New Clause 4

Commons Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:45 pm on 27th April 2006.

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Duties of natural england

‘Natural England shall have a duty to promote the formation of statutory commons associations, the wellbeing of common land and the creation of village and town greens.'. —[Paddy Tipping.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Paddy Tipping Paddy Tipping PPS (Rt Hon Jack Straw, Secretary of State), Foreign & Commonwealth Office

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

By virtue of the nature of our work, we have spent a lot of time talking about the legislative framework of the Bill. I am worried that, because we have focused on that, we have not debated in great detail the vehicle that will drive the Bill’s important aims forward. As many members of the Committee have said, Commons Bills do not come often and the whole point of this Bill is to improve our common land.

My new clause, which is supported by my hon. Friends the Members for Stroud and for Pudsey (Mr. Truswell) is straightforward. Its aim is to place a duty on Natural England to bring forward three proposals, the first of which is to promote the formation of statutory commons associations. Throughout our discussions, there has been a recognition on both sides of the Committee that that will not be easy. People will hesitate to take the step to move from a voluntary association to a statutory association. They will need help, guidance and support. On Tuesday the Minister recognised, as he has done today, the importance of Natural England in such matters. His words were preceded by the comments of Lord Bach in the other place, who was talking strongly about how Natural England needs to be involved in the creation of statutory commons associations.

The second aim of the Bill is to promote the well-being of common land, which is why we have spent two days talking about improving common land and ensuring that SSSIs come up to status.

The third aim, which we have debated widely, is a laudable objective in itself. It is to promote more town and village greens. Research shows that people care about their local communities and environments. The creation of new village and town greens will not happen by itself. I want Natural England to be involved. It is a new body with a whole range of tasks before it. It faces a difficult period in being set up. I want Natural England to know that the Bill is important, and I want it to have the power to make sure that we have statutory commons associations, common land is in good condition and that we move radically and quickly towards the formation of new town and village greens.

Photo of Elfyn Llwyd Elfyn Llwyd Shadow PC Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow Chief Whip (Commons), Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Defence), Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Justice)

The argument put forward by the hon. Gentleman is perfectly reasonable. I do not come under the auspices of Natural England, but in my humble opinion, if the duty of promotion will fall on Natural England’s shoulders, it will be easier for it to promote movement if we have a new name for the commons bodies. In all sincerity, I believe that the name “commons association” is no good. It will create difficulties and it will make promotion difficult. We had a discussion on Tuesday when the Minister said that he would think about it. Whether we adopt the term commons council or another name is an important issue. It is not beyond the ken of all of us to find a word. Councils might be a proper name—I do not know—but associations in that context is not; it is a recipe for disaster and will not assist the Minister’s hopes in promoting anything.

Photo of David Drew David Drew Labour, Stroud

I support my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood. He has made his argument clear. I have also made it clear that I prefer to talk about commons committees because of the debate that we had about councils, which I do not wish to reopen. I want to make a point about village and town greens. We have understandably taken a great deal of time discussing the minutiae of common land because the subject is hideously complicated. We would have spent most of our time searching through the interstices of every last detail with regard to such land. As for village greens, for which the Minister wears his other hat, the Government have a good story to tell about their work and that of the national lottery, which has found available money.

To finish on a more positive note, it is our objective, perhaps in word only if we are talking about the Government’s double devolution agenda and looking at trying to encourage neighbourhoods in urban areas, for every community, not only rural ones, to have a village or neighbourhood centre.

Photo of Tom Levitt Tom Levitt PPS (Rt Hon Hilary Benn, Secretary of State), Department for International Development

I have a lot of sympathy with the aims that my hon. Friend is trying to achieve through the new clause. On the creation of town and village greens and the role of Natural England, does he anticipate that the duty will be a general duty, or an advisory duty? Would Natural England be allowed some discretion to advise on what might be a good plan for a village or town green and what might be otherwise, or does he expect Natural England to support every application willy-nilly?

Photo of David Drew David Drew Labour, Stroud

I understand my hon. Friend’s situation—he is trying to forestall reopening that debate. I do not want to intrude on his private grief over what might happen if we compel Natural England to find village greens where they are not justified.

