HC Deb 07 July 1989 vol 156 cc623-8

Lords amendment: No. 1, in page 1, leave out lines 12 to 18 and insert—

  1. "(a) that
    1. (i) there is a dwellinghouse on the land and, if and so far as the land is not the site of that dwellinghouse, it is ancillary to that dwelling-house; or
    2. (ii) the land is ancillary to a dwellinghouse which is not on the land; and
  2. (b) that the requirements of paragraph (a) above have been satisfied at all times since 5th August 1945."

12.24 pm
Mr. Tony Favell (Stockport)

I beg to move, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said amendment.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Miss Betty Boothroyd)

With this it will be convenient to consider Lords amendments Nos. 2 to 4 and 7.

Mr. Favell

I am sorry that their Lordships have had to make what appear to be extensive amendments to this relatively short Bill. In my own defence, I should say that the Bill was introduced from behind Mr. Speaker's Chair, and that originally it appeared to have little chance of reaching the statute book. However, hon. Members of all parties have agreed that the Bill fulfils one of Parliament's roles in that it puts right a manifest wrong.

Thanks to a great deal of help from the Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey, South-West (Mrs. Bottomley) and her Department, and to the co-operation of the Opposition parties, especially from the hon. Members for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley), and for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Miss Walley) and from Lord Graham of Edmonton, the Bill has been given a speedy passage through both Houses and now it is back before this House. I should also like to put on record my gratitude to Baroness Blatch, who guided the Bill so swiftly and competently through the other place.

The Common Registration Act 1965 required, for the first time, all commons, their owners and common rights, town and village greens to be recorded on registers to be maintained by county councils. That was an excellent and timely piece of legislation because commons were disappearing fast. As Kate Ashbrook of the Open Spaces Society, who does so much good work to conserve our commons has said in a recent booklet, commons range from the huge heather uplands of Dartmoor and the North Pennines, to the crags of Snowdonia and the Lake District; from the Chiltern hilltops, ancient woodlands like Epping, Ashdown and the New Forest to alluvial meadows near Oxford and on the Cambridgeshire Ouse. The coast of Norfolk, the heaths of Surrey and Suffolk, and surburban lungs like Wimbledon and Clapham in London and the Strays of York are all commons. Under the 1965 Act, 1.5 million acres of common land was registered, but unfortunately the three-year registration period was too short and much more land that should have been registered was not. There are other unresolved problems, such as the public's right of access to common land, which is yet to be determined.

I look forward to hearing what my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State will say in reply. The Government accept the case for further comprehensive legislation and I urge my hon. Friend that that be done, for the general good, as swiftly as possible.

However, there is an even more pressing and serious problem for the few. There is a problem for those 500 people whose houses and gardens were registered under the 1965 Act as common land by mistake. My Bill is directed at helping those unfortunate people whose plight was first brought to the attention of the House two or three years ago by my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives (Mr. Harris) in an Adjournment debate. He told the House about the plight of Mr. Casteliain, who owned what was once a coastguard's hut near Land's End, but which had been converted into a house many years previously. It was later discovered to have been registered as common land by mistake and consequently is virtually unsaleable.

12.30 pm

Many hon. Members will have read recently in The Times of the case of Mr. John Roe and his wife Irene, which I first came across through a solicitor colleague of mine who is in a practice to which I am a consultant. Mr. and Mrs. Roe live in a former vicarage on the moors near Hexham. Three years ago they decided to sell it, because Mr. Roe's health was none too good. Hon. Members can just picture Mr. and Mrs. Roe's concern when a prospective purchaser discovered that their home was registered as common land, and their absolute despair when they discovered that there was no provision under the 1965 Act to take their house off the register. Therefore, the prospective purchaser was not prepared to buy. That scenario has been repeated on several occasions since, and they have still not sold their house.

Under the 1965 Act anybody could go to the local authority and provisionally register what they believe to be common land. Indeed, local authorities, parish councils and interested individuals have registered land as common land. I registered some land as common land in my village of Edale, which is where the Pennine Way starts. Fortunately, it did not have a house on it. Land having been registered provisionally, the council then advertised the fact in local newspapers and, if no objections were received within two years, the registration became final. Alas, there is no machinery to get the land off the register once it is on—even if it was a mistake to register it in the first place.

My short Bill allows the removal from the commons registers of houses and gardens which have been used as such since 5 August 1945. It is a narrow Bill, but, as a private Member's Bill, it can be no other. I hope that, when comprehensive legislation is introduced by the Government, other injustices—there are others—can be remedied. There is, for example, the case of Mr. Paxton, who purchased a Methodist chapel in Cornwall. He converted it into a house, but he now cannot sell it because it is registered as a village green.

