HL Deb 07 June 1994 vol 555 cc1150-66

7.46 p.m.

The Earl of Cranbrook

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

Last week, on 3rd June, this country was host to the World Environment Day 1994—the annual celebration of the United Nations Environment Programme. Since its establishment in 1972, this yearly event has been a key element in the United Nations Environment Programme's drive to promote awareness and action for the protection of the environment. In his address to the delegates that evening, the Secretary of State for the Environment emphasised the essential role that must be played by people—that is to say, individuals and local communities—in the achievement of sustainable development, to which so many national governments, including ours, are now committed.

I remind the House that legislators also have a distinctive duty to enact laws and regulations that facilitate the right action by people and communities towards this target of sustainability. So I find it fitting in this respect to bring before your Lordships tonight a Bill that will do just that. It provides the regulatory framework for sustainable utilisation of the Bodmin Moor Commons, which are an important natural resource and which under proper management can yield a multiplicity of benefits for many people.

Bodmin Moor is the most south-westerly upland in England. It is exceptional as an unglaciated granite massif of special geological interest and unusual, striking topography. In the County of Cornwall it is the largest single open area of semi-natural habitat. The moor is transected by a main road, the A.30, which is fenced where it crosses open country, and is also traversed by minor roads and rights of way which give public access to motors, walkers and riders.

The importance of Bodmin Moor lies in its diversity, which is out of all proportion to the size of the area. There are about 30 parcels of common land large and small which are separately registered under the 1965 Act. These commons support a mosaic of moorland habitats, including valley mire, acid grassland, wet and dry heath, standing and running water and scrub with woodland on the fringes. Because of the location at the western seaboard of Europe, and as a result of past land use, many of the plant communities that are present have national and international significance. There are also several intriguing plants, some of them very rare, which are associated with the old mineral workings for which Cornwall is notorious.

The moor as a whole is of major importance for wintering birds, especially for golden plover and birds of prey, including short-eared owls, peregrines, merlins, red kites and hen harriers. In summer there are important breeding populations of curlew, wheatear and whinchat. At the other end of the scale, a few dunlin nest here at the extreme southern limit of the world range of that species. It is also a rich area for dragonflies, of which there are 17 known species, and is valuable for butterflies, including the rare marsh fritillary.

These features of land form, geology and diverse wildlife have been recognised by selection for local, national and international nature conservation designation. There are county wildlife sites and SSSIs. Bodmin Moor is also' under review as a potential special protection area under the European Community directive on wild birds.

The moor's wildlife interest adds to its value as an attractive open landscape which draws many visitors. It lies within the Cornwall Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, which has been designated by the Countryside Commission, and it contains recognised areas of great landscape value categorised by Cornwall County Council for structure plan purposes.

It is also in rich in archaeological sites marked by hundreds of surviving ancient monuments dating back to the second millennium BC, many of them scheduled by English Heritage, and there are whole blocks of historic landscape formally recognised by the county as areas of great historic value.

It is evident from this that people have lived and worked on Bodmin Moor for thousands of years. The most profound influence on the commons through many past centuries has been farming. Agriculture has shaped the environment and fostered its important natural values. The traditional land use of the commons is grazing by cattle and sheep belonging to occupiers of adjoining farms who hold rights of commoning. Grazing by stock has prevented the invasion of scrub and woodland which would naturally follow by biological succession and has thereby served to preserve the inherent open character of the moor that is essential for its wildlife and enjoyed by so many people.

There have been changes. Changes in land use have encroached on the moor. In 1827 there were 22,900 hectares of open moorland. In 1984 there were only 9,500. It is known that, between 1946 and 1984, 1,448 hectares were lost to enclosure or intensive agricultural use, 714 hectares to forestry, 415 hectares to reservoirs and 124 hectares to the china clay industry, which is also a feature of Cornwall.

In many places on the surviving moorland, changes in agricultural practices, including the abandonment of grazing in some places, but more generally inappropriate and uncontrolled grazing leading to overstocking and other non-traditional farming practices, such as the out-wintering of stock with supplementary feeding,, fertiliser application or land drainage, have altered the: character of the vegetation. From the recollections of the: older generation of farmers we know that, for instance., great areas of heath and heather have disappeared. The: quality of the moorland has been reduced in terms of its nature conservation and landscape value.

