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Manorial Rights (England and Wales)

Volume 573: debated on Wednesday 15 January 2014

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. I welcome the opportunity to debate manorial rights, which are an important issue across the country. In recent years, concerns have been expressed about chancel repairs and manorial rights in Wales and England. As the Minister will know, such rights are ancient. In the case of chancel rights, they include the repair of parish churches, particularly Anglican ones. In the past, manorial rights have covered a number of activities on ancient manorial lands, including shooting, hunting, fishing and mineral extraction.

The matter has been brought to my attention recently when residents of my constituency became aware of overriding rights, often by accident or when ownership of titles changed and, once aware, the new owners attempted to exercise their rights. The problem goes back over decades. Chancel repairs and manorial rights are very much relics of the past. Many such rights go back to the Domesday Book, and others have evolved over many centuries. Often, they have lain dormant while properties have been built, boundaries extended and land use changed. People have bought their properties in good faith. They have paid for legal fees for searches and conveyancing and have not been aware that any overriding rights exist. Many constituents of mine, and people from across the country who have been in touch with me on this issue—

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

On resuming—

Before the Division, I was outlining, by way of introduction, the origins of chancel repairs and manorial rights in Wales and England, and how many people who have become aware of them have done so by accident.

Over many years, Parliament has tried to resolve the issue of land registration. The Land Transfer Act 1875 and the Land Registration Act 1925 sought to update the law on registration. The Land Registration Act 2002 was introduced following a Law Commission and Land Registry report entitled, “Land Registration for the 21st Century”, and many of us thought that that was a great step forward. The 2002 Act sought to simplify and modernise the law on registration. The aim was to provide an accurate picture of title of land, showing more full rights and subsidiary interests affecting the land; it was also designed to provide protection against predatory rights and fake claims.

I understand—the Minister may be able to confirm this—that some 20% of land remains unregistered. The need in the early 2000s was to try to verify ownership.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for securing a debate on an issue that is causing massive concern in my constituency. I look forward to the Minister’s response, hopefully clarifying some of those issues.

Landowners such as the Williams-Wynn estate in north Wales send letters to people and cause them massive concern and great expense as they consult solicitors because of their worry and because they have no idea what the letters mean. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that that is irresponsible behaviour and that there should be a proper explanation of what it all means?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. A lot of distress and anxiety is caused when people receive letters not just from individual landowners, but from the Land Registry on behalf of title holders.

Before I do, I just want to outline the foundations of the 2002 Act. It has many positive aspects, such as greater transparency and a clear, up-to-date register, but in recent months it has caused great concern, as the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies) described just now, and as my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson), who cannot be with us today, has indicated is happening in his area, not least when residents receive letters from the Land Registry. In many cases, that was the first time people knew of any such title or overriding rights.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman and my near neighbour on securing this important debate. I agree with him that this situation is an unjust and clear anachronism that needs to be tackled. He will be glad, of course, that our colleague, Rhun ap Iorwerth AM, is meeting the Land Registry to discuss this matter next week. Does he agree that the so-called “Lord Treffos” should be thoroughly ashamed of himself for causing such worry to local people in his constituency and, I am sure, elsewhere, with these entirely unjustified claims, as well as causing them expense and possibly threatening their mortgages and remortgages too? It is a disgrace.

The hon. Gentleman pre-empts what I was going to say about Anglesey and Lord Treffos. I acknowledge that many people have raised this issue with the county council, local councillors and their local Assembly Member, and they have taken it forward. I have raised it a number of times in this House and the most appropriate place to raise it is in this House of Parliament, which confers rights on individuals, including manorial rights, and which should be protecting the rights of individuals.

I will talk about Lord Treffos in a second but, as has been indicated, this issue has caused concern in my own constituency because of Lord Treffos’s claims. However, I have also been contacted over the weekend by people across Wales and England, including the county of Wiltshire, where a community council is concerned about the rights being established—or, rather, it has become aware for the first time of rights being established —over a playing field for young children. There are implications across Wales and England.

That is why I am pleased that the Minister is here in Westminster Hall today to respond to the debate, because this is not just a parochial matter. I will make no apologies for the fact that the purpose of this debate is to gain assurances from the Government that they will alleviate people’s concerns. It is one of the unintended consequences of the Land Registration Act 2002 that people are being distressed because they were unaware of this situation.

