though such cases are few, they do exist and they bring discredit on moorland farmers. A statement of intention by the Minister would have a salutary effect on any delinquents. Would the Minister be prepared to consome such body as a court of verderers similar to that in the New Forest which sider in the case of Dartmoor setting up controls animal husbandry there?
I have carefully read the speech by the Joint Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Mitchison, which he made in another place on Second Reading. He gave a very clear explanation of its contents, as indeed has the Minister who introduced the Bill here today. I am very glad to see that Lord Mitchison referred to the fact that the National Parks Act lays down that members of the public, in exercising their rights, should not interfere with the rights of other people. These include the rights of agriculture and forestry. I am as keen as anybody about the National Parks. I want to preserve their peace and natural beauty, which is what people come there to enjoy. I hate to see motor cars sprawling everywhere over moorland tracks and litter louts spreading their mess around, which appears to be the only sort of exercise which many of them take.
Some National Park enthusiasts, however, seem to find it convenient, when speaking or writing about the parks, to ignore the legitimate interests of farming and forestry, which are specifically laid down in the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act, and the interests of those who live and work in the national parks and who depend upon those industries for their living. There are also in some cases the interests of the training of the Services which, in this wicked and dangerous world, unfortunately, have to be considered. If we could have a little more consideration and understanding all round of the rights of others, we should get on much better.
I am, however, digressing from the 479 Bill. I conclude by repeating that I welcome the Bill as a first step towards ensuring that all the commons of our country are properly managed and preserved, because they are a precious part of our heritage. I am sorry to see that no hon. Member of the Liberal Party is present, because the Liberals have always professed a great interest in National Parks and commons. The only hon. Member of that party who was present earlier has now left the Chamber.
§ 4.52 p.m.
§ Mr. Arthur Palmer (Bristol, Central)
I intend to be very short and not to comment generally on the provisions and objects of the Bill. I agree with hon. Members on both sides who have spoken that it is an excellent Bill and that it is overdue, particularly for the great bulk of miscellaneous and unclassified land. I am, however, anxious to probe a little further into the exemption provisions.
I rise to inquire why the New Forest and Epping Forest are specifically excluded from the operation of the Bill while an open space of the size, importance, definition and antiquity of, say, Wimbledon and Putney Commons is included. Wimbledon and Putney Commons are a fine stretch of open country within a short distance of this House and I am sure that that area is well known to hon. Members.
I should declare my interest, because I am one of the three specially appointed conservators of Wimbledon Common. Five of us are elected and three are appointed, and I am the nominee of my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary. I regard it as a privilege to be one of the governing body of that fine open space. It is what remains of my former Parliamentary interest in the Wimbledon area. I and my fellow conservators are charged with the duty of keeping for ever these commons open and unenclosed. This is a duty which we discharge faithfully, I hope.
Like Epping and the New Forest, Wimbledon is governed by its own special Act of Parliament, which was passed in 1871. It is also independent of local rating authorities, of local taxation in any form and of control as such in any way by local authorities. It is, therefore, odd 480 that Epping and the New Forest should be specifically excluded but Wimbledon included. I am sure that this argument could be taken further to other defined commons under their own special Acts.
As my right hon. Friend the Minister knows, the issue has already been discussed between his Department and the Wimbledon conservators and I think that I am right in saying that my right hon. Friend accepts that the case for Wimbledon to be excluded from the registration provisions if application is made under Clause 10 is strong. I also accept that the Bill makes special provision for exemption where a common is already governed under a special Act where the owner of the land is known—in the case of Wimbledon and Putney, it would be the conservators—and where the commons rights have not been exercised for a very long time, I think for 50 years. Apparently, the advice that has been offered is that Wimbledon would probably easily get exemption from registration, but in the process of obtaining exemption a number of issues of right might easily be raised which would, perhaps, remain better buried because the present administration of these commons is satisfactory and has worked extremely well for over 90 years.
I should like to have from my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary when he replies a fuller explanation on this point than has been given, particularly in regard to the London area and why Epping should be out but Wimbledon and Putney in. I should have thought that they could easily have been bracketed together. I should also like an assurance that when this important, if perhaps small, Bill goes to Committee, the issue may be looked at again with a view to the provision for specific exemption being further extended.
§ 4.57 p.m.
§ Mr. Michael Jopling (Westmorland)
Like every other hon. Member who has spoken on the Bill so far, I should like to extend a warm welcome to it. It is a Measure which is of enormous and vital interest to my constituents, because, according to the estimates of the Royal Commission, Westmorland has 130,000 acres of common land and this constitutes no less than 25 per cent. of my constituency. This is an astonishingly high figure.
481 Throughout the remainder of England and Wales, 1 acre in 25 is estimated to be common land, whereas in my constituency the ratio is 1 in 4.
The north of England has an enormous wide expanse of common land stretching right across the country. If we take together the North Riding of Yorkshire, where I live and farm and have been brought up, and with my constituency of Westmorland, they account for one-third of the common land in England. According to the estimates of the Royal Commission, the four northern counties of Cumberland and Westmorland and the North and West Ridings of Yorkshire comprise well over half the comman land in England.
The Bill will be very much welcomed by my constituents because, as the Minister has said, the present position is extraordinarily vague. At the root of all this is the uncertainty of who the commoners are. Even if it is known in certain circumstances who has rights on commons, one often finds that there is one awkward person who will not comply or co-operate, w th the result that improvements which are vitally necessary for the public good cannot be undertaken.
I am thinking particularly of roadside fencing which is very important for sheep farmers. I am sure that many hon. Members will know of sheep farmers who have had to give up grazing their flocks on common land to which they have rights because of the appalling slaughter of the animals resulting from collisions with motor vehicles.
We are not using the resources of our common land to the full. This is a tragedy and in itself a good reason for welcoming the Bill. Agriculturally, there are tremendous improvements which could be made to common land. Although I am sure we are all glad to see the Joint Parliamentary Secretary "in the wings" we are very sorry that the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has not attended the debate. This is an enormous problem from the point of view of agriculture and worthy of his attention. Once the Bill has been passed it will lead to further legislation which, with the co-operation and good will of those people who have rights on them will enable the commons to be improved. I think that "co-operation" is the vital word.
482 So much of the problem over common land in Westmorland—this applies also to other parts of the country particularly the South-West—can be traced back to overstocking. Much common land is abominably overstocked and consequently the herbage is of a very poor quality. A great improvement may be made in the agricultural value of our common land in future if new techniques of sheep management are evolved, which I think is very likely within the next ten years or so.
It may well be that those people who run sheep on common land may not be forced, as they are at present, to turn their sheep on to the common too early in the year, with the consequent "hammering" of the best of the grasses which are the early growing grasses. This results in a reduction of the grazing value of the whole common. I hope that, as a consequence of the Bill, we shall see many more cattle on common land, as has happened in the past, because many farmers went into milk production and took their herds off the common to the inside land nearer to home. I hope that more can be done to kill the bracken. Its presence is one of the reasons why farmers are not anxious to turn their cattle on to the commons, because it is poisonous. Ultimately, when the second stage of legislation is produced, I hope that we shall see a heartening rise in incomes in respect of those farms in some of the marginal hill areas.
The point to which I wish particularly to refer has already been mentioned, the vexatious Clause 14. When the Bill was being discussed in another place Lord Mitchison, during the Second Reading debate, dealt with Clause 14 in a very terse way. All he said about it was that it deals with a rather technical matter and that, I think, was the understatement of the debate. Without any question this is the most controversial part of the Measure. It has been said that a more controversial Bill will appear in the 1970s, but I think that the Bill may well prove to be sufficiently controversial, and it is vital that we should have a clear understanding from the Minister of what is intended.
According to the estimates made by the Royal Commission, of the 130,000 acres of common land in Westmorland, 483 30,000 consist of stinted grazing which means that there is a restriction on the number of stock allowed to graze there. The remaining 100,000 acres provide free and unstinted grazing. Many farms let or sold in the north-west of England are advertised as being with unlimited grazing rights on the commons. When the Bill becomes law and the registers are open, those people who feel that they have claims in respect of common rights will make them, and in many cases we shall be faced with very extravagant claims quite out of proportion to what is right, proper and fair. In my constituency, as in other parts of England and Wales, it is the custom that people owning or renting land adjoining the common have rights to graze their stock on the common.
This means that an enormous number of people will, quite legitimately, be able to claim rights on the common because of a variety of factors. It is also true that anyone who has built a house in years gone by on land to which were attached rights to graze on the common will be able to claim that they have unlimited grazing rights. I believe that there will be a flood of claims registered under the Bill by people who feel that they have unlimited rights in respect of commons. Some people may claim for 200 sheep and others for 500 or even 1,000, and it will be difficult to say that a claim is not a right one. No doubt there will be a flood of objections from those who consider that people have claimed unfairly. I imagine that for nearly every claim made there will be an objection.
These matters will be passed to the commons commissioner under Clause 5(7). We must be given some sort of view from the Parliamentary Secretary about what yardstick the commissioner will use to deal with these objections and to settle the quantification—to use an awful word—of the rights to graze and whether it should be the acreage of inside or in-by land which the farmers have and on which they winter their animals. Over the years many people may have discontinued the grazing of stock on the commons for a variety of reasons. Perhaps some engaged in agriculture may have established milking herds, particularly during the wartime when they may have been asked to change their system of farming in the national interest. They may not have 484 exercised their rights in previous years and some unfairness would arise over rental values.
It is essential that those people who have rights which they can establish should be allocated something. It would be quite wrong if people who claim rights which they have not used for many years are refused those rights. I think that it is also true, on the other hand—I suppose that the answer is a balance between the two—that some weight should be given to what is the present usage of grazing on the commons, that those people who have been grazing a number of animals on the commons should have some sort of weighting in favour of them, because of the existing use.
Another thing which is enormously important in this context is that these rights should be exercisable, because no doubt many farmers and other people will be allocated rights to graze on commons which they are not likely to use, but which are legal and proper rights. It should be arranged so that they can either rent them, or even sell them if they are theirs to sell, to other commoners. Certainly, I would specify that it must only be to other commoners, because what we must try to aim for is a centralisation of the grazing rights of these commons, and to try to stop fragmentation as much as possible. I hope that we shall have some indication of this in the winding-up speech.
It is not, of course, as easy as many people think, for people who suddenly find that they have rights to graze on commons—particularly the upland hill commons in the north of England—to use them. Many laymen would think that all somebody would have to do would be to buy some sheep and put them on the common. This is not true with the sheep which one finds on most of the upland commons. They were bred there, they are what is known as hefted sheep and they know their way around the fell. Anybody who puts outside sheep on such a fell would find that they just wander away or die, or probably both. I hope that the other thing, in terms of quantification, which the Minister will look at again and which we shall hear about later is the allowance for increases at a later date. Clause 14(1) refers to 485 the rights being exercised in relation to no more animals. I am sure that he will take the point that if the grazing capabilities of the common are increased, these rights can be increased proportionately in years to come.
The next point with which I should like to deal briefly is one which has been dealt with already, and that is the rights which are to be registered. This is of enormous importance. Clause 21 refers to certain specific rights which should be registered. It refers to cattlegates or beastgates—another word for stints—to sole or several vesture, which means the rights to take the produce of the sole, and the rights to sole and several pasture, which means the grazing rights. I hope that, as these three items are listed in Clause 21, it should be considered whether or not certain other specific rights also ought to be considered and registered.
I am thinking particularly of rights—which exist particularly, I know, in the northern commons—like rights of public watering places and rights to take stone. These are rights which were exercised frequently in the past and which are still exercised in many cases. I am told that it would be a very great benefit in the future if they were still registered under this legislation.
Turning to the actual mechanics of registration, these will be a matter for the county councils to organise. It can be imagined that, in a county like Westmorland, with such an enormous proportion of its land being common land and such a relatively low population, it will be an enormous job. The Clerk to the Westmorland County Council informs me that he expects that two or three members of his staff will have to spend a substantial part of their time over the next few years engaged in this job alone. I am particularly glad that the Amendment which was submitted in another Wace, that the registering duty should be vested in the district councils, was over-ruled. I think that, certainly in the case of Westmorland, that is much too big a job for the district councils. I am glad that it is still to be vested in the county councils.
There is a potential difficulty here which affects my constituency. It is one which I should be most grateful if the right hon. Gentleman would look at. 486 Clause 18(2) says that regulations may make provisions for the preparation of maps to accompany applications. This provision is absolutely essential in Westmorland, because, as I understand from the Ordnance Survey authorities, certain parts of my constituency—I understand that it is the only one in England, though I may be wrong on that point—are not covered by the Ordnance Survey 25-inch county series plans. These are the plans on which one finds the acreages and Ordnance Survey numbers and which refer to the parcels of land.
I hope that the Minister will look at this to make sure that there will be no difficulties arising because of the difficulty of specifying exactly to what land people are referring when they register claims for ownership or rights. I am certain that misunderstanding could arise here. There is no question at all that maps must be provided—presumably they will have to be the six inch maps—but I should be grateful if the Minister would look at this to make sure that no difficulties will arise. An enormous number of registrations is likely to be made, certainly in my constituency. The clerk to the county council estimates that 266 parcels of land will be registered over the next few years.
The last point which I want to mention is that of proper publicity for the measures which are included in the Bill. It has been said that the bulk of the publicity will be contained in the newspapers, but, knowing country people very well and being one myself, I know that they are reluctant to read legal notices, and if they read them they rarely understand them. I hope that we shall find an extensive and an effective way of getting publicity around about what is included in the Bill and what is to be done. I hope that a certain amount of extravagance will be shown in expenditure in getting these provisions known, and that there will be some sort of an individual approach—perhaps notices sent with the rates demands—so that everybody, if possible, is given notice of the importance of registering during the three year period.
During this period and during the two years which follow it for objections, I should have thought that it would be wise if annual notices of the existing state 487 of the register were displayed locally in areas where there have been registrations. There are many places in most country districts, certainly in country towns, where these notices could be displayed. I should have thought that this was very important. I also noticed that, in Clause 18, there is provision for information to be given for a charge. Again, one hates to pay to get this sort of information, which may or may not be necessary. I should have thought that this was a mistake. I should have hoped that anybody who wanted information about what the present register is would be able to get it without payment.
