The Environment Secretary, Caroline Spelman, has announced that she intends to abolish the Commons Commissioners (22 July).
We are sad to see the passing of the Commons Commissioners, who played an important role in determining the common-land maps of today, a band of erudite lawyers who travelled the length and breadth of England and Wales to hear objections against the registration of land as common, or disputes about common rights. They listened to obscure arguments and issued learned decisions. Forty years on, names like George Squibb and Alfred Baden Fuller still reverberate amongst commons’ communities.
However, we do not agree that, because their original work of adjudicating disputed applications to register commons and greens under the Commons Registration Act 1965 has been concluded, there is no need for them.
Updating of the common-land registers continues under part 1 of the Commons Act 2006. This is important work which includes the registration of ‘lost commons’—land that was omitted from registration under the Commons Registration Act 1965 for various reasons. While there may be no need for the Commons Commissioners in their present form, there is a definite need for an expert panel of inspectors to determine disputed cases under the 2006 act. In particular, the inspectors need expertise in land law.
Defra concluded in January 2008 that it hoped to reach agreement with the Planning Inspectorate (PINS) to establish a panel of independent persons to determine certain applications referred to it under part 1 of the 2006 act (for example, ones where the commons registration authority had an interest, or which were particularly contentious). Yet no more has been said about this. It is inappropriate for PINS to deal with this specialised work. The expert panel is needed.
Part 1 of the Commons Act has been implemented in seven pilot areas in England but the timetable for extending it to the whole of England has been delayed. It should be implemented throughout England as a matter of urgency, and the expert panel should be set up.
We also need the Welsh Assembly Government to implement the Commons Act in Wales as soon as possible.
Ministers must recognise that commons are of crucial importance in delivering multiple benefits—for landscapes, wildlife and people.