We have to recognise that farming is not easy on these cool wet uplands which receive 1,400 to 1,700 millimetres of rain a year. Bodmin Moor has been classified as a Less Favoured Area under the European Community directive. The land surface of this moorland is fragile. Some of the visible damage it has suffered has resulted from agricultural vehicles, especially in winter. It is also vulnerable to other traffic and inappropriate uncontrolled access. There are new forms of public use, such as motorbike trials or Land Rover club rallies— seemingly innocent pastimes but damaging at the wrong time or in the wrong place. Bodmin has also been used by model aeroplane flyers, travellers' encampments and pop festivals. They are not necessarily offensive actions but they need to be sited appropriately for the protection of the wildlife, landscape and historic heritage of the area.

I re-emphasise that above all these commons are an integral part of traditional farming at Bodmin. Through well managed agriculture there is an opportunity to restore the Bodmin Moor commons and enhance their natural qualities. Management for sustainable utilisation must be resolved by the people whose interests are directly affected. The key partners in this exercise are the commoners and landowners of Bodmin Moor. Also involved are the Cornish local authorities concerned with local prosperity and good governance, amenity and access, and the statutory agencies that are responsible for agriculture, nature conservation, ancient monuments and landscape protection and access.

I take this opportunity to congratulate Cornwall County Council on its role in promoting the Bill. I also welcome the initiative of the commoners and landowners and their close involvement in the formulation of the Bill. I find it impressive that the local community has identified the various problems on the moor and recognised opportunities and a solution. The community has been the driving force and impetus behind the Bill, seeking to work in partnership with all concerned bodies to the overall benefit of Bodmin Moor. I also stress the close involvement of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. I note especially the initiative of Mr. Garth Waters at a critical meeting at the Jamaica Inn in the middle of Bodmin Moor when consensus was achieved among the people and parties involved at local level. I take this opportunity to declare the support of English Nature for this Bill.

The Countryside Commission originally objected to the Bill in the form in which it was deposited. I have been told by the promoters and the commission that they have been involved in intense and productive discussion. As a result, amendments to the Bill as it stands have been drafted with the aim of achieving a formulation that is acceptable to all. I have assurances that Clause 4 of the Bill as it is before you is to be heavily amended and Clause 10 totally revised. Consequently, I am authorised by the commission to state that the commission supports the Bill as modified, though it has residual concerns about the fencing of common land, the sources of advice on nature conservation and archaeology, the consultation of the public on the access strategy and the way in which trespassers will be dealt with. The promoters have expressed their wish to be as flexible as possible in response to other objectors.

I turn to the Bill itself. The most important provision is the creation of a commoners' council. It will be broadly representative of the 230 commoners but will also include representatives of the local authorities and the 29 identified owners, some of whom are also commoners. Much of the Bill is concerned with the structure, procedure and funding of the council. The council will have a general responsibility to take steps for the sustainable management, conservation and enhancement of the commons on the moor and to provide and manage access on horseback and foot. Conservation in those terms is widely defined in the Bill to include references to the conservation and enhancement of its flora, fauna, ecological, archaeological, geological and physiographical features, natural beauty, peace and quiet and integrity of the soil surface". The powers of the council for the discharge of those responsibilities will be exercised within the framework of a management plan which must include an access strategy. This plan can be prepared only after consultation with agencies, such as English Nature and the Countryside Commission and open-air and recreation bodies. It can come into effect only with the approval of, and after consultation with, the Secretary of State for the Environment and the Minister of Agriculture.

The council will have two substantive sets of powers: first, to undertake various works of management with the permission of the owner of the land concerned; secondly, to make and enforce regulations to ensure proper and consistent farming practices by all persons entitled to use the commons for farming. This includes, on the one hand, the prevention of overstocking and, on the other, the encouragement of more grazing livestock where there is understocking.

In the promoters' proposed alterations that have been agreed with the Countryside Commission the making and enforcement of an access strategy is part of the management plan that describes the type and extent of public access available on the commons.

In addition to the need for consultation with the government departments, public bodies and other bodies and authorities already mentioned, and the need to obtain government approval for the management plan and access strategy, there is a whole raft of precautions built into the Bill to ensure that the powers given are not abused. There is a right to make representations and a right to hearing by landowners and right holders. There is a right to compensation. There is specific provision for judicial review and a requirement for special majorities before controversial decisions are taken.

The underlying object of the Bill is to ensure a well-managed and attractive area of moorland with adequate protection for natural species and landscape features and objects of historic and archaeological interest and for the enjoyment of the public at large, underpinned by a vigorous and healthy upland economy. The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has indicated that the proper management of Bodmin Moor, which the Bill would provide, is a prerequisite for the designation of the commons as an environmentally sensitive area.

I argue that this is a local issue. It requires a specific tailor-made solution compatible with traditional local rights and present day aspirations of the people who live and draw livelihood from fanning on the commons. There is no need to link it to general principles, although it may point the way to other future successful imitations.

