HL Deb 22 June 1899 vol 73 cc248-54


Order of the day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, I hope I shall induce your Lordships to give a Second Reading to the measure which I venture to place before you this afternoon. The object of this Bill is to simplify and cheapen the process by which schemes for the regulation of commons are now initiated and become law, and by so doing to facilitate the means by which open spaces and village greens are now protected, preserved, and improved for the benefit and recreation of those who dwell in their vicinity. I am quite sure that the object will have the universal approval of your Lordships if it can be shown, as I believe it can, that the reform is possible and feasible in a safe and satisfactory manner. First of all I should point out that this Bill is in no sense a Party measure. The most that can be said in that direction is that it was drafted under my direction while I happened to be President of the Board of Agriculture in the late Government, and that in that capacity I presented it to the House of Commons, but the main object of this Bill has long been pressed forward by the Commons Preservation Society, a body which, is your Lordships know, is a non-political one, and contains many men who are opposed to the principles of the Party with which I usually act. This Bill has with nothing to do with the question of enclosures, which has been a vexed question for many years, but merely deals with the management of commons. The question of enclosures has given rise to much controversy and several Acts of Parliament. The Commons Act of 1876 was brought in by the noble Viscount the Lord Privy Seal when he was Home Secretary in the Government of 1874, and the question of enclosures has long been dead and buried; its very ghost was laid by Lord Thring when he induced your Lordships to accept his Commons Amendment Act of 1893. I will, with your Lordships' approval, refer to Part 2 of the Bill, which is of a somewhat omnibus character. Some of the clauses are of a purely Departmental nature. They were drafted under my direction, because we thought they would be of service to us on the Board of Agriculture; but if the noble Viscount who represents that Board in this House does not think them as serviceable as we did I shall not press them. There are other clauses dealing with matters of procedure which I consider of great practical value, but as they are not absolutely necessary to the principle of the Bill, and may be considered a stumbling block to the passing of it, I do not intend to press them if they receive much objection. Having cleared the ground so far, I will endeavour to explain shortly to your Lordships what this Bill will do. It will, I trust, mainly affect those smaller open spaces and village greens of which we who dwell in the country are so cognisant, and it is really with those in my eye that I particularly press the Bill upon your Lordships' attention. The procedure of the Act of 1876 is so expensive that small village greens of two or three acres in extent are absolutely prohibited from obtaining the advantages to be derived from a scheme for their regulation. This, I am sure your Lordships will agree, is in itself to be deplored. I will endeavour to give your Lordships an idea of the procedure which has to be gone through in the case of a village green of only two or three acres in extent. I will suppose that everyone in the neighbourhood, including the lord of the manor, are very anxious that the village green should be regulated and improved and used for the purpose of providing recreation for the inhabitants. At the present moment, in order to obtain a scheme, a notice signed by persons representing one-third of the interest in the common has to be published in the local newspapers and sent to the Board of Agriculture. If the Board of Agriculture think a prima facie case has been made out, they send down one of their officers to the spot where my typical village green is situated to hold an inquiry, examine witnesses, and make a report. If the report of the officer of the Board of Agriculture is approved by that Board, they have to get the assent of two-thirds of those in the locality interested in the common affected. The Board of Agriculture then proceeds to draw up a Provisional Order embodying the regulations, which they present to the Houses of Parliament. The House of Commons proceeds to refer this Provisional Order and the report of the Board of Agriculture to the Select Committee on Commons—a Standing Committee which, as your Lordships know, is appointed to examine into matters of this sort. That Committee proceeds to have another inquiry. They summon up the officers of the Board of Agriculture, and, if they choose, people from the locality where the common is situated, and hotel an exhaustive inquiry, a procedure which involves considerable expense. When the Select Committee on Commons has confirmed the report of the Board of Agriculture it reports to the House of Commons, and a Bill has to be passed through that House and your Lordships' House and receive the Royal Assent. But the procedure does not end there. The Board of Agriculture has then to send a valuer down, who has to make an award, a procedure also involving considerable expense. This cumbersome, protracted, and expensive process is absolutely necessary at the present time in order to regulate one of the smallest village greens, where everybody interested is perfectly willing that the green should be improved and regulated. Under this Bill I propose to confer power on the district council in the neighbourhood of any open space to make a scheme. That scheme should be in the form provided by the Board of Agriculture for the regulation of the common. Notice of intention to make a scheme must be given, and the council must state where copies of the draft can be obtained. A copy of the draft and plan must also be sent as soon as possible to the Board of Agriculture, and after the expiration of forty days the Department will take into consideration any objections or suggestions made to it if it passes through that ordeal and goes up to the Board of Agriculture, the latter may, if it chooses, approve of the scheme as it is presented to them, or may make modifications. If they think fit, the Board of Agriculture may also direct an inquiry to be held by an officer of the Department. Then, if the Board of Agriculture approves of the scheme after this exhaustive inquiry, it should become law and have full effect. Under my Bill, I am informed, and I think I am right in saying this, that the whole process would be completed easily in a few weeks, and at a small expense. Under the present law the same process takes eight or nine months, and costs a very large sum of money. I am informed that the minimum sum spent even in securing a scheme for the smallest place, where everybody consents, is not less than £60, and that the maximum is something like £1,500 or £2,000. Every provision is made in the Bill for compensation for any profitable rights of the owner which might be interfered with without his consent. That leads me naturally to the question which I think may be a thorny one, namely, the veto of the lord of the manor. I have taken in my Bill the precedent of the Metropolitan Commons Act of 1866. That was not a very revolutionary period, and perhaps the precedents of that time may be right at this moment, but it may be said that the case in the country, districts to which this Bill applies is not exactly the same as in the metropolitan area. But on that point I should like to say that I am quite willing, if the Govern- ment think right, that the Bill should be sent to a Select Committee, where evidence might be taken and where discussion will enable a solution to be arrived at which will, I have no doubt, be satisfactory to all. The object I have at heart is to cheapen and simplify the procedure for the regulation of small commons and village greens, so that it may be possible for these open spaces, which tend so largely to the enjoyment of the people in the neighbourhood, to be improved and regulated in a proper manner. If that is carried out, I shall not quarrel with the noble Viscount or any other noble Lord with regard to the veto of the lord of the manor. I hope your lordships will admit that I have not approached this Bill in an unreasonable spirit, and if the noble Viscount the Lord Privy Seal will meet me in a spirit of equal "sweet reasonableness," I have not the slightest doubt that we shall be able, even this session, to place upon the Statute Book this measure, which is not an ambitious one, but one which will be highly useful and practical, and tend to promote the health and happiness of thousands of the inhabitants in rural districts.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.


