HL Deb 09 May 1977 vol 383 cc37-49

4.1 p.m.

The Earl of KINNOULL

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. It is with some trepidation that I venture to move the Second Reading of this small Bill concerning the ancient and historic title known as the "lordship of the manor". My sense of trepidation is kindled not only because a number of your Lordships will of course be holders of this ancient title, and no doubt are suspicious of the purpose of the Bill, but also because the subject touches the very foundations of our ancient history of land tenure from the days of William the Conqueror and the Domesday Book; and between the Danegeld, the Sokeman, and the Stirt and the Hide, I have an uneasy hunch that my limited grasp of the history of ancient land tenure may lead me rather rapidly to the stocks.

To allay any suspicions in the House, I feel I should say at this stage that the Bill is not an attack to abolish the ancient title of "lordship of the manor". In my view the Bill would help to strengthen it by removing certain discrepancies that now exist. The Bill in its barest simplicity has two objectives. The first objective is to help protect certain public, or quasi-public, land against damage—and here, of course, I refer to the village greens and the lands mentioned in the Bill. The second is to put an end to the somewhat degrading spectacle of certain dealings in lordships which I shall come to a little later.

As I said earlier, the ancient title was first created as far back as the time of William the Conqueror. My researches in the Library show that the early monarchs were as shrewd as the present day Chancellors of the Exchequer at extracting taxes from people. They took the view that to extract the tax from one person, the lord of the manor, and to allow him then to collect the tax, was the best form of taxation.

One of the root causes today in the whole problem of lordships of the manor and their title is that there are no accurate accounts, records, or registrations, of the names and numbers of present-day holders. I am told that back in the Middle Ages there were about 9,000 lords of the manor, and that the Church then owned one-third. I am further told that it is believed that the same number exist today, although many of them are untraceable.

From the early days of the creation of the titles the lords of the manor were granted certain rights: the right of game; the right of minerals; franchises, such as treasure trove, and indeed they were also given certain rights to hold courts. In fact that was the way they would manage the manor. They were allowed to summon the court baron, and indeed I saw only over the weekend from evidence given in the Royal Commission on Common Land in 1956 that the lord of the manor of Dorney used with very good effect his ancient right to overcome certain management problems at Dorney Common. As well as the ancient rights there were of course certain traditional honours. One of the most interesting concerns the lord of the manor of Scrivelsby, who by right carries the Royal Banner at the Coronation. I understand that this is in the family of my noble friend Lord Dundee.

If one examines the practical situation of the lordships today it is perhaps not surprising to find that a great many have been separated from their former lands. Indeed, today, I think there are really three categories of lordships. There is first the category of the lordship that still retains the personal land within the manor: the estate, the farm, the manor house, or even the paddock. Then there is the lordship which no longer retains the land for personal use, but almost by historical accident still retains certain manorial lands within the villages—the village green, the roadside waste, the old pound, and so on. The third category comprises the lordships which have no land and which I understand, for the benefit of lawyers, are known as empty lordships, or incorporeal hereditaments devoid of content. It is the last two categories which the Bill is designed to affect.

What is it that the Promoters of the Bill, the National Association of Local Councils—which of course advises parish councils and community councils throughout Britain, and with which many noble Lords are associated—seek to improve for the benefit of the parish councils; and why is it really necessary? The problem, I would suggest, revolves round the word "management". Traditionally, the parish councils have been, and are indeed, responsible for the maintenance of the public and quasi-public areas in the village: the village green, often the centre of the village, and indeed, the heart of the village, and in some cases as large as 20 acres. I believe that there is a village in Devon which has a village green of over 20 acres. This green is important aesthetically for the village, and in many cases it is extremely important for the recreational use of the parishioners. The old pound, the roadside wastes—all these the parish councils have the responsibility to care for. The responsibility comes not only from the responsibility that has continued for many years, but indeed from certain Acts of Parliament; the Enclosure Act 1857 and the Commons Act 1876 gave parish councils the right of maintenance and the protection of these lands.

