§ 7.23 p.m.
The Earl of Cranbrook
My Lords, I beg to move that the Bill be now read a third time. The Second Reading was a long time ago-20 months now—on 7th June 1994. Since then, it has passed through the hands of the committee, ably chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Wigoder. There were 11 sittings and the committee also visited Bodmin Moor.
Except in one important respect, to which I shall refer later, the Bill returns to us no different in general form. In the interim the deliberations of the committee have involved much discussion with the promoters, Cornwall County Council, associations representing commoners and landowners, the Countryside Commission and petitioners. The promoters and the other parties would, I am sure, wish to be associated with me in thanking all noble Lords who served on the committee and their chairman. I congratulate Cornwall County Council for its perseverance in pursuing the Bill. It underlines the Bill's importance for Cornwall and, I believe, its significance in the wider arena.
At Second Reading I introduced the Bill in the context of sustainable development to which the country adheres through Agenda 21 and the Biodiversity Action Plan to which the United Kingdom signed up through international conventions launched at Rio in 1992. I tried to highlight the duty that we in Parliament have as a legislature to enact laws that facilitate action by people and communities directed towards the objectives of sustainability. The importance of that consideration has not diminished.
I do not need to enlarge on the multiple values of Bodmin Moor. It is a large area over which the commons affected by the Bill are scattered and of which collectively the commons form a significant part. Perhaps I may remind the House that the area is important for its geology, its land form, its biological resources, its landscape and its archaeological and historic value.
The moorland habitat is fragile and suffers from over-grazing on large areas and in places under-grazing. Farming is not easy, but livestock farming is traditional on the commons. It is vital that that use should be managed in a sustainable manner with farming practices integrated so as to safeguard and enhance the inherent natural values of England's most south-westerly upland.
There are no changes in the structure of the Bill I described on Second Reading. The commoners' council, the management plan, the substantive powers 787 of the commoners' council by regulation and otherwise, and the raft of precautions to ensure that the powers given are not abused are all as I described them on Second Reading. I need not go over them again.
There is no specific provision for judicial review, although the general law relating to such review will apply to the commoners' council as to any public authority. There is a new specific duty on the commoners' council to act fairly. That appears in what is now Clause 4. It replaces the specific provisions on judicial review. Other minor amendments of a drafting or technical nature do not affect issues of policy. So, except in an important respect to which I shall come, the Bill and the county council's reasons for promoting it are not substantially different from those outlined at Second Reading. It is still the aim of the Bill to establish a system of regulation on Bodmin Moor which will enable the commons, and indirectly the moor as a whole, to be managed in an environmentally sustainable way and in accordance with good husbandry. That, for the people who live there, will improve the viability of farms on the moor, encourage diversification and enhance the tourism potential. More directly, it will become possible to obtain environmentally sensitive area status, the associated grants to go with it and similar grants and facilities on the agricultural side. All that, the county council expects, will lead directly or indirectly to a substantial revival of the economy of the area.
When in June 1994 I agreed to sponsor the Bill in your Lordships' House I stipulated that it should have the agreement of the two statutory countryside agencies in England. As its chairman—which I still am—I was able to declare the support of English Nature, as recorded at col. 1153 of Hansard of 7th June 1994. I was also assured at the time by the Countryside Commission that I could say, as I did, that the commission had withdrawn its petition against the Bill in the face of assurances of modifications that would be forthcoming from the promoters. That created a somewhat difficult situation. The noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, and in particular the noble Baroness, Lady David, raised concerns that had been apparent in the withdrawn petition of the Countryside Commission. In giving me authority to speak on its behalf the commission also asked me to say, as I did, that it had residual concerns about the fencing of common land, the sources of advice on nature conservation and archaeology, the consulting of the public on the access strategy and the way in which trespassers would be dealt with.