I understand that there are still two objectors whose petitions remain on the table. I ought to express anxiety that the promoters' funds are not limitless and the cost of taking an opposed Bill through committee will be in competition with other public funds and may be prohibitive. I should therefore like to take this opportunity to urge all those with outstanding reservations to make a final and determined effort to achieve consensus, especially respecting the people who must be directly involved on Bodmin Moor under the terms of the Bill as participants in the sustainable management of this famous area of Cornwall. Bodmin is a key feature in the natural and historic heritage of England. There is too much to be lost to regard the failure of this Bill with equanimity. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time. —(The Earl of Cranbrook.)

8.2 p.m.

Baroness Nicol

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Earl for the comprehensive manner in which he introduced the Bill. He mentioned a number of amendments which are being put forward. I received a fax from the Countryside Commission late this afternoon setting out the key elements of proposed amendments to the Bill and also the residual concerns of the commission, which the noble Earl explained. However, without seeing the wording of the changes being proposed, it is difficult to decide whether all the objections raised in the petitions have been dealt with. Therefore, if your Lordships will forgive me, I shall deal with the Bill as it is before us this evening in the hope that when it goes to committee the committee can decide whether all the objections have been met.

I strongly support the need to take measures to conserve the wildlife and natural beauty of the moor. The last thing I wish is that any actions of mine should lead to those aspects being weakened. Until now there has been considerable public use of the moor, which I shall discuss at greater length later. For that reason, and because of the nature of the petitions which have been lodged, I shall confine most of my comments to the question of access.

Until yesterday evening—or perhaps it was early this morning—there were three petitions against the Bill. There were petitions from the British Horse Society and the Countryside Commission and a joint petition from a number of organisations led by the Open Spaces Society. There is a long list of those involved with that particular petition. It includes the British Mountaineering Council, the British Mountain Bike Federation, the Cyclists' Touring Club, the Ramblers' Association, the Youth Hostels Association and so on.

It appears that late yesterday—or, again, early this morning—the Countryside Commission withdrew its petition. It did so having issued a statement which makes clear that some of its most important objections are still not resolved. The noble Earl mentioned three of them. I shall return to those in a moment. However, I confess that I find the actions of the Countryside Commission somewhat confusing at this stage. One of its main activities is the promotion of public access to the countryside for the purposes of recreation and quiet enjoyment. I have the greatest respect and admiration for the noble Earl, Lord Cranbrook, but I am concerned that the Bill is being presented by the chairman of English Nature.

The aims and expertise of English Nature are not directed mainly at questions of access. Quite the contrary. Its main concern is with conservation, often in conflict with public access, and most of the objections to the Bill are connected with access arrangements. As I said, the need for conservation is not disputed, but it is believed that conservation has not suffered unduly under the present access arrangements where that access consists of horse riding and walking. I make no point at this stage about motor cycling. That is obviously a different problem.

I am particularly worried that because the Countryside Commission petition has been withdrawn it will not be available to the committee on the Bill. I hope that I may be wrong, but I fear that that is so. However, the objections, and the reasons which the Countryside Commission gave in its petition, are extremely important. I therefore propose to put at least a few of them on record in the hope that the committee will take note.

I come to the content of the petitions. The British Horse Society points out that the Bill does not specifically provide for access to the commons on foot or on horseback and submits that it should do so. I believe that the noble Earl suggested that that might be one of the amendments, but, as I said, we have not seen the actual wording. The society feels that access for recreational purposes should be included as a public right and not at the discretion of the new council.

The British Horse Society is also anxious that powers over rights of way should remain with the local authority and should not pass to any other body. I strongly support the society on both those points. It does not press for the more liberal arrangements which exist on Dartmoor and is perfectly willing to accept reasonable regulation so long as access is provided for in the Bill and management of the commons allows reasonable levels of such access.

The Open Spaces Society and the others included in the petition make many detailed objections which are worthy of close scrutiny by the Committee. I do not propose to go into all of them this evening. I am particularly concerned about points relating to fencing and rights of access, which should surely not be left to a private interest body to decide, and the provision which would make trespass a criminal offence—not a new subject in your Lordships' House but one which nevertheless in this context needs to be examined. Surely, in a situation such as the case of Bodmin Moor, the matter would be better handled by way of county council by-laws.

The Countryside Commission petition sets out the commission's anxieties very clearly. Since it is a statutory body whose remit is relevant to the Bill I feel it essential that those anxieties are brought to the attention of the Committee. As I said, although the petition has been withdrawn the Countryside Commission's objections have not all been met. I propose to quote from the petition and from the commission's latest statement. It is a very long petition and I propose to abbreviate it considerably.

