Clause 12 allows a landowner to deposit a statement with the commons registration authority, providing a fairly pain-free way of ending the recognition of lawful recreation taking place on the land, thus allowing the possibility that the land could be registered as a town or village green. Amendment 94 would instead require the landowner to deposit a statement with the commons registration authority in order to bring an end to lawful recreation; amendment 95 would require the landowner to publicise the fact that he or she has deposited such a statement. Following that, under the Commons Act 2006, the local community would have a two-year grace period in which to register the land as a town or village green.
“If the inhabitants are unaware of the deposit of the statement they will not be on notice that time has started to run and, after two years, their right to register will be lost. Paragraph 62 of the explanatory notes to the bill makes clear that there is no intention to deprive local inhabitants of the right to seek to register but that becomes meaningless if the inhabitants have no idea that the time has begun to run against them…The OSS regards it as imperative that the cessation is brought to the attention of local inhabitants at the same time as the statement is deposited with the registration authority. How it is done is a matter for discussion, but we believe that it would require, as a minimum, the erection of signs on the land and an advertisement in a local paper, advising of the deposit of the statement and of the two-year period.”
That seems to be highly logical. It is localist, sensible and encourages problems to be aired as soon as possible, which will limit the expense incurred by developers and landowners.
Amendment 95 would not make it easier for a piece of land to be registered following the grant funding application, nor would it enable vexatious applications of the type that we all want to stop, as those could be addressed with some of the triggers in schedule 4. It would, however, give communities a chance to protect land that otherwise they may lose. That is particularly important given that consultation on neighbourhood and local plans often leaves much to be desired. In many instances, a community will not know that a consultation is—or was—taking place. Therefore, to say that that is the only stage at which land can be safeguarded is overly idealistic and would necessitate a huge improvement in the consultation process that we have not seen to date, and which the Government do not appear to have considered.
That is not to say that it is not possible. I am a fervent believer in local and neighbourhood planning, but so far the Government have failed to set out funding for neighbourhood planning forums beyond those included in the front-runner programme and no long-term resource plan has been proposed.
At the same time, the cuts to planning departments hamper planning officers’ ability to engage with the local community, which will increase the chances that the identification of community assets and designation of areas for local green space could be flawed.
I urge the Minister to consider seriously the amendments and to take on board the points on giving local communities a reasonable period in which to register their interest. I hope that he will accept the amendments.
I was disappointed to hear the hon. Lady make that case and, in particular, the way in which she dismissed the provisions in the Localism Act 2011 and the neighbourhood planning system. It is rather unlikely that somebody who lives in a neighbourhood that has a neighbourhood plan would be unaware that that was happening, because there has to be a referendum of all residents. Even if the turnout is low, at least everybody should know that the referendum is happening. I think—
I might just finish my sentence. There is now a much better system in place for giving residents in a neighbourhood the opportunity both to register open spaces of value to them and to participate in a meaningful planning process, rather than one that was dropped on them.
The hon. Lady and I shared the experience of long hours in the Localism Bill Committee, in which we debated these matters, so I am disappointed that she did not find that a useful learning experience. More than 250 neighbourhood plans are under preparation, and she should have a little more faith in local communities.
Roberta Blackman-Woods rose—
Much as I would have loved to have sat on the Localism Bill Committee, alas, I did not because at that time I had a different shadow ministerial position. I want to correct the hon. Gentleman on a second point: there will not be a referendum on a neighbourhood plan unless the neighbourhood planning forum decides to have a neighbourhood development order, and it may not necessarily decide to do that. My understanding is that, to date, no referendums have been held.
I very much apologise for mistakenly attributing membership of the Localism Bill Committee to the hon. Lady. She missed a treat. Had she been there she would have heard a lot more about how the neighbourhood planning system is intended to work and how it is working. She would have heard about the provision that there is for neighbourhoods and individuals to register open spaces of local significance in their area with their local authority and for those to be incorporated in the local plan and subsequently in the neighbourhood plan.
The provisions are necessary to tidy up a part of the law that has been on the statute book for a very long time and has taken on completely new uses in the hands of community campaigners. The Localism Act provides a much more sensible and measured way of going out about getting what we can call village greens, but which the Act refers to as open spaces of “local significance”, recognised and incorporated into plans in a measured way that does not prove disruptive.
