Amendment 159A

Agriculture Bill - Committee (5th Day) – in the House of Lords at 7:56 pm on 21st July 2020.

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Lord Greaves:

Moved by Lord Greaves

159A: After Clause 16, insert the following new Clause—“Support in relation to common land, etc(1) The Secretary of State may by regulations make provision for the circumstances in which financial support is given in relation to registered common land, other land subject to rights of common, and land subject to shared grazing right.(2) In this section, “financial support” means—(a) financial assistance under section 1,(b) relevant payments under Chapter 2, or(c) other financial support under this Chapter.(3) Regulations under this section may include—(a) the circumstances in which financial support may be allocated among two or more persons having an interest in such land;(b) the method and terms on which any financial support may be allocated amongst those persons;(c) the conditions that may be attached to such financial support.(4) In this section, “registered common land” means land registered as common land in a register of common land kept under Part 1 of the Commons Act 2006 or the Commons Registration Act 1965.(5) Regulations under this section are subject to negative resolution procedure.”

Photo of Lord Greaves Lord Greaves Liberal Democrat

Amendment 159A, which I rise to move, covers a very specific and important question: the treatment of commons, and their commoners and owners, under the new system of agricultural support. I hope that by getting a full and clear response at this stage I will not have to bring the matter back at Report. This amendment has been put together with the assistance of the Foundation for Common Land and the Open Spaces Society. I remind the House that I am a vice-president of the latter group, and I thank both for their help. A number of noble Lords are knowledgeable about commons, and indeed several survivors of our discussions on the Commons Act back in 2006 are in the House. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, for adding his name to this amendment, and to the Public Bill Office for its help with phrasing it.

The noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, apologises for not being able to take part in this debate: he has been called to the hills, the lucky man. He has asked me to make the point that where there is common land, which is so prevalent in the uplands, in the event of ELMS the arrangement will have to be multilateral, not bilateral. Hence, every commoner will have to agree, and there is always a difficult so-and-so who could veto the arrangement. There is a need, therefore, for a mechanism to prevent a generally agreed plan being vetoed in this way. This echoes an earlier debate about the resolution of disputes under the new system of environmental and agricultural support.

Clause 2 makes no specific provision for how financial assistance is given in relation to registered common land. The amendment therefore confers powers on the Secretary of State to make regulations to specify or vary the scheme in relation to common land and any lands subject to shared grazing rights, in order to make allowance for the special circumstances inherent in managing common land.

What, in any case, is common land? On one level, it is land registered as common land in a registry kept under Part 1 of the Commons Act 2006 or the Commons Registration Act 1965. In real world terms, it is land owned by one person but subject to the rights of other people—the commoners—to take some product of the land. These rights of commons nowadays typically relate to the grazing of animals, but may also include the right to take wood, peat, bracken, furs or fish. I remember that in our discussions on the commons Bill 14 years ago, noble Lords enjoyed learning words such as estovers, turbary, piscary and, indeed, pannage. Commons are a survival from the medieval period—land that escaped enclosure. They are, however, of huge present-day importance in historical, biological, cultural, landscape and recreational terms.

In England, common land occupies no more than about 3% of the total land area, but it is key to the viability of many upland farms, comprising 37% of all land above the moorland line and over one-fifth of the area of SSSIs in England. Common land delivers many public benefits. Compared with enclosed land it is seven times more likely to be designated for nature and four times more likely to have a scheduled ancient monument on it.

Back in 2000, the Countryside and Rights of Way Act designated all common land as access land; now almost two-fifths of access land in England consists of common land, including large areas of the Lake District. Why is this question important in the Bill? Over 90% of common land was under an environmental stewardship scheme. Stewardship income has been crucial for upland commoners. On average, it comprises 17% of an upland commoner’s gross income and no less than 70% of their net income—their wage, if you like. It is vital for public benefits and hill farm incomes that the new ELMS function effectively on common land where it is clear that commoners and owners are keen to enter into the new schemes.

Of course, not all commons are on hills. We talked in Committee last week, and earlier today, about the needs of hill farming in general. The question here is: how are ELMS projects and payments going to work within the often quite complicated structures of commons management? For instance, it may be appropriate to offer assistance to two or more commoners—often many more—acting jointly to deliver public goods. It may also be necessary in particular circumstances to allow financial assistance to be shared among several persons, whether commoners, the landowner or owners, or other people. Will the Minister confirm whether the Government have already turned their mind to the administration of agreements in relation to commons, and the particular difficulties that can arise in negotiating, administering and delivering them in these cases?

There is a long history of agri-environmental and other agreements administered on commons over the last 20 or more years. Will the Government adopt best practice from what has been learned over that time and, in particular, make specific legislative provision for commons to underpin what is required? I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Addington Lord Addington Liberal Democrat 8:00 pm, 21st July 2020

My Lords, I must apologise for missing the first couple of moments of my noble friend’s speech. That is what comes when you have your back to the Chamber due to social distancing while you have supper, but I apologise.

I add that the land which has the commons is not exclusively in the north or the uplands. I have a little, vaguely second-hand interest, as I usually catch a train from Hungerford in the mornings and get off one there in the evenings. Hungerford has a very picturesque common; it has lots of dog walkers and cattle on it. It goes back a long way and is one of the surviving things from the Inclosure Acts. The Thames Valley has other areas of common land as well. Small agricultural units or smallholdings are usually allowed on them because there is some land you can get to. Sometimes you have tenancies going on them as well, but they change. It is a complicated system down there, from what I have been able to establish with a little research.