Those issues occupied the period between Second Reading and today's Third Reading. The main difference between the Bill as it now stands and as it was then is that it no longer makes provision for a right of regulated access to the commons where, for the most part, there is at the moment no such access. There is de facto public access over many areas of the moor, as noble Lords will know if they have visited it. Those areas include both common land and land which is in sole private ownership. But that access is dependent on the decisions of individual landowners in respect of their own land, or, to a degree, the commoners on land which is common land. I am assured that in many instances 788 the landowners and commoners actively encourage and support access rather than simply accept it. I am told that it is the understanding of the county council that those informal arrangements will continue in any event.
The major thrust of petitions against the Bill related to the way in which a right of public access was to be provided. In the end it proved impossible to reach an arrangement acceptable to the petitioners, the commoners and the landowners. The solution of the committee was to delete all reference to public access, leaving the Bill purely concerned with conservation and grazing measures. Clause 10, therefore, and the associated consultation processes have been withdrawn. The county council now feels that the question of access to open country generally, including access to commons, should be addressed nationally and not in the context of a piece of local legislation. I admit that I agree with that.
I referred to sustainability. The central plank in the structure envisaged by the Bill is the preparation and approval of a management plan which will provide the means for the commoner's council to exercise its functions. The commoners, with professional advice, are well advanced in the preparation of a draft of the kind of plan they envisage and will develop it when they have formal existence as a commoners' council after the Bill becomes law. That is the meat of the debate about sustainability. I said that at Second Reading and I have done so again today. The term "sustainability" has featured strongly in debates in this House on various occasions and in different contexts. We may not yet be able to define the concept for all purposes on every occasion. But at least we know what is not sustainable. At present the state of Bodmin Moor is not sustainable in environmental terms. The Bill can put the moors and commons on the road to sustainability. I fear that the problems that have been encountered in this one small legislative measure illustrate in microcosm the huge difficulties we shall face on a national scale as we try to devise practices and, where necessary, provide legislative backing to measures which integrate the fair aspirations of people across a wide range of interests so that together we can achieve sustainability.
Once again I commend the work of the committee and its members and chairman along with the promoters, the objectors, the petitioners and all those who became involved in the debate on having successfully found a way through the maze and in the end having produced a Bill which provides a grounding for sustainable management of what is a cherished corner of England's natural heritage. I beg to move.
§ Moved, That the Bill be now read a third time.—(The Earl of Cranbrook.)
§ Earl Peel
My Lords, I thank my noble friend for having brought the Bill to your Lordships' House for its Third Reading and for explaining so clearly how it has reached its present state. I too spoke at Second Reading and I have followed the Bill's progress with great interest ever since. At that time I felt that it was a very good Bill. It set about establishing a management structure which would bring together those with an active interest in Bodmin Moor. It would result in sensible management practice of benefit to both farming 789 and conservation and would go some way towards achieving the sustainable objective to which my noble friend referred.
The law on commons is complex. Clearly, differences occur between owners and graziers. The Bill will go a long way towards addressing that difficulty. But what pleased me particularly about the Bill was that, although it was promoted by Cornwall County Council—I congratulate the council—it had the full support of those working on the ground. It was a Bill emanating from the people of Bodmin Moor. I appreciate that the carrot of ESA status acted as a helpful stimulus. Nonetheless, it is a useful step forward.
Sadly, matters did not develop, in the short term at least, quite as the promoters had expected. Certain organisations petitioned against the Bill in order to try to impose a right of open access over Bodmin Moor, which was quite against the wishes of the owners, the graziers and indeed the promoters of the Bill, Cornwall County Council. I appreciate that petitioning against a Bill is a perfectly legitimate and right thing to do. But it was particularly disturbing that in this instance there was quite blatant support for the access groups from the Countryside Commission. I should make clear that I do not include any of the local branches of the Countryside movement. My information is that it involved purely the head office at Cheltenham.
I appreciate that the Countryside Commission, as a government advisory agency, has statutory responsibilities on access matters and public enjoyment of the countryside. But to attempt to push through a policy which was opposed by all those promoting the Bill and which was contrary to government policy was, in my view, at the very least unhelpful and, I think, an underhand way to behave. It held up the Bill, caused considerable frustration to those involved with it and, although I have no evidence to prove it, I suspect that the additional costs have been considerable.