I have spoken for longer than I intended, but I hope that I have not delayed the House for too long on this matter. As I have tried to explain, this Measure is one of fundamental importance to my constituents and is one which, I am sure, will be welcomed and will lead to important and fundamental changes in the country in the future.
§ 5.20 p.m.
§ Mr. Leo Abse (Pontypool)
I regard myself as fortunate in having followed in the debate the hon. Member for Westmorland (Mr. Jopling), because, if anything, his speech reveals the need, which has been pointed out by the Joint Parliamentary Secretary in another place, when further legislation ultimately follows, for such legislation to be elastic and to deal with local and particular difficulties. The problems about which I wish to speak, and the attitude which I and many other Welsh Members will bring to the problem is somewhat different, and has a marked degree of difference in emphasis, from that of the hon. Member for Westmorland.
For many years no group of Members has pressed for this type of legislation more than have the Members representing Welsh constituencies. For seven years we have had a dusty answer from Conservative Governments. We therefore welcome the fact that at long last a problem which is of fundamental importance to Wales is to be tackled. We have a large problem. While 1 million out of 32 million acres of land in England are common land, in Wales out of 5 million acres, nearly half-a-million acres are common land. The very dimensions of our 488 common land mean that in many areas there is much cause for concern about many of the problems attendant upon common land.
From Wales we welcome a Bill such as this for a variety of reasons. We welcome it, for example, because we are bound to have apprehensions when the Royal Commission reveals that in Montgomery, whereas there were, in 1873, 109,000 acres of common land, all they can now discover is 8,276 acres. That there should be some control over common land in a county such as that is in this way dramatically revealed. When we see encroachments of this kind possibly taking place, we see the need for the community interest to be adequately safeguarded.
Again, we welcome the Bill because we realise that it could be a precursor to legislation which could help in some measure to meet the problem of the depopulation of Mid-Wales. In counties such as Radnorshire there are large areas of common land which undoubtedly could be used for reafforestation, and the fact that they are not being so used is due to the vague character of the existing position. We have here a Bill which will clearly help in giving definition in order that it will become possible to use, ultimately, far more fruitfully some of the land which at present is being so fecklessly disregarded and which could he used for more effective purposes.
But it is not for those reasons that I have presumed to join in the debate. It is because throughout the valleys of South Wales, and particularly in many of the valleys of Glamorganshire and Monmouthshire, we have a totally different problem arising out of the existence of large tracts of common land. Other hon. Members have spoken of the problems which arise because they fear that those who live in urban areas may not be able to enjoy the amenities of country life. Our problem in South Wales is quite different, and it is that the common land completely engulfs and overwhelms our urban areas.
The common land in our industrial counties, in the industrial valleys of Glamorgan and Monmouthshire is such that these industrial valleys are completely surrounded by common land upon which there are extensive grazing rights. In 489 Monmouthshire, my own county, nearly 10 per cent. of the surface of the county is common land; two-thirds of the 50,000 acres of rough grazing land in our county is common land, and almost every acre of the common land—99 per cent.—is stinted pasture, in contrast to the position in any other county of England and Wales. One begins to realise the seriousness of this position.
The hon. Member for Westmorland defended his sheep with great passion. There is evidently an identity of interest between the sheep and his electorate. But, as we should expect among an intelligent electorate in the valleys of South Wales, there is no such identity of interest. There is a mutual antagonism. The sophisticated intelligence expressed in electoral terms in South Wales has even brushed off upon the Welsh sheep. They are not only subsidised in the hills, but they make certain that they are subsided in the gardens and in the houses of my constituents.
This is a serious problem in the valleys of South Wales. It cannot be regarded lightly by any man who is a gardener or who holds an allotment. He cannot regard it lightly that overnight all his work for a year can be pillaged because of the intrusion of sheep.
I listen with great interest to the hon. Member for Westmorland describing how the motor cars were mowing down sheep in his constituency, but I am far more concerned to find that in areas like Varteg in my constituency we have ponies which come down and pound through housing estates. I am more concerned with the lives of the children and the wives of my constituents than with those of the sheep of Westmorland. I know that we shall never overcome this extraordinarily difficult problem until we have a definition as to who has these common rights and where they are, but the Bill is the beginning of an effort to establish what all these rights are.
I trust that what it will mean is that when we have defined, in the way the Bill attempts to define, the rights which may be: held over common land, in future legislation—especially bearing in the mind the difficulties of areas such as South Wales, where we have the anachronism of such vast tracts of common land in urban areas—it will be possible, in the interests of those urban communities in the Indus- 490 trial valleys, to take the appropriate steps to extinguish rights which quite clearly are inimical to the common weal. This must come about, because we cannot possibly have a situation in which thousands of sheep can exist in industrial valleys so as to make it quite impossible for any man to enjoy the amenities which are his right in urban life.
In common with all Welsh Members, I therefore welcome the Bill, which at last takes a step to resolve this old problem. The problem has always been there. It was a burning problem 50 years ago. I recollect speaking in one of our industrial valleys about the Common Market and making a erudite speech, when the Common Market controversy was at its height. When I paused at the end of the speech and waited for questions, I was asked, "What will be the effects of the Common Market upon the sheep grazing in the valley?" This is an important problem in South Wales, and for too long it has been taken for granted as being a matter for levity instead of being a serious detriment to all.
I conclude on a note of warning to the Minister on a somewhat unrelated matter. He has been invited by several hon. Members on both sides of the House—and he may have been captivated by the picturesque language which may be attached to the infinite number of rights over commission land—to enumerate those rights. I urge him to be careful. In Wales we have the term ty-un-nos, which means "house overnight". It means that if one builds a house overnight and if smoke can be seen coming from the chimney in the morning one has the right to keep the house on that site.
I appreciate how smooth the relations are between the Ministry of Land and Natural Resources and the Ministry of Housing and Local Government. I hope that my right hon. Friend will not enumerate rights of this kind in a way which might cause difficulty between the two Ministries, both of which are jealous of their respective rights.
§ Sir Harmar Nicholls (Peterborough)
To return to an earlier part of the hon. Gentleman's speech, I was wondering what answer he gave to that question about sheep and the Common Market, particularly since it looks as though both 491 sides of the House are now agreed that it might be a good thing for us to join the Common Market.
§ Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Dr. Horace King)
If the hon. Member for Pontypool (Mr. Abse) answered that he would be out of order.
§ Mr. Abse
That is exactly what I told the meeting at the time. Since the hon. Member for Peterborough (Sir Harmar Nicholls) originally came from Caerphilly, he must be aware that the problem with which I was dealing is infinitely difficult of solution, without dragging in the Common Market. There is another serious problem now, for his intervention has spoilt my peroration and he has placed me in the difficulty of having to end my speech abruptly, by saying how pleased Wales is that the present Labour Government have taken this step forward.
§ 5.33 p.m.
§ Mr. Ray Mawby (Totnes)
I sympathise with the constitutents of the hon. Member for Pontypool (Mr. Abse), because the difficulties about which he spoke are by no means confined to Wales. Most parts of the country face similar difficulties, no doubt because people are expected to fence against animals rather than the owners of the animals being expected to fence their animals in. This reminds me of the man who applied for a licence to purchase wire mesh during the war to keep in some birds. His request was refused. He then applied for a licence to obtain wire mesh to keep animals out. He got the wire mesh.
Discussion about the enclosure of animals often causes difficulty because of the misunderstandings that arise. I hope that in future it will be possible to fence certain areas of the country, particularly where animals encroach on to main roads and into urban areas. The urban dweller should have the right to feel that property will not be desecrated by what he regards as a herd of wild animals. I hope that this will be only one benefit which will flow from the Bill.
I add my congratulations to the Minister on having brought the Measure forward, because I was associated with my hon. Friend the Member for Tavistock (Sir H. Studholme) for a number of years in trying to tackle this problem. We were concerned, first, with the question 492 of animal husbandry on common land, particularly on Dartmoor, and, secondly, to find a way by which those who have interests, particularly on Dartmoor, could go about their business amicably, without being faced with the difficulties which have arisen and which still exist.
Most hon. Members are aware of the many organisations which exist and which have laudable objects. However, they often come into direct conflict with one another. Covering Dartmoor, for example, there is the Dartmoor Commoners Association, comprised of commoners with rights on the Moor. Naturally they are interested in good animal husbandry, but without any statutory powers it is difficult for them to do the necessary planning or to take to task a commoner who misuses his rights to the detriment of the animals.
There is also the Dartmoor Preservation Society and the Dartmoor Livestock Protection Society. These bodies are comprised of people who are, in the main, not commoners; people who have always enjoyed the amenities of common land, such as ramblers and hikers. They tend to become annoyed if their interests are interfered with in any way by anyone else. Thus there arises a conflict between the various bodies which exist. If these amenity bodies see what they consider to be evidence of animals being ill treated—for example, animals being wintered on the Moor, as they have been in recent winters—further difficulties arise because of the conflict which ensues between these various organisations.
We all know that these problems cannot be solved overnight. Nevertheless, the Bill sets the stage for most of them to be solved. As the Minister and the Royal Commission pointed out, a lot is yet to be learned about common land. And as for Dartmoor, very few people understand exactly what are the rights of the commoner. I have been wondering why some of my constituents, the burgesses of Totnes, have been excluded from having rights, even of pasturage, on Dartmoor. Apart from the burgesses of Totnes and Barnstaple, every citizen of Devon has these rights, although we appreciate that if they all exercised them the Moor could not possibly hold that number of animals and great difficulty would arise.
493 This shows that we must establish the commons rights and, when that has been done, we can move to the next stage, when we can give to bodies equivalent to the Dartmoor Commoners Association some statutory powers to enable them to control their fellow members and other commoners so that at least they will be able to have proper control. That will result in everyone concerned being reasonably satisfied that people are using their commons rights in a proper way. We must aim at securing this state of affairs—at a position in which the difficulties I have described do not arise and people are satisfied that there is no question of cruelty to animals being involved. This would reduce the conflict between the various organisations whose members are using the Moor.
I welcome the power in the Bill to lay down the number of animals which the commoner will be allowed to run. This will obviously be of great help in solving the present difficulties. What criteria will be used in deciding this number? We are all agreed that a satisfactory solution of this rights problem—and the Minister said that the Bill seeks to establish this criteria—should be found, but if this is to apply right across the board, then presumably the commoners at present running a certain number of animals will find that in future their rights will be based on the number they are now running Is that the position?
The Royal Commission referred particularly to another question when it stated:Taking common land as a whole we are left with the impression that it is the relic of an ancient system of land management which has caused it to lag well behind other land in agricultural production. To a large extent, the commoners have remained outside the scope of recent agricultural legislation, ineligible for either its benefits or penalties, and incapable, as commoners, of contributing to the industry's increased productivity.There are many reasons for that state of things, and one has to ask whether there are not ways and means by which we can make common land more productive so that the commoners may enjoy a higher standard of living than they have done. We then come back to the basic problem of enclosure, because it is difficult to fertilise land if it is not fenced in any way, and when no one is felt to be responsible, with the result that no one person is prepared to spend 494 money so that someone else enjoys the benefit.
I believe that with this first step we can move towards a way in which the common land can be made more productive, the commoners can enjoy a higher standard of life, with obvious benefit to the nation as a whole. I also believe that if the matter is properly handled those who enjoy the amenities of common land will be able to enjoy a higher standard of amenity than they now have, although I know that not every amenity lover will agree with me here. I know that many amenity lovers would rather see Dartmoor a wilderness, with useless timber, rather than put under a sensible system of afforestation, with the rooting out of nasty scrub oak, and the like, so as to make something of the place. There is this conflict, but I hope that in time that conflict between the various people who have rights will be reduced.
This Bill is a very good first step. I believe that the Ministry is right in laying down a shorter period for registration than that suggested by the Royal Commission. I do not believe that registration need take as long as the Royal Commission thought. The fact that there will be no charge for claims for registration put in during the first 18 months should make certain that the main bulk of those who feel that they have commons rights will have been registered. The right hon. Gentleman will then be able to get some general idea of the position. The laggards will come along later, of course, but I do not think that there will be many of them compared with the main body of those who register in the first 18 months. As the Minister said, this is a modest but necessary Measure, and from it can flow many important things. I therefore wish him luck, and support his Bill.
§ 5.45 p.m.
§ Mr. Gordon Oakes (Bolton, West)
I agree with the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Mawby) that this Measure should be the first step in quite comprehensive commons legislation. Incidentally, I believe that the correct technical term for those who use the commons in Devon is "potboilers".
Some hon. Members opposite have expressed pleasure that my right hon. 495 Friend should have taken this Measure out of the pigeon-hole. Who put it into the pigeon-hole in 1957 and left it there until 1965? Had legislation been brought in in 1957–58 when the Jennings Report was before the House, the 12 years referred to in that Report as the registration period, taken with the three years proposed in the Bill, would have taken us to the same time, and we would have that greater protection of a length of time in which rights could be registered.
I agree with the hon. Member for Totnes about the importance of this Bill, because I sometimes wonder whether we all know just how much land we are talking about in terms of registration. An area of 1½million acres of common land has been mentioned. In England this is about equivalent in size to the whole of Somerset. The common land in Wales is about equal in area to the whole of the combined area of the Island of Anglesey and the county of Caernarvon. The combined total for England and Wales would be much greater than the total area of Lancashire. We are here dealing with a tremendous area of land, and my right hon. Friend, in bringing his first Bill to the House, should be warmly congratulated on tackling so vast a geographical area. The Bill shows the need there is for a Ministry of Land and Natural Resources.
It is rather astonishing that although common land has existed in this country for at least a thousand years—possibly since before Anglo-Saxon times—there has been no national register of it. We do not really know where it all is. We have no register of ownership, no register of rights over it—most important of all, we have no register of the public's rights over common land. In a crowded little island like this, where every acre should be of use to the public either agriculturally or recreationally, it is important that this register should be established. We are fortunate, indeed, that so much common land still exists despite centuries of neglect in establishing any system of registration.