First, the commission draws attention to the Common Land Forum report which, as your Lordships will recall, was produced in 1986 and was. widely accepted at that time. The commission states: The Commission submit that any legislation for Bodmin Commons should be consistent with the recommendations of the CLF". I am selecting parts of the petition to give a feeling of it. It states: Whilst clause 4 of the Bill alludes to one of the uses of the Commons as a place of open air recreation by the public, the Bill does not ensure that that will always be so. The Bill fails to define what is to be granted in terms of public access". I feel that the Bill, when finally approved, should contain those details. The petition goes on: In short, the Bill pays insufficient regard to the public interest in the Commons … The Commission's concerns are not assuaged by the provisions of clause 10 which, we have heard, is to be revised, but I am anxious that the Committee should compare the two and see that all the objections are met. Clause 10 refers to public access to commons but, according to the petition, regulations made under subsection (1) of that clause may just as easily prohibit as permit public access. Moreover, as a matter of law, access to the commons by the public will not be allowed unless it is expressly permitted by regulations and the criteria given in subsection (3) for making regulations under subsection (1) make no reference to public access. The Commission regard as seriously deficient a Bill which fails to ensure public access to the Commons in exchange for powers of the kind being sought. The Commission further allege that if public access to the Commons is to be curtailed or restricted, the circumstances in which this should be allowed should be set out in the Bill … The Commission are also concerned that the power given by clause 10(5) to fence and enclose parts of the Commons may override the application to the Commons of section 194 of the Law of Property Act 1925. The Commission submit that this should not be allowed". Finally, the petition states: One of the consequences of the Bill as drawn is that if a member of the public enters upon the Commons in contravention of regulations made under clause 10(1), not only will he be a trespasser, he will also be committing a criminal offence. Moreover the maximum fine for this is to be set subject to an overall upper limit, not by Parliament but by the Council. Whilst acknowledging the need for effective regulation, the Commission would regard these provisions as unacceptable". Those are all extremely important points, and I am very anxious that the Committee on the Bill should be made aware of those original objections. The statement which I received this afternoon repeats quite a deal of that, and so I shall not repeat it again.

Worries about the possible uses of this Bill have been exacerbated by the way in which it has been produced and handled. The noble Earl drew attention to the consultations that have taken place, but there are other sections which have not been consulted; in fact, they have been ignored. For example, the very reasonable approach of the British Horse Society has not elicited any response whatever from the promoters. Letters from other petitioners remain unanswered. Consultation which did take place has been very selective. Offers of help and discussion from petitioners have been ignored. The sad thing is that many of those who are worried about the Bill are convinced that, given the opportunity, satisfactory compromises could have been reached.

These are concerns which have become general throughout the country as pressures on remaining commons and open spaces continue to grow. From a situation where not so terribly long ago in historic times most of our land belonged to the community, we have progressed to a point where 75 per cent. of our land belongs to one per cent of the population. What remains in community ownership becomes ever more important. The Government's failure to implement the promise made in the 1987 Conservative manifesto to implement the findings of the Common Land Forum has allowed these losses to continue. It is at least arguable that the very existence of that promise has made matters worse by accelerating pressures ahead of this mythical legislation which we have yet to see. I hope that the committee on the Bill will seek to ensure that public rights, such as they are at the moment, and expectations are not infringed by the proposals now before us. I hope the amendments to which the noble Earl referred will prove to be as good as we hope they will be.

8.15 p.m.

Earl Peel

My Lords, I too would like to thank my noble friend for having introduced the Bill and explained it in such a thorough and comprehensive manner. I am bound to say I was not aware of the fact that there were outstanding objectors to the Bill, as explained by the noble Baroness, Lady Nicol. My remarks, I have to say, tend to revolve around that which I have read but perhaps later I will touch on some of the points that she has made. I am glad that it has given her the opportunity to have another go about the Common Land Forum. I did not expect her not to.

I should like to start by reiterating a point made by my noble friend about the hard work that has gone into securing the consensus necessary to produce this Bill. It is not a straightforward matter. When one is dealing with matters of common land intricacies tend to develop, as we have seen in the past. The fact that there are 26 clauses demonstrates, I think, what a difficult subject we are dealing with.