The question must be put: If that is the case, if these old Bills gave the parish councils those powers, was that not enough, and is that not enough? The answer in practical terms is "No", for over the last ten years the National Association has helped to advise in no fewer than 400 cases concerned with the problems that generate from village greens and their ownership. In each case the parish councils have been frustrated in their endeavours to protect the village greens. The practical problem in almost every case was that the lord of the manor who still owned the soil of the green was no longer in the area, and in many cases was untraceable.

The remedy for the parish councils, of course, exists in various ways. They could, I suppose, have the use and power of a compulsory purchase order. But this, as many of your Lordships will realise, is not attractive to a close-knit community. They could acquire by agreement with the lord of the manor, but here again progress has been very slow. As far as I know, there has been only one case in recent years, at Stow-upland in Suffolk, where the parish council purchased the lordship. As I have said, in many cases the lords of the manor are apparently untraceable. This is one of the root causes of the problem.

The second objective of the Bill concerns empty lordships. It may seem oversensitive to some, but many parish councils—indeed, I am sure all of them—feel very strongly that these ancient and proud titles, which stem from the heart of our heritage, should not end up offered as a raffle at a Chicago convention, as did the lordship of the manor of Great Snoring some years ago. It is perhaps an unfortunate name, but that is what happened. I support the view, as I am sure many noble Lords will, that hawking these lordships around America, Japan and elsewhere is both degrading and unnecessary. I have no exact figures of recent sales of empty lordships—I have tried to get them but have failed—but I am advised that in 1968, 17 were sold and that the average value was just under £2,000 each.

I inquired as to what precedent there was, if any, to put forward to support the Bill. There are, I think, two precedents. The first is the right to appoint the rector of the parish, a right granted centuries ago, often to lords of the manor in return for building the church. This appointment was an absolute right and the bishop could object only on the grounds of evil living. That right to sell by auction became illegal after the Benefices Act 1898, which was followed in 1924 by an Act which virtually abolished advowsons.

The second precedent is much closer; it involves the ancient rights of commoners under the Commons Registration Act 1965. Because, as to who could graze the land, commoners were, as with many lordship owners, often untraceable, and because, like many of the lordships, the management of the commons subsequently suffered, that Act was passed to allow of compulsory registration, after which a certain number of commoners were known to have lost their rights by default.

I said at the beginning that the Bill had two objectives. Clause 2 sets out the categories of lordships affected by the Bill—lordships with no land, lordships with no personal land but with what I call manorial land, village greens—and, within these limited categories, a transfer or sale under Clause 1 would in future be void unless the notification procedure under Clause 3 had been adhered to, and indeed unless the parish council had indicated within the period of time tha it did not wish to purchase. The notification procedure is framed deliberately as a short, simple procedure, and allows parish councils four weeks in which to decide whether or not to purchase the lordship. The councils themselves will in fact have a duty under Clause 4 of the Bill to consult any other councils where part of the manor is situated in another council area. If that other council decides that it would like to purchase, if the first has decided not to, then it shall be granted one further month for the decision.

Clause 5 provides for the basis of compensation on a sale to a council. It would be a fair market value and, failing agreement between the parties, an independent valuer would be appointed and his award would be binding. The cost of such award would be shared equally between the parties. Under the interpretation provision, Clause 7, is spelt out particularly what is covered under transfer of ownership; and the Schedule covers the definitions of "parish" and "community". Clause 8 of the Bill excludes both Scotland and Northern Ireland.

I would not profess at this stage to claim that the drafting of the Bill is perfect; there are certain Amendments which even my unpracticed eye tells me will need to be made, and other matters which will need examination. If the Bill is allowed to go into Commitee, I feel that we shall have to examine Clause 2 particularly, the question of excluding, for example, a lord of the mancr living in his manor house with perhaps a garden of one acre but who could at the present time come within the scope of the Bill; it is not intended that that category should be included. Equally, I think the time-scale of notification may have to be adjusted; likewise the defiaition of "transfer" in Clause 7, particularly in cases of probate.