Amendments Nos. 1, 2, 3 and 7 make it clear that, if a house is registered but not its garden, the house can be removed from the register and vice versa. If part only of the house or part only of a garden is registered, that, too, can be removed. Amendment No. 4 deals with the manner in which applications are to be referred to a commons commissioner for determination.

Mr. James Arbuthnot (Wanstead and Woodford)

The Bill, as it went to another place, was a good Bill, but I understand that its defect was that it only allowed the deregistration of a house and garden where the site of the house, as well as the garden, was put on a common land register. There may have been some question that, if only the garden was registered, the Bill may not have allowed deregistration.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Mr. Favell) brought to my attention a specific case, which he has mentioned, to the House concerning a Mr. Paxton, who owns the old Methodist chapel in Trenarren. That case was originally taken up in the House by the late David Penhaligon and has since been pursed vigorously by his successor the hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Taylor).

I understand that Mr. Paxton bought the old Methodist chapel in 1986, with the benefit of planning permission, to convert it into a dwelling house. Following that, he carried out the conversion to a high standard, and he intended to use it as his permanent residence. However, he discovered later that he would have to move because of his work and he, therefore, needed to sell the house. However, it is registered as common land. To have a chapel registered as part of a green is extraordinary. The piece of land on which the chapel was built is 30 ft below the level of the land to the north of the land which is called the Ledrah, which was properly registered as a village green. Unfortunately, the chapel should not have been registered. It is obvious that a chapel is not part of a village green.

Since the property was registered as part of the village green the council dealing with the matter has changed to Restormel district council. It cannot produce any documentation referring to what happened on the original application to register the chapel as part of the village green because that documentation is owned by its predecessor council.

Obviously evidence and common sense suggest that a chapel cannot be part of a village green. One cannot have people exercising rights of common land over a chapel, especially if it has been converted into a dwelling house which is lived in. Obviously the House should take some steps to put that right.

I am not sure whether the Bill operates to put the matter right regarding the old chapel in Trenarren. I do not know whether Mr. Paxton will benefit from the Bill or whether he will be prevented from doing so because of the stringent time limits, which I believe my hon. Friend has been forced to introduce into the Bill. If that is so, it is a great pity because Mr. Paxton should have the benefit of the sensible changes that my hon. Friend has suggested. The necessary legislation should be introduced in the future.

Mr. Favell

I am sorry to tell my hon. Friend that Mr. Paxton will be unable to take advantage of the Bill as it has been narrowly drawn, for obvious reasons. The Open Space Society and many others interested in common land are concerned that the existing arrangements should not be altered except to remedy obvious mistakes. For that reason the Bill was drawn to include only houses and gardens that were in existence in 1945. Unfortunately Mr. Paxton's house was a chapel then. If I had had the benefit of that obvious example earlier in our proceedings we might have been able to do something to help him. Alas, that example came to our notice relatively late in our deliberations. Even so, I believe that its inclusion may have given rise to objections from other interested parties as it could have opened the flood gates for barns that have been converted into houses or are yet to be converted coming within my narrow Bill. I agree with my hon. Friend that the case he has highlighted must be dealt with. It is a complex procedure and when the Minister replies I hope that she will be able to tell us whether such cases could be dealt with when comprehensive legislation is introduced.

Mr. Arbuthnot

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, although I am sure that Mr. Paxton will be saddened by his remarks. I am sure, however, that my hon. Friend is right.

I accept that those who are interested in preserving common land should hold as much of that land as is rightly common land. Common land is a good thing and it should not be diminished, but in Mr. Paxton's case an obvious mistake has been made. If my hon. Friend is right, Mr. Paxton's Methodist chapel will not be rescued by the Bill and, therefore, it is possible that the usual village green activities could be carried on in the chapel. Mr. Paxton has had legal advice to confirm that. Clearly that is absurd and something must be done at some stage to put that right.

I hope that when my hon. Friend the Minister replies she will be able to give us some assurances that that matter will be considered.