Clearly, the main catalyst behind the Bill was the need to secure a suitable body representing the interests of those who own land and who farm on the commons of Bodmin, through which the Ministry of Agriculture can operate the necessary payment to accompany an ESA designation. That is a jolly good reason, I think, for the Bill. If we can secure an ESA on Bodmin Moor this will not only benefit the inhabitants and those who work and farm there but it will also enhance wildlife objectives. I take this opportunity to ask my noble friend —I appreciate that this is not particularly his subject, but I am happy to note that my noble friend Lord Howe is sitting next to him—whether in fact we are likely to see an ESA designation on Bodmin Moor before too long.

I am bound to say that there are some aspects of the Bill which concern me. I would not want your Lordships, or indeed anyone else, to regard this Bill as a blueprint for future common legislation. I know that may be a temptation but I believe it is absolutely imperative, when we discuss legislation on common land, that we should take into account the traditions of management and use of individual commons. They differ very considerably within England and Wales and I believe those points need to be reflected very carefully indeed.

I am concerned that the access arrangements may go too far —which may not surprise the noble Baroness opposite—and that they are going to be quite difficult to implement. However, I was a little surprised when she cast aspersions, if I may use that term, on the fact that my noble friend had introduced the Bill as the chairman of English Nature. I should have thought that to be thoroughly appropriate because at the end of the day we are really talking about the enhancement of the wildlife and habitats on Bodmin Moor. I can think of nobody more suitable than my noble friend to introduce such a Bill. However, I do not want to get into a debate now about public access because it would be totally inappropriate.

There is one part of the Bill which I am very pleased to note. I refer to the acceptance of what has become known as the "Sandford principles" where conservation will be put before any rights of access. I believe that that is absolutely fundamental for the management of the countryside and if we move away from that we do so at the peril of the wildlife.

I also welcome the control of dogs, which we have failed to put in previous legislation. I am bound to say that nowadays when we see people wandering around with leads that extend for ever and a day the idea of a dog on a lead being under control is something which I seriously question.

The noble Baroness referred to the question of fencing on common land. Fencing on common land, or on any open land, is a useful means of trying to regenerate habitat. There is a myth nowadays that that can be done through shepherding, but shepherding is a thing of the past. Temporary fencing for habitat restoration is extremely effective. We hope that to go through the cumbersome process of seeking permission from the Secretary of State for the Environment will be bypassed in the Bill and that the council will be allowed to do that. I welcome it. It is a thoroughly practical solution to a difficult problem that has existed for a long time, for many of us involved in common land.

I do not wish to go into great detail. The important point is that the people of Bodmin Common want the Bill. It has been introduced at their behest and is not being imposed upon them. That is most important. They have decided that it is workable in their circumstances and I very much respect that.

As my noble friend mentioned, there is clear evidence of considerable overgrazing on Bodmin Moor. When we had an English Nature meeting recently, I took the opportunity to look at the moor and take a short walk over it. I was disappointed at the extent to which overgrazing has occurred and I need hardly say to my noble friend on the Front Bench that it is yet another example of the ravages of the headage system of subsidy without the necessary conservation safeguards. As my noble friend is only too well aware, I greatly welcome the new regulations which his department has introduced and which I hope will go a long way towards resolving the problem in the future.

I welcome the Bill. I believe it produces an opportunity of harnessing the needs of agriculture and the local community through a sustainable means of farming. I am delighted to see that those words appear in Clause 4 and that is a most important and welcome addition. If we can harness the well-being of the farming community through sustainable farming to the benefits to the wildlife, as is envisaged, then we shall have a very useful Bill and I welcome that prospect wholeheartedly.

8.23 p.m.

Baroness David

My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Earl, Lord Cranbrook, for giving us such a good introduction to the Bill and explaining the reasons for it. I am totally with him that there is a need for the Bill; a number of interests are involved and he explained them all. It fits in with everything that I have known and learnt about what is going on on the moor at the moment.

Perhaps as three people are speaking from this side of the House, I should explain why I have come in and what are my interests in Bodmin Moor. They go back over 50 years. I spent part of my honeymoon on Bodmin Moor and have visited it every year since then, except for four years during the war. I was on the electoral register for the North Cornwall District Council for over 20 years and I still go back every year. I think that I know the area fairly well and I am well acquainted with the botanists and others who live there and are involved with what goes on there.

I have tried to get up-to-date responses on what is happening and they fit in very well with what the noble Earl said in his introduction. I understand that the heathland is giving way to grassland a good deal and that this, presumably, is from overgrazing. Fencing causes anxiety, I suppose that it is one way of stopping overgrazing, but I hope that it will be done with great care. I do not know that all the safeguards which are there at the moment should be removed.

