HC Deb 27 July 1965 vol 717 cc384-8

11.0 p.m.

Mr. Peter Mills

I beg to move Amendment No. 18, Clause 8, in page 5, line 47, at the end to insert: Provided that where, subsequent to the vesting of land in a rural district council in accordance with paragraph (b) of this subsection, a parish council is constituted for the parish within which the land is situated, the said rural district council shall, unless the land is regulated by a scheme under the Commons Act 1899, forthwith vest the land in the said parish council. If I may translate this provision into my own language, it is really the right of a parish council to take a village green from a rural district council. This may be desired because of the introduction of a new parish or possibly because of a revised parish council. It may be that there are many lapsed parish councils, and possibly through new vigour, a lapsed parish council may be revived.

In both these cases, they should have the right to own and manage their own village green or small common. It has been said that there are about 3,500 parishes without parish councils, but I am glad that this number is declining. The Amendment is important because important principles are at stake. Smaller villages with parish councils should look after their own affairs, or at least part of their own affairs. Among these the village green is very important.

These rights and powers are rapidly being shorn from village communities. We cannot go into arguments about local government reform. That would be ruled out of order, as would the question of grouping parishes into other units, but everyone, I am sure agrees that in some cases, powers have to be withdrawn from parish councils and handed over to rural district councils. But I do not think this is true of village greens. The parish council should have the right to own and manage this important part of village life. It is right that even if parish councils have lapsed, and these rights have lapsed, they should be returned, if it is desired, to parish councils.

Village greens are a heritage which are passed on to us and they should be maintained. I hope that all villages will stir themselves to life. Perhaps this Bill will remind them of the importance of village greens and that they will seize the opportunity to hold on to something which can play a part in maintaining village life. It is not only a right. It is highly desirable that a small parish council should take a real and active interest in its common. The village green should be the focal point of a village.

Parish councils should seek to preserve the amenities of the green. These are amenities for sport, for playing cricket and football. Many of us learned to play our games on village greens. Children can play there without being interfered with by traffic, and the pensioner can take a walk in comfort and safety. The green is very important for courting, too. I well remember my courting days on the village green. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] I am glad to note that I have the House with me at least on this. We must preserve the village green not only for these, whether we call them courting or sporting rights, but also for villagers to graze cows or donkeys.

A village should take pride in its green. Some do. I hope the Bill will stir to life those which do not. A village should be prepared to spend money and use voluntary effort to keep the green trim and tidy. None of these interests will be maintained if the land is vested in another authority. We cannot afford to lose this focal point of the village and the interest in it. I hope that, because of all its benefits, this right will be preserved by the parish councils. I hope also that the planning authorities in the new areas will make provision always for the village green. I hope that new parish councils will not only obtain these rights but will gladly bear the responsibilities of them. I humbly submit that in this case responsibility at parish level is more suitable than at rural district council level.

Mr. Corfield

I am not sure whether the right of courting is a right of common, or of profit or perhaps of easement. However that may be, I suggest that the Amendment is very much in line with what the Minister is anxious to do in subsection (5, c) which is, unless there are good reasons to the contrary, such as a scheme under the 1899 Act, to make the parish council the primary local authority. It is consistent with this that where there is no parish council but one comes into being the common should vest in the new parish council. I know that the Minister has to put this to council associations which unfortunately spend a great deal of time trying to cut each other's throats. I hope that any jealousy between parish council associations, rural district council associations and county council associations will not prevent the Minister accepting the Amendment.

Mr. Skeffington

As I listened to the hon. Member for Torrington (Mr. Peter Mills) I wondered whether he was going to move a manuscript Amendment to some of the definition Clauses in the later part of the Bill. The effect of his Amendment is that where in future a parish council is created and the village green has been vested in the rural district council it should go to the parish council. I hope that it will be realised that when we say that we are sympathetic that is not a hollow phrase, because, as the hon. Member for Gloucestershire, South (Mr. Corfield) has pointed out, subsection (5,c) makes this the dominating principle where the parish council still exists.

There are snags, however, with the proposal in the Amendment. First, some representations have been made to me in the opposite direction. There are those who think that in general greens are better looked after by the larger authorities. This may be true in some cases and not true in others. Like the hon. Member for Torrington, I hope that the Bill will stimulate parish councils. Where a rural district council has had entrusted to it a village green and has expended money to provide a pavilion and things of that kind there may be some reluctance to transfer the green at a later stage to a parish council. It is easier to do this when the land is unclaimed and one makes a decision to which authority it goes. The suggestion has also been made that if a rural district council thought that it was going to lose a village green vested in it, the council might be more reluctant to take steps to look after it now.

My right hon. Friend is sympathetic, because it is a guiding principle, and what he would like to do is this. First of all, on completion of the registration stage, we shall be able to see how many of these unclaimed greens there are and how many parish councils have been created to which the Amendment would apply. I can give an undertaking that, when the facts are known consequent upon registration, at the second stage of registration my right hon. Friend will see whether it is necessary, in his view, to meet the purpose of the Amendment. He is sympathetic, but he would like more time before making a decision in a matter which is not altogether free from snags.

Mr. Buck

I support the Amendment. I had the privilege of serving the parish councils' association for some time as its legal adviser, and it survived that. The Amendment offers a way of making a definite step which would assist parish councils. Parish councils are as nearly a perfect a form of democracy as one could have. They are a classic example of democracy, in fact, because the council is answerable each year to the whole village, and it is precisely the sort of body which ought to deal with village greens. We are all glad to know that, by and large, this is the state of affairs wherever there is a parish council, and I cannot accept what the Parliamentary Secretary has said about the difficulty of handing a village green back from a rural district council to a parish council.

Thank goodness, parish councils are not, generally speaking, at war with the rural district councils, so there should not be any difficulty. The fact that some money has been spent by the rural district council should not make any great difference. The money will have come from rates which the particular parish council has contributed to, and I do not accept that the objections to the Amendment raised by the hon. Gentleman have any real force.

However, we take some comfort from what the Minister said about the next stage of registration and the possibility that the position may be rectified then, after further consultation with the National Association of Parish Councils. We are glad to know that the Government Front Bench take the attitude they do towards parish councils generally.

Mr. Peter Mills

I am sorry that the Minister cannot accept the Amendment. I hope that it does not mean that he does not accept in principle what I have been saying and he does not accept the activities on the village green. However, I gather than he is sympathetic, and I am glad that it is hoped to do something later on. In the circumstances, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.