I draw the Committee’s attention to some of the evidence that we received on this point. I do not usually pray in aid the Law Society, but I notice that it says it welcomes the provision enabling landowners to make a statement about their land and supports placing restrictions on the circumstances in which applications for registering land can be made. That is lawyers speaking so that is rather contrary to the usual way of things where lawyers like complex legal procedures with plenty of opportunities to earn fees.
I also draw attention to the evidence we received from the Local Government Association on the registration of town and village greens. I notice that the hon. Member for Edinburgh South has been happy to pray in aid what he has described as the Conservative-led LGA time after time. The last time he mentioned it he said that it was all-party. Indeed, it represents local authorities of all political stripes in England. Paragraph 27 of its evidence states:
“The LGA welcomes the measures to align the town and village green regime with the planning system. This will ensure that discussions about the future of a site take place primarily and appropriately through the planning system.”
Paragraph 28 states:
“Town and village green legislation is too often used by opponents of particular schemes to block or stall development.
It is quite right that local communities should be able to safeguard community land that is of value to them. I would say to the Committee that that is precisely the mechanism that is in place with the Localism Act.
The National Housing Federation perhaps got to the heart of our problem. It said:
“However the existing town and village green legislation is poorly drafted and has too often been abused by people opposing developments.”
It is interesting that, apparently, what the hon. Lady’s amendment would do—she may want to clarify this—is give an extended period of time for local communities to carry on using this poorly drafted scheme instead of engaging in neighbourhood planning and instead of approaching their local authority and getting their open space of local significance listed as it should be.
We received evidence from the Hastoe Housing Association, a specialist rural housing association which owns about 5,000 homes and works in partnership with more than 200 village communities. It said:
“It is, and will remain, very simple to register land as a village green. Defra and a range of organisations such as the Open Space Society are constantly promoting the importance of registering village greens and providing advice and support.”
Interestingly it supplied us with figures which showed just how many applications for village greens had been made over the years. I will just quote the figures given in its evidence for the first nine months of 2011. In that time, 84 applications on village greens were determined, of which 57 were rejected and 27 approved. In other words, almost two thirds of the applications were what we might best describe as spurious.
The housing association goes on to give us some evidence of the costs that have arisen as a result. It has quoted particular schemes, indicated the length of delay that has arisen and given the estimated cost. Not all the items have a full address, but I notice that a scheme in Gloucestershire was delayed for two years at a cost of £70,000, a scheme in Wakefield was delayed for two years at a cost of £10,000 and a scheme in Maldon, Essex has been ongoing since June 2011 and has an estimated cost so far of £1.2 million. Those are really significant sums of money, but also very significant lengths of time taken over this procedure.
The figures are in the evidence that Hastoe Housing Association has given, and, if approximately two thirds of the applications turn out to be spurious, it is surely right for the Bill to introduce proposals that simplify and rectify that. In the open spaces requirement in the Localism Act 2011, we have in place a good new mechanism that goes wider than village greens. Given that and the additional capacity that there is for neighbourhood plans, I believe that the hon. Lady’s attempt to stretch the existing provision and delay its removal from the statute book is mistaken. I hope that she will listen to the force of the arguments that other members of the Committee will make, and that I am sure the Minister will make, and, when the moment is right, withdraw her amendment.
It is a pleasure, as ever, to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. It is important that we are clear that there is a lot of agreement among Committee members. We have heard evidence about the need to ensure that vexatious applications for town and village greens do not get in the way of progress, and we welcome the thrust of the Localism Act. I had the privilege of serving on the Localism Bill Committee with the right hon. Member for Hazel Grove, so perhaps I was mistaken for my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham.
I welcome that intervention, and the ability to see the world so much more clearly that the right hon. Gentleman now has.
On town and village green registrations, the issue is not the desire to bring things in line with the planning process and the new processes that the Localism Act has released. Rather, it is about recognising a way of doing that which does not disempower and disadvantage local communities. Although we heard evidence from a number of agencies about the “vexatious” concern, we also heard a considerable degree of evidence from organisations and individuals concerned about losing the opportunity for proper town and village green registration.
“cannot support the proposals to limit the right to register land as a Village Green. This appears to be a solution in search of a problem and conflicts strongly with the stance on community assets taken by the Government in the Localism Act. At the very least the prohibition on registering land which has been included in a draft local or neighbourhood plan should be removed as this undermines part of the very rationale for developing and consulting on a local or neighbourhood plan in the first place.”
