HL Deb 26 July 1990 vol 521 cc1790-1WA
Viscount Montgomery of Alamein

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will bring forward detailed proposals on common land.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment (Lord Strathclyde)

On 29th January 1987 my right honourable friend, the then Minister for the Environment the Member for Bristol West made a statement accepting the case for legislation on common land, at a suitable opportunity when parliamentary time permitted, based broadly on the recommendations of the Countryside Commission's Common Land Forum.

The common lands of England and Wales represent one of our most valuable environmental assets. They include some of our most scenically attractive areas. They are often of great importance for nature conservation. Much common land comprises vital habitat for birds and other wildlife, particularly ground nesting birds protected by the EC Birds Directive. Although usually in private ownership, common land is often used by the general public as a way of enjoying the countryside.

The aim of our policy is to safeguard the status of common land and to strengthen the ways in which we protect and use it. There are three main requirements.

First, while we welcome the recent House of Lords judgment in the Hazeley Heath case, there remain weaknesses in the legislation governing the registration of common land. As well as ensuring that land correctly registered as common retains that status, we need to be able to remove land which was registered in error.

Secondly, we need new arrangements to ensure that common land is properly managed in the interests of those who own the land and those who have commoners' rights over it, and to preserve its conservation value.

Thirdly, there is scope to improve public access to common land. The arrangements for this must take account of the particular characteristics of individual commons. The forum recommended that there should be a general right of access to all common land, except where an agreed management scheme provides otherwise. In most cases there will be no reason why the public should not have free access, as already applies in urban areas. In some cases however, particularly where commons are important for conservation or where increased access would adversely affect other existing uses, the arrangements for access will need to safeguard those interests. In these cases this could be best be achieved by extensions of the public rights of way system.

We believe that in the great majority of cases it should be possible for all interests concerned to reach agreement locally on arrangements which will provide for better management and improved public access. In any case where a management association is unable to reach agreement, we propose that the matter should be referred to the Secretary of State for the Environment for decision; in such cases existing arrangements would remain in force pending this decision.

I believe that these proposals, prepared after extensive consultations, will command widespread acceptance. I shall now be embarking on detailed discussions with those most directly involved to work out how to deal with the practical problems which remain.