I think that the farmers in the area need particular consideration. Upland farmers—if you can call this upland—are having a hard time; it is difficult to make a living and their interests must be carefully considered. It may be that they are responsible for some of the: overgrazing, but I hope that they can be considered carefully. I understand that some of the fanners I heard about particularly in the St. Breward district, have made: sure that there is a right of way so that the public can climb up to Brown Willie and Rough Tor. That is good, but I also understand from another of my informers that there are not enough public rights of way, that public; access is not good. This should be looked at and, as we; know from what my noble friend said, most of the petitions are about public access. We should listen carefully to what they have to say.

The bodies interested in recreational activities which involve public access are the ones who are most concerned and they have expressed their doubts about the way the Bill is framed. It does not give the public the legal right to walk on the commons nor to ride there. I think that we or the Committee which will consider the Bill should look at that matter carefully.

The Long Title says that the Commoners' Council is: to provide for and manage public access to the commons … it is expedient that the public be afforded managed access". But there is no requirement on the council to provide access; the phrase "managed access" could mean restriction of access. Clause 10 states that the council may make regulations, permitting, regulating or prohibiting public access". That, of course, could lead to restriction of access. Another complaint is that there is no provision in Clause 3, which deals with membership of the council, or in the preamble to the Bill, for recreational interests to be represented. That naturally creates suspicion, as does the ability of the council to make regulations to close off the rights of way, a matter mentioned by my noble friend Lady Nicol. I should have thought that that should remain with the county council as the highways authority.

I have already mentioned, as have others, the problem of fencing. Criminalising trespass is something which we should be careful about and I hope that can be taken into consideration.

I should like to ask two questions. Could the noble Earl, when replying to the debate, say why the deposited plan does not show all the existing common land that ought to be covered by the Bill? Can he also say why land owned by the National Trust is included in the provisions of the Bill? I understand that normally the National Trust land is excluded. I should like an answer in relation to that.

In conclusion, I think that the Bill is necessary but I do not think that the county council set about it in a sensible way. They should have had more consultations and been willing to hear representations from the various petitioners while the Bill was being considered. Not to have done so is a pity. But I hope that perhaps they have now learnt their lesson and that this debate will help them. Alas! we have not seen the amendments. They may be quite adequate. I hope that attention will be paid to what has been said tonight and that the amendments are adequate to deal with the reservations which have been expressed. I repeat that I think that the Bill is necessary; good luck to it!

8.30 p.m.

Lord Williams of Elvel

My Lords, the House will be grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Cranbrook, for introducing the Bill. I have to make it clear at the outset that, although I speak from this Despatch Box, since this is a Private Bill I take no party view. I speak for myself only. I should perhaps also say, although it is not necessarily relevant—it is tangentially relevant to the Bill—that I am president of the Council for the Protection of Rural Wales, and have an interest in common land in Wales. If I speak, to a certain extent, with Welsh knowledge rather than Cornish knowledge, I hope that the House will forgive me.

I should like to echo the query of my noble friend Lady Nicol, about the position of the noble Earl, Lord Cranbrook, for whom we have a great regard. He is, after all, as I think he will acknowledge, chairman of English Nature which is a quango—if I may use that expression. He is paid as such, and I am, I must say, slightly surprised that he has come as the promoter of the Bill. I say that in the gentlest possible way, because it seems to me odd that a chairman of a quango could promote a Bill for a particular area of the country. It should be a government Bill.

The Earl of Cranbrook

My Lords, since this issue has been raised twice, I believe that it should be made clear that I am not the promoter of the Bill. English Nature is not the promoter of the Bill. I have merely agreed to present the Bill because, as an individual deeply interested in conservation through my experien-ces and knowledge as the chairman of English Nature, through the visits that I have made to Bodmin Moor, the friends I have on Bodmin Moor, and from walking across Bodmin Moor, I am deeply concerned about the condition of Bodmin Moor. I am not the promoter of the Bill; that is Cornwall County Council. I have merely, out of sympathy with the Bill, agreed to present it to your Lordships' House tonight. That is a requirement because Cornwall County Council itself, as such, has no place in this House.

Lord Williams of Elvel

My Lords, it is certainly true that Cornwall County Council has no place in this House, but I take it from what the noble Earl has said that the Bill would have the support of English Nature.

The Earl of Cranbrook

My Lords, perhaps I may make it clear that professionally the Bill has the support of English Nature. I also made it clear, and I reiterate, that the words I uttered on behalf of the Countryside Commission were words that were faxed to me today and were words which I was authorised to utter on behalf of the Countryside Commission. So, in both those cases, I was speaking professionally to advise your Lordships of the position of the statutory government bodies in both those cases.