I hope I have explained sufficiently clearly to the House both the purposes and provisions of the Bill. I have no doubt that there is a practical and real need for parish councils to be granted these powers. I believe the Bill does not set any precedent, but it does, as the Commons Registration Act did, bring an ancient right into line with modern-day requirements, and it is for flat reason that I commend the Bill to the House.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(The Earl of Kinnoull.)

4.17 p.m.


My Lords, I intend to make only the briefest intervention on behalf of the Government, whose attitude to the Bill is one of good-humoured neutrality. My own attitude, having heard the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, and having read the Bill's smaller print, is one of intrigued neutrality, for he seems to be going even further towards making an extension of the Community Land Act. The noble Earl appears to be extending it to parishes and community councils. What I find rather strange is that having gone through the processes under Clause 5(3) where the owner and the council cannot agree on the terms, the Bill then says: The valuer's award shall bind the owner to convey the lordship to the council, and the council to pay the sum awarded, and shall be final". A compulsory purchase order by any other name may sound sweet or sour according to one's approach, but it seems to me that the way in which the Bill is drafted achieves the same effect that a CPO would achieve in any other circumstances. It is not based entirely on friendly negotiation, which, if that could be reached, I am sure the noble Earl would feel to be the right answer, and there is certainly a form of compulsion at the end of the day.

For this reason, I am greatly intrigued because this seems to be a move towards the nationalisation of land, albeit to a small degree, which all seems rather foreign compared with the utterances of the noble Earl on other occasions. However, the last thing I would wish to do would be to turn down the Bill or his ideas because of that. Taking a neutral position—for the noble Earl was also good enough to point out that the latest figure that he was able to give was for 1968 when there were 17 sales (I know the difficulty for I have tried to find out the figures for myself)—it is difficult to know whether the size of the problem created by these manors is great enough to merit cure through legislation. I make this point because we are always hearing from all sides of the House and particularly from noble Lords opposite about the amount of legislation that is going through Parliament. It would seem to me to be a pity, unless a definitive case can be made out, to add to the load. However, I should be interested to hear further comments from other noble Lords.

In this context, it is quite clear that a manor is not just a house and land as I believe many of us who are ignorant about this may have thought. It is the seisin of a defined district with the power of subinfeudation therein. In case there is anyone—and I very much doubt that—who does not know the meaning of these terms, "seisin" is the holding of the freehold and the power of "subinfeudation" is the power to grant lands within the manor to the lord of the manor's subjects. I, however, being a lay person in these matters, find it easier to think of the manor as a relic of a feudal estate, perhaps with some land still related to it and perhaps with some minor rights over that land which are possessed by the lord, but which are very largely of titular and historic significance only.

The noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, in his introductory remarks mentioned various sales—even by raffle as at Great Snoring about ten years ago—of some of these titles of lord of the manor. There was also the enchanting story of Sowerby. I am fascincated by the quaint, ancient history of the whole problem. Where a title is all that is involved, I see no reason why a parish council or anybody else should intervene. I believe that the noble Earl agrees. It may seem foolish for people to invest in a title with no real value, but if they wish to do so, I can see no wrong in it.

However, the Bill is concerned with those lordships of the manor where there is some title to land—common land, waste land at the roadside, the manor pound and particularly village greens. In such cases, it is quite true that the land may be of little value to anyone but the population at large. They are represented by the palish council or, in Wales, the community council which already has rights, but not the full rights of ownership. Therefore, they cannot take civil action or physical action to protect village greens. Here, I believe, lies the strength of the noble Earl's intentions. I can see that in such cases the proposals in the Bill could have some merit. I can also see no harm in giving parish councils powers to acquire these feudal relics, especially if the acquisition of village greens helps to preserve them and that of the roadways protects the verges. It seems sensible to facilitate their task in this way.

