HL Deb 29 July 1985 vol 467 cc18-9

3.30 p.m.

The Chairman of Committees (Lord Aberdare)

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a third time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a third time.—(Lord Aberdare.)

Lord Sandford

My Lords, a little over six years ago I had the privilege of introducing the mark 1 version of this Bill to your Lordships' House. It then went to the other place where it was sabotaged by a strange combination including hang-gliders and horseriders. Now that the mark 2 version is before us I should like to take this opportunity, as this is the first substantial piece of legislation leading to the proper management of a large area of common land, to congratulate the Devon County Council and the national park officer in particular on having prepared this legislation, the skill with which they have negotiated it, and their perseverance in bringing it within striking distance of being on the statute book.

Finally, I should like to express the confident hope that it will be of very considerable benefit to both the commoners of Dartmoor and visitors.

Baroness White

My Lords, fortunately this Bill has not engendered the spirit of controversy surrounding the proposal for the nearby Okehampton by-pass. It is generally welcomed, as the noble Lord. Lord Sandford, has said. I think one should briefly draw attention to the fact that an important amendment was agreed in Committee which has now established the position and authority of the Nature Conservancy Council in relation to those parts of the commons which have been notified, or may be notified, as sites of special scientific interest. I understand that the NCC are very happy to have secured this amendment, without which their position in relation to commoners' rights might have been less than satisfactory.

But there is still concern in some quarters that the Bill is not sufficiently forward-looking in the matter of improving the control of stocking and grazing, on which so much of the environmental as well as the agricultural value of common land depends. The Commoners' Council is now to be under an obligation to submit draft regulations to prevent overstocking. These regulations are subject to confirmation by the Secretary of State. The Commoners' Council must consult the national park authority but need not refer to the Nature Conservancy Council. The Secretary of State will, in all probability, consult the Nature Conservancy Council but there is no obligation to do so on the face of the Bill.

The advantages of such consultation are that they bring wider experience, and perhaps greater objectivity, to bear on what can very often be a difficult local situation. I am advised that if consulted the NCC would draw on their experience of grazing levels in the uplands generally, of course taking into account local conditions, including the climatic and soil regimes on Dartmoor. Their objectives would be to relate the carrying capacity of the land to the maintenance and enhancement of the nature conservation interest, as part of the total assessment.

It would be encouraging if the Government would confirm that such advice would be sought whenever relevant regulations are presented for confirmation; and also that arrangements will be made for periodic reviews as required. The Bill mentions fixing the numbers of stock "from time to time". But this could be very loosely interpreted if left entirely to local initiative and interests.

At present, as the noble Lord, Lord Sandford, has indicated, we are indeed fortunate to have as a national park officer Mr. Ian Mercer, who is outstandingly knowledgeable and experienced in conservation matters. But one must have a care for the future. If the Minister is able to give such assurances as I have mentioned they would be very welcome.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, speaking on behalf of the Government, I believe that I can give the noble Baroness the categorical assurance that she is seeking; namely, that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State will not confirm any regulations without consulting the Nature Conservancy Council. In regard to periodical reviews, which were the subject of her second question, I am afraid I do not have the answer readily to hand but I shall, if I may, take the opportunity to write to her.

Before we depart from this Bill, perhaps I may say that I agree with my noble friend Lord Sandford that at last we shall have proper management for a large area of common land; and that is a very good thing.

On Question, Bill read a third time, and passed, and returned to the Commons with amendments.