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David Taylor: Is it not possible that trying to widen the scope of those whose views must be sought might run directly contrary to the underpinning aspiration of part 3 of streamlining the consent system on works and fencing? Many landowning conservation organisations such as the Woodland Trust have entirely admirable objectives that should be supported, but have been frustrated time and again when trying to carry out work that is entirely consistent with the Government's aims on the sustainable management of common areas. Would not those organisations find that their work was impeded if the democratic group to which my hon. Friend refers was widened?

Mr. Drew: I agree. That is why we need a properly democratically accountable body that can look out for such interests. The changing nature of common land throughout history has not yet been brought out in the debate. Some such land could be reforested, so it is important that those who know something about that form part of a decision-making process to protect an
 
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area. My hon. Friend's point is entirely correct and laudable and I hope that the Minister will respond to it in due course.

Given that we are talking about the new agriculture and will, perhaps, re-extensify some parts of our agricultural land because we do not need the same intensity, we must understand the opportunities that can be created for the use of common land. I hope that that will be examined seriously when considering the single farm payment. We could, dare I say, see action through real joined-up thinking and joined-up government. We could consider not just the use of the land, but who uses it. A community agriculture group in my constituency wishes to develop, on a semi-voluntary basis, new forms of organic agriculture. It is always looking for land to take on, so why should it be excluded from accessing such land that could be made available? The Government should make smart moves to be inclusive and examine the way in which common land is made available to those who can use it purposefully. Those people would be accountable and could introduce new forms of agriculture and use the grant system in the most beneficial way. If common land is to be cultivated, I hope that we can think creatively about using it in such a way. I accept that we wish to protect many parts of common land and use them in a way that is as minimalist as possible, but sometimes we will want to maximise the use of land for agriculture and employment.

I hope that I speak for others, including my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood, when I tell the Minister that I hope that in the time that we will have in Committee, which will not be great, we will be able to come up with an amendment that sets out a proactive approach on village greens. I heard what my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Mr. Truswell) said, and the Bill would be the right place for such a provision, so I hope that the Minister will think about the proposal positively. The existing process is long-winded, negative and entirely against communities that wish not only to find a piece of land, but genuinely to protect land that should be a village green—land that is a village green in all but name and statute. Why can we not use the Bill as a way to consolidate the process? We do not want a rash of new applications, but the matter is important. As my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey said when he spoke lyrically about his area, there is a danger that people will take the opportunity to shut down the right and proper use of such land.

I hope that we will examine carefully several of the proposals made by the Open Spaces Society, which has altruistically done more than anyone to defend open land that is for common use. Several of the society's suggestions are controversial, but it is generally supportive of the Government's approach and says that that is long overdue. I hope that we will look at the suggestions purposefully and make the Bill a measure of which we can all feel a bit proud, even if some of us think that it is a bit late in coming and could have been even more radical.

6.46 pm

Mr. Philip Dunne (Ludlow) (Con): I remind the House of my declaration of interests. I am a partner in a farming business that holds modest ownership rights,
 
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and slightly more substantial grazing rights, over common land. That means that I have some knowledge of which I speak.

I am pleased that there has been such consensus across the House, notwithstanding the remarks made by the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew). The debate is important because common land raises considerable concerns among many of our constituents who have historical rights that go back many generations. In the county of Shropshire, which I represent in part, there are more than 5,000 hectares of common land in 86 registered commons. The county council that monitors the commons anticipates that there is a substantially larger amount of unregistered land and is trying to pull together various interests. The Bill is designed to put right several of the deficiencies of the Commons Registration Act 1965.

I am extremely relieved that the Minister has decided that the most appropriate registration body is the local authority, rather than his Department. I say that for several reasons, not least of which is the performance of the Rural Payments Agency, which his Department supervises, on the mapping and registration of agricultural land throughout the country. With your permission, Madam Deputy Speaker, because it has some relevance to the debate, I will cite a letter that I received from the agency shortly before the recess—on 28 March. The letter was about the form that I was invited to complete for my 2006 single farm payment. It said:

It led me to think that there might be some data included on the form, but it was not until I got to the eighth page of zero information that I reached part D, which was on common land grazing rights. I was pleased to see that there was notification on the form that I was entitled to graze 43.3 cattle and 720 sheep on common land. As it happens, I cannot reconcile those figures with any of mine, which shows that the entire form is gobbledegook. It is a great relief that Shropshire county council will be responsible in future.