There are one or two points in the Bill about which I am a little uncertain, and perhaps my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary will be able to allay my fears later in the debate. Clause 496 1(2) states that no land shall be deemed to be common land after a period of three years after the commencement of this Measure. In other words, unless it has been registered during that period, the land will be lost as common land. Presumably, such land would revert to the fee simple ownership without the owner having the encumbrance of rights of common or, where they exist, rights of public access. If the owner does not desire to register that land he is under no compulsion to do so and, in many instances, it might not be in his interests to do so. This is quite a problem, because he would lose the burden of commons rights without his even enclosing the land, and would do so by the operation of an Act of Parliament designed to set up machinery to preserve common land. That point should be carefully looked into.
It may be said that that aspect is already dealt with by Clause 4, under which any member of the public has the right to make an application to register land as common land. Will any member of the public, or will many members of the public, exercise such a right? I do not think so. For one thing, there is a good deal of uncertainty about now what land is common land and members of the public would be as vague and uncertain as local authorities and Ministries have been about what constitutes common land. Further, if a member of the public were to register the land and then sought to maintain that application on the register, he might involve himself in legal costs vis-à-vis the owner. He would be deterred from registering in the first place, and would certainly be deterred from maintaining that registration before the Commons Commissioners as an ordinary member of the public with no commons rights or ownership rights but merely doing his duty as a public-spirited citizen should.
My right hon. Friend may say that under another subsection of Clause 4 a registration authority itself is empowered to register common land even though no application is made by someone using the common, or the owner of the common. Here are two difficulties which were touched upon by the hon. Member for Westmorland (Mr. Jopling). The county council is the registration area, but in some counties, particularly 497 the larger ones, there will be difficulties about actually knowing where common land exists. We are dealing with a vast amount of land. My views on that are somewhat reinforced by some remarks in an excellent and most readable book by Stamp and Hoskins, two well respected members of the Commission. Hoskins will be known to the hon. Member for Totnes as possibly our greatest local historian and Stamp is one of our greatest geographers.
A paragraph appears on page 100 of that book which says:The published evidence of the Crown Estate Commissioners and the Service Departments is very informative in this regard. In particular, the Crown Estate Commissioners not only own but have declared open to public access large areas of common land in Wales which the local authorities, in their evidence, did not know existed.Here is a problem that county councils as registration authorities dealing with the problems of village greens and town greens have to seek out the common land. To do so they will have to employ staff and to incur expense for what apparently will bring little or no return to them.
The second problem which may militate against county councils' registration of common land is that unless an application comes from outside there is again the question of cost. They themselves would have to maintain their application on the register before the Commissioners and incur expense in doing so. Although county councils and county borough councils should be the registration authorities, I wonder if rural district councils, urban district councils and possibly parish councils should not have a duty to inform county councils of commons in their areas. They have much more intimate knowledge than resides in the county hall which deals with the whole county.
Another problem which was touched on by my right hon. Friend in opening the debate was about Clause 8 and the difficulty in regard to common land which is unclaimed. The Clause directs what the Commissioners shall do regarding ownership of village and town greens. He rightly said that the Commons Commissioners should direct that such land should be vested in the local authority. In relation to commons generally in an 498 area, I wonder if it would be advisable for my right hon. Friend to vest in a local authority unclaimed land, land without an apparent owner. Just as nature abhors a vacuum, we abhor a situation in which land exists without an owner. Such land gets neglected and becomes derelict. No one will have anything to do with it because no one owns it.
If local authorities were vested with ownership of unclaimed land a precedent could be found for that. I think the ancient borough of Preston owns a lot of common land which has now become parkland, and it has owned that land for centuries. I wonder whether registration authorities might themselves have some added impetus given them to seek out and register common land if common land which was not claimed accrued to them as responsible public authorities. This is a matter which my right hon. Friend should consider because there is an hiatus in Clause 8, a deliberate one I know, but since we have set up the machinery the Commissioners should be told fairly early what to do about unclaimed land. There will be a great deal of unclaimed common land.
I welcome the Bill because future legislation is made possible. May that legislation soon be brought before the House. It is no use having this machinery to register common land if there is nothing quickly done thereafter. That would be an academic exercise of little use to the country, to common land or the public. Particularly there is the question of public access. People think that all common land is public land, but that is a quite wrong assumption. Much common land is in fact public land and members of the public do not know of their rights to wander over it in the heather and the bracken. For the crowded urban constituencies, such as the one I represent which is surrounded by most beautiful moorland, it is important that this land exists, this reservoir of fresh air for exercise and unspoiled beauty which should be made available to large masses of people who at present do not know their rights in common land. I urge my right hon. Friend as soon as practicable to bring in further legislation to make this registration machinery of some use 499 to the common land and the people of this country.
§ 5.56 p.m.
§ Mr. Jasper More (Ludlow)
I also welcome the introduction of this Bill. I apologise to the Minister and my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucestershire, South (Mr. Corfield) that I was not able to be in the Chamber earlier. I was very glad to hear the hon. Member for Bolton, West (Mr. Oakes) refer to the question of the rights and duties of members of the public and also to the position of local authorities in this matter. Both these I think are of importance.
The important thing which needs to be said about this Bill is that it is leading us, after many centuries of land legislation, to what might be called the final stage in the process of enclosure. Enclosure has been one of those things which for the last 150 years authors of the Liberal and Socialist persuasions have been inveighing against as a process which has done the most harm and injury to members of the public in this country. I think those of us who know the realities of agricultural life realise that it was only as a result of the process of enclosure in this country that there has been agricultural progress and progress of every kind in the countryside. If we were to revert to the situation which applied before enclosure started there would be a very sorry picture in the countryside.
The reason why the Commission which reported in 1958 was set up and produced the Report which is the basis of this Bill, was the very unsatisfactory situation which exists in the countryside because of the long-drawn-out process of enclosure which had never been completed. Starting from that basis, I want to say a word on what—without meaning to be unkind—I think can be fairly described as some of the rather airy and fairy imaginative ideas one hears put forward both in this House and elsewhere about the public and their rights and what the public need in the countryside.
Although it may be true that there are misconceptions of law about this subject, it is very sad that it is probably true that there are even graver misconceptions of fact. Many people, both in the House and outside, visualise the 50 million inhabitants of this country as being for the most part penned up in cities and yearn- 500 ing for the great open spaces that exist in the countryside, their only wish being to be able to sally forth on their free days and weekends and wander all over these areas under, to use that picturesque phrase that is sometimes employed to describe this operation, free range.
I am sorry to tell the House that this is a total misconception of the psychological state of the vast majority of the inhabitants of this country. People in this country, except in a microscopic proportion, have not the slightest wish to range over the vast open spaces that still remain in our countryside. This was brought home vividly to me when I went with a Parliamentary party composed of hon. Members from both sides of the House to visit a large area of land within 50 miles of London which forty years ago was handed over to the National Trust by a generous donor for the precise purpose of providing the 8 million inhabitants of London with 4,000 acres of land over which they could do precisely this. We were taken over this area by the custodian appointed by the National Trust. He told us of the experience of the Trust, which is worth having on the record.
This happens only during the warmer months. The story really starts on a Saturday morning, because nothing happens, practically speaking, during the previous five days. On a Saturday morning cars begin to arrive along the roads which intersect the area. They draw up upon the roadside. The doors open. Out get father, mother, three little chairs, a table, a radio, those cooking things which I think are generally known under the name of "the fry-up" and perhaps one or two children. A little semicircle is made round the car. The semicircle never extends more than 10 yards beyond the car. There the whole day is spent frying up, listening to the radio, talking, and generally enjoying the sunshine. One is bound to say: if that is what people like, why not? The fact is that all round the area grow up rushes, brambles and bracken to such an extent that it would not be possible, even if anybody wanted to do so, to free range through it. The National Trust has to employ staff to cut these things to keep the land in any sort of order at all.
It is nonsense to talk about the need to have these thousands of acres for 501 people to roam about on, sad though I am to say this, because I think I am one of the microscopic few who really like free ranging, or I used to when I was younger We do not need that sort of thing in this country. What people like are lay-bys where they can put their cars, roads to drive them on, and facilities for doing the things that I have described. What needs to be provided are the roads, the lay-bys, and by the lay-bys extremely large litter bins, because the final thing told to us by the National Trust custodian who took us round was the cost of collecting all the things which are left behind on the Sunday evening. This operation takes two days, I should explain. It happens on Saturday and on Sunday, if it is fine weather. The cost of collecting everything that is left behind in the form of tins, paper, and so on, is greater than the amount of money which is put into the collecting boxes which the National Trust has all round this area for people to subscribe to it.
Many people talk about the importance of these areas for the public. I tell the House that the things which are important are the roads, the lay-bys, the litter bins, and, I suppose, the collecting boxes.
Another thing which is important is footpaths. However, it is easy to over-emphasise the importance of footpaths. Before the war I lived in Essex. At a time when money was very short for public purposes of every kind, the county council of Essex astonished us all—it is a fairly large county—by investing in an incredible number of signposts pointing to footpaths. I mention this matter because it has recently been drawn attention to in a letter published in a paper as a matter of some pride. The letter was written by somebody living in Essex. The county council erected an innumerable number of signposts with little yellow signs stuck out, saying "Footpath". This meant that there was a public right of way. I was surprised by the terms of the letter. The conditions were difficult, even in the 'thirties. After one had hobbled across the first ploughed field—every field in Essex is ploughed, so one climbs over this knobbled area of soil—and after the first fence one came to an impenetrable hedge full of brambles. One had to give that up and go on to the bit which was not a footpath at all. 502 Finally, one gave it up and decided that the lane was best, after all. This was a considerable waste of public money.
In these days members of the public as a whole do not want to use these footpaths. They were intended for local people in the days when there was no other transport. The number of footpaths that people want to use nowadays is exceedingly limited. So many wild claims are made about the need for public recreation, walking, and so on. Although I am all in favour of facilities being provided, I appeal for a little realism.
In my own county of Shropshire we have one of the greatest and finest commons in the country known as the Long Mynd. Part of it is common land. It is not in point of fact open to the public, but there is nothing to stop the public free-ranging along it. It is rather dangerous to do free-ranging across the Long Mynd, as I have discovered more than once, to my cost. Sometimes on an inviting bit of what looks like green pasture—my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucestershire, South will know this—one suddenly treads on it and sinks in up to one's thighs. On the whole, free-ranging is definitely to be discouraged in areas of that kind. Therefore, one needs to be rather crudely realistic. I am glad to say, in spite of what hon. Members have been saying about the public, that that is what the Bill is trying to be.
We must all sympathise with the great dislike of my hon. Friend the Member for Tavistock (Sir H. Studholme) for motor cars and litter louts. However, we must face the fact that this is the world in which we have to live and that on the whole it is one of those situations that we have to meet and perhaps make it as profitable as we can by meeting the desires that people have and possibly inviting them to subscribe for what, though we may not enjoy it, they enjoy.
The hon. Member for Pontypool (Mr. Abse) has expressed in the House his regret that in the County of Montgomery the 109,000 acres of common land which once existed are now reduced to 8,000. The hon. Gentleman has cited this as a great deprivation of the public. We need to be realistic about this sort of figure and ask ourselves how many people 8,000 acres can accommodate. It is a surprising number of people. Eight thousand 503 acres could accommodate the whole population of this country if they went for a weekend on common land, if they wished to do so as any one time.
As I have said, in my constituency there is one of the largest and finest pieces of common land in Britain. We have shown a very good example to the country, because we have tackled the question of ownership. The ownership of this area recently came into the market. The National Trust very rightly proposed that it should be bought and vested in the Trust. The Trust is not blessed with unlimited funds, and, rightly, it does not on every occasion appeal to the Government to provide it with funds. It launched a local appeal. It is a matter of some local pride that in a very short time£16,000 was subscribed, almost entirely from local sources by local benefactors, to make this possible. I understand that the ownership of this very large area will shortly be vested in the National Trust. I am sure that it is a good thing because it puts the ownership in a responsible body which can utilise this area for the benefit of the various interests concerned.
What are those interests? Unfortunately, I was not able to hear the Minister introduce the Bill or to hear my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucestershire, South. I am slightly concerned to read what might be called the administrative and judicial provisions of this Bill as they are set out in Clause 16. Cases of doubt are to be referred to the Commons Commissioners, who are apparently to sit, if required, with a panel of assessors. I should like the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to tell us what is contemplated in connection with these assessors. First, will he tell us what they are to assess? In the Bill they are described as people required to deal withcases calling for special knowledge.Will the Joint Parliamentary Secretary tell us what special knowledge is visualised? Is it special knowledge of the common in question? If so, is it desirable that what are really judicial decisions should be influenced by people with local knowledge of ownerships or rights or claims?
504 I raise this question because, having had some experience of sitting on tribunals dealing with agricultural matters, I have the conviction that where there are cases of dispute or conflicting interests, it is absolutely right, as the Bill presumably contemplates, that the chairman should be somebody who is legally qualified; but if he is to be assisted by other persons, surely by far the best principle is that he should be assisted by persons who represent the various conflicting interests so that there shall be voices representing all those interests.
What are those conflicting interests? First—and not very much has been said about them while I have been present—there are the interests of ownership. They may not be very valuable so far as common rights are concerned. They can, however, entail quite considerable liabilities. But whether they are valuable or not, it is surely desirable that there should be on these tribunals—if they are to be tribunals—somebody who looks at the matter from the point of view of the rights and liabilities of the landowner.
Secondly—and obviously in all cases this is important—there are the rights of the commoners. This is much more difficult. It is very difficult to find somebody who represents the rights of commers without being too much a spokesman for local interests. At the same time, it is most important to ensure that in any proceedings which are referred to the Commons Commissioners the interests of those who claim to have common rights should be adequately represented in any tribunal which has to adjudicate upon them.
If it is not possible to draw from the locality someone who can be regarded as being free from prejudice, there ought surely to be some provision whereby someone from an association representing commoners as a whole, or some body of that kind, if it exists, should be on the Lord Chancellor's panel to participate in adjudication of this kind.
Thirdly—a point that has been stressed in this debate—there are the members of the public. In fact, members of the public very often have no rights at all, as hon. Members have recognised. Common rights and common land may be purely matters for the owners and the 505 commoners. Nevertheless, as the public may be interested, and in view of the fact that the public, whether interested or not, do in general in modern times claim to have an interest in all these areas, it is surely right that there should be on these tribunals somebody whose duty is to safeguard the interests of the public. That means a tribunal of four people. I suggest that if these matters are to be adequately and fairly adjudicated upon, there is a need for a tribunal of that kind.
