HC Deb 10 February 1982 vol 17 cc975-7 3.40 pm
Dr. David Clark (South Shields)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend sections 193 and 194 of the Law of Property Act 1925; to clarify the meaning of the Commons Registration Act 1965; to grant a right of public access to open country (as defined in the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949 as amended by the Countryside Act 1968); and for connected purposes. The aim of the Bill would be threefold. First, it would ask for and permit access to all legal commons. Secondly, it would amend the Commons Registration Act 1965. Thirdly, it would give the general public access to all open moorland for recreational pursuits. The Bill would be beneficial to all people, to townsmen and countrymen alike. In a built-up country such as ours, it would probably be of more benefits to townsfolk than to other people.

I remind hon. Members that from time immemorial this House has been concerned with the rights of commons and the rights of commoners. Indeed, the very existence of the House depends on that fact. To remind hon. Members that that is not new, I have in front of me an appeal dated 1649 to the House of Commons desiring an answer: Whether the Common—people shall have the quiet enjoyment of the Commons and Waste Land; Or whether they shall be under the will of the Lords of the manors still. That question, posed to the House in 1649, is still pertinent today. Indeed, I wish it were not.

A battle for access to the commons has taken place over the past 300 years. A century and a quarter ago the Commons, Open Spaces and Footpaths Preservation Society was established to fight for commons and the right of access to them. It is due to its efforts that we have access to Hampstead Heath, Clapham Common, and many other commons in London and elsewhere.

The other major legislative advance made by the Society was to persuade the House in 1925 to grant complete and free access to all urban commons. That included many parts of the countryside as well—for example, the southern part of the Lake District. I should like to extend that access to all commons. In support, I cite the Royal Commission of 1958 and the departmental working party of the Department of the Environment of 1978. They both recommended that people should have the right of access to common land. It is time that we put those recommendations into practice.

The purpose of the second part of the Bill is to amend the Commons Registration Act 1965. Many of us thought that that Act would register common land once and for all. It was felt by all sides that it would remove from the area of dispute the problems which occur with village greens and common land. Unfortunately, we have been disappointed.

The Central Electricity Generating Board v Clwyd County Council case in 1976 and the Box Parish Council v Lacey case in 1978 have raised a number of major anomalies in the 1965 Act which were not foreseen by Parliament. Indeed, they run completely counter to the spirit and the wish of Parliament in 1965. The result is that hundreds of thousands of acres of common land in England and Wales are now under serious threat.

Lord Halifax has applied for Tillmire Common, York, a finally registered common, to be deregistered. Lord Peel has applied for the Keldside Allotment at Muker in the Dales national park to be deregistered. Lord Lichfield has applied for the Hollies Common in Staffordshire, a finally registered common, to be deregistered. The Duchy of Cornwall has applied for Poundbury Camp in Dorchester, an urban common to which every individual has a right of access, to be deregistered. If it is deregistered, the right of access goes with it. With all those noble Lords having power and influence under the hereditary principle, I maintain that the ordinary man and woman have hereditary rights to commons, and that it is the duty of this House to insist that those rights be protected.

Her Majesty's Government are aware of the problems. When I and the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mr. Chapman) went to see the previous Minister, he listened to us, he agreed that there were problems, and he suggested or implied that the Government might bring forward legislation in a future Session, possibly the next Session, to try to rectify the matter. We maintain that we cannot wait that long.

I have in my possession a memorandum from the solicitor of the county of Dorset in which he estimates that 75 per cent. of all the commons in Dorset are under threat, so the need for action is urgent.

Two years ago, in an independent survey, it was found that walking was the most popular sport in the United Kingdom. Over 20 per cent. of the population were involved in that hobby.

We live in a crowded island. We all know the problems—I know that the Minister does—within national parks, and the pressure points, yet there are many acres of open land, defined under the Countryside Act 1968—land such as moor, heath, down, cliff, mountain and foreshore—which could and should be open to access for the general public.

All the learned bodies which have considered the subject—from the Dower and the Hobhouse reports in 1945 and 1947 right through to current ones— —have recommended that there should be the right of access for the general public to this land.

As I have said, the House has always been jealous about protecting the rights of commons. Our access to commons, and the very existence of many commons, is under threat. The time is now appropriate for us to take action. If the House would grant me facilities to pursue the Bill, I believe that remedial action could be taken.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Dr. David Clark, Mr. Andrew F. Bennett, Mr. D. N. Campbell—Savours, Mr. Patrick Cormack, Mr. Sydney Chapman, Mr. Alfred Dubs, Mr. Frank Hooley, Mr. Peter Hardy, Mr. Leslie Spriggs, Mr. Phillip Whitehead and Mr. Frederick Willey.


Dr. David Clark accordingly presented a Bill to amend sections 193 and 194 of the Law of Property Act 1925; to clarify the meaning of the Commons Registration Act 1965; to grant a right of public access to open country (as defined in the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949 as amended by the Countryside Act 1968); and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time upon Friday 19 February and to be printed [Bill 64].