My Lords, if the Bill does no more than carry out the object which the noble Lord has stated, and which is set forth in the memorandum to the Bill—that of providing simpler and less expensive machinery for regulating commons—it has my sympathy. In the Act of 1876, which I had the honour of passing, the Government wanted not to favour enclosures as they were favoured in former years, but to take up a different line of dealing with them, and all the commons that have been regulated under that Act have given satisfaction to everybody concerned. I am quite aware that experience has shown that not only may the procedure be simplified, but also that a great deal of the expense which has hitherto been incurred may be reduced to a very large extent. One of the great difficulties which causes as much expense as anything else in the present procedure is the necessity of getting the consent of two-thirds of the inhabitants. I understand the noble Lord to object to full notice being given in the newspapers on the ground of expense.


No I do not object to that.


Although I am quite willing that the procedure should be cheapened, there are other matters of great importance to be considered, which make it necessary that ample notice should be given of any scheme in contemplation. Your Lordships must bear in mind that in dealing with commons you are dealing with persons having absolute rights of ownership. Not only the lord of the manor, but also the commoners have rights, and it is a new thing to suggest that these rights should be taken away without the consent of Parliament. The procedure might be simplified; the two-thirds majority might be rendered unnecessary; but the taking away of rights is a matter for Parliament, and this should be made quite clear in the Bill. I understood the noble Lord to say that he was not averse to recognising the rights of the lord of the manor, and did not wish to take away his veto.


The Bill as it stands does take away the veto of the lord of the manor, because it follows the precedent of the Metropolitan Commons Act, 1866.


I am not going to defend the Metropolitan Commons Act, a great part of which is objectionable; but so far as the lord of the manor is concerned, it is quite clear that his rights must be protected. The noble Lord said that ample compensation would be given under Clause 7, but I have my doubts upon that point. Dealing with the Land Clauses Act is very different to coming before Parliament and stating one's case. There is another clause which I think will give rise to great injustice as it is at present drawn—namely, the clause relating to the adjustment of rights. In dealing with the adjustment of rights you are touching matters of great difficulty and great delicacy. I do not mean to say that the clause may not be amended, and I hope to submit proposals for its amendment should the Bill be read a second time. I am content that the Bill should receive a Second Reading, and I hope the noble Lord will accept the Amendments I shall place upon the Notice Paper, by which the main object may be secured and the risk of injustice removed. Commons are not the property of the public, but of private persons, and their rights should not be interfered with unless some public necessity is shown. I do not understand why the noble Lord has included in his Bill metropolitan commons; they are dealt with under a special Act, and I think they should remain under that Act, by which they are satisfactorily dealt with.


I am glad to find that the noble Viscount is willing to accept the Second Reading of this Bill. I am not going into details upon this Bill, but I think there will be general agreement in the desire that for the better regulation of small commons and village greens a simple and not costly procedure should be provided. At the same time, although I have not any intimate acquaintance with those parts of England which are different from that in which I live, I should say that for large tracts of common land, especially in the North of England, the situation is somewhat difficult, and I can conceive difficult questions arising to which the procedure suggested in this Bill would not be applicable. I hope my noble friend will proceed with the Bill, and that it may be a useful measure as applied to the smaller places of which he has spoken.


My Lords, I do not rise for the purpose of offering any adverse criticism of this Bill. While agreeing with its general object, I take exception to the provision for management and the distribution of cost. Generally speaking the body most interested is the parish council; the county will have no general interest, and when a common is situated in the areas of two or more district councils the charge for upkeep and management should be upon the districts within which the common is situated. When the Bill is in Committee care should be taken that those who benefit by the regulation of commons should be those who pay for it, and not the county council or the district, for the latter may be a large district with no interest in the common in question.

On Question, agreed to

Bill read 2a (according to order), and committed to a Committee of the whole House.

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