An important question is why these manorial rights were not included in original deeds, because many people paid for conveyancing and searches, believed that they had full freehold and were unaware of these overriding rights. In the 21st century, those people need the right protection. I want to examine the role of the Land Registry and how it deals with issuing notices, as well as the legal tone of those notices. Indeed, in my part of the world it is important to note that Welsh language provision was not available when these notices were first sent out, when by statute it should have been available.

I also want to look at the role of the legal authorities, which could perhaps lead in providing collective responses in the future, so that the burden does not fall on individuals. They could also perhaps look to rebalance these rights in favour of the freeholder today, to ensure that—as the hon. Member for Arfon (Hywel Williams) said—mortgage lenders are aware of the benign nature of these manorial rights, so that they do not consider them to be a restriction on the remortgaging or indeed the sale of properties. I ask the Minister to look very carefully at that issue.

As I say, I make no apologies for briefly highlighting the situation in Anglesey, where there is the ancient title of the Lord Trefoss, which originates from the Bishop of Bangor’s diocese. The title is today held by Stephen Paul Hayes, who I understand purchased it, perfectly legitimately, at an auction in the early 1990s. I now understand that the title, including the manorial rights of hunting, fishing and mineral rights, is up for sale on a website for $45,000. I have also been made aware that a document exists from the district valuer, dating back to 1950, showing that in 1940 the Bishop of Bangor gave the then title to University College of North Wales, now Bangor university, and that the claims of interest in the manor are limited to commons and waste lands within the provision of the law, including the Property Act 1922. I am not a property lawyer, but I make the point clearly that it should be possible for individuals to find out the exact titles, and that information should be included in their deeds. Surely the role of the Land Registry should be to assist individual freeholders and not to put out a generic letter that causes so much concern. In layperson’s terms, any such letter should have explained the reasons for what the Land Registry is doing, as well as the manorial rights and titles.

I will now move on. I realise that we will now finish at about 4.45 pm, so I will try to be brief for the rest of my remarks, so that the Minister can give a full reply to the debate. I want to look at the role of the local authority in Anglesey, because it too has been issued with some of these notices as its land falls within the manorial rights. The first point in the notice that was being distributed by the Land Registry was that the manorial rights being claimed by Lord Trefoss are actually contained within the local authority itself. As Members will know, over the years a lot of responsibilities have been passed from landowners to local authorities, as County Council Acts in the 1800s and various other measures have meant that authorities have taken over services. Today, highways, street lighting and all those main services are provided by the local authority. The local authority could be—in fact, it needs to be—a single body that could object to manorial rights on behalf of a number of households within its jurisdiction. That would be a way forward.

For the benefit of the Minister, I will also examine briefly the role of the Land Registry in the distribution of these notices. The explanatory notes to the notices attempt to clarify the reasons for the notices being issued. However, many people have been so concerned that, as the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire said, they have gone—at great cost to themselves—to a solicitor for clarification, because they found the notice to be a little threatening and they were certainly unable to understand it. Also, as I have already said, there has been an issue with the lack of Welsh language provision, which is not acceptable under current statute.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way and for securing this debate this afternoon. Moving away from his constituency to Derbyshire and my constituency of Erewash, an issue has been raised about land owned by the Duke of Rutland. Regarding the issue of language, however, our local newspaper has come into its own, airing the grievances and concerns of local residents but also allowing the landowner the right of reply, so that he can explain his position. I am sure that my hon. Friend has raised the issue in his area on behalf of his constituents, as he represents them; I continue to do the same for my constituents in Erewash.

I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention. Indeed, I am in a similar position, but it should have been the duty of the Land Registry to provide clear and concise notices in the first instance. It is an unintended consequence of previous Acts that this method of informing people has come into being, and in the future I want to see a clearer way by which manorial rights can either be extinguished or at least explained to individuals. We are singing from the same hymn sheet in that regard.

I do not expect the Minister to give full answers today to the questions that I put to him directly, but we have already exchanged letters and he has very courteously given me a lot of the details about this situation. I have also raised this matter with the Leader of the House. The purpose of this debate is to ask the Minister to consider the points that I have raised, and will continue to raise, on behalf of constituents in 4,000 premises in my constituency and, as I have said, many other people throughout Wales and England.

As I have already indicated, the Land Registration Acts of Parliament, including the Land Registration Act 2002, are supposed to provide transparency and clarity on these ancient and in many cases outdated manorial rights. Instead they have caused people confusion, anxiety and distress. That burden could be lifted en bloc if there were the political will to do so. Also, as I have said, the local authority can help.