I have spoken to the registration officer, who has some concerns about taking on that onerous task, not least because of the resources that will be required to manage common land—in particular, the cost of installing digital mapping. I share his concerns about the potential for confusion and conflict between the Rural Payments Agency and the common land registrar in each local authority. I hope that they will be able to match up the two different systems. I urge the Minister to address in Committee how that will be done in practice, because few MPs and even fewer people outside the House have much confidence in the Government's management of IT projects.

I was relieved that the Minister confirmed that funding would be made available to the registration authorities. I hope that it will be sufficient to cope with the extra burden.

I wish to address three aspects of the Bill, which have been touched on already today. Concerns have been expressed about the definition of village greens and open spaces that is set out in clause 15. Several hon. Members have referred to the Trap Grounds case that is going
 
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through the other place—the decision is awaited—and I am pleased that the Bill will provide clarity for all those concerned to establish ownership of village greens. In common with other hon. Members who have spoken, I welcome that.

However, some concerns arise from the Government's changing views on the matter and I take slight issue with the comment made by the hon. Member for Stroud about the potentially conflicting rights of those seeking to obstruct or gain access to land, as opposed to those who have ownership rights over the land. The issue has been addressed throughout the long period of debate over common lands and I hope that the Government will consider introducing in Committee similar protections for those who have ownership rights, as laid out in section 31 of the Highways Act 1980.

There would be a precedent for such a move. In the discussions that took place during the public consultation in February 2000, Ministers recognised that such protection for landowners' interests would be appropriate. In particular, the "Common Land Policy Statement 2002", issued by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, stated, in relation to future legislation:

That has been referred to in the other place in debates on the Bill over the past year. The concern is that by providing a mere notice in the relevant place, it could give rise to vexatious or frustrating action on the part of those who have ownership rights. My hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) effectively countered that argument by making the point that it could also prevent any new land from being opened up for public access, for fear that over time it would be turned into a formal village green, with all the implications that that would have for the landowners.

I have a particular, slightly unusual case in my constituency, which relates to land owned by a charitable trust set up by the Church. The land is known as Glebe land and it is in the village of Clun. It has been owned by the Church for centuries and people in the village have had full public access to it on a permissive basis for much of that time. However, it is now potentially subject to sale, and there is considerable scope for conflict between the public who use the land and the Church. Far be it from me to get in the middle of that battle, but the issue appears incapable of resolution other than through the result of the Trap Grounds case or if the Bill included a similar provision to section 31 of the Highways Act 1980, as I have just mentioned. I ask the Minister to consider that proposal in Committee. The Church has had many lands confiscated over many centuries, since Henry VIII started the process, and this is not the right time to deny its property rights.

Clause 27 addresses the role of commons associations and in particular their establishments. I have concerns that the drafting of clause 27(4) means that the appropriate national authority will have to be satisfied that substantial support exists for the making of an order for a commons association. I have examples in my constituency of existing commons associations that have a management agreement with English Nature. I met the Stiperstones Commoners Association last week,
 
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which looks after an area of nearly 1,000 acres, 700 of which are registered and 300 are unregistered. It has a management agreement with English Nature, under which it is essentially told what to do. The association has very little negotiating right on behalf of its three commons rights holders, who are small farmers in their own right. My concern is that if the appropriate national authority determines that an organisation should be set up with a dominant state entity as a party to it, that entity may call the shots, which may not necessarily be right. How will the national authority determine "substantial support" when there is a limited pool of existing rights holders? Will it be opened up to everybody who lives in the area surrounding the common? People will want to retain access rights to travel across the common, but they may not wish to exercise grazing rights.

Another example is the Long Mynd, a well known landmark in my constituency. I am told by English Nature that shortly after the 1965 Act, more than 26,000 people registered rights on that common, which comprises some 2,000 hectares. That was clearly a massive exaggeration of rights and I hope that the Bill will put that right.

There is no easy answer to these issues. The examples are so diverse, even in an area as similar as within a few miles of Shropshire hills.

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