Last Monday (7 October) I was interviewed on Radio 4 You and Yours about the new regulations which make it even harder for people to register land as greens (listen here).
Defra was claiming that the number of village green applications is rising and holding up development. This claim is deeply suspect: I took it apart in my blog of 2 October.
Y&Y invited Defra to take part, but it refused. Was it because it wasn’t prepared to defend its misleading press statement last week ‘New measures to increase rural home-building’ Or was it because when Y&Y sent the invitation, Richard Benyon (parliamentary under-secretary at Defra responsible for greens) knew he was going to resign on the day of the interview?
On the programme I said that Defra’s figures for greens were suspect and that it hadn’t done a survey since September 2011. The Y&Y interviewer, Julian Worricker, responded that Defra had told him it had the recent figures (though it hadn’t published them). I have an email of 1 October from an official stating that Defra does not have the figures and will redo the survey this month, so it seems that someone’s telling porkies—but of course without Defra it was impossible to prove this. We needed Defra to explain itself, even if Richard Benyon was otherwise engaged.
So what has Mr Benyon done for us since his appointment to Defra following the election in May 2010? With the Department for Communities and Local Government, he has supported legislation to weaken the protection of much-loved greens and lay them open to development. As Jane Merrick points out, in her excellent article in the Independent on Sunday on 6 October, the area of all the registered village greens in England and Wales (8,770 acres) is less than half the size of Beynon’s 20,000-acre (31 square miles) Englefield estate in West Berkshire and neighbouring Hampshire. He is not short of recreational space or fresh air, he also has potential development land on the estate.
It was the Labour government which introduced the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009 (unopposed by the Tories), providing for a path and access land right round the English coast. At least Benyon didn’t abandon this, though last June he wobbled, telling farmers at the Royal Cornwall Show in an odd metaphor, that it was ‘a sledgehammer to miss a nut’. Then in July he announced that he was not going to extend access to the 70-mile coast of the Isle of Wight, despite a majority supporting this when consulted last year. Presumably that decision was to appease the landowners—like himself.
On commons, we’ve been waiting since 2006 for part 1 of the Commons Act to be implemented throughout England (and Wales, but that’s for the Welsh Government), to enable the registers to be updated. This is urgent: landowners and commoners need accurate registers for agricultural payments and land sales, and the public needs the opportunity to reclaim lost commons. Despite a joint letter from the Common Land Coalition (comprising a range of interests in commons) last October, and Benyon’s warmish reply, nothing has happened.
But it hasn’t all been bad. Defra pulled back from combining Natural England with the Environment Agency and Forestry Commission, where it would have been swamped. And Defra has helped to ensure that improvements to rights-of-way law have been included in the draft Deregulation Bill. Mr Benyon can take credit for those.
Welcome new ministers
His place, and that of former agriculture minister David Heath, has been taken by Dan Rogerson and George Eustice, who are both parliamentary under-secretaries. Rogerson (Lib Dem, North Cornwall) takes on access and countryside. Since he has a chunk of the South West Coast Path in his constituency, he should be well aware of the importance of public access and the benefits of coastal access to the local economy.
George Eustice is Conservative MP for Camborne & Redruth in Cornwall, former PR man and UKIP European candidate (1999) and strong opponent of proportional representation (a system which would certainly lose him his marginal seat). He too has a chunk of the South West Coast Path in his constituency. He is responsible in the House of Commons for common land, but overall responsibility for commons and national parks has been transferred to parliamentary under-secretary Lord de Mauley. It remains to be seen what difference these changes will make.