Lord Williams of Elvel

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Earl, because that clarifies the position, that although he is speaking as the introducer of the Bill, and not the promoter of the Bill, we understand that it has the support of English Nature and of the Countryside Commission, as the noble Earl has said, but subject to the remarks that my noble friend Lady Nicol made about the slightly ambivalent approach the Countryside Commission has adopted towards the Bill in the past few days.

As I say, I take no position from my party's point of view or from the point of view of the CPRW. I am trying to explore certain issues with the noble Earl who is to reply, because he introduced his remarks by saying that the Bill was in tune with sustainable development and all the things that he, as chairman of English Nature, quite rightly wishes to support, and which indeed I support.

My noble friend Lady Nicol remarked that there had been a certain amount of activity in the past few days, or indeed hours, about petitions: who was making what petition, withdrawing what petition, and making what points. I do not want to follow her particular path because I think she made her position perfectly clear. Those are points which must be considered, in my view, by the committee, if your Lordships agree to give the Bill a Second Reading.

The noble Earl, Lord Peel, will not be surprised if I disagree with him on certain matters. I agree with him on one point. This is not a straightforward Bill. I also agree with him on a second point. That this should not necessarily be the model for the common land legislation that the Government have been pledged to introduce since 1986, 1987, 1903, or whenever it was the Government made a pledge in their manifesto to introduce common land legislation. This is a special case. As such, I am happy —as I say, in my personal capacity—to say that I welcome the Bill.

The noble Earl, Lord Peel, went on to ask whether Bodmin Moor was going to be an ESA. I have experience of ESAs in Radnor. We are now an ESA in Radnor, and I am bound to say that the system is not working in quite the way that perhaps the noble Earl imagines. There is considerable confusion. It does not help upland fanners, and I have evidence which I am perfectly happy to communicate to the noble Earl, Lord Howe, who I see sitting on the Government Front Bench.

Earl Peel

My Lords, is the noble Lord referring to that noble Earl or this noble Earl?

Lord Williams of Elvel

My Lords, the noble Earl, Lord Howe.

Earl Peel

My Lords, in that case I shall make no comments.

Lord Williams of Elvel

My Lords, there are so many noble Earls in the House that I find the situation difficult. There are four of them on the other side of the House. I am a mere Life Peer.

I am worried about one or two things in the Bill, apart from the points made by my noble friend Lady Nicol, which I hope that the committee will accept. I am worried about the fencing in of commons. I am bound to say that, living as I do on the edge of 800 acres of common land in Wales, I should be very very worried if anyone produced legislation which allowed any fencing of a temporary or permanent nature (that is contained in Clause 4(4)) into my particular common in Wales. We have 28 graziers on my common, and it would be difficult to sort out where the fencing would go; it would also impede the access which my noble friends Lady Nicol and Lady David have very much —quite rightly, in my view—insisted upon.

I am also a little worried about Clause 3. I accept that there has to be a council of some sort to run common land. The whole approach could have been prevented had we had serious legislation introduced by the Government along the lines that the Common Land Forum recommended.

Earl Peel

My Lords, is the noble Lord saying that there has inevitably to be a council to run matters of common land? If so, I disagree with him, because if one has an owner of the common and three, four or five commoners, they can work the thing perfectly adequately themselves. The difficulty in this case, as I see it, is that there are 230 commoners on Bodmin Moor, and it is only because of the number of commoners that it is perceived necessary to have a council to operate, particularly in this case, the ESA.

Lord Williams of Elvel

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Peel, whom I have to identify. I am in favour of the Common Land Forum recommenda-tions that there should be some body which represents graziers, owners and local authorities to run such commons. I hope that there is no dispute about that. I thought that the Government and everyone had accepted that.

I do not know what the ownership of Bodmin Moor is. As I say, I speak from ignorance. I am a little worried that the proportions should reflect adequately the different interests. I hope that when it studies the Bill, the committee will take that matter into account.

I do not want to bore your Lordships with difficult points. My last point is whether Cornwall County Council will exist by the time the Bill, if it does, achieves Royal Assent, because we have, as the noble Earl, Lord Arran—if I may specify that particular Earl —knows, a Local Government Commission is investigating all these matters. What happens if tomorrow the Banham Commission says, "We have looked at Cornwall, and we have decided that it is going to be split up into X districts", or whatever it may be? That is a slightly frivolous remark, but I am sure that the noble Earl, Lord Arran, will understand what I am talking about.

I join with other noble Lords in believing that, in general, this is a desirable arrangement. As my noble friend Lady David said, there is no doubt that there is a need for such a Bill and such an organisation. However, I have certain doubts which arise from my own point of view and the extensive experience of my noble friend Lady Nicol. I hope that the committee, when established, will take those doubts into account.

