View from Westminster - Bid to beef up bill on illegal travellers

PUBLISHED: 12:51 25 May 2006 | UPDATED: 13:30 04 May 2010

HERE S a question. Does anyone know the meaning of turbary, piscary and estovers? I certainly didn t until I began working on the Commons Bill, a piece of legislation currently before Parliament which aims to increase the protection of common land in Engl

HERE'S a question. Does anyone know the meaning of turbary, piscary and estovers? I certainly didn't until I began working on the Commons Bill, a piece of legislation currently before Parliament which aims to increase the protection of common land in England and Wales.

There are 7,039 common land units in England, covering around half a million hectares. These are very often sites of special scientific interest or within areas of outstanding natural beauty and valued for agriculture, recreation and nature conservation. Many of them were created by specific pieces of legislation. The Horse Fen Commons in Soham were created in 1686 and the 'town' commons after a local revolt against the enclosure of common land.

Much of this land is classified by Natural England as in poor or declining condition and is at risk from overgrazing, abuse and unauthorised development. This legislation is, therefore, a timely measure to preserve this important feature of the British landscape and boost biodiversity, sustainable agriculture and public access.

Just for the record, the arcane terms I mentioned above mean to remove peat for the hearth (turbary), to fish (piscary) and to collect bracken or firewood (estovers). These rights are traditionally enjoyed by specific commoners, usually by virtue of the rights being attached to the property they occupy, often adjoining a common.

Most people in East Cambridgeshire probably wouldn't associate the 175 hectares of common land in this area with these ancient rights but with unauthorised encroachment and development, which has occurred on numerous pieces of common land over the past few years. East Fen Common in Soham is just one example of common land which has recently played unwanted host to an illegal traveller settlement.

Following the defeat of my Bill in Parliament to make trespass with a vehicle a criminal offence, I am keen for the Commons Bill to seriously address this problem. As the shadow minister handling the bill for the Conservatives, I am doing all I can to ensure that it does.

I have proposed several changes to the legislation which would make it easier for illegally camped travellers to be moved on and harder for unauthorised encampments to be established in the first place.

Under the bill as currently drafted, commoners must have permission from the Secretary of State before they can erect a fence to keep travellers off the common. This bureaucratic requirement threatens to obstruct attempts to prevent unauthorised sites and should be removed. As should the need to first obtain the consent of the Lord of the Manor before police can take action against illegal encampments.

This is often a stumbling block, particularly if he or she is not easily identifiable or, for some reason, is unwilling to take action.

I would also like to see playing fields registered as village greens, to add another layer of protection to an often vulnerable target of travellers.

Protecting common land from over-grazing, encroachment and unauthorised development is essential if we are to preserve this important part of our national heritage for current and future generations. Given that the first commons act was passed back in the thirteenth century this may not be the last word on the subject. But I will do everything I can to ensure that it is one of the most effective.

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