In future, I want the owners of properties to be comfortable that when they do searches on their properties, these types of rights are identified, and I do not want anybody to be penalised for having a right added to their property deeds. That is because for ordinary people a home is probably the biggest purchase that they will make in their entire life, and they want security for themselves and their family. I feel for them in that regard. I am sure that the Minister will understand the fears and concerns about manorial rights that I have highlighted. He will also understand that those fears have been heightened at a time when we are talking about shale gas exploration in this country. Many people link the two things.

As I have said, I raised the issue of manorial rights with the Leader of the House on 5 December. I welcomed his saying quite clearly that there is no link between the notice of manorial rights and shale gas or oil. He added that

“The Petroleum Act 1988 vests all rights to the nation’s petroleum resources in the Crown.”—[Official Report, 5 December 2013; Vol. 571, c. 1100.]

However, there needs to be further clarification of this issue by the Minister, because many people are uncertain what minerals can be extracted if a mineral right is part of manorial rights. I am sure that the Minister will mention that.

My hon. Friend will be aware of the considerable concern of many constituents throughout the country about chancel repair liability. He will also know that the General Synod of the Church of England recommended phasing that out in 1982, a call that was repeated by the Law Commission in 1985. Would he suggest that, as the October 2013 deadline has passed, the Government should at least set up a parliamentary committee of inquiry to try to sort out all these issues?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who has been campaigning on behalf of her constituents on this matter as well. I am sure that the Minister heard what she said. That is one way forward that the Government could take, working with the Church Commissioners. Perhaps there will also be an opportunity for a question to the Church Commissioners in the House.

In relation to the Council of Mortgage Lenders, I should like the Minister to reassure people in my area and others that the current status of manorial rights is not regarded as a blight that warrants restriction on lending in future. Does he agree to senior officers of the Land Registry meeting myself and other concerned Members of Parliament to discuss the issues and how they can best be handled and improvements made? Serious errors in my area, with people receiving not just one notice but two, have heightened the anxiety and distress.

Will the Minister consider seriously whether local authorities could make a collective response to the Land Registry on behalf of residents? I know the law is complex, but in the 21st century we should be looking to give greater benefits, to simplify the process, to rebalance property rights away from the unique protection of ancient rights that are often absurd, and to protect today’s property owners for the future. I make that statement today—other hon. Members have spoken in the same vein—to get a positive outcome, not to just raise the issue and let it be.

Many people who have contacted me are receiving notices saying that owners of titles are contesting this matter. It will go on and cause greater anxiety unless the Minister responds in a more positive way and considers changing the laws. The Minister is a reasonable, progressive man and he will understand the genuine concerns raised today about my constituency and on behalf of the people of Wales and England who want to look forward with comfort, having bought their properties and done the right thing, encouraged by this Government and others before them, rather than find themselves with an additional burden regarding rights on their properties. I hope that we can all work together to alleviate those concerns and anxieties and have property laws fit for the 21st century.

I welcome you to the Chair, Mr Rosindell. I congratulate the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) on securing this important debate. He raises concerns about manorial rights and the implications for affected property owners of recent changes to the law.

The Land Registry is a non-ministerial Department on behalf of which I am responding today. I undertake to write to the hon. Gentleman on any points that I am not able to cover. Perhaps some points are not directly relevant—for example, chancel repair liabilities, which are important and worrying—but I may be able to get a better reply in writing on that to the hon. Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith), and to the hon. Gentleman on his point about local authorities.

Manorial rights are certain rights over land that were specifically preserved when most remnants of the manorial system were abolished in 1926. These rights may take several forms, but include sporting rights and rights to timber, mines and minerals. Until recently, those rights bound the owners and buyers of land, whether they knew about them or not. However, since 13 October 2013, the rights will have bound buyers of registered land only if those rights are noted on the register before the purchase is registered.

One of the aims of the Land Registration Act 2002, which I understand passed through this House without a Division, was to bring more information on to the register of title, so that it formed a more complete record of legal ownership. Manorial rights are a good example of a hidden burden that the policy was designed to expose. The 2002 Act gave the owners of these rights 10 years to bring them on to the register to ensure their continued existence. Naturally, the approach of the 10-year deadline brought forward a number of registrations and, unsurprisingly, issues around these manorial rights have arisen as the owners of the rights have had to consider what to do, and some property owners have been reminded—or perhaps have learned for the first time—that someone is claiming that their property is subject to these rights.