8.40 p.m.

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, I was becoming a little anxious that we had jumped Second Reading and gone straight into Committee and were even nearing Report stage. However, it may be helpful at this time for me to intervene briefly to give your Lordships an indication of the Government's view of the Bill.

Both my department and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food strongly support the principle that common land should be subject to proper and effective management. The Bill's promoters are to be congratulated on efforts that they have made to provide for the means by which that can be accomplished for the commons of Bodmin Moor. Among the expected beneficial effects arising from the responsibilities placed upon the proposed Commoners' council will be a system of management of the countryside that is not only sustainable in terms of the agricultural utilisation of the commons but conserves and enhances their nature conservation value. I am sure that there will be widespread support for the Bill's objectives in those respects.

I recognise that the issue of access gives; rise to concerns. Access is, I fear, often a contentious matter. Our position is that access issues are best resolved in a local context. Only with the involvement of those directly concerned with the management of the commons can we be assured that access arrangements will be workable, and respect the legitimate interests of all those concerned. Your Lordships will be aware that it is not the policy of this Government to impose any general extension of rights of public access, although we hope that local arrangements will ensure that the public continue to enjoy access to open land wherever possible and sensible and wherever compatible with the other uses to which commons are put.

The Bill, as deposited, gives us cause for concern in one respect. Clause 10 proposes to grant powers to the commoners to stop up or divert rights of way which are presently only available to local authorities. Such delegation may pose a threat to the integrity of existing procedures, especially as the Bill gives the Commoners' Council powers beyond those available to local authorities, by enabling them to close a right of way for 56 days without requiring any form of notice to be given. It would further provide for the erection of fences, which could present problems if the fence obstructs a right of way, as that is an offence under Section 137 of the Highways Act 1980.

The Government believe that effective management of access to these commons should, in respect of public rights of way, continue to be subject to the overall control of the highway authority. In the Government's view, it would be inappropriate to adopt the Bill's proposals in those respects in their present form. Were they to remain, the Government would have to oppose those provisions in a report to the Committee on the Bill. However, I know that the Bill's promoters are aware of those matters and I was heartened by the assurance of my noble friend Lord Cranbrook regarding the opportunities for changes to be made. In that light I am happy to welcome the Bill and see no hindrance to it being given a Second Reading.

In closing perhaps I may refer to the point made by my noble friend Lord Peel, as to whether or not there will be a likely ESA designation on Bodmin Moor. My noble friend will have to accept for the time being that that point will be given due consideration at an appropriate time. Also, the noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, and the noble Lord, Lord Williams, raised the subject of general commons legislation. I too regret that it has not been possible to bring that forward. However, I see little prospect of it in the immediate future. But the promoters of the Bill are to be congratulated for providing an opportunity to resolve Bodmin's problems in a local context.

The Earl of Cranbrook

My Lords, I too feel certain that the promoters of the Bill will have listened carefully and will read Hansard with great attention and gain great benefit from the remarks passed tonight, notwithstanding the fact that some of the remarks—such as those made by the noble Baroness, Lady Nicol—were based on petitions which have now been withdrawn. I am not promoting the Bill; I am merely introducing it to your Lordships. It will be necessary for the Committee to make these decisions and I am sure that the Committee will read with great attention the remarks made by your Lordships tonight.

I emphasised that I introduce the Bill as an individual but that from my professional position I am acquainted with the nature conservation position of Bodmin. It is one that deeply concerns me. What also deeply concerns me—I do not believe that I am breaking the Addison rules entirely by mentioning it—is that the noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, who has attended so many of our presentations in English Nature, and is probably aware that hundreds of thousands of visitors are welcomed on the national nature reserves, should say that nature conservation is often in conflict with access.

That is not true. Nature conservation is often hand-in-hand with access. Many people who go to open moorlands such as Bodmin do so to enjoy the beauties of the natural wildlife. I believe that, properly managed after Committee stage, the Bill has all the potential to enhance the attractiveness of the wildlife. I shall be disappointed if the Bill seriously limits access and, as an individual, I shall be deeply disappointed if it interferes with existing public rights of way to the land which, perhaps I should emphasise, is not communal land; it is all land in private ownership. For the benefit of the noble Lord, Lord Williams, I can say that there are 29 individual owners, commercial and private.

I am certain that the promoters of the Bill will read with interest the remarks of your Lordships and that the Committee will inevitably pay due attention to everything that has been said. I commend the Bill to your Lordships' House.

On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Select Committee.