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.