The duty of administering this Bill in the countryside is put on the county councils. I do not know to what extent this will be a major incubus on the county councils, but in view of all the knowledge that we have about the burdens which are increasingly put on the ratepayers, the Minister ought to tell the House whether, and to what extent, if this does impose additional burdens and expenses on county councils—I speak as a county councillor—the Government will give such assistance out of the taxes. After all, this is not really a matter which should reasonably be put on local ratepayers and it is only right that this question should be faced before the Bill becomes law.
The hon. Member for Pontypool made some pertinent comments on the complaints of his constituents about sheep trespass. A big improvement could be brought about if there were a great deal more fencing round the common lands. Round the large area in my constituency to which I have referred, we have reinforced the fencing by installing road grids wherever a public road enters the common land. This has been a considerable expense to the public authorities but it has been of enormous advantage. If this could be done all over the country and if trespass of this kind could be avoided, much better relations could be achieved between the local inhabitants and the commoners whose sheep are blamed for these offences.
I therefore welcome the Bill as being a further and, I hope, final stage in the process of enclosure which has been so consistently opposed by the Liberal and Labour Parties over the last 150 years. I thank the Minister for introducing the Bill and I wish it well.
§ 6.18 p.m.
§ Mr. Bert Hazell (Norfolk, North)
I, too, cordially extend a welcome to this Bill. It is a Measure of limited nature, but, as we have already been told by my right hon. Friend, it will be followed in due course by other legislation. Nevertheless, the fact that this Bill makes the first move in providing for the registration of common land is very welcome not only in the towns and urban areas but in the villages and purely rural districts.
Leaving aside the issue of land that comes under the control of the municipal authorities or within the boundaries of municipalities, it would appear that common land falls into two categories—the very high land to which the hon. Member for Westmorland (Mr. Jopling) and my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypool (Mr. Abse) referred, and the common lands in the arable districts. The hon. Member for Westmorland referred to the high stocking on many of the high common lands and he also drew attention to the lack of fencing which caused considerable loss amongst the animals grazing on this land.
The difficulties encountered in this respect can be appreciated. The cost of fencing such land would be colossal for whatever public body ultimately had to bear the responsibility. Reference has been made to the fact that some of the high land is subject to overstocking, but if that land was better cared for and if better drainage was undertaken it would be quite capable of carrying a much higher ratio of stock than it carries at present. This high land, therefore, can be of tremendous importance to agriculturists in the areas concerned.
I want to turn my attention to the lower areas, the village greens and commons. During the war I served as a member of two agricultural executive committees. Under Defence Regulations, brought about because of the urgency of the time, authority was given to plough up many of the commons and to grow food for human consumption. A great deal of money was spent on the commons to bring about the standard of cultivation which was necessary to ensure a reasonable crop. These common lands added considerably to food production, and many of them were being cleaned up for the first time. In many instances there 507 was a good deal of criticism that common land should be ploughed up and put under cultivation under Defence Regulations, but without doubt the net result was of considerable benefit to the country.
When after the war it became necessary to restore the land to its original state—to use the jargon bound up in the Defence Regulations—people looked forward to many of these commons playing a useful part in the economy of a village or district. Unfortunately, in the course of time the commons and village greens deteriorated. This is obvious in whatever part of rural Britain one travels. The causes are manifold. In some instances the commons were let to farmers to graze cows, but with the demand for higher hygiene among cowherds and the fact that many of these commons are traversed by public highways, many smallholders and farmers withdrew their cows from the commons. The risk of disease as well as accident was too great. The consequences have been that many of the commons and greens have been grown over and are now eyesores.
As has been said already in the debate, a number of them have become dumping grounds for bits of old cars, bedsteads, unwanted furniture, and everything else that one can imagine. No longer can these commons and greens be regarded as one of the treasures of a rural village. They have become a blot on the landscape. I am mindful that in my constituency one of the commons is a fire risk every summer. This is due perhaps to picnickers not being too careful. Sometimes it is due to the sun igniting the grass through a glass bottle. The fact remains that last summer there were several fires on this common which were a nuisance to everybody in the village and surrounding districts and called for a great deal of service from the local fire brigade.
I should like to see these areas cleaned up and I hope that the registration of commons and greens will be the first stage in that direction. I am aware that some of the original purposes of some of the commons have now disappeared. When I became a Parliamentary candidate I was informed of a common where cottagers were entitled to keep donkeys and geese. I went across that common a few days ago. I did not see a donkey—that method 508 of transport disappeared some time ago—and I did not notice any geese being kept on the common. Consequently the common is just one mass of gorse and rush. I am sure that cultivation of many of these commons could be undertaken. This would improve the countryside and would add to food production. Income from the commons, where it now exists, could be used for charitable purposes. This is the responsibility of some of those who are custodians of the commons.
Some commons are used as village sports grounds. One would not wish to see the rights of villagers in this respect taken away. I am sure that it is not the intention in this Bill or in subsequent Measures to do that. I cannot ignore the fact that I know of village commons which played their part during the war in food production and which were reseeded after the war. Now in the centre of the village green there is just a small patch where the village football team or cricket team play their games in season, but in the vast area around that patch the land has reverted to what it was before ploughing took place under Defence Regulations.
Whoever ultimately assumes responsibility for these commons will be faced in many instances with a considerable financial burden, because I cannot see many of the village commons being enclosed even if it were desirable to do that. The number of roads around and across them would make it economically impracticable. It might, therefore, be necessary for the parish council to assume responsibility to precept the rates to keep the places clean and tidy. Whatever the future of these village commons and greens, I am certain that by registration, in the first instance, establishing ownership, followed by legislation, a substantial improvement could be brought about which would do much to enhance the beauty of our villages and at the same time make a contribution to food production.
§ 6.29 p.m.
§ Mr. J. E. B. Hill (Norfolk, South)
I am glad to follow the hon. Member for Norfolk, North (Mr. Hazell) in welcoming the Bill. The Bill is the first positive reason that I have been able to find for the establishment of the Ministry of Land and Natural Resources, for the reason that a new Ministry deserves a stint of 509 Parliamentary time and one of the troubles of the last 10 years or so has been that such a great volume of legislation dealing with agriculture has been needed that we know that many worthwhile Bills have had to wait in the queue. The fact that the Minister has taken over some of the pigeonholes, with some time, has provided a very welcome occasion.
The 1½ million acres of common land are our last resource of uncommitted land. I wonder how they compare with the total area of built-up land. They trust represent the equivalent of a very large proportion of the total built-up area in this country. Therefore, there is a great potential there. Geographically, the largest areas of common land are in the North-West, but the most numerous commons are, probably, in the crowded South-East. In both parts of the country there is great need to realise and reconcile the twin objectives of the Royal Commission, to provide wider facilities for public access and enjoyment and to increase the agricultural productivity of common land. I have no doubt whatever that better management could produce significant advances in both these objectives without causing any marked conflict. Each common presents a problem peculiar to itself in character, in present condition, in potential, and in the demands made upon it by the public. I, therefore, welcome very much that there is currently in progress the survey by the Nuffield Foundation and Cambridge University.
In Norfolk, as the hon. Member for Norfolk, North will, no doubt, agree, we have not a very large area of common land. It is less than 1 per cent. of our total area, just over 8,000 acres. But the sad fact is that of those 8,386 acres no fewer than 4,176 were classified in the evidence given to the Royal Commission as being scrub, gorse and derelict. With shining exceptions, notably the areas of special natural and scientific interest, our common lands, on the whole, contrast unfavourably with the well farmed surrounding land.
The difficulty is lack of authority, lack of effective interest, lack of agreement, and, hence, lack of plans and resources. We have all had experience of this. Clearly, most commons are failing to reach their potential. It is difficult to get 510 action even in such a matter as pest control. This has not been mentioned so far. We have elaborate schemes to eradicate pests such as the rabbit, and it is not an uncommon experience—this is certainly true in the area in which I live—to find that surrounding farmland is cleared but there remains a pocket of resistance usually in the form of some common. I can remember inquiring of the Ministry of Agriculture some years ago what chance there was of the Minister authorising or taking steps to clear up a very small area of common near my own farm. I discovered that the legal difficulties confronting the Minister in any authorisation or action which he could safely undertake were so formidable that it was hardly worth trying to do anything. On the other hand, on a later occasion when I met privately and informally an eminent Whitehall legal adviser and we talked about this problem, he said to me, "This is very true, but, if someone goes in and cleans up the area at this own expense, who is to complain?" There is lack of authority either way.
One sees this even in trying to complete what seem to me to be fairly sensible arrangements under existing legislation for the regulation of commons. I was appalled by the legal complexity of trying to have a scheme authorised for a common in my own constituency where the local sports clubs wished to be able to fence off a few acres of land so as to have a reasonable cricket and football pitch. This was very difficult because there were rights of going over the whole area. I am very grateful to the Parliamentary Secretary for the great personal interest he has taken in this small but extremely difficult and complex legal problem. The hon. Gentleman has produced a solution, but a solution at a cost in man-hours and legal advice which is really quite frightening to contemplate. I hope that the registration which is to follow under the Bill will avoid a great deal of that quite unnecessary and costly work and that the Bill will start the process of rationalisation and reorganisation.
I agree that it is most desirable to shorten the period for registration, but the Minister has departed in one respect from the recommendations of the Royal Commission, and here, I think, the consequences may be undesirable. I refer to 511 stinting. The Royal Commission recommended that there should be registration not of rights of common but of claims to rights of common. This small departure is very significant. Clause 4 provides for the registration of rights of common, but in paragraph 265 of its Report the Royal Commission clearly recommended the registration of claims by persons with interests in land either as owners or as commoners.
This distinction will prove of great practical importance. I say this particularly having heard so many speeches today refer to the problems of stinting. Under Clause 14, a claimant or person registering common rights has to quantify his claim and make it for the right to graze so many animals, a definite number. The trouble at the moment is that most of the grazing commons are not so quantified. Table 2 in the Report shows that common land which is grazing and stinted, that is, with the numbers of animals defined, makes up 33 per cent. of the total area of common land. The grazing which is not stinted but is grazing at large covers 46 per cent.
In certain areas where grazing is very important, not in my constituency but in the upland areas, very little, I am informed, is at present so quantified. That is likely because much of the grazing rights must stem from the old manorial right of "levant and couchant", and that is really a vague right to depasture cattle from some dominant tenement, usually a neighbouring farm. So we have no certainty as to numbers. Therefore, at present many commoners are either grazing far more animals than they are entitled to at strict law or possibly far fewer animals for a variety of reasons which agriculturally are probably very sound.
People may not use their grazing rights because the condition of the common at present makes it not worth grazing. That was particularly so when the process of attestation came into agriculture. By law anyone seeking to have an attested herd was required not to allow his cattle to mix with any non-attested cattle. Therefore, one obviously could not use common rights. That situation has changed because the whole country has become attested, but that was a clear reason why grazing rights would simply not be 512 exercised. Similarly, if the common is in a very bad condition or if the fencing is non-existent, it simply is not worth while at present availing oneself of one's right because the keep is bad, there is danger from animals straying, and the cost in herdsmen's time makes for inefficiency. But all these difficulties and disadvantages would be removed at a later stage if and when commons are improved.
The difficulty at the moment is that if the claim for registration is regarded as a right unlesss it is objected to, the effect will be that at the end of the period of registration a whole lot of rights will emerge giving rise to a total number of claims far in excess of the carrying capacity of any common, be it large or small. Therefore, the practical point I put to the Minister is whether it is not far better that the claims should not be quantified but that the commoner should register a claim to graze his animals without having to specify the actual number. As to the advantage of this, the essence of registration is to find out the number of people who are interested in the grazing. It will be extremely difficult to decide the actual capacity, and hence the division of numbers of stock that may graze, until a scheme of management has been put through as a result of whatever legislation follows this first stage of dealing with commons.
The only way the numbers of grazing animals can be reconciled is not by a Commons Commissioner sitting more or less as a court of law, but, in a much more practical way, by the management authority or committee later on, because it can get all those who have grazing interests together to discuss their claims and reconcile their differences. Otherwise, there is a grave danger that under the Bill in its present form we shall be registering as legal rights some "rights" which are. in fact, non-existent, because if people put forward very large claims—I think that once people know about the requirement to register they will obviously pitch their claims as high as they can—the registers will be swollen with claims, and as a result a great deal of argument and conflict will have to be heard, but that would be avoided if the registration was purely, as the Royal Commission recommended, that of a claim of right and not of a right itself.
513 The Royal Commission surveyed the problem generally and did not go into great detail about the possible methods of future management. Here I revert to the advantages of the survey carried out by the Nuffield Foundation and Cambridge University. As a result of studying in detail some 361 commons, the survey has, I think, evaluated all the different circumstances and categories into which commons will fall. It has identified the particular needs. When the report is published, which I understand is likely at the end of the year, I think it will point the way to the practical solution of some of the difficulties.
I should like to hear a Government statement about future policy for phase two, but. I think it will be wise to await the findings of the Nuffield survey. As far as I am aware, no survey of all the commons is at present in hand, though this may be the Minister's later intention. I think that this is important, because although it is not too difficult to devise a theoretical solution to the problem of common land in general, in practice the difficulties are immense and vary from common to common. There is the question whether it is desirable to have management near at hand or further away. The former means that management and interest will be closer together. On the other hand, it will be difficult to take a wider view, and, of course, it would mean a multiplicity of authorities. Likewise, there is the question of finance. The finance which is available may greatly govern the use to which commons can be put. That, again, will be a difficult balance of judgment between the share of any finance that should fall on the commoners who may only be exercising their own rights, arid the desirability but difficulty of obtaining some contribution from members of the general public who use the commons.
All these matters lie in the future. I welcome the Bill, but I shall welcome even more a clear statement of Ministerial policy for phase two.
§ 6.49 p.m.
