HC Deb 07 April 1989 vol 150 cc534-9

Amendment made: No. 6, in line 1, leave out from beginning to 'and' in line 5 and insert 'Provide for removing from the registers maintained under the Commons Registration Act 1965 land on which there is, and at all times since 5th August 1945, has been a dwelling house.'.—[Mr. Favell.]

Bill, as amended, reported.

Order for Third Reading read.

Mr. Speaker

Queen's and Prince of Wales's consent?

Sir Bernard Braine (Castle Point)

So given.

1.56 pm
Mr. Tony Favell (Stockport)

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

Under the Commons Registration Act 1965, all common land in England and Wales, or a town or village green, together with rights of common ownership of such land has to be registered. In all, about 1.5 million acres of land were registered. Kate Ashbrook of the Open Spaces Society says in her excellent booklet "Our Common Right" that the variety of landscape and habitat embraced by common land is quite unique. Both she and others who are interested in our rural heritage want to protect the existing commons. I support them in their anxiety to see the Government implement the pledge that was given in the last Conservative party manifesto to that effect.

This short Bill is directed not towards protecting existing commons but towards remedying an injustice that arose out of the 1965 Act. The result is that several hundred home owners have had their houses registered as common land and they have found that it is difficult, if not impossible, to sell their houses.

Under the 1965 Act, common land has to be registered. Acre upon acre was registered provisionally by interested parties. Provisional registration was advertised. If no objection was received by a date now long since past, those rights were recorded on a common register. Unfortunately, the Act contained no provision to remove from the register houses that had been registered as common land by mistake. It is towards remedying that defect and injustice that the Bill is directed.

1.59 pm
Ms. Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North)

I support the Bill, and I should like to use this opportunity to make some points on the wider issues. The Bill addresses a small element of the problem that surrounds common land, and I welcome the opportunity that it affords to put right a small part of what is wrong. I also welcome the Bill's proposals in relation to land registry and the fact that it does not appear to prejudice the more general legislation that is so obviously needed.

There are deficiencies under the Commons Registration Act 1965 which need to be rectified. The Bill addresses itself to the anomaly of land mistakenly registered as common land and makes provision to deregister in such cases. At least two safeguards should be introduced. First, application to deregister under the Bill should be advertised on site and, secondly, the common registers office—usually the county council—should notify the Commons Open Spaces and Footpaths Preservation Society. That would ensure that full and fair public notice was given of any claim to deregister and that appropriate experts with the necessary resources and commitment could properly assess the case in hand.

I am sure that Conservative Members who support the Bill will agree that we have been waiting for a long time for comprehensive legislation to deal with the matter. The Government must address themselves to the much wider issues of common land registration. This is the appropriate time to ask exactly when they will honour their manifesto commitment to common land on the basis of the common land forum. The Government have said that they will legislate as soon as parliamentary time permits. They must surely be able to give a clear indication of when that will be. I suggest that these are matters of political will. I hope that the Government will have the political will to deal with this matter just as they have clearly shown their political will in respect of many other issues for which they have made parliamentary time, and the time of parliamentary counsel, available.

Mr. Favell

I shall probably not have another opportunity to speak, so let me just say that I agree with the hon. Lady that applications or objections under the Bill should be clearly advertised on site. The Bill has had to be introduced precisely because people were not aware of what was happening. I also agree with the hon. Lady that we need omnibus legislation. Finally, I think that it would be useful if societies such as the open space society and other interested parties were made aware of applications under the Bill.

Ms. Walley

I welcome the hon. Gentleman's intervention. It would be sad if we made the same mistakes in the Bill as were made 20 years ago. The Minister is nodding; I am sure that she has taken those points on board.

I am not usually a cynical person but if one were cynical, one might imagine that groups such as the Moorland Association had undue influence upon the Government through traditional channels. Those private interest groups made loud noises following the Conservative manifesto commitment, saying that access to areas of grouse moorland and the like registered as common land should be restricted to public footpaths. Any concessions to such interest groups would lead to equal pressure being exerted by other groups and would debase the agreement surrounding the common land forum. They would also represent a clear breach of the Government's manifesto promise.

The public have a right to walk on all common land in England and Wales subject to commonsense restrictions enshrined in bye-law's. At present there are 1.5 million acres of common land—an area the size of Lincolnshire —yet the public have rights in relation to only one fifth of that area. It is clear that management associations should be made up of all interests in common land—owners, common rights holders and the public—represented by local authority nominees. Such associations would sort out the necessary provision of common land in the best interest for use and recreation by the general public.

Perhaps the most essential purpose of the legislation is to sort out all the deficiencies of the Commons Registration Act 1965. The Act allows properly registered land to be deregulated, for example if the owner of the land gets the common right holders to give up those rights, thus extinguishing common land and allowing it to be deregistered. Therefore, further to deregistering land that is mistakenly classified as common land, the legislation should tighten up abuses of the system which allow properly registered land to be deregulated. All land on the registers at the time of this legislation should be deemed to remain common land, unless there is proof that it was originally classified by mistake. Those measures are supported by the common land forum and were endorsed by the Government. I ask for a clear commitment to those principles by the Government and for it to be made known if and when the Government will honour their promises. In that context, I welcome the Bill.

2.5 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mrs. Virginia Bottomley)

I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Mr. Favell) on bringing forward this important Bill which will rectify an injustice and grievances which have faced many people in this country. I will put the matter in its context to reply to the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms. Walley).