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

I am glad of this opportunity to debate the Lords amendments and to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Mr. Favell) on introducing his Bill. This morning we have already learnt of the difficulties of negotiating the parliamentary processes. In this case my hon. Friend, perhaps assisted by his legal background, introduced the Bill at the back of the Chair and he has made speedy progress. It deals with a subject about which many hon. Members hold extremely strong views. Therefore, it is all the more praiseworthy that he has managed to obtain so much support and encouragement in bringing forward the Bill. There is no doubt that appreciation is also due to my noble Friend Baroness Blatch, who did so much in another place.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport said, it was two and a half years ago that my hon. Friend the hon. Member for St. Ives (Mr. Harris) secured an Adjournment debate to draw to the attention of the House problems caused to people whose homes were incorrectly registered as common land under the Commons Registration Act 1965. My hon. Friend referred to the 1.5 million acres that were registered under the Act, which was a magnificent achievement and an important step forward. However, inevitably there were areas where land was not registered or, as in this case, was wrongly registered. I am told that, in their enthusiasm, some individuals did not properly check or realise the long-term implications of registration when it came to buying or selling a property.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stockport referred to his own experience of a case in which an individual with whom his firm was associated was particularly badly afflicted. My hon. Friend the Member for Wanstead and Woodford (Mr. Arbuthnot) spoke of another case in which individuals are grievously affected by the unintended implications of what was an extremely important Act. My hon. Friend has made it clear that this matter will not redress the grievance to which he has referred. Others, such as those who live in what were previously schools whose properties were wrongly registered are in a similar position. The problem does not merely concern chapels but, as has been stated, barns.

However, to cover all the details and grievances would be a task which even my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport might have found difficult to negotiate in a private Member's Bill. There is no doubt that those who had houses which were dwelling houses before 1945 had every reason to appreciate that my hon. Friend managed to limit the Bill's scope and, therefore, obtain agreement from all concerned.

The Department has been aware of the problem for some years. Shortly before the Adjournment debate to which I referred, the Common Land Forum report was published. It drew attention to the various types of incorrect registrations, including the one which the Bill hopes to redress. In the Adjournment Debate the then Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, West (Mr. Waldegrave) recognised the injustice being suffered by these house owners and the need for early legislation on the subject. He recognised that the removal of incorrect registrations was part of the Common Land Forum's package of legislative proposals, on which the Government were about to go out to consultation, and that the forum was loath to see bits of its package taken out and dealt with separately.

There have been many calls for comprehensive legislation on commons. Hon. Members will be aware of the efforts taken to secure agreement on this important matter. We have not yet reached the stage where it is possible to reach agreement, in spite of the great efforts of the Countryside Commission and many others. However, the Department is considering the matter carefully and finding out when we shall be able to give a clearer indication of our intentions. There are agreements over many matters, but where differences exist, they are fairly entrenched differences of opinion.

The Bill does not enable all incorrect registrations to be removed. It does not cover agricultural land which may have been incorrectly registered or buildings, as my hon. Friends have said, which have been of a non-domestic purpose. However, by limiting the Bill's scope, my hon. Friend will make an important and helpful contribution.

The amendments that we are discussing will improve the Bill. Amendment No. 1 means that gardens can be considered on their own and will not have to constitute part of a house and garden. Amendments Nos. 2 and 3 make it possible to refer, on the basis of a commons commissioner's opinion, to only part of the land and not the full scope of the land originally brought to his attention. Lords amendment No. 4 states that the provisions of section 17(2) of the Commons Registration Act 1965 should be available so that the chief commons commissioner can allocate a commissioner and have an assessor to assist in the purpose. Under Lords amendment No. 7, the title will reflect the changes that have been made in the other place.

These are helpful, simple and uncontroversial amendments. The Bill is limited in scope, but is enormously important for those who have been affected by the inadvertent fall-out from the important 1965 Act.

12.45 pm
Ms. Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford)

One of the benefits of coming to the House on a Friday and sitting on the Front Bench, sometimes without knowing that one will have to do so, is that one comes across extremely interesting subjects. This Bill falls into that category.

The protection of common land in Britain is extremely important and is dear to the hearts of most of us. Only when one finds, as the hon. Member for Stockport (Mr. Favell) did, some significant exceptions and injustices is it right that there should be any tampering with that protection. We support the measure and the amendments.

We wish to express sympathy with the case of Mr. Paxton raised by the hon. Member for Wanstead and Woodford (Mr. Arbuthnot). It is an extraordinary example of the difficulties in which people can find themselves. Perhaps it will be a subject for another private Member's Bill. We sympathise with the Minister about the difficulties of introducing comprehensive legislation. This is a delicate matter and one on which it will be exceedingly difficult to reach agreement. However, I am pleased to be able to say that on this narrow measure where legitimate grievances have been demonstrated and where a cure can be found we are happy to support the Bill and the amendments. I congratulate the hon. Member for Stockport on introducing the Bill successfully.

Question put and agreed to.

Lords Amendments Nos. 2 to 4 agreed to.

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