§ Mr. James Allason (Hemel Hempstead)
I, too, welcome the Bill, but for reasons slightly different from some of those put forward by hon. Friends of mine who have been speaking generally 514 about places rather far away from London. Close around London, within a radius of 50 miles, there is a very substantial amount of common land, no less than 70,000 acres.
Here the situation is rather different from that referred to by, for example, my hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland (Mr. Jopling). The commoners may not be so numerous. I can think of a case where there are only about four commoners concerned. We tried to discover their whereabouts, and it was extremely difficult to locate them—just a few commoners. I can appreciate that when there are many owners the situation must be very much worse but when there are few it becomes all the more important that they should be consulted when there is to be any change of use of common land by the owner.
I therefore very much welcome the Bill in that it enforces the registration of ownership and of the rights of common. It will come as a great shock to the British public to read Clause 1 and discover that there is private ownership of common land. This is utterly alien to all the ideas of those who think that common land is something on which they have the right to walk at all times of the year.
But, of course, this private ownership brings with it, as we have heard, not only liabilities but privileges such as sporting rights and the right to extract minerals and perhaps gravel. All these matters must be considered in the second stage. What alarms me slightly about the second stage, which has been partially considered in the debate, is the question of what is to happen where it is intended that there shall be unrestricted access to the common land. We have heard from hon. Members on both sides of the House the difficulties that unrestricted access will cause when it comes to games and pastimes. It is impossible to allow them to continue if the public has unrestricted right of access over the whole of the land in question, yet it may well be in the interests of the common land and, indeed, of the public itself that sport should take place there.
I know of a case of a common infested with gorse and bracken where there is a proposal to start a public golf course. This would obviously open up the common land and vastly improve it, but at 515 the moment it cannot be done because we cannot ensure that all the commoners would agree to it and, in any case, there is the possibility of unrestricted rights being granted later to the public to move over the land.
We have also heard today of the difficulties experienced by agriculture, which clearly requires to enforce limited access to the public. It is quite impossible to saddle agriculture with unrestricted access over the whole area and the same applies to forestry.
Dealing with the rights of commons, Clause 21 says that "common land" means…rights of common (as defined in this Act)…But later one finds the wording,…'rights of common' inculdes cattle-gates or beastgates…and various other things. It appears to me that this is a hopelessly unsatisfactory definition considering that the Bill promises a definition. It is certainly not the sort of definition of the rights of commoners that is understood in various other Acts. I hope that this definition will be substantially improved.
My hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, South (Mr. J. E. B. Hill) spoke of the situation where claims to rights of common would be automatic once registered or where, as suggested in the Royal Commission's Report, they would be subject to negotiation. It is difficult to determine from the Bill whether it is intended that the registration authority shall negotiate or whether it will merely write down the names of claimants and, if there is dispute, attempt to negotiate. The Report clearly indicated in paragraphs 260 and 261 that there should be quite a lot of discussion on the ground of precisely what the claim is and that the authority should try to settle local disputes. That would seem to be a wise method of procedure.
I would be grateful—since it is not clear to me—if the Joint Parliamentary Secretary could explain whether that system will be adopted or not. If it is, it will certainly reinforce the claims of the non-county boroughs to become, if necessary, registration authorities. If the non-county boroughs do become registration 516 authorities it means that local disputes will be settled by people on the spot with local knowledge. The non-county boroughs are in a very strong position in these circumstances. I hope, therefore, that what may have been said in another place will not be the end of the claims of non-county boroughs to be considered as registration authorities.
As I have said I welcome the Bill strongly. If my words have appeared to oppose it, it is only in detail. I warmly support the principle of the Bill.
§ 6.57 p.m.
§ Mr. Peter Mills (Torrington)
I am glad of an opportunity to speak in the debate because I welcome the Bill, although I understand that it is only a start and that, of course, a lot more remains to be done. Further legislation will be needed. Nevertheless, the Bill is a foundation and a start and I welcome it.
This is another case, as has already been said of my party having conceived a Measure and the present Government acting as midwife. We have seen this on many occasions in this Parliament, certainly where agriculture and rural problems are concerned. We have done the conceiving and the Government have acted as midwife. I hope that the country as a whole notes this. It will be interesting to see when the Government do some fathering themselves, certainly in agriculture. It will be interesting to see what they produce.
In my constituency we have very large tracts of common and moor and very beautiful scenery. I think of Chagford and around Okehampton and other places with lovely names like Sourton and Bridestowe. It is all wonderful scenery and is a great attraction to the public and tourists.
This excellent Bill will be of great value not only now but in future. Its value will become more and more apparent in future. In the years that lie ahead we shall see it as the foundation of many things concerning our moors and commons. These commons and moors are a great heritage. They have been passed on to us. People have fought for them to preserve them and I believe that we should do the same. I believe that, if we can pass them on in a better state than 517 we receive them, that is the right course for us.
I only hope that the young people of today will value them as much as people have done in the past and will seek to preserve them, just as we are seeking to preserve them. I want passionately to preserve our commons and moors. However, I believe that, in certain parts we have, as it were, to give in. We may have to give up certain of these rights in the interests of reservoirs and, indeed, of forestry. The very mention of this in certain parts of my constituency makes people get hot under the collar. A lot of nonsense is talked about it. It is right to look at the problem as a whole to see what is best in the national interest, and I repeat that I think that we shall have to give up some rights in the interests of reservoirs and forestry, although admittedly these must be limited and controlled.
Grazing rights are very important. I fully understand why commoners should be registered and boundaries clearly defined, but grazing rights are vital to small farmers, particularly in the South-West. I am thinking of small farmers on the edges of moors whose farms are composed mostly of stock, of sheep and cattle. It is vital that they should have and continue to have these rights on the moors. These small farms are sometimes hardly viable as it is and they would certainly not be if they lost their grazing rights.
These small farmers should be given priority over other commoners. This may cause annoyance in some quarters, but if the moors are overstocked, the small farmers who live on the edge of the moors will suffer. They should, therefore, be given priority. Their main source of income is from the grazing of commons and moors. The ground around the homesteads is often only enough to provide a little winter keep and they depend on their grazing rights.
Others with rights on the moors and commons may be townsfolk. I know of drapers and garage people who have such rights. Who is to have preference if they make a claim? In a case like that, it is most important that the small moorland farmers should have priority and I hope that the Minister will be able to give me some reassurance on this matter. I do not want the small moorland farmer to 518 be squeezed out because others have claimed their rights on the moors.
The village green, in which I am very interested, is an important part of village life. I look back to happy times on the village green. One recalls one's early days when one was courting, and long may the village greens be preserved! [Laughter.] Hon. Members may laugh, but these things are part of the heritage which has been handed down to us and they should be continued. Would it be possible to extend these commons rights in certain areas in the planning of the future? It is most important for a village or any other community to have a focus point and it is to be found in the village green where a man can court, can play his football, his cricket, or take a walk. Will it be possible for the village greens to be extended and preserved? They are a great asset to the community.
Clause 14 deals with the number of animals to be allowed to each person. I presume that that means that each person with these rights will be allowed a certain number of cattle, sheep and ponies. There will be a problem of identification. It is fairly easy to identify cattle by ear tags, but it is not so easy to identify sheep and ponies. How does the Minister propose to deal with this problem? Is there to be any registration of marks? Will there be checks on the number of stock which each commoner has and will that number be checked with the subsidy claims, which will be most interesting?
There is also the problem of fencing and cattle grids. Anyone who has lived near the moors, particularly in the South-West, knows of the slaughter of ponies which goes on there. It is my personal opinion that the time has come to fence roads through the moors, particularly main roads. This is not a great problem. If it were known that there were certain parts of the road where cattle and ponies were liable to be crossing, drivers could beware and take precautions accordingly. At the moment, the ponies cross hither and thither and are a source of great danger to motorists, and many ponies are slaughtered in the process. Perhaps the Minister could have a talk with the Minister of Transport on this subject. Perhaps the motorist ought to pay towards the cost, for although he should pay a 519 large proportion, the commoner should not be the only one to pay.
Lastly, there is the problem of animal husbandry on the moors. I do not believe that we are fully utilising our moors. Much can be done to increase their productivity and in the years ahead, as more food production is needed, we may have to turn more and more to the moors. The Bill is a step in the right direction and, because I want to see greatly increased productivity from the moors, I welcome the Bill.
§ 7.8 p.m.
§ Mr. Bryant Godman Irvine (Rye)
I apologise at once to the Minister for the fact that I was not here to listen to what he had to say when he moved the Second Reading. I was glad to see the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food sitting for a short time on the Front Bench with the Minister, and for a moment I thought that I was to be issued with a little poetic justice. The reason that I was not listening to the Minister was that I was in my constituency paying attention to what the Joint Parliamentary Secretary had to say to my constituents, and I hope that in those circumstances the Minister will acquit me of any possible discourtesy to him. I also hope that anything I have to say will not already have been covered by what the right hon. Gentleman said.
I am sorry that the hon. Member for Norfolk, North (Mr. Hazen) is no longer in his place. He described in his constituency and in his experience the type of thing which has led me to take an interest in commons for a number of years. I happen to live not very far from a common which is described in the Report of the Royal Commission as a "gated" common. In the many years that I have know it there have been some gates only at one end, although I have never seen them closed. There were some gates on some minor roads which were occasionally closed by children who no doubt wanted a little recompense for their trouble in then having to open them. However, I find it difficult to understand what information was given to the Royal Commission which led it to describe this as a "gated" common.
However, in precisely the same way as the hon. Member for Norfolk, North 520 described as having happened in his area, this common was taken over for agricultural purposes during the war and carried a very large number of cattle and grew extremely good grass. Unfortunately, the general impression seemed to have got round that this is some way conflicted with the rights of the public, and letters appeared in the local newspapers saying that the public were not being allowed to walk and to do all the things that they were able to do before. I see that the hon. Member for Norfolk, North has returned to his place. I am delighted that he is here to see that I am supporting the proposition which he put forward about agricultural improvements on commons.
This common not only had the general public complaining about fences being put up and getting in their way. Local councils unanimously passed resolutions saying that this was a grave interference with everybody's rights. I well remember a letter from a local reverend gentleman who complained bitterly that his beautiful view of the gorse had been completely destroyed and that all he now looked at was grass and cattle. The result was that, together with the tendencies arising from increasing attestation, and so on, the cattle were removed from the common and there was not the same number of head coming out. In view of all these complaints, the commoners and the executive committee gave up the struggle. The fences have now been pulled down. A few horses are to be seen walking between dense patches of gorse and scrub land. This common of 296 acres is producing virtually nothing. If the Bill is a first step in dealing with that type of situation, I very much support everything that the Minister proposes to do.
I feel a little dubious about the claim concerning the natural beauties which the public can enjoy in these places. I believe that the beauties which are to be found in many of them have, to a great extent, been produced by human hands. Once the human interest is taken away and there is no incentive to put on cattle or fertilisers and to ensure that proper grass is grown, the beauty very much diminishes. I do not think that there is very much beauty in a lot of gorse and broken fences.
If the public want beauty, it is as well that they should appreciate that 521 the quite false idea in their minds that they should be allowed to walk anywhere must be restrained a little. Then we should be able to make progress in the direction which I hope the Minister has in mind. Paragraph 322 of the Report says that it is not much good having access to common land if the access is impracticable because people cannot walk though it or over it. I note that in paragraph 329 the Report goes on to say that it is hoped that local authorities or others will arrange for fences to be erected so that playing fields can be put on commons. Surely if it is right to put up a fence round a playing field, it is not wrong to erect one to ensure that proper agricultural operations are carried out.
I should like the Minister to give me a little assistance about what he has in mind now that the Bill is on the way to the Statute Book. Had his colleague the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture still been here he might have been able to enlighten him about a few doubts which I hope some of my constituents may have passed on to him today about the Government's agricultural policies. It would do no harm for the Minister to let us know what he has in mind in putting the Bill en the Statute Book.
Recommendation 29 on page 131 of the summary of recommendations in the Report suggests that as soon as the registers are open it should be possible for anyone who registers a private interest to start promoting a common improvement scheme. I have looked at the Bill with a certain amount of care, and if there is a provision which enables anything of that sort to take place it has escaped me. I feel that that is a grave omission, because if commons are to be registered it would do no harm for us to start at once with improvement schemes and to encourage commoners and those managing commons to set about putting them into better condition.
There is in the Report a very interesting history of commons and common land provided by Sir Ivor Jennings. I should like to quote one sentence because it sets out with great authority a point which has been referred to again and again today. Common land is in most cases 522 private land. Sir Ivor says this in paragraph 55:The use of common land for rambling, playing games, parking cars, picknicking, camping, etc., except under the authority of an Act of Parliament or by licence of the owner of the soil, is unlawful. It is private land and the law relating to private land applies.Starting from that foundation, we go on to the Report's recommendation that there shall be a right of access to the common land. That means that the Minister will have to look at the regulations set out in Appendix V of the Report and part of the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act, 1949. There is another recommendation in the Report about the precise type of byelaws which it is recommended should be passed. I should like to make one or two references to those later.
The purpose of all this, to my mind—and I hope that it is the purpose which the Minister has in mind—is so that it will be possible for land to be put to proper use. It was suggested by an hon. Member that there was also quite a lot of common land which is not known as such perhaps to the people who should register and it would be wise to consider that type of land as well. I have been told that in the parish in which I live there are 250 acres of land not owned by anybody which is completely waste land and on which nothing is happening. I do not know whether that figure is correct or not. However, if it is correct, or anywhere near correct, it may well be that if similar pockets of land were looked at in other parishes there would be quite a large volume of land which could be put to good use and which would give me, at any rate, more satisfaction in looking at it.
If the Minister looks at the regulations set out in the two places to which I have referred, he will find certain things to which he should give immediate attention. The first, which is mentioned in the first recommendation about the byelaws recommended by the Report and in the regulations made under the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act, 1949, is that anyone who takes or allows a dog not under proper control to go on to common land is committing an offence. I do not know whether any prosecutions are taken under the Second Schedule of that Act—I have never heard of any—and I am not sure how many of these 523 recommendations will be carried out. But I think that the public might well appreciate a little more keenly than it does the damage and suffering which dogs cause to livestock on commons and elsewhere.