The registration of commons took place as a first step to meet the 1958 Royal Commission's report on common land and its suggestion that legislation should be brought forward to cover common land generally—obviously, a first step was to establish registration—before moving on to measures covering better management and access, which the hon. Lady mentioned. Arising out of the Commons Registration Act have been the anomalies which my hon. Friend hopes to redress. The common land forum was set up by the Countryside Commission to analyse the various steps that would be necessary to meet some of the 1958 Royal Commission's report. It produced its report in 1986, and, a year later, the Government produced a consultation paper on the basis of it.

Although there is broad agreement on many issues and the common land forum did an excellent job in bringing together diverse interests—for example, access groups, local authorities and landowners—several controversial issues have not been satisfactorily settled. As soon as it is possible to make progress on legislation, when parliamentary time is available, the Government will bring forward that legislation. I share the hon. Lady's wish for these matters to be brought to a satisfactory conclusion. It must be on the basis of a little further work and agreement. Within that overall strategy, which is a firm Government commitment, we are making headway today with my hon. Friend's Bill to redress the anomaly.

The hon. Lady asked for an assurance that local authorities will be informed of any proposals to remove a property from the register. I can give that assurance. When we make regulations as soon as possible after the legislation comes into force, we will make sure that the widest possible publicity is given to applications under it. We expect that publicity to include advertisements in the local press, notice to local authorities, including parish councils, and, possibly, a notice on the property. We will also give sympathetic consideration to any suggestion that amenity societies should be informed of an application to remove a dwelling from the register. The lack of notification led to many of the difficulties of the 1965 Act.

I wish the Bill well and hope that it will achieve the objective of dealing with unfortunate anomalies.

2.9 pm

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

I have lived all my life in the countryside, and my constituency is rural in character. It is about 30 miles long and about the same wide.

For the past 12 months or thereabouts I have sat in this House and heard talk from the Government about privatising water. I should like to know from the Minister just how this Bill will fit in, supposing that water i[s privatised and that the Water Bill receives Royal Assent this year. When the French come in and buy up all the land, how much will this Bill, introduced by the hon. Member for Stockport (Mr. Favell), prove to have been taken into account in relation to the privatisation? Instead of private companies or public authorities holding 75 per cent. of the land associated with water, Perrier-type people will be buying it all up. Therefore, I want to know what safeguards the Government will provide to make sure that the Bill is carried through properly.

I also want to know—I have not heard this from the Minister—about the money that will be provided. However, perhaps I should not ask too many questions too quickly because the Minister's hon. Friend the hon. Member for Maidstone (Miss Widdecombe) is having to run backwards and forwards to the civil servants in the Box to try to find the answers. These things should have been thought through.

If the Government are so keen on privatising water, they should not be giving these assurances to their hon. Friend the Member for Stockport who also wants to privatise water but who wants at the same time to preserve common land to some extent. Those two things are in contradiction and we want an answer on that point.

I also want to know who will be responsibile for picking up the litter on the common land. We hear a lot of talk from the Prime Minister who runs about the country with a bag in her hand——

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harold Walker)

Order. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will address himself to what is in the Bill. It is about removing from the register of' common land certain dwelling houses as specified in the Bill.

Mr. Skinner

Yes, and when those things are removed from the register——

Mr. Gerald Bermingham (St. Helens, South)

What comes after?

Mr. Skinner

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to ask what comes after. One cannot deregulate this and deregulate that and expect everything to remain the same. I have asked a simple enough question. The Prime Minister runs to Tory party conferences talking about, "Bag it and bin it and stick her in it"—at least that is what she should have said. What is going to happen? Who will see to the litter? How much money will the Government provide to ensure that the provisions of the Bill are carried out?

I referred earlier to the fact that there is all this money in the country, so will the Minister provide the necessary resources? [Interruption.] I am riot talking about this year; I am talking about later. The hon. Member for Surrey, South-West (Mrs. Bottomley) has been a Minister for only five minutes and does not know whether she is on this earth or Fuller's. I am telling her that private Member's Bills have been passed before. My right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Morris) was here earlier. He thought that he had got all the money under the sun for the chronically sick and the disabled back in 1970, but they did not get it. That is why I am asking these questions. What about the necessary resources? I should like to hear from the Minister about what effect the water privatization—

Mr. Favell

The hon. Gentleman, who represents Bolsover, which is a place that I know well because I fought the seat in 1979—alas unsuccessfully—has raised an important point. In the Bill I have provided that those applying to take their houses off the register should pay a fee not exceeding £100 so that no burden should fall on others.

Mr. Skinner

And that will apply this year, next year and sometime never, irrespective of the rate of inflation and other things? The way that we are going on with 8 per cent. inflation, it will not be long before that £100 will have to be changed. It is all very well to think that here we are caught in a time warp on a Friday morning and that everything in the garden is lovely, but we should project our minds a little further ahead and think about what this Bill will mean when water has been privatised, when the French have moved in and when we are under the domain of the Common Market to an even greater extent than at present—and that will happen because the Tories will give in over and over again. We should think about all those things and about what the Bill will mean. It will probably not be worth a row of beans.

I am asking the hon. Member for Stockport to ask the Minister to ensure that the safeguards are built in not just for today, and that the Bill will have something of value in years to come.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed.