Draft Vehicular Access Across Common and other Land (England) Regulations

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Mr. Rendel: I do not think that I am talking about a different anomaly in any sense. The Minister and I are talking about exactly the same anomaly. I am not asking him to go beyond that anomaly, but I am suggesting that there may be circumstances in which the householder cannot use these regulations to get around that anomaly in the 12 months after which they will come into effect. He and I are trying to get rid of that anomaly, but I am concerned that that may not be possible in the 12 months after which these regulations will come into effect because of individual householders' circumstances.

Alun Michael: Yes, but that is why I referred to the schedule, which should be read in conjunction with regulation 6. I suggest that we shall not get to the bottom of this now, so perhaps I can set out the issues more fully for the hon. Gentleman later. If I have not dealt with the point he makes—I think that I have—I have no doubt that he will come back to me.

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Mr. Sayeed: In writing to the hon. Member for Newbury, who has set off a chain of thought in my mind, could the Minister also deal with another issue? Let us say that a householder may have used vehicular access to his property but no longer does so—he normally walks—but the landlord decides to tell him that he is required to pay for vehicular access and that the householder decides not to take up that offer because he no longer uses a vehicle. If that householder sells the property in future, or it passes to another owner, what will happen to the new owner, given that the original householder was requested to purchase the right of access but did not do so?

Alun Michael: It is always fascinating when hon. Members start to have trains of thought during debates on statutory instruments, and I am not sure that any Minister would be wise to give an authoritative response unless he was absolutely certain. I shall certainly consider the issue that the hon. Gentleman raises and respond to him on the basis of legal advice, but I should have thought that, if the householder has not availed himself of the opportunity that exists to correct the anomaly through the process that the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 and these regulations are intended to provide, he puts himself in the situation of no longer having an anomaly to correct.

From 1930 onwards, it is clear what is and is not legal common land. Householders would therefore know precisely what position they were in, and any successor in title would be in the same situation. It would be for their legal advisers to establish in their searches the precise nature of the situation and decide whether to progress the purchase. They would have to pay the going rate for the access rather than the lower amount set out in the regulation, because the regulation corrects an historic anomaly. I seem to be getting relatively approving responses from my advisers, although that response is off the top of my head. I will write formally to the hon. Gentleman to put the answer on record.

Mr. Rendel: I am sorry to return to the matter yet again, but the Minister now seems to be saying that he agrees with me and with the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire. An anomaly exists that may not be corrected for some reason—because the householder is too poor, infirm or whatever. It then ceases to be possible to correct it even though the anomaly was always there, and for reasons that the householder cannot overcome, which is unfair. If some constraint upon householders prevents them from using the regulations in time, there is no longer an anomaly and they have lost their money, which could be as much as £50,000.

Alun Michael: The schedule indicates the limited circumstances in which applications can fall outside the 12-month period. I have undertaken to respond to the hon. Gentleman, but I think that a line has to be drawn at some point. We have gone as far as we can in correcting anomalous situations. We have done what Parliament agreed in the 2000 Act, which is as far as we can go in regulations. I have, however, already

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undertaken to write to the hon. Gentleman, and if after that he believes that there are still matters to which I have not responded, I will reconsider the issue. Our intention is to implement the 2000 Act in the way that Parliament intended, and to achieve a balance that, as members of the Committee have acknowledged, requires a certain care of judgment.

Another point that was raised concerned what documents would demonstrate that a right of access had been created within the regulations. Registration with the Land Registry is obviously the key thing as far as new title and searches are concerned. I can confirm that receipt of registration and other documents relating to the transaction are adequate according to the Land Registry. I hope that that deals with that point.

As I said, we considered representations from the CLA and others on issues raised in the course of the debate. We took what steps we could to reduce the cost—by not requiring a deed of easement to be drawn up, for example, and by requiring the owner of the premises to obtain valuations. We decided not to introduce the additional costs and the complexity of repaying costs, because, in almost all cases, they should be covered by the compensation. If the costs of getting evidence of title are greater than the compensation, it is worth underlining the fact that landowners are free to negotiate an easement outside the terms of the regulations.

We should not forget that the costs of providing title can be shared by all owners of premises seeking the benefit of an easement over the land. Examples brought to my attention by hon. Members involve several people seeking access, not individuals. By acting together, it is possible to reduce the costs. That makes the likelihood of loss by the landowner remote, if not impossible, in the low-value costs, but there are benefits to both sides who deal with such issues together. Taking all those factors together, we believe that the regulations comply with the European convention on human rights.

Sir Paul Beresford: I know that sedentary comments and off-the-hoof thoughts delight the Minister. What would happen if a landowner—perhaps a family—subdivided common land so that an individual's right of access would go across several strips of common land belonging to different landlords?

Alun Michael: That is the sort of thing on which I would certainly not comment off the hoof. The hon. Gentleman's sterling work should be drawn to the attention of the Opposition Whips. I am sure that they

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will make him a full member of every Committee that considers statutory instruments for years to come so that he may filibuster during deliberations.

I am trying to cover the points raised by the hon. Member for Newbury. He mentioned the right to apply for an easement, which would be dependent on the acquisition of prescriptive rights other than on the offence. In other words, if driving over common land were not illegal, the right would be gained by prescription. If the landlord was obstructive and prevented the right being acquired in that manner, there would not be a right to apply under the regulations.

It is important to recognise that the regulations correct an anomaly. They cannot correct situations that are not anomalous. If it is illegal to go over land and the landlord has asserted that there is no anomaly to be inherited. The anomaly corrected by the 2000 Act has developed over time and applies to situations in which that is not the case.

I am conscious that there are complex areas for consideration. I am sure that hon. Members will wish to raise other issues, although not from a sedentary position, but by other means. We should return to the main issue of the regulations.

When Parliament considered the Countryside and Rights of Way Bill, it was clear that an anomaly had arisen unconsciously. It was not due to landlords or those who were directly concerned with common land because many believed that people had gained entitlement to pass over common land due to rights of prescription. Those who drove over common land believed that they had a legal right to do that. It became clear only relatively recently that there was an anomaly, which caused enormous damage to householders who wanted to sell their property. More value would be lost from a property that had a higher value.

The regulations implement the part of the 2000 Act that corrects the anomaly. I am sure that many people who found that that uncertainty reduced their capacity for manoeuvre in the property market or those who were disadvantaged and unable to sell because of uncertainty will welcome them. That is why I believe that we have reached a fair point, although I shall follow up hon. Members' detailed points that I have not covered.

I am encouraged that the hon. Members who spoke endorsed our judgment to go to the lower end of the scale. That is fair and right and allows compensation to the landlord, but not excessive compensation. Surely that is the balance that all hon. Members would want.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

    That the Committee has considered the draft Vehicular Access Across Common and Other Land (England) Regulations 2002.

        Committee rose at twenty-one minutes to Six o'clock.

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The following Members attended the Committee:
Amess, Mr. David (Chairman)
Ainger, Mr.
Bradley, Peter
Dalyell, Mr.
Gibb, Mr.
Michael, Alun

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Mudie, Mr.
Rendel, Mr.
Sayeed, Mr.
Sedgemore, Mr.
Simpson, Alan

The following also attended, pursuant to standing order No. 118(2):

Beresford, Sir Paul (Mole Valley)

 
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