The part of Sussex where I live is well known for the Southdown breed of sheep, yet I doubt whether there are many sheep on any of the nearby farms simply because the general public allow their dogs to roam and it is impossible to preserve the sheep from harm. I have seen animals which have been frightened by dogs. One in particular, I recall, cracked its skull as a result. I thought at first that it had foot and mouth disease, because it had some peculiar symptoms which I had never seen before. But I was happy eventually to discover that it was only a cracked skull, which was bad enough in itself but not as bad as foot and mouth disease. I have seen animals with broken legs and other injuries simply because dogs are allowed to run out of control. I am as much a dog lover as anybody, but those who love animals should see that dogs are kept under proper control.
My hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, South (Mr. J. E. B. Hill) has referred to the problem of rabbits. Overgrown common land such as I have described provides an ideal place for rabbits and all sorts of weeds such as ragwort, and difficulties are caused to adjacent owners. Another problem, which is a big one in some parts of the country, is what are known as gipsies. I am not sure that those who are called gipsies always have much Romany blood in them, but the Report of the Royal Commission makes quite clear the damage which they do. It states at page 38:From different parts of the country we have received complaints about colonies of squatters, settling on odd corners of common land, breaking fences, damaging young trees, filching and thieving, and intimidating the neighbourhood. The trouble is no doubt localised with only a handful of families to blame, but where it exists the vagrants may live, as we have seen for ourselves, in conditions of deplorable squalor.I hope that this is another of the problems that the Minister will consider.
There have been references also to fencing. As there has been grazing on the commons for upwards of 1,000 years, it does not seem to me to be unreasonable that the people who have introduced the new element to the common which has 524 made difficulties for the animals should themselves bear the responsibility for ensuring that fences are put up and animals preserved from getting on to the highway. I suggest that this problem should be dealt with by the highway authorities and that the control which is suggested in the Report should be accepted.
The first of the other two points which I wish to make concerns agricultural improvements. As commons were specifically excluded from the Agriculture Act, 1957, I am not sure whether it should be to the Minister's Department or the Ministry of Agriculture that this criticism should be directed. Perhaps between the two of them, however, they can sort out how progress can be made on commons when schemes are introduced.
My last point is that if there are to be a lot of disputed decisions about how commoners' rights are registered and related problems, it would be helpful if these could be entered in a register so that they could be consulted by people who were similarly interested. As a corollary there is the question, to which I would have referred at greater length had it not been raised earlier by an hon. Member opposite, about what happens if common land is not registered. There may well be good reasons and real incentives for not registering, and I hope that the Minister will give thought to this.
Therefore, I support the Bill and I hope that the Minister will let us know in the very near future what he intends to do as soon as the Bill has reached the Statute Book.
§ 7.25 p.m.
§ Mr. James Scott-Hopkins (Cornwall, North)
I should like first to join in the general congratulations to the Minister on bringing in the Bill and introducing it in such a pleasant manner. I listened with great interest to what the right hon. Gentleman said. It was remarkably close to what his noble Friend said in another place. I do not say that it was word for word, but it was very nearly so with two additions.
If I may deal with the question raised by several hon. Members opposite concerning the delay which has occurred, it was on 10th February last year, when replying for the former Government to an 525 Adjournment debate initiated by my hon. Friend the Member for Tavistock (Sir H. Studholme), that I said: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 contained in the Report of the Royal Commission—as soon as Parliamentary time permits."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 10th February, 1964; Vol. 689, c. 180.]That was the crux of the matter. During the lifetime of the last Government, we had grave and important Bills to take through the House. [Interruption.] I am delighted to have agreement from the Treasury Bench. They were important Measures. They were taken through and they occupied a lot of Parliamentary time. Hon. Members opposite, after their 13 years in the wilderness, have been preparing their Bills, but not very much has happened during the first six months. I am, therefore, delighted that the Minister and his Government have found time to bring this Bill before the House.
Basically, the conflict—and there must always be a conflict when dealing with commons and common land—is between those who want access to it. This was said by the hon. Member for Lewisham, South (Mr. Carol Johnson), who is, I believe, a member of the Ramblers' Association, of which he is an ardent supporter. The interests of the public who wish to have access to common land sometimes severely conflict with the interests and needs of the farming community who run their beasts on to the common land.
The Minister was a little unfair and was not quite correct when he said that commons have been run down and are derelict and when he implied that the level of production from them was disgraceful. That is not true. In many cases, there are great numbers of stock on the commons. The right hon. Gentleman has only to ask the officials of the Ministry of Agriculture or his right hon. Friend the Minister to look back over past years and see what difficulties arose in, say, 1961 to 1963 from overstocking of these moors, when it was necessary to regulate the number of animals upon them.
526 It is, however, true that in some parts of the country, as my hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, South (Mr. J. E. B. Hill) and the hon. Member for Norfolk, North (Mr. Hazell) mentioned, land which was in production during the years between 1939 and 1945 has been allowed to go back. My hon. Friend the Member for Rye (Mr. Bryant Godman Irvine) illustrated this graphically when he said that somebody preferred to see gorse and horse rather than grass, cows and cattle. It is a pity that the land has gone back. Before anything can be done, however, the Government should be in a position to know what is common land, who has rights upon it and what the status of the land should be.
I am certain that the Bill is the right method of approaching the problem. This is the first step, but it is not a very big step forward, although to the extent that nothing has happened for a long time it can be said to be a large step forward even though it does not go very far. What it does is to establish status and rights and various other things will, and must, flow from this Measure if we are to get on with the task, which hon. Members want done, of improving the common lands which have gone back and increasing the productivity of those which are being farmed. There are all sorts of difficulties. A conflict may arise between those who use the commons for pleasure and those who farm upon them. My hon. Friend the Member for Tavistock underlined that point particularly when he said that on Dartmoor, which is in his constituency and is a National Park where a great many of the public go, people do not pay as much attention as they should to the welfare of the stock on the moor and the interests of the farmers. There must be a two-way toleration in this respect if the commons are to be used in the right manner. Visitors to the moor must realise that others have rights which they must respect.
Turning to the new matters which were referred to by the Minister, and which were additional to what was said by his noble Friend in another place the first point concerned the declaration which will be required for the establishment of rights. The explanation given by the Minister did not go quite far enough for my liking. Now that the Government have amended the Bill so as to allow any 527 person who feels he has a right to put in an application for registration, it is of prime importance that we should know the kind of declaration which must accompany the application for registration. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will outline this in more detail and indicate what evidence will be needed. Hon. Members will realise that once the Government have opened that door so wide—I do not disagree with their action—there is likely to be misuse and abuse in respect of these applications. There are some people who have nothing better to do than make phoney, stupid and frivolous applications. We ought not to make the process of application onerous and difficult. We must steer a middle course.
The second point concerned the date of 1967. The Minister will correct me if I am wrong, but I understood him to say that in his view the appointed day when the registers would be open would be in 1967. I find it difficult to understand why this should be the date and why there should be a delay from now until January, 1967. I should have thought that an excessive period.
§ Mr. Willey
I share the anxiety of the hon. Gentleman and his wish to shorten the period. We must bear in mind that not only have we to make preparations for registration but we must be assured that people who wish to take steps to secure their rights are properly informed of the action which it is necessary to take, so that they may have prior knowledge before we begin to register.
§ Mr. Scott-Hopkins
I appreciate the point, but nevertheless from the appointed day onwards there is still to be a period of three years during which registration may take place. I know that the Ministry is making an arbitrary break by regulation, although he has been speaking as if this was contained in the Bill. It is to be done by regulation, although the right hon. Gentleman could change his mind about that. With the extra year and three quarters between now and 1967, plus the three years, there will be a total of four and three-quarter years, which I think is longer than would be needed for this purpose. There is a remaining period of two years for objections to be made. I fully appreciate that people must be made aware of what 528 they have to do, but the preparation of the registers will not take anything like as long as that. It is a question of disseminating information to those concerned.
My hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland (Mr. Jopling) referred to publicity, and that is very important. If the Minister leaves things as they are, I think we may find ourselves in difficulties, and the right hon. Gentleman would need not only the year and three-quarters, but perhaps longer. If he uses all the facilities for publicity which are at the command of the Government—heaven knows right hon. Gentlemen opposite are experts in using publicity for their own purposes and now they have a chance to use it for the commoners—I am sure that any difficulties will be overcome and we may shorten the period.
I am glad that the Government decided to amend Clause 9 and to make that part which will be conclusive apply only to the status and rights of commoners. Had that amendment not been made, I think that we should have experienced difficulty over the wording of the Clause. As was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucestershire, South (Mr. Corfield), it is a pity that the Government have not found it possible to bring in some measure whereby ownership could be defined and conclusively decided. I accept the argument which the Minister has advanced, and which was advanced by his noble Friend, that it is quite impossible to do so within a three-year or a five-year period.
I cannot see why the suggestion of my hon. Friend, that registration for ownership purpose might run parallel with registration for common rights and status, cannot be adopted. That would pose no particular problem and at least a start would be made. It would enable us to cut down the length of time necessary. I think that the right hon. Gentleman would accept the recommendation of the Royal Commission and want conclusive evidence of ownership of the common land at the end of whatever the period may happen to be. That is necessary and desirable for the later stages which were referred to by the Minister and which will be important from the point of view of management and control of common land, particularly in respect of 529 such matters as mineral rights and the ex traction of water. His noble Friend said that there are few registrations of common land in the Land Registry and a great deal of leeway has to be made up. I should have thought that parallel registration for the purpose would be necessary and I hope that the Minister will examine this matter to see whether that is possible. Perhaps an Amendment could be made at a later stage.
The next point raised by the right hon. Gentleman related to the gap of ownership which was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Rye and other hon. Members. The Government intend to bring in an Amendment during the Committee stage to fill the gap in the legislation between those cases where status and common rights have been registered and where no owner is found. In the case of village greens and so on, the land is vested in the local authority, but in the case of commons, as the Bill stands, it is as shall be directed by Parliament. The right hon. Gentleman's noble Friend in the other place gave an undertaking that, as this was unsatisfactory, an Amendment would be brought in. It was unsatisfactory because there could be erosions of the common during the periods between the time of registration and the next stage coming in after five years. Part of the common might have been taken, or squatters might have come on to the common and there might be no owner who could stand behind legal action, as has happened in the past. Where no owner has been found no action could be taken.
His noble Friend therefore promised to bring in an Amendment, but only concerning the criminal proceedings, for the preservation of the common land and common rights. He was pressed by a noble Lord from the opposition side, who asked if he would extend this Amendment to cover cases in the civil court. The noble Lord gave this undertaking:The matter has been considered, but the provision is difficult to draft. It is still under consideration and we hope to be able to do something to meet the views of the noble Lord, Lord Molson."—[OFFICIAL, REPORT. House of Lords; Vol. 264, c. 429.]That refers to civil action. Could the Parliamentary Secretary let us know if he has been able to find words to cover not only the criminal but the civil side, 530 as that may arise during the interim period? I hope that he has. I believe that the civil side should be covered as well.
The Government have now opened the door wide and allowed anybody to register. I have talked about the documents and proof which will be needed and I hope that the Government will say what they have in mind there. What will this register include, over and above the registration of common rights and the registration of ownership as it is at the moment? If hon. Members look at the Bill, they will see that local authorities which run these registers are given permissive powers to include in the register any other information which they so desire. This, I suppose, covers matters like access, water extraction rights, which was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and the question of mineral rights, which was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Torrington (Mr. Peter Mills), and many other matters.
I understand from the OFFICIAL REPORT of the proceedings in another place that this register is solely to provide the information and for no other purpose. It seems to me that the local authorities are being asked, if they so wish, to clutter up the register with all this extra information. It is useful to know that it is there, but I fail to see, unless the Government intend to take some further action like securing the access, securing or regulating the amount of water to be extracted, minerals and so on, what the purpose is. I believe that further action is necessary. I should like to press the Parliamentary Secretary to give us an answer on this point. I think that it is important that we should know whether it is the Government's intention at a later stage to take powers for this purpose. Otherwise, I think that it might be difficult to persuade the local authorities to publish all the information which exists and to extract it from this large register. I think that this is important.
There is yet another point concerning access to the commons. One cannot help but wonder what will happen when there is a dispute about access or ownership. This is something on which I am not quite clear. I read HANSARD on this point carefully. When there is a dispute over registration of ownership, as I understand it, all disputes will be referred by the local 531 authority, the registration authority, to the Commons Commissioners for settlement. Therefore, if they are referred to the Commons Commissioners for settlement, is there not a danger that this settlement could have a greater force of law, that the dispute, argument and settlement will have quasi-legal force? Will it not have a semi-legal standing in the courts as far as the ownership issue is concerned? I notice in the OFFICIAL REPORT of the debate in another place that this was discussed. There was some doubt in the mind of Lord Mitchison over this and I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary can clear up this point.
Finally, I should like to turn to the land registers and the ownership issue. The difficulty has arisen over this particular section of the Bill because there is so much past legislation and the Land Registry which is kept at the moment is completely confidential. To have two registers side by side would make it confusing if they both had the same force. I cannot feel that to have a register of common rights and of status without having in it the existing ownership, if it exists in the land registry, can be right. Therefore, I ask the Government whether they cannot find some way round the difficulty of getting the Land Registry to divulge the name of the owner of a piece of land for which common rights or common status has been registered. It would be useful if this could be done. We should then have a completely comprehensive register. This would be done only on the question of status and ownership, so it would not be conclusive, but it would be there and it would be exhaustive. The present situation makes things difficult.
Perhaps a more important matter is that concerning common rights as opposed to ownership. The point was made by my hon. Friend the Member for Rye and by an hon. Member on the Government side concerning the definition of what commoners' rights are. This is an extremely difficult problem. The Ministry's difficulty—this was said by the Minister's noble Friend in another place—is that in following the recommendation of the Royal Commission, there is absolutely no way of defining closely what rights are meant by this. 532 The best thing, therefore, to do is stated in paragraph 275 of the Report:…to allow the commoner in his claim to rights of common of pasture to define them himself.There is a further recommendation as well. I must agree with this. This is the right thing to do. One has to be very careful as to how one goes about this, particularly when we look at Clause 14, which is a Clause which could restrict the number of animals which one will be allowed to graze. My hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and others of my hon. Friends raised this point.