These commons are an historic part of our landscape. They allow for different types of activity. We had a long debate about smallholdings and entrants there but the commons allow certain types of entrants into the agriculture system at a lower level, which would not otherwise be allowed. It would be interesting to hear whether the Government have taken on board how these small but interesting and historic parts of our agricultural system are to be accommodated under this new system.

Photo of Baroness McIntosh of Pickering Baroness McIntosh of Pickering Conservative

I am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, for bringing this amendment forward. I am sorry that I did not have an opportunity to sign it; I hope that he will forgive me for that. They say that when two Scots meet, they form a committee, so I do not know what happens when a Lancastrian and a Yorkshireman meet.

Photo of Lord Greaves Lord Greaves Liberal Democrat

I am a Yorkshireman.

Photo of Baroness McIntosh of Pickering Baroness McIntosh of Pickering Conservative

I will let you off, then. What is interesting about our debate so far is how little understanding there is of what constitutes common land and what activities are undertaken on it. My experience of the different activities undertaken on common land in North Yorkshire was not an entirely happy one. My noble friend Lord Inglewood absolutely hit the nail on the head in his advice to the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, that the approach to it should be multilateral, not bilateral.

I support Amendment 159A and thank the noble Lord for moving it—with the support of my noble friend Lord Inglewood and the noble Lord, Lord Addington—because I am particularly concerned about how the new schemes under ELM will take place where there is a dispute, which there inevitably will be. In summing up, can the Minister say what the dispute resolution mechanism will be? Is it not better to have a blanket one that covers all common land rather than leaving it to the parties of each individual agreement to agree it?

I grew up near to the most successful grouse shooting moors in England, on the upper parts of Teesdale. Grouse shooting was a small activity and did not create a lot of income; now, it has almost overtaken the income from the land. There is great concern that shooting and this obsession with tick control for sheep, as I discovered with one particular agreement, will negate many of the schemes that we hope will benefit under the ELM.

With those two questions, I hope that we will hear some encouraging words from the Minister on the use of common land and ELMS.

Photo of Baroness Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville Baroness Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

My Lords, my noble friend Lord Greaves spoke to his amendment on providing support for common land, supported by the noble Lord, Lord Addington, and the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering. During the 20 years when I was a county councillor, two of the parishes in my ward had common land. It was jealously guarded and protected from incursions of all forms. Sheep were often grazed on the common, but fencing to ensure that the sheep did not wander was frowned on by some villagers. As for parking on the common, this was a very serious misdemeanour. Some people have an idyllic picture of what common land looks like. In my experience, it is not a flat area around the local duck pond, with weeping willows dipping their branches in the water. As my noble friend said, it is often on sloping and unpromising land. Nevertheless, it is an important element of rural life in parts of England. It is important that it is preserved. I look forward to the Minister’s response on just how he sees it fitting into the Bill and whether it will qualify for financial assistance under the ELM scheme.

Photo of Baroness Jones of Whitchurch Baroness Jones of Whitchurch Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

My Lords, I will also speak briefly. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, for raising this issue. I had not considered it before so I am grateful to him for drawing our attention to it. I agree that we need provisions in force in the special circumstances of the use of common land; he made a very good case for the need for a multilateral approach to it. On that basis, I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response.

Photo of Baroness Bloomfield of Hinton Waldrist Baroness Bloomfield of Hinton Waldrist Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Greaves for his amendment. He is absolutely right: our commons frequently provide some of the richest opportunities for the provision of environmental public goods and they are an important part of our cultural landscape. The Government are designing future financial assistance schemes to be accessible to as many farmers and land managers as possible. This includes tenant farmers and those who work on common land.

As part of the planned three-year pilot for ELM, the Government will be ensuring that it tests how best to enable commoners to participate and to provide those environmental benefits. To support the development of ELM, we are undertaking a number of tests and trials, working with farmers and land managers to co-design the new schemes. They will help us understand how the scheme could work in a real-life environment. Two of our tests and trials, on Dartmoor and in Cumbria, are looking at issues concerning common land.

The noble Lord, Lord Greaves was correct to identify the particular difficulties that can arise when administering payment schemes on common land. The general powers given by the Bill in Clause 1(1) and (2) will enable us to develop agreement terms which work for common land. I can add a bit more detail. The Federation of Cumbria Commoners, and partners, aims to develop and trial a delivery model for creating common-specific land management plans. These plans will support the pastoral economy and maintain the balance of the delicate ecosystems found on commons. The delivery model will encompass a commons toolkit, including baseline data gathering, producing maps, health checks for agreeing and enabling public good delivery, developing commons management plans and commons-proof recommendations for ELM.

If I can add any more detail to that brief answer, I will write to the noble Lord and put a copy in the Library. With that, I ask him to withdraw the amendment.

Photo of Lord Greaves Lord Greaves Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I thank the Minister for her helpful reply. I look forward to getting as much extra detail as possible, particularly from the two trials that are taking place. I remind the Minister that, because of the sort of places they are, commons are all inherently different. What might be right for the large, upland commons in the Lake District, which cover most of the fells in many valleys, may not be right for what looks like just a field on the edge of a village. I look forward to hearing from the Minister again and beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 159A withdrawn.

Photo of Baroness Henig Baroness Henig Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords)

We now come to the group beginning with Amendment 160. I remind noble Lords that anyone wishing to speak after the Minister should email the clerk during the debate. Anyone wishing to press this, or any other amendment in this group to a Division should make that clear in debate. I should inform the Committee that if Amendment 160 is agreed to, I cannot call Amendments 161 or 162.

Clause 17: Duty to report to Parliament on UK food security