I want to take the opportunity to ask the Minister some questions about the clause because, at present, it is not entirely clear what it could mean for local people and local communities. The clause seems to allow the Secretary of State to make regulations, which presumably will be debated by the House at some stage, for fees payable in relation to an application and, in particular, make provision for a fee payable to be determined by the person to whom an application is made or, if different, the body by which the application is to be determined.
The explanatory notes state that such measures are to allow for greater flexibility and the targeting of fees. That might indeed be the case, but the LGA says that it is
“helpful that the Bill will enable a fee to be charged locally. This should be levied at a rate that is still feasible for local groups and looks to cover only the costs”.
It again makes the point that matters should be determined at local level. The problem is that the LGC then cites a case when it cost a local authority £32,000 in legal fees to consider one village green application alone. While that might be an exception, it raises several issues to which I want the Minister’s response.
Will the more flexible fee that will be levied include paying the legal costs for the local authority, the Commons Registration Authority or the Planning Inspectorate if the case were referred to them? I ask that, particularly, in relation to the fees being levied against a local community organisation or someone seeking to register the land. If so, is it likely to be a significant deterrent to the registration of village greens even when the claim is considered to be entirely legitimate, and not vexatious in any way?
While the LGA states that the fee
“should be levied at a rate that is still feasible for local groups”,
I can see nothing in the clause that will limit the fee to something that would be considered reasonable. Indeed, there is nothing to suggest what “reasonable” might be in this set of circumstances.
I know that the Government have bandied about a fee of £1,000 or thereabouts for registering a village green. We are entirely unclear as to whether that is the sort of sum they have in mind in these circumstances. Such a sum may seem reasonable to many, but in constituencies such as mine it is quite a large sum for many local groups to find, particularly in a short space of time.
Clearly, having a numerical limit in the Bill is very difficult. Consequently, can the Minister confirm that the regulations, when they are introduced, will contain a limit and some idea of how reasonableness will be determined? Will they allow a claim for the costs of the local authority or the registration authority to be made only where the claim for the registration of land is seen to be vexatious, or will a claim be allowed in more general circumstances?
Furthermore, will the Minister consider what might be done to encourage local communities to use neighbourhood planning to designate green spaces? That is mentioned as a potential benefit in the impact assessment, but how it will be achieved is not clearly spelled out. I heard the comments made earlier by the Minister and the right hon. Member for Hazel Grove, but I am afraid that the experience on the ground is that a number of communities do not have the resources at present to undertake a neighbourhood plan, and I am terribly concerned that clauses 12 to 14 rather suggest, and are based on, what I think is the quite wrong view of the Government that neighbourhood planning is happening in all our communities.
My hon. Friend is spelling things out very clearly. Does she agree that some communities are fortunate to have greater human resource capacity as well as greater financial capacity to connect with local planning, whereas other communities are not that fortunate? There is a key issue about how we equalise the capacity across all communities, which I have not yet seen being addressed.
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point, and indeed it is coming up in the early stages of the evaluation of the neighbourhood planning process that not all communities are equally able to undertake neighbourhood planning. It is actually the most disadvantaged areas of the country that are losing out yet again; those are exactly the areas that need additional resources to help them to undertake neighbourhood planning, but those resources are not forthcoming.
I would be very grateful if the Minister could address the fees issues and the whole neighbourhood planning issue in his response to the debate.
Perhaps I could set out the purpose of the clause, before turning to the specific and perfectly fair questions that the hon. Lady has asked.
Clause 14 replaces the power in section 24(2)(d) of the Commons Act 2006 to charge fees for applications made under part 1 of the Act to amend the registers of common land or town and village green, with a revised power that applies in England. The power as it applies to Wales is restated, but is unchanged.
This revised power allows the Secretary of State to make provision in regulations for fees payable in relation to an application. The aim of the clause is to allow for greater flexibility and targeting of fees for applications to amend the registers under part 1 of the Bill. That would be subject to secondary legislation and therefore, of course, to parliamentary scrutiny.
The powers will ensure that the Government can prescribe in regulations for more than one fee to be charged during the application process, for example at different stages of the application. The clause also makes provision for a fee payable to be determined by the person to whom an application is made or, if it is different, by the body that will determine the application.
This type of situation, whereby the commons registration authority receives an application, but the Planning Inspectorate determines it, presently happens in seven commons registration authority areas that have pioneered the implementation of part 1 of the Commons Act 2006 under the Commons Registration (England) Regulations 2008. At the moment, only the commons registration authority has the power to charge a fee.
In the pioneer areas, an application must be referred to the Planning Inspectorate where
“the registration authority has an interest in the outcome of the application”.
It is not uncommon for town and village green applications to relate to land owned or managed by the commons registration authority itself. However, under the current legislation, the Planning Inspectorate cannot charge a fee to recover any cost for determining the application in those circumstances. The new powers would allow for the commons registration authority to charge for its component of the work, and the Planning Inspectorate could do the same.
The conflict of interest scenario could conceivably apply to any application under part 1. Furthermore, applications must also be referred to the Planning Inspectorate where they would correct a mistake in the register to add land to or remove it from the register, or to correct the details of a right of common in a register. So this is not just about greater flexibility to charge for town and village green applications; it is an issue for any application to amend the registers under part 1 of the 2006 Act.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 2011 consultation on town and village green reform proposed setting fees for applications. The clause makes existing fee-making powers more flexible if we decide later that fees are appropriate. However, the Bill does not set fees—that would be done later through regulations. Any fee that is set would need to be fair and to balance recovery of costs by registration authorities against the impact on applicants for registration.
In answer to the hon. Lady’s second point, we have not yet taken a decision as to whether the costs involved should be capped and whether there should be a limit to the fee. I am happy to take into account what she has said on that. Any fee that is set will need to be fair to all sides in the measurement of that particular impact.
The hon. Lady asked whether the legal costs were included in the fees to be set, and, if they were, whether they would be a deterrent to applicants. Nobody wants to discourage proper applications under this process. I will get back to her, if I may, on that point. She also asked whether costs would be recovered only in cases that are vexatious. It is my understanding that that is not the case. Again, if I am wrong, perhaps I could advise her in writing. I beg to move that the clause stand part of the Bill.