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Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: My Lords, do I recall correctly that the establishment of a commons association will cost between £10,000 and £150,000? My guess is that commoners who wish to form an association will go in short order to their local authority with at least a request for help with funding, if not an expectation that it will provide most of the funding, unless the Government have another scheme
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to provide the money. Unless there is majority support from local councillors, the association will not be established because it will not be funded.
Lord Bach: My Lords, the noble Baroness makes a very interesting point. Sometimes local authorities may assist but I do not think that they are bound to give money. Other money may be forthcoming. The RIA figures that she gave are correct but are based on Dartmoor and other existing associations. The noble Baroness will not be surprised to hear that our own view is that they are an overestimate in some cases. If local authorities are involved to the extent of having to pay some moneywho knows whether they will be prepared to?someone in the authority will have to take a decision about that. I doubt whether these days the full council would take that decision, but if it does, the noble Duke's amendment is not necessary.
Earl Peel: My Lords, further to the noble Baroness's important point about funding, I suspect that in most cases the formation of a commons association will be for the purpose of entering into an agri-environment scheme. That being the case, presumably the payment for the formation of a commons association to take part in that agri-environment scheme may be part of the funding of that scheme. Can the Minister confirm that?
Lord Bach: My Lords, in writing to the noble Baroness about agri-environment schemes generally, I may be able also to answer that important question. One potential funding source for the establishment of associations is our old friend Natural England. It may be part of its purpose to assist the setting up of associations. Those who partake in agri-environment schemes normally see the benefits further down the line. Whether some of the benefit could be at an earlier stage in setting up the association itself is an interesting and serious question which I will respond to in my letter.
The Duke of Montrose: My Lords, I am grateful to all those who have participated in this interesting exchange. We have explored areas in which councillors might have an interest that we had not even thought of when we started this exercise. Bodies such as rural development organisations might also be tapped for funding if assistance were needed. It is a frightening thought that the cost might be up to £100,000, which is a very substantial sum for setting up any organisation. I take my hat off to the Government because, practically without blinking, the Minister said that it was almost an impossible task, yet they are setting out to make this great judgment on each association as it comes along.
We are grateful that the Minister has put some of the case history on the record because in his letter he went into many more scenarios of what might need to be weighed up in considering what would produce a suitable majority. In the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
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Clause 28 [Status]:
Lord Greaves moved Amendment No. 35:
The noble Lord said: My Lords, the amendment probes a matter that I was surprised we did not discuss in more detail in Grand Committee. In all the excitement about how commons associations will be set up, run and financed, we missed it. It is the question of the relationship between commons associations and SSSIs, and the position on the commons in relation to SSSIs. The position at the moment is that in England about half the SSSIs on commonswhich are a high proportion of SSSIs in the countryare not in a favourable condition, and it is thought that the position may be much worse in Wales. Section 28G bodies under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, as amended, have a duty to further the conservation enhancement of the flora and fauna on SSSIs. The Bill states that commons associations are not Section 28G bodies on the grounds that such status might be a burden and could discourage the setting up of commons associations. That may well be true but, no doubt, there are also other things that might discourage them.
The purpose of moving the amendment is to ask the Government how they see the future management of SSSIs on commons. What processes will take place that will result in the 50 per cent figure being reduced to something much more reasonable and the Government meeting their own targets on bringing SSSIs into good condition? In particular, if commons associations are not to be Section 28G authorities, what is their role and how will they be involved? If a site is designated as an SSSI because of its vegetation, it is difficult to see that the body that is tasked with managing the vegetation does not have a substantial role to play in enhancing and maintaining the ecological conservation status of the SSSI. My noble friend Lord Livsey will speak to the other amendment in this group. I beg to move.