It is important to recognise that organisations that are close to the ground, such as the Maidstone Liberal Democrats, have genuine concerns about how the intention of the clause is drafted. There is an opportunity to address that through the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham, which does not alter the direction of travel, but gives protection to local communities. Sylvia Mason from Amber Valley says that the proposed changes to the process of village green applications on land already earmarked for building is another major setback for democracy. She goes on to say that this is
“top down decision-making—and runs counter to… the British way of life.”
Those are genuine concerns by genuine people who are involved in their localities.
Finally, let me refer to the evidence from Pauline Bradley in relation to the situation in Pucklechurch. She says:
“The villagers I have spoken to were not aware of the intention of the local council to put forward planning proposals (again) on the land in question prior to the posting of notices on the lamp posts and through a few letterboxes.”
In a sense, she gets to the nub of the problem. Unless we advertise and draw attention to registration, neighbourhoods and individuals are not aware of it until it starts happening. When it starts happening, they knock on the doors of people and say, “What can we do about it?” Then they are told, “Well, actually, this was registered two, four, five years ago and you should have noticed what was going on then and done something about it.” My hon. Friend’s amendment provides protection for everybody by ensuring that proper advertising takes place at the point of registration, so that communities are alerted at the proper time. Two years is not too long a period, and it allows communities to exercise a desire if they so wish. That is not vexatious, but a proper and true way of improving the clause. Although the clause has been introduced for the very best of reasons, it could appear centralist without the localist flavour offered by the amendment of my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham.
All three Members who have spoken have indicated their support for the change that is being made in clause 12, and their more general support for the proposal to align the town and village green legislation with the planning system more generally. The case for that was set out superbly by the right hon. Member for Hazel Grove, who deployed the broad arguments in favour of the clause far more eloquently than I could or indeed was going to try to do on clause stand part.
On the specific amendments that have been put before us, amendment 94 would require rather than permit regulations to be made on the issues that are set out in new section 15A of the Commons Act 2006. That includes how town and village green landowner statements and maps are provided and combined with Highways Act 1980 statements.
Amendment 95 adds that regulations also cover publicising and depositing a statement in the local area. In combination, the two amendments would require a statement to be publicised. I understand from what has been said that a key purpose behind the amendments may be to ensure that when a landowner makes a statement, notice is given to local people so that they are aware that the clock is ticking in terms of the period of time they have if they want to make a town and village green application, and I want to offer the Committee some reassurance on that. When a landowner statement is deposited with a Commons Registration Authority, we intend that that authority will be required to publicise it so that local people are made aware of the fact that a statement has been deposited. Indeed, subsection (6) immediately preceding the subsection that the hon. Lady is seeking to amend provides us with the power to make regulations to cover the steps that an authority must take, which include publicising statements in the way that she wants. Notice requirements are likely to include publication on the website of the Association of Commons Registration Authorities, as well as notification by e-mail of interested parties. Amendment 95 would, therefore, duplicate the provision under subsection (6), and it is our view that the publication requirements are best set out in the regulations under that subsection.
I find the Minister’s comments somewhat reassuring, but will he confirm that there will be something in the registration system and in the terms of the consultation that will alert local people to the fact that something that relates to their areas has been deposited? Will they then have a period in which to register an interest in the village green?
I can reassure the hon. Lady on both those matters. The whole point of notification is precisely as she described. It is not simply the sending of a notice, but to alert people to the beginning of the time period. That is the critical point. I hope that she will also accept that the regulations will make the whole process of submitting a landowner statement as easy as possible for landowners. It means that they can combine statements for town and village green purposes with those that are made for rights of way. The whole object of such a measure is to make sure that, as far as possible, we encourage landowners to allow recreational use of their land safe in the knowledge that they can, when necessary, prevent the registration of their land from being registered as a town or village green. Given my reassurances, I hope that she is persuaded to withdraw the amendment.
Clauses 12, 13 and 14 will reform the system for registering new town and village greens, and it might be helpful if I set out the broader context of such provisions. The rising number of town and village green applications, which are free to applicants, is resulting in large costs to local authorities. When applications affect development, the town and village green registration system can undermine the democratically accountable planning process. Many applications fail in the end, but they nevertheless incur long delays, uncertainty and costs to local authorities and landowners. Some people, as the right hon. Member for Hazel Grove reminded the Committee, use the process simply to prevent or delay development that is needed and wanted by the wider community.