It is extremely important because one comes here to the question of stints. My hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, South made the point that on only a small percentage is there a recognised stint. In Cornwall, other than for certain forms of deficiency payments and production grants, there are no recognised stints, as far as I know, and a great percentage of the common land is unstinted, so that there is no limit at the moment. The way in which the Bill is drafted and the way in which the Minister made his speech will encourage commoners to register their rights with the maximum number of beasts which they can possibly graze. It says that there will be no adjustment. This is final. The Bill says that when the registration has become final, it will be exercisable accordingly.
Obviously therefore, any commoner on a common which is unstinted and on which he has rights of pasturage will register the maximum number which he can. Indeed, if I were asked, I would recommend to my constituents that this was the right thing to do.
No doubt there will be disputes. The local registration authority will think that this is outrageous and may well say so. There might well be an enormous number of beasts registered for rights of pasturage. These matters have to go before the Commons Commissioner—and this answers the question of my hon. Friend the Member for Rye. As I understand it, the matter would go to the Commons Commissioner, and his decision would be final as to how many animals each person who had established his right on unstinted common would be allowed to run on the common.
533 This is an important point and no criteria are laid down in the Bill to meet it. The Parliamentary Secretary may say that the Minister intends to do this by regulation, but I cannot find any powers in Clause 18 which enable him to lay down the criteria. Perhaps I am wrong. Unless some criteria are laid down for the Commons Commissioners by which they will judge how to apportion the unstinted land, it could give rise to a great deal of difficulty. For example, this will be most ill-received in Bodmin Moor, in my part of the country, unless the Government come out into the open more with their intentions. I hope that they will do so because we want to get this right, and I am not making this argument in any partisan spirit. The criteria must be laid down.
I beg right hon. Gentlemen opposite not to take as an example the hill farming subsidy scheme or to use that as a model. That is not necessarily a right way. There we have a one-to-six ratio for cows per acre, but in this case a completely new assessment is necessary. The whole point of the exercise is to improve the pastures in order to carry more stock. The Minister of Agriculture has been making noises along these lines over the last two months since the Price Review, as part of his new policy. If that is so—and I accept that his intentions are good, although his methods are bad—then he wishes to increase the amount of stock running on the hills—sheep, cattle or even ponies, which are important on Bodmin Moor, Dartmoor and Exmoor.
In these circumstances there must be provision for changing the apportionment. I have searched the Bill thoroughly and I can see no method of varying the position. I wondered whether it would he possible under Clauses 15 and 19. I wondered whether the power would rest with the Minister to change a decision made under Clause 14. But I do not think that it does rest with him and there seem to be no regulatory powers under Clause 18 to allow him to do so. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will put our fears at rest. I am sure that he wishes to have this power to change the apportionment upwards, or indeed downwards, as the area is improved. There must be power to vary what has been decided by the Commons Commissioner or what is laid down in the deed of the 534 land to which the right attaches. There must be power to increase the apportionment in proportion to all the other commoners in the area.
How shall we assess not only the availability but the quality of the pastures on the commons? Are we to relate it to the inby land or, as they say in Wales, the free-standing land? At the end of the debate in another place Lord Mitchison moved an Amendment to include in registration the land to which the common rights were attached. He called it the dominant land. In the West Country we call it the inby land. This is important, and to a certain extent it changes the scope of the Bill. By the inclusion of the words "dominant land", it seems that this will be one of the criteria, and we should like this more fully explained by the Parliamentary Secretary.
Many commons, particularly in the West Country—not Dartmoor, but Exmoor in particular and the Quantock Hills—run down to the sea. The common land runs right up to the sea. Clause 22 provides that the Royal property held by Her Majesty shall be included in the Bill. Land which is under water is included in the Bill for registration. Does it include tidal waters? I gather that the Parliamentary Secretary says "No", but, with all respect, I do not think that he is right to say that off the cuff. I think that that type of land is included. If it is, there will arise questions of right of mooring and access of boats. Will the Parliamentary Secretary let me know whether this land is included? I feel that it is. I do not think that that is necessarily a bad thing, but special care will have to be taken and special provisions made in those cases.
I come to the question of the dominant land, the inby land, which is owned by perhaps one owner at the moment. It may be ten acres. Those ten acres of dominant land are included in the Bill as the result of an Amendment made in another place. The owner has rights on a particular common to run perhaps 10 cattle and 100 ewes. Let us take it that the land is then split up—that the owner sells it and gets planning permission to build five houses on ten acres. How will the apportionment be done, and who will do it? How will it be decided? Under Clause 14 it looks as though once 535 again the stinting and carving up will have to be done by the Commons Commissioner. This is a difficult point. Provision is made for new registration but not for the apportionment of existing rights.
My hon. Friend the Member for Torrington urged that the small farmer should have priority in the stinting by the Commons Commissioner. I understand his argument. The same argument applies in my area in Cornwall. I hope that the small farmer will be given generous treatment by the Commons Commissioner, and I am sure that he will if the Government lay down the right and proper criteria by which the Commons Commissioner will make his judgment and apportionment.
My hon. Friend the Member for Torrington was right in his comments about the registration of marks. Beasts have marks which could be easily identified. We had enough trouble over the hill cow subsidy, and these marks might facilitate the handling of any difficulties which arise in the future.
My hon. Friends the Members for Rye, Torrington and others asked about the fencing of the roads, which is becoming more and more necessary. The local registration authorities will have to take note of this problem, and it will cut across the desire of the hon. Member for Lewisham, South to have free access. Bodmin Moor, in my constituency, is a very bad moor for accidents, and the Ministry of Transport have decided to pay for the fencing of certain parts of seven miles of Bodmin Moor. This is being done in conjunction with the county council and the commoners' association. I am happy to say that the Ministry is paying most of the cost.
It means that a certain amount of enclosure is taking place. To this extent there is a restriction on the public's access to the land, and it is worth mentioning that it will not always work to the advantage of all of my constituents. It means, for example, that their beasts cannot cross the road when they must be taken from one part of the common to another. The costly process of building under-passes is involved, as in the New Forest, and we must seriously think of these problems.
536 The fencing is being done on busy roads along which traffic whizzes and I agree that we must consider not only the slaughter of sheep, with which the hon. Member for Pontypool (Mr. Abse), who I regret is not in his place, was concerned, but also the slaughter of humans, whose cars are frequently smashed on these stretches of road. I hope that the example set on the A.30 for Bodmin Moor will be followed elsewhere and that the Ministry will bear the main part of the cost.
It is incredible that throughout this debate—from 3.30 p.m. until now, and it is 8 o'clock—the Liberal Party was represented during only the first 10 minutes. It is incredible for more than one reason. The hon. Member for Devon, North (Mr. Thorpe), whose absence I regret, has made great play about the difficulties faced by some of his constituents in regard to Exmoor. The hon. Member for Bodmin (Mr. Bessell) has many constituents who are interested in Bodmin Moor. It is surprising that the hon. Members of the Liberal Party have found this Bill so unimportant that they have not honoured us with their presence. I am sure that the public will understand that something is wrong.
I conclude by congratulating the Minister on introducing the Bill. As my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucestershire, South pointed out, there are many things about which we will quiz him in Committee. Heaven help us if we get into the sort of difficulties into which their Lordships found themselves in this matter. We will have some searching questions to ask. Meanwhile, on behalf of my hon. Friends, I welcome the Bill.
§ 8.3 p.m.
§ The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Land and Natural Resources (Mr. Arthur Skeffington)
I have the very pleasant task of trying to answer the large number of constructive and interesting points which have been made. It is a great pleasure because I am fascinated by this subject. Nevertheless, I approach the task with a certain amount of diffidence because, although the object of the legislation is simple and although its three main objects are agreed between us, in clothing the matter in its legislative form we have been led along certain paths which are not always easy 537 to follow. Despite this, I will do my best to answer the questions which have been posed. I am confident that those who carefully follow every sentence uttered by Ministers will see that if unintentionally I confuse anybody or any matter, that will be put right at the earliest possible moment.
Hon. Members on both sides of the House are to be congratulated on the introduction of the Bill. True, as the hon. Member for Gloucestershire, South (Mr. Corfield) pointed out, we inherited it. Equally true, as he said, we found it in a pigeon hole—though it was a bit dusty and we had to give it a good spring-cleaning before bringing it to the House. Therefore, we deserve some credit for having introduced it in six weeks rather than six years.
I hope, first, to answer the questions asked about "other rights." This matter was raised by the hon. Member for Gloucestershire, South and the hon. Member for Cornwall, North (Mr. Scott-Hopkins). They wondered what sort of additional rights were contained in Clause 3(1). We have in mind the minor rights such as sporting rights, which are sometimes important, charges, easements and rights of way which are not common rights. It is felt that these sort of rights should be noted in the register. They are not actually given the status, as it were, of registered details, but merely noted in the register. Details will be prescribed by the Minister and it will not be for the local registration authority to deride what must be noted.
After consideration and the necessary consultation, these details will, as I say, be prescribed by the Minister, the idea being to get and give as complete a picture as is consonant with our objectives in the second stage, when we come to the legislation which will carry out further recommendations of the Royal Commission.
We wish to achieve then what all hon. Members desire: greater productivity and so on. This noted right is not something that is unlimited: it does not have the same status as other matters. For example, we do not propose that these details should be published and objections to them received. They are notes to help everyone concerned to get a fuller picture of the pieces of land which are involved, either as greens or commons.
538 A number of questions were asked about the ownership of specific pieces of land, and the title to ownership when registration begins. I can best answer these questions by adducing what would normally be considered a rather conservative argument; that here we are dealing with what has always been considered in law to be the greatest of all forms of property, the title to which should be most carefully scrutinised. There must be safeguards and, bearing in mind the period of 12 years which the Commission had in mind, this would mean conferring on owners a privilege which is not enjoyed by any other section and a privilege which could be secured on, perhaps, incomplete evidence.
We sometimes talk about documentary evidence. The kind of evidence which the registration authorities will have will not go nearly as far as that required by the Land Registry. To satisfy the Land Registry in order to get exclusive title other matters than those which we propose to place in the Regulations must be disclosed. There are such things as mortgages, leases and adverse rights. In that case those details are properly required because, after all, they are to be kept confidential by the Land Registry. The details with which we are concerned cannot be kept confidential, as a result of which those other details are not sought. Therefore, we would be left in the position of giving absolute title on evidence which must be considered to be far from complete. For the purpose of registration what we propose is adequate, but to go to the extent of conferring an absolute title to land might, as I hope hon. Members will agree, mean taking an undue risk.
There are two other points in connection with this argument. To ask for additional details would put a very much heavier burden on the commons registration authorities than will the details we now propose. We do not think this proposal will be excessive. Further, even if these authorities could find the qualified staff needed to do this rather more detailed and careful study, the Land Registry itself would not be able to deal with the flood of cases we expect in the 18 months after the appointed day.
For all those reasons, I must tell the House that we cannot give the same sort of status to ownership as to common 539 rights and the qualification of the conmon itself—
§ Mr. Corfield
I appreciate many of the points the Parliamentary Secretary makes, particularly the administrative ones, although I have never been wholly able to understand why the Land Registry has to be so confidential. I know that it has to be so in law, but whether the reasons for that are good, I do not know. I do not know whether the 12-year period suggested by the Royal Commission was purely ad hoc, but it happens to be the same period needed for common law title on first possession. It seems a pity that we should waste the first five years—let it run on—and then say that because of the old common law period it must go on for another 12 years, making it a 17-year period. Can we not make the first five years play at least some part in hastening the date when we get a reasonably firm view of the ownership of these commons?
§ Mr. Skeffington
I will certainly undertake to look at that point. We do go some way to meet the hon. Gentleman's point because Clause 11 says that a subsequent sale after registration of the fee simple, or of a lease of 40 years or more or one with an unexpired term of 40 years or more would have to be registered. In other words, if the purchaser did not register, he would not have a good title. So we go some way to meeting that point. In volume, however, it is much smaller and can therefore be coped with, as we think, by the Land Registry.
The other very important point, made by several hon. Members, was the difficult one about common rights sans nombre, and the difficulties we might get into there. We are not at present finally deciding what may be the best scheme for the management of the common—that comes later. There will have to be powers in the second stage either to reduce the number of animals, even if common rights have been registered, or, in some cases, to extend the numbers where the capacity of an area of land has, by the use of modern methods, been increased.
There will have to be such powers in the second stage, but I think that the difficulties that have been anticipated may have been exaggerated. The Royal 540 Commission started from the point of view, which it put in the Glossary, in page 276:In the case of common appurtenant sans nombre the principle of levancy and couchancy is held to apply; in the case of common in gross sans nombre the right is limited to as many cattle as the common will maintain over and above the levant and couchant cattle of the lord and commoners.The Royal Commission accepted that. I think that it was right, because the whole history and interpretation of the law on this kind of land says that we cannot possibly have the right without number to the cattle we can commonly graze or use in some other way with a common right. That has been held in all the manorial records. It was laid down by Chief Justice Babington in the reign of Henry VI:A claim of common sans nombre cannot mean a claim of feeding for innumerable beasts, but for a number not certain.That is not an absolutely clear definition, but it shows that the number is not unlimited, and Cooke's Inclosure Acts, the 4th Edition, goes very much further—and this has been dicta and quoted in the courts in very many of these cases:Any user of common of pasture claimed as appurtenant not limited in number, and not capable of being limited by levancy and couchancy is not the exercise of a right, but the doing of that which cannot possibly be other than a wrong.All the decisions have followed in this light, and it is clear that in this case "without number" does not just mean that. This is known, and the Commons Commissioners, when there are objections to numbers, will, with assessors, having regard to the customs of the locality, the fertility of the locality, and so on, be able to put on some limitation. One could also get the sort of case where a large number of commoners make claims that are unlimited and there are no objections, and the registration authority at that stage is not itself empowered, as the House will understand, to place a limitation. That must come later. That must come in the second stage with reference to schemes of management, when there will have to be the right to reduce—or, in some cases, to extend—the number of cattle in a particular area; otherwise a scheme of management would be meaningless.