In some cases, landowners have always known that their properties are subject to these rights, either because the rights are referred to in the old title deeds or because they were discovered by their conveyancer when they bought. However, in other cases, these rights were not apparent at the time of purchase, and owners are finding out about them for the first time when they are contacted by the Land Registry. The Land Registry has received more than 73,000 applications to enter a notice claiming manorial rights on properties across England and Wales.

Although I appreciate that letters from the Land Registry have arrived without warning, there is little that it could do about this. It can only notify property owners that an application has been received, resulting in a notice of a claimed right being entered on to the register in respect of their land. The statute requires the notice to be entered. The Land Registry appreciates that it can cause concern and upset when people receive a letter from it saying that a third party has protected a claimed interest. However, that letter gives the property owner an opportunity to consider the issue. The letters give full details of the third party making the application, as well as Land Registry details, so residents can ask for further information if they require it. The Land Registry has worked with applicants to try to ensure that those affected by notices are able to access more information via the applicant.

The letter deals with the main questions that recipients have tended to ask. Recently, it has been updated to take account of feedback from recipients, including those from the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, to try and simplify the information as much as possible without making it misleading.

The Land Registry has also produced a guide for property owners that sets out in simple terms what these rights may consist of, and what steps an owner can take if they dispute that the claimed rights affect their land. That guide is available in English and Welsh, both on the Land Registry’s website and from any Land Registry office. However, following discussions with the Land Registry, I confirm that it will now send this guidance out with its initial letter, as a matter of course.

Where an owner disputes that their property is subject to the rights claimed, the Land Registry does what it can to help the parties in the dispute. For example, it encourages the party claiming the rights to produce its evidence at the earliest possible stage, and in many cases that brings the matter to a conclusion. The Land Registry always gives the parties the opportunity to try to resolve their dispute, and the time to do so. In addition, where it can, the Land Registry will try to assist, if asked, by expressing its view, based on the available evidence. However, hon. Members will understand that the registry must, throughout this process, remain strictly impartial.

Where, after negotiation, the notice holder decides to withdraw their notice, the Land Registry arranges for them to lodge a withdrawal. So far, approximately 6,000 properties have been voluntarily released from notices. If it is clear that the parties cannot settle their dispute, the Land Registry is required to send the case to the land registration division of the property chamber first-tier tribunal for a judicial decision. In such cases, the registry has to await, and then act on, the tribunal’s decision.

The registry appreciates that a property dispute can be difficult for both property owners and those claiming legal rights over properties. It has therefore produced a guide about the dispute process and the various stages. That is routinely sent to the parties to disputes who are not legally represented. It is also available on the website and from Land Registry offices.

On the Welsh language, Land Registry policy is to send communications in the recipient’s language of preference, if that is clear from the register. If the language preference appears to be English because there is no contrary indication on the register, communications will be sent in English. If it is apparent from the register or from any subsequent contact that the recipient prefers Welsh, however, the Land Registry will communicate in Welsh. The Land Registry’s website has extensive information in Welsh. It would prefer to continue to try to meet the personal preferences of recipients, rather than send large amounts of material that might not assist its customers.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned that there has been quite a lot of publicity suggesting that the existence of manorial rights has caused difficulty in getting property loans. The Land Registry has been monitoring the situation and, where it has been able to contact individuals who may have been affected, those individuals usually, but not always, turn out not to have been affected. We know that in some cases there has been a short delay in granting a loan because of an earlier application by the property owner to remove the notice. The lender would have wished to ensure that any dispute had been resolved before proceeding. In one case, the property owner changed lawyers because of concerns about the advice given, and the change in lawyers enabled the loan to be granted. The Land Registry stands ready to assist anyone else facing similar problems.

The fact that a notice has been entered in the register does not necessarily mean that the right claimed actually exists. Whether the right exists will depend on the facts of the case. Home owners and other landowners remain as free as they were before the legislation to contest a claim. The requirement to enter a notice to protect manorial rights removes uncertainty and unpredictability by making it apparent that such rights are claimed. It is a positive development for property owners in general that such rights have to be recorded on the register and may be lost if they are not recorded. Registration of manorial rights is, of course, distinct from exercising those rights. In the case of mineral rights, to which the hon. Gentleman referred at the end of his remarks, planning consent is required in the normal way.

I am happy to write to hon. Members who have spoken and interjected on the points raised. The registration requirement will ultimately achieve a better balance between the interests of the owners of manorial rights, the interests of those who are subject to the rights, and the interests of those who may at some time in the future purchase a property affected by such rights. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman and others who have helped to bring the matter before the House today.