Lord Livsey of Talgarth: My Lords, Amendment No. 36 addresses the question of the management of a common, because decisions are not always taken within the commons association, but may be taken outside it for various reasons. The purpose of the amendment is to give the commons association the right to be consulted about the management of the common. When public and other bodies are making plans and taking decisions that could have a serious impact on the management of the common, commons associations should not be ignored. For example, such plans could be for the reduction of stocking rates on the common, or an increase in them, which is something that we may see in the future, or the placing of gates on public highways. Decisions on issues of this kind are sometimes taken outwith the commons associations. Or, for example, an argument might be ensuing from an environmental point of view about the best process to manage the common. Whatever the
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issues of that kind, commons associations must have the right to be consulted when decisions that impact upon them and their members are being made.
The Duke of Montrose: My Lords, I am glad to support the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves. I shall be interested to hear what the Minister has to say.
Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: My Lords, I wish to return briefly to a subject that I raised in Committee. I was not happy with the Government's reply. It is the matter of the ability of commons associations to be consulted on all matters to do with flooding, flood defences, sea incursion and managed retreat. These issues will become very real for commons in marine areas, and we did not dwell on them in Committee. Commons associations will have an enormous interest because if a decision goes one way, they stand to lose all their rights because the commons will be under water. Therefore, they should have a very strong right to be consulted.
Lord Bach: My Lords, commons associations are to be established primarily to improve the management of agricultural activities and vegetation on common land. A commons association will be made up of those with rights or other interests in the common who will volunteer their time to ensure the association operates effectively. Those people who will be out on the common, day in, day out, are not paid employees of any organisation, but commoners exercising their rights and owners managing their land. So having an association as a Section 28G body would place a significant new burden on such persons. In their daily activities, where commons have been designated as SSSIs, they would have to,
of the land, with no compensation for the added time, effort and expense of doing so.
Section 28G bodies are not eligible for agri-environment funding. Such funding is available only to bodies that are not already required to carry out the activities for which an agri-environment grant is payable. To put it perhaps more simply, if a commons association was a Section 28G body, it would have no entitlement to agri-environment funding.
I know that this is a probing amendment, but if it were agreed to, we believe that no commons associations would be formed where common land is designated as a site of special scientific interest. That would be a great shame. One of the driving forces to establish an association will be to make it easier for those concerned to agree a long-term funding package to secure better management on a common. If this amendment were to be agreed to, it would seriously compromise our ability to assist in bringing SSSIs on common land into favourable condition in order to meet our PSA target for such sites.
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We do not think giving commons associations the status of a Section 28G body would help to improve the nature conservation value of designated common land. Ironically, it is likely to have the opposite effect, and result in the unfavourable condition of SSSIs on common land continuing.
Regarding Amendment No. 36, spoken to by the noble Lord, Lord Livsey, commons associations will be given a limited range of functions related to the management of common rights, vegetation and agricultural activities. They will not be expected to manage the numerous other activities that might take place on common land, such as recreational activities or organised events. Associations will largely be made up of local graziers, owners and other interests with a limited range of skills and expertise. They will often not be in a position to provide the level of advice needed to fulfil the role of a statutory consultee.
A matter that affects the management of a common could cover an enormous variety of activities, from the trivial to the significant. It would be difficult for the members of an association to prepare reasoned arguments for all matters that might affect a common in some way, especially if its functions are related only to management of agricultural activities.
It is not clear what the significance of any response from an association might be. Without some indication of the weight to be attached to such a response, an association is unlikely to act, even if given the status. In most cases where an activity might significantly affect the management of a commonfor example, the siting of wind turbinesit is inconceivable that a commons association would not be asked for its views. In such a situation, there is also likely to be an environmental impact assessment or a public inquiry at which an association's views could be heard.
While we see commons associations as becoming a more powerful voice for commons, we do not see the need for making them a statutory consultee and giving them equal weighting. That will only increase the administrative burdens of the association, will not assist in improving the management of a common and will not be a true voice of all interests. We want to avoid that. The noble Baroness, Lady Miller, asked about marine matters and flooding. In practice, commons associations will of course be consulted. We may not have answered all of the concerns raised by the noble Baroness in Grand Committee. If that is so, we will write with a fuller explanation of our position.
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