The hon. Member for Gloucestershire, South and other hon. Members have 541 asked about right of access. Perhaps I may say in general that the Government are preparing a whole countryside policy, of which the second stage of this legislation will form a very important part. I might sum up our intention by saying that we want to allow, as far as possible, the greatest access to this kind of village green or common consonant with two other factors. One of the factors is the genuine rights of fee simple ownership and the other is the point beyond which the public should not have access in view of the best agricultural use of areas. A balance in judgment will have to be made in connection with this Bill in relation to schemes of management and, in a wider connection, by our regional designation of land use. In all this my right hon. Friend will play a part, his being they Ministry which will have to make up its mind on many of these competing uses.
My hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, South (Mr. Carol Johnson) in a very interesting speech—and we all know his excellent work in connection with the very fine work done by the Commons, Open Spaces and Footpaths Preservation Society—referred to rights of access. I think that what I have said will satisfy him—I hope so, because it is as far as I can go until we have the countryside policy.
My hon. Friend, and the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mr. Allason) and other hon. Members asked about the definition of common land itself and the definition of common rights. As far as I know, no Statute attempts a comprehensive definition of common land. It is fraught with difficulties for all sorts of reasons—historical reasons, reasons of definition, and others. The old definition in the Commons Act, 1899, which has been reincorporated in the Town and Country Planning Act, 1962, merely said that it included any land subject to be enclosed under the Inclosure Acts, 1845–82, and any town or village green. We have gone a good deal further than that, because we refer to the waste land of a manor, which means waste land attached to a manor but unenclosed, and to village greens. Clause 21(1) states that:…'common land' means—land subject to rights of common (as defined in this Act) whether those rights are 542 exercisable at all times or only during limited periods;waste land of a manor not subject to rights of common;land occupied or used in common by the owners of parts of the land, whether or not distinguishable, or by persons claiming through them…Again, having looked at the matter, I do not think that what we have decided closes the definition for all time. It is a great deal more extensive than that which has been used in other Acts dealing with the subject and we do not at this stage anticipate any difficulty.
The point was raised about commons of the future. They may be created in several ways, for instance, by a grant by an individual, by prescription or in substitution for common land compulsorily acquired. They would come under the Clause as land which could be registered because they would be new commons, but for the existing commons this definition is, we believe, quite wide enough. When we come to the question of common rights, I agree much with what was said by the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead, that the public would be appalled if they realised that often they had no rights at all on commons. That is absolutely true. We had wondered whether or not to go a great deal further than we have done in the definition, but there would be obvious dangers in doing so.
The more we spelled this out, by implication if we did not include a fairly long schedule of all the rights we should be excluding other possible common rights. I doubt whether anyone, even the Royal Commission, was fully aware of all the rights which have been exercised over many hundreds of years in different parts of the country. We could not go so far as the definition in a famous text book which says that a'right of common' is a right 'which a person may have to take part of the natural produce of another man s land, e.g., a right to the herbage (a right of common of pasture); a right to take tree toppings or gorse, furze, bushes or underwood etc. (a right of estovers); a right to take turf or peat (a right of common of turbary); a right to take fish (a right of common of piscary; this right cannot exist in the sea or generally in a tidal navigable river).'We did include cattle gates as they seemed a very obvious form of right which has not always been included. By defining the matter in this way, as my noble Friend said in the House of Lords 543 we have left the door open for rights which have existed over a long period to be included. If we attempted to define further we might exclude other rights of very long use. Again if during Committee hon. Members have brain-waves and think that they can do better than the pundits have done over the last 100 years, I am sure that my right hon. Friend will be glad to look at the points they raise.
My hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, South and other hon. Members raised the question of publicity. He will have noticed that there are various parts of the Bill, Clauses 5 and 18 in particular, which give my right hon. Friend the opportunity of making Regulations—which of course he will make—to see that adequate publicity of registration of rights in the first place and of objections in the second is given. My right hon. Friend proposes to make sure that copies of the relevant sections of the register are with every district council and parish council. Further, he proposes to use Section 288 of the Local Government Act, 1933, which provides that:A notice or other document required to be affixed to the offices of a local authority or to a town hall shall be exhibited in some conspicuous place on or near the outer door of the offices of the authority or of the town hall, or, if the authority have no offices or there is no town hall, in some conspicuous place in the area of the local authority or in the area to which the notice or document relates.That is a very wide power which my right hon. Friend proposes to use in full.
A point was made by another hon. Member about whether in relatively simple language the details of this Bill when it becomes an Act can be made known to local authorities. That will be done. I think the hon. Member said that every householder should have a copy, but I do not think we could get away with that expenditure. Every possible practical way of bringing this information to the notice of people concerned, particularly through district and parish councils, will be made use of by my right hon. Friend.
My hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, South spoke about access as suggested in the Royal Commission Report. I have already given the definition and that is as far as I can go. There 544 will be the greatest possible access subject to the two limitations to which I referred.
I was glad that the hon. Member for Tavistock (Sir H. Studholme) in general supports the Bill. I thought when he started his speech that he would make a case for special legislation for Dartmoor. I can well understand the feelings of some people there. He wondered whether it would be possible to have a management scheme similar to that of the Court of Verderers of the New Forest, but that would be the second stage. There may be some such basis for a group of commoners to administer a scheme in that way.
My hon. Frend the Member for Bristol, Central (Mr. Palmer) asked if I could spell out a little further the reasons why the beautiful common of which he is a conservator could not be exempted at this stage. I am sure that many hon. Members have enjoyed the splendid views and facilities provided by the conservators of that common. There were four reasons suggested why Wimbledon Common might be excluded:
I must make it absolutely clear that we are advised—and I am sure this is right—that the rights mentioned in reasons 2 and 3 are not common rights. Therefore, this would be no ground, but the most important reason is that in the case of the New Forest and Epping Forest, by their own legislation the managers undertake to keep a register of common rights, which are very much in accord with the requirements of the Bill and to keep the register up to date. There is no such provision in the Wimbledon Common Act of 1871. We cannot at this stage exempt the common, but the Conservators can apply for exemption and if common rights have not been exercised for 30 years I imagine—I do not want to pre-judge the question—that there would be no difficulty in Wimbledon Common being exempt. I gather from the Crown Commissioners that they would not object to exemption and are 545 not proposing to register those rights. I hope that that will enable my hon. Friend to know why we cannot at the moment accept exemption.
- "(1) The Crown itself has common rights which it is preserving;
- (2) Rights of way would appear to be rights of common as they are not excluded in the interpretation Clause 21(1) and this would lead to many vexatious problems;
- (3) The right to erect clothes posts in certain areas would appear to preclude the Minister from granting exemption; and (4) for other reasons."
My hon. Friend the Member for Pontypool (Mr. Abse), in his interesting speech, asked us to regard with caution the suggestion that we should extend the definition of common rights. I have already a greed that we do not intend to do that.
The hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Ma wby) made a number of points, nearly all of which were for the second stage rather than for the first stage. He is not here now. When I see him I can make the several points to him which I would have made had he been here now.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, West (Mr. Oakes) raised points of doubt which, indeed, were echoed to some extent by the hon. Member for Rye (Mr. Bryant Godman Irvine). The first was where the ownership of a common is not known or where the owner deliberately refrains from registering, no doubt in some cases with the view that he may get an unencumbered piece of property because, if he does not register, people are not likely to register rights or to object to any rights which have been registered. My hon. Friend will no doubt have noted that the Commons Registration Authority will refer these cases to the Commons Commissioners, who will endeavour to find the owner. In many cases we believe, for reasons which I can give at a later stage, that this may be possible.
Further, the Bill has been drafted in such a way that any person—not only the Commons Registration Authority, but any person; "any person" in this connection also means any local authority a parish council, a district council, any person—can in fact put in a claim as to the commons. Consequently we think that it is very unlikely that much common land will escape the net, because of both these safeguards. Again I give the assurance which I have already tried to give about publicity so that everybody will know.
The hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr. More) made an eloquent defence of the Inclosure Acts, which might have been more appropriate 100 years ago than today. I do not think that I should be drawn on this matter, even if I should be 546 in order were I to answer him, except to say that many other countries have quite a good agricultural system, despite the fact that one small group did not steal the land from the rest of the people, as happened in England. I will not pursue that line of argument. Nor did I altogether agree with the hon. Gentleman's estimate of the habits of the English people when in the countryside. However, whether I agree with him or not, it would be folly for any Administration not to realise that, with the growth of population and with the increase in the number of motor cars on the roads, more and more people will want, and ought to have, access to the countryside. We shall do better if we provide that in a regular way, rather than find the country being spoiled because there is not adequate provision. Our countryside policy will go a long way towards taking care of this problem.
The hon. Member for Ludlow and several other hon. Members asked who the assessors would be. The assessors will be agricultural experts with knowledge of methods, particularly in the locality. It is true, as the hon. Gentleman said, that one way of getting the evidence before the Commissioner would be to call expert witnesses. This can be done. There are cases when expert witnesses are not called or when expert witnesses disagree or when expert witnesses are called by one party but not by the others. In these circumstances it seems to us to be desirable that the Commons Commissioner should have expert information and knowledge about husbandry supplied to him by an individual who knows the customs in the area and who can give him the technical advice. It seems to us that he is likely to make a much better assessor if he has these attributes. This problem has been discussed by the Council on Tribunals, which has no objections to this procedure. It is therefore proposed to go ahead with this proposal.
The hon. Member also asked me about the financial burden. As far as we can see, this is likely to be very slight in any one registration authority. There are 141 such authorities. The largest estimate of the cost we can make is£1 million spread over four or five years, so amongst 141 authorities it will be very minimal indeed per year. The smaller authorities may be marginally assisted by rate deficiency grant arrangements so that any hardship 547 would be lessened. At this stage we do not foresee that this is a substantial financial burden. We think that authorities will be able to cope with it without too much difficulty.
The hon. Member for Norfolk, South (Mr. J. E. B. Hill) asked about the definition. He pointed out that we had a different definition in connection with claims to rights of common than "common rights". Our advisers say that there is no difference. I hope this will reassure the hon. Gentleman. At any rate, we can look at the matter again in Committee.
The hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead referred to the various rights of individuals and the extent to which these might be the subject of an agreement at a later stage. He asked whether people might inflate the number of cattle or other beasts in their registration. We hope that almost from this moment, now that it is known that the Bill is getting a Second Reading, all those who have rights will begin to think about them and we also hope that many voluntary agreements will be made amongst the parties. We trust that the fact that they will have to register in about 18 months from now will encourage this getting together. In the past it has not been worthwhile, because no action would have followed, but now that these people have the opportunity to register their rights we hope that there will not be any need at a later stage either for elaborate schemes of management or for objections to be made because some owners have put in an inflated number of cattle or have claimed other exaggerated rights. We believe that publicity should greatly help to produce the desired result.
I was asked whether numbers of sheep could be registered. There are various classes, and sheep certainly come in one class, as do cattle.
§ Mr. Allason
Would the hon. Gentleman deal with the point that I raised as to whether the registration authority would have any part in trying to negotiate a settlement of these cases?
§ Mr. Skeffington
Not directly. It is only the authority gathering the information. Of course, influence could be used to bring the parties together. There is 548 nothing to prevent them taking voluntary action. I hope this will be done, but there is no statutory right in the matter. Indeed, it would be open to great objection if there were. We hope, before there are any formal objections, that the commoners will see the sense of putting their own house in order, and I believe that this is a powerful incentive for them to do so.
I am sorry if I am detaining the House too long, but there are still a few more points outstanding and I am dealing with them as carefully as I can. The hon. Member for Cornwall, North asked whether it would be possible to speed up the period. We are prepared to look at this suggestion. We have given careful thought to it, and we do not see how we can do it without doing harm or being unfair to some of the interests concerned, but I give the assurance that if we can do so we certainly will.
I think I have answered the point relating to the registration of substantial numbers of cattle and the power to reduce the numbers. This is a matter which will have to arise later when there are schemes of management. If there are objections, these matters will go to the Commons Commissioners.
Reference was made to maps. So far as dominant land is concerned in the regulations that we propose to make it will be possible for a narrative description to be given. Some people might use home-made maps, so long as they are reasonably accurate and the areas are identifiable. Indeed, if one claimant cares to use the same map put in by another claimant—this is a common enough procedure—it will settle the difficulty. My right hon. Friend will be having conversations with the Ordnance Survey. In some counties the areas are so large that they may well be identifiable on a six-inch ordnance survey map. Therefore, we do not think at this stage that there will be any difficulty.
There was also the question of charging, which one hon. Member raised. There will be no charge whatsoever for looking at the register. If somebody wants information sent by post, perhaps a copy of the entry, it is proposed that there should be a nominal charge of about 2s. 6d. Therefore, through the raising of any impost I do not think that 549 information will not be available. It is only when authorities are put to some trouble for which they should be compensated that there will be a nominal charge, and I emphasise that it will be nominal.
The hon. Member for Cornwall, North asked about tidal waters. I think I am right in saying that these are outside the scope of the Bill. It is true that there is in it a description of land covered by water, but that is a lake. Most tidal waters are technically Crown property though there are foreshore rights. I shall look further at the point, but I think that my snap answer is probably right.
I have tried to answer as many points as I could. The commons and village greens and town greens of England are a great and joyous part of our heritage. Thy Royal Commission recalls the story of how the Swedish botanist Linnaeus came and fell down in humble thanks before a gorse bush on an English common on his first visit to this country. I do not expect hon. Members to show that kind of enthusiasm. Dr. Hoskins's book contains some stanzas from John Clare. I should like to read to the House the last four lines which were written round about 1830. They are:Ye commons left free in the rude rags of nature.Ye brown heaths beclothed in furze as ye be,My wild eye in rapture adores every feature,Ye are dear as this heart in my bosom to me.I do not suggest that hon. Members have that degree of enthusiasm either, but commons and greens are characteristic of our countryside. I believe that today we are writing a new chapter of a new Domesday Book by which we can properly preserve and extend their benefits from the point of view of the produce and amenities which they offer. I hope that historians will think that we are as right in this first chapter as those who wrote the Domesday Book in 1065.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Bill accordingly read a Second time.
§ Bill committed to a Standing Commitee pursuant to Standing Order No. 40 (Committal of Bills).