The Bill also includes lordships where no land is involved. I am not sure whether I heard the noble Earl aright. I understood him to say that he would want changes in the drafting of Clause 2(a), which specifies no land. In any case, that seems to me to be something that should be queried if the Bill is taken forward to a Committee stage. It should be clear what is the the point of including this. Perhaps the noble Earl can explain. The noble Earl himself also pointed out that there are drafting problems with the Bill as it stands, though now is not the time to go into detailed questions.

I must also point out that, at this late stage of the Session, the Bill has only a slender chance of making progress in another place. Nevertheless, I have no intention of opposing a Second Reading, though I wonder whether there are not other ways of bringing about the very worthy objective that the noble Earl has in mind without going through what will be a small but tortuous piece of legislation.

4.25 p.m.


My Lords, at this stage, we can say that we are grateful to my noble friend for introducing this Bill; but I am not so sure whether we shall continue to be grateful once the Committee stage has been reached, for I see intricacies looming ahead of us. Like the noble Baroness, I find this an intriguing subject, but I suspect that it is immensely intricate. My curiosities were greatly aroused when the noble Baroness likened it to a mini Community Land Act, which, heaven knows! was complicated enough. However, I was disappointed when, having said that, she did not immediately jump to the support of my noble friend and encourage him with her enthusiasm. That is what one would have expected.

If the Bill is to make progress, I believe that it will require the help of the Government which, I noticed, was not excactly forthcoming. If the noble Baroness feels that there is a cause here which can be supported in other ways, I believe that we should all be glad if she can express it when we reach another stage. Otherwise, I believe that we shall all be spending a lot of time to little effect.

Baroness BIRK

My Lords, I said that I thought that there was a slender chance—the question is purely one of time. It does not rest with me at all but is a question of Parliamentary time. So far as alternatives are concerned, I must make it quite clear that I have no intention of putting forward alternatives. Having been frank about that, I was suggesting to the noble Earl that he might, or other noble Lords might, come forward. I should not like to mislead the House into thinking that I was going to produce an alternative.


My Lords, the noble Baroness has certainly not misled me. What I was attempting to do in a very tenative way was to pave the way for possible discussions between her Department, my noble friend and the National Association of Local Councils. If there is another way round this, it would be as well if we could find it. I believe that the Committee stage portends a real meal for the lawyers, estate agents and historians and that we shall get very entangled. Nevertheless, I should like to give my provisional support to one or two of the aims of my noble friend and the National Association of Local Councils, because I agree with them that the transfer of the title of these lordships of the manor to absentees and outsiders is something of an affront to the dignity and pride of local communities and may prove to be an obstruction to the development of their recreational facilities on village greens and so on.

I feel that the sale of such dignities and titles by events such as raffles is also something of a scandal, and I agree with the more substantial point that the absence of these rights from a locality is a source of difficulty to those who want to develop the amenities and recreational facilities of their village greens. However, I believe that there are some fairly substantial objections which will somehow have to be met. One relates to the mineral rights which I know that my noble friend Lord Clitheroe will want to talk about. I would think that shooting rights would also lead to problems where these have been absorbed into the manorial rights. These are both rights with substantial values. They are not exempt from the operation of the Bill as far as I can see from my reading of Clause 2, but I should not have thought that the parish council was an appropriate body to administer or manage either of these even if it was interested in acquiring them. Perhaps my noble friend can indicate now, or at a later stage, where these are supposed to fall; whether they are proposed to be excluded by the Amendments he is talking about; or whether they are included. Perhaps he can also say how things are to be made better if parish councils start to acquire rights of this kind.

As a rather incidental point, I should like to ask my noble friend whether he can say, either now or in correspondence, if he has any concern for a number of outsiders, and even foreigners, with whom some special links with particular villages and parishes might be mutually desirable, even for some token payment. There are quite a number of families who trace their ancestry back to certain villages. There are foreigners belonging to towns which are twinned with certain parishes in this country, and I think that some way of establishing honorary links between people like that and these rights might not be a had thing. I do not think that this is a matter which needs to he imported into the Bill, but it is something about which we might think as the Bill goes forward. I am afraid that this is a rather lukewarm welcome, but I am conscious that there is probably much more to the Bill than meets the eye, and until I see that a little more clearly I should like to reserve my judgment.