However, I am delighted that partly because of the determined efforts of those responsible for the Bill not to be moved and a most useful intervention by the then Minister for the countryside, my right honourable friend Mr. Robert Atkins, the matter now seems to have been resolved. Clause 16 has been amended and the public right of access removed, still leaving in place the very reasonable access provisions referred to by my noble friend in his opening remarks.
So I can say with confidence that we now have a thoroughly good Bill. Now that a proper management structure is in place, within the Bill at any rate, I hope that the Government in due course will seriously consider Bodmin Moor for ESA status or some such environmental scheme. I do not ask my noble friend on the Front Bench even to contemplate answering such a request because I realise that it is not in his power to do so. I just make the plea because of the importance of Bodmin Moor from an environmental point of view.
I am delighted to say that the prospect of the Bill being enacted has enabled the Cornwall Commoners' Association to be awarded a MAFF/EU 5B grant which will fund the expenses for the implementation of the 790 new council and its workings. There are 300 commoners whose interests need looking after so it will be an expensive and complex operation.
It has been brought to my attention, in my capacity as Lord Warden of the Stannaries of the Duchy of Cornwall, that there is a minor difficulty still remaining within the wording of the Bill in relation to the exemption clause of the Duchy of Cornwall. I do not want to go into details now; my noble friend Lord Cranbrook is aware of it. However, I hope that the wording can be sorted out; otherwise, as the solicitor for the Duchy of Cornwall said,The point is purely a question of the grammatical drafting and not a matter of substance. The draft as prepared does not make sense in the light of the constitution of the Duchy and, if it ever came to be tested in court, might well be criticised".Clearly, that point needs to be addressed. It cannot be dealt with now but I hope that when the Bill goes to another place it can be. I hope that there will be no further major delays and that the Bill has a speedy passage through the other place so that the owners and farmers of Bodmin Moor can, as we say, "do the business" for the benefit of farming, the environment and those who visit and love Bodmin Moor.
§ Baroness Hilton of Eggardon
My Lords, I congratulate all those involved in the successful progress of the Bill through its rather laborious stages. Unlike the noble Earl, Lord Peel, I regret the fact that the provisions for public access have been removed. The preamble originally contained provisions dealing with public access; they are no longer there. Although the Bill provides permitted use as a resort for open-air recreation, that is merely a power that the council possesses rather than a duty upon it. My understanding is that the present damage to Bodmin Moor is mostly caused by over-grazing and not by members of the public visiting the area.
If the provisions for regulated access that were at one stage in the Bill had been retained, it would have been possible not only to allow people to use larger areas of Bodmin Moor but also to regulate that access to the benefit of the environment by erecting fences around particularly sensitive areas and so forth. Therefore, not only have the public lost out because of the loss of provision for access to some parts of the moor, but also the environment and some species may have lost out because it is not possible to provide powers to regulate their access.
With those caveats, I wish the Bill well and congratulate all those involved on its production.
My Lords, we are delighted that the Bill is about to achieve its Third Reading. We believe that it will do a great deal of good. My noble friend Lord Peel raised a matter of concern about the activities which he says the Countryside Commission undertook. He will be aware that we do not share the view of the party opposite that the countryside should be regulated by bureaucrats for the benefit of town dwellers. My right honourable friend Mr. Atkins reacted speedily and with 791 some force to the anxieties expressed by my noble friend and Cornwall County Council. We wish the Bill happy progress through another place.
The Earl of Cranbrook
My Lords, the issue of access has been properly dealt with. The noble Baroness is correct. Originally, Clause 10 applied both to access and to the regulation of it. However, the right decision has been made in allowing that to be debated at national level rather than trying to impose regulations piecemeal in a local way. I commend the Bill to the House.
§ On Question, Bill read a third time.
§ Moved, That the Bill do now pass.—(The Earl of Cranbrook.)
§ On Question, Bill passed, and sent to the Commons.