It is important to recognise that every community needs its own space to be protected. Giving that space the nomenclature of village or neighbourhood green, or whatever we want to call it—to return to the debate on who is likely to be responsible for it—would be an excellent thing for the Bill to do. I hope that, wearing his other hat, the Minister will go righteously from evangelism to promoting the measure as a good thing that comes on the back of the Bill.

The rest is rather technical. Even though it is important to underpin in statute what has been happening voluntarily for many generations, as my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Tom Levitt) said, it will not really set the world alight. What we are trying to do in the new clause could.

Photo of Paul Truswell Paul Truswell Labour, Pudsey

I echo the comments made by my hon. Friends the Members for Sherwood and for Stroud. One of the characteristics of this Committee is a preponderance of Members representing rural or largely rural seats. I speak mainly as a townie whose introduction to the arcane and abstruse but nevertheless absolutely gripping issue of commons has been through an example in my constituency, with which I have already bored Members on Second Reading and in Committee.

It is important that some body should be responsible for promoting awareness of town greens. The residents of many areas with town and village greens do not know that they have one because it is not formally designated. During debates, we have clearly identified that communities such as Yeadon in my constituency become aware that they could get that formal designation and all the protections that it encompasses only if they go through the application process to establish a town or a village green. Few people in Yeadon are aware that that is a possibility. Indeed, those who originally raised the idea were regarded as community eccentrics, as no one knew what they were talking about until their helpful Member of Parliament collected the information, much of which was provided by the Open Spaces Society.

However, organisations such as the OSS are small and have limited resources. They do a fantastic job of providing support and information, but they cannot easily discharge that role. I add my comments to those of my hon. Friends. There must be some organisation—Natural England seems to be a good choice—to promote awareness of town greens and provide support for people who want to go through an often convoluted and demanding process.

Photo of Jim Knight Jim Knight Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Rural Affairs, Landscape and Biodiversity), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Rural Affairs, Landscape and Biodiversity)

I am grateful, as ever, to my hon. Friends. They will know that Natural England already has a power to carry out such activities when they benefit the natural environment. The Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006 gives Natural England the overarching purpose of ensuring that the natural environment is conserved, enhanced and managed for the benefit of present and future  generations. That includes promoting nature conservation and protecting biodiversity, conserving and enhancing the landscape, promoting public access and encouraging recreation in the countryside.

Natural England already has all the powers that it needs to carry out the activities set out in new clause 4 provided that they are beneficial to present and future generations. I worry that imposing a duty on it to carry out those activities would remove its element of discretion over whether such activities would be beneficial.

I appreciate that new clause 4 might be an attempt to establish what the Government see Natural England’s role to be in implementing the Bill. I told the fifth national seminar on commons in Cheltenham last year—an excellent event, which my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud attended—that I see Natural England becoming the Government’s champion for the management and well-being of common land.

We want Natural England to facilitate the establishment of commons associations where better management of a common would help to enhance biodiversity and public benefit, particularly on sites of special scientific interest, for example. However, imposing a duty to promote their formation in all cases might not be appropriate. Commons associations will be the key to improved management on some commons, but will not necessarily be appropriate for all of them.

The same applies to promoting the creation of greens. The Natural England bodies have a strong track record in local open space creation and protection, and we expect Natural England to build on that important work. Creation and protection of registered town and village greens is only one part of that activity.

Natural England is crucial to the implementation of the Bill and to the well-being of common land in general, but imposing a duty on it is unnecessary. I give an additional reassurance to my hon. Friends that I will write to Sir Martin Doughty, chair-designate of Natural England, enclosing a copy of what I have said, so that my expectations in respect of common land are clear at the outset.

Photo of Paddy Tipping Paddy Tipping PPS (Rt Hon Jack Straw, Secretary of State), Foreign & Commonwealth Office 3:00 pm, 27th April 2006

I am very grateful to the Minister for saying that Natural England will be a champion of common land, that it has a record of excellence in respect of village greens, and that he will write to Sir Martin Doughty, who is an enthusiast for these matters, as is the new body. Given that Natural England is following our discussions and will have the advantage of receiving a letter from the Minister, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.