4.31 p.m.


My Lords, I apologise for intervening, and I shall not be long. A good many noble Lords besides myself have a personal interest in the Bill, which raises a few questions which I should like to be allowed to ask the noble Earl. First, does the word "land" in Clause 2(a) include land which was copyhold land and was enfranchised in 1925? In many cases that would very likely be land in which the lord still had certain interests, such as mineral interests or shooting interests.

Secondly, may I ask whether it is intended that this Bill should apply to the manors in the possession of the Crown and the Royal Duchies. Furthermore, to me the most important question of all is whether transfer, as described in the clause, includes probate. When an heir inherits from his predecessor it would appear to me, from looking at the Bill, to mean that it was a transfer. In such circumstances if a father dies and his son inherits from him, I do not think that that would be an occasion when the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, would think it appropriate that this Bill should operate. There are other minor matters on which I should be happy to talk to the noble Earl at some other time, but I wanted merely to express my view that there are some matters in the Bill which need quite serious attention.

4.33 p.m.


My Lords, so that the noble Earl can make clear something which I think will be of interest to other noble Lords as well as to myself, I should like to ask him two questions before he replies to the debate. First, in Clause 3 I notice that the operation of the Bill would be started by the owner of the lordship notifying the council in writing. I think there are a great many manors in this country of which nobody knows who owns the lordship, and in such cases there can obviously be no notification in writing. So how would we proceed from there?

The second question I want to ask is: What happens when manors are held in moieties? It frequently has happened, I believe, that manors were split up. That did not mean that they were split up geographically, but that several lords each owned a share of the whole. I know of one manor which is held in six moieties, and it is most unlikely that all six should die at the same time, or should want to part with their interests at the same time. Those are two questions that I should like to put to the noble Earl, but if I thought rather harder I might think of some more. It seems that the Bill, in its present state, has a number of provisions at which we ought to look very closely in Committee.

4.35 p.m.

The Earl of KINNOULL

My Lords, I am very grateful to all of those who have spoken on the Second Reading of the Bill and for the support which has been given, even if it has been somewhat careful support. The noble Baroness, Lady Birk, said that the Government looked upon the Bill with good-humoured neutrality. I am not sure how neutral she was when subsequently she suggested that the Bill was the arm of nationalisation, and when she raised the question of over-legislation and so on. But certainly she was good-humoured, for which I was very grateful.

With regard to the prospect of the Bill going through another place—if, indeed, it goes through this House—I would hope that there was a rather good chance, because the Government's programme of business has been somewhat curtailed by recent Bills (which we know about) and I should have thought that there was room for this fairly important change in ancient law—and it is something which the parish councils are looking for. The noble Baroness particularly asked about the question of "no land" under Clause 2. This refers specifically to the empty lordships, and, as my noble friend Lord Sandford said, it is one of the objectives of the Bill to try to stop these rather degrading sales abroad.

I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Sandford for his support. He asked a number of detailed questions which perhaps I could deal with at a later stage. My noble friend Lord Clitheroe asked, I think, three questions. Unlike the Government, I do not have experts in the Officials' Box to whom I can immediately refer, and so perhaps I can also deal with those matters by correspondence.

However, I think that I can answer one point raised by my noble friend, Lord Inglewood, who asked how on earth the Bill could be enforced where a lordship was untraceable. I should have thought that the answer would be that if a British lawyer was involved in the sale of a lordship, it would be his duty to advise his clients to notify the council, even if the clients did not know. I hope that that partially answers the point. My noble friend raised another interesting question regarding manors held in moiety. Again I will have to check on that and write to him. My Lords, I am very grateful for the support given to the Bill.

On Question, Bill read 2ª and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.