The key aims of the reforms are three: first, to prevent the registration system from being used to stop or delay planning development and to protect the ability of communities to promote development in their area through local and neighbourhood plan-making; secondly, to reduce the financial burden on local authorities in considering applications and the cost to landowners whose land is affected by those applications; and, thirdly, to remove unnecessary uncertainty and delays that are difficult for those affected in the community.
Applications can be made under section 15(1) of the Commons Act 2006 to register land as a town and village green. The criteria are that the land has been used, as of right, for lawful sports and pastimes by a significant number of local inhabitants for at least 20 years. The law on town and village greens is based on custom and assumes that, if a landowner did not challenge any recreational use of the land for over 20 years, he actually intended that local people use the land, so the registration of the land is therefore legal recognition of the right that they have established.
Among others, the Local Government Association, both in written evidence and in its appearance before the Committee, has been very supportive of the three clauses. As the right hon. Member for Hazel Grove said, the association described the clauses as
“essential to align the town and village green regime with the planning system.”
These clauses, it said, will ensure that false claims are revealed swiftly, while genuine claims receive fair and robust consideration, and the primacy of the local plan is maintained. I could not have put that better myself, and I urge the Committee to support the clauses.
Can the Minister clarify one point that, despite the LGA’s submission, may be contentious? It is that much of the land that is often subject to challenge is owned by the local authority in the first place, and there can be problems in relation to local people then seeking to register that land for the purposes of sporting or recreational use when the local authority intend to sell it for development use. Can he clarify what the position will be under this legislation once it is passed?
That is something that I am afraid I am not able to clarify immediately. At a later stage, I may be able to get back to my hon. Friend on that technical point about what happens when the local authority owns the land. I think that I have indicated the general arguments in favour of this set of clauses. I hope that clause 12 can now receive the approval of the Committee.
I have a few comments to make about clause 12.
We find it strange that this clause is included in the Growth and Infrastructure Bill, especially as the Campaign to Protect Rural England has pointed out that there were only 185 applications for town and village green status last year, and that only a portion of those would be ruled out by the changes set out in the clause. The number of extra developments that would be brought forward as a result may be minimal. My question about the clause is whether it is really the central legislative priority for a Government in the midst of an economic crisis, when they could be taking much wider and much more sweeping steps to support economic recovery.
I know that the Minister said in our last meeting that he does not mind introducing clauses that may end up being useless; he is unconcerned about wasting the Committee’s time. However, has he considered that the taxpayers, who he rightly points out keep us in this place, may prefer that he introduce some real growth measures for us to debate?
It is manifestly important that we ensure that vexatious applications do not stymie development, and a small number of examples have been put forward by the LGA to show that such applications are a problem. However, there have also been a number of protections of land that were not vexatious and that have been done in the spirit of the Commons Act 2006. That Act intended to protect land that was valued and precious to local communities, and over quite a long period of time.
As we have said before in this Committee, the purpose of planning is to balance competing interests. I am not exactly sure that the clause has got the balance completely right, and we will perhaps reflect on that matter again. We want to ensure that development can take place, but we also want to ensure that those very precious areas for local communities can be registered in a timely and efficient manner.
On this particular point, it is important to recognise the evidence of the Woodland Trust, the CPRE and a number of other agencies that are very concerned about the direction of travel without proper protections. In my own constituency, the Ashby Pond group has an issue exactly like the one that the hon. Member for Harrow East alluded to. There is an area of land in local government control that some want to see developed even though it has been used for recreation for many years. I am very interested to hear the Minister’s response to the hon. Gentleman, because the issue that he raised is not merely theoretical but a very practical and true one.
A couple of points have been made. I am sorry that the hon. Member for City of Durham has been so sniffy about the clause. Nobody is claiming that clauses 12, 13 and 14 will, in themselves, accelerate GDP or drive forward the economic recovery that we all want. I notice, in passing, that neither she nor her party has made any other proposals that might contribute to the growth of the economy. Equally, nobody has said that any of these clauses have no effect. Taken together, we hope they will provide a better balance in the system and encourage development that is wanted by local communities to go ahead.
I turn finally to the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East and repeated by the hon. Member for Scunthorpe about what happens to land that is owned by the local authority if it wants to sell it. I assure the Committee that local authority land is captured by town or village green legislation in exactly the same way as any other land. I hope that reassures my hon. Friend and the rest of the Committee.
I hope that, despite some of the reservations expressed about this change, the Committee will support clause 12.