Alun Davies, the Welsh Government’s Minister for Natural Resources and Food, has announced plans to convert the commons registers in Wales to electronic form (here, or here if you’d like to read it in Welsh).

At present, the registers of common land (and those of town or village greens) are contained in bound paper registers held by 150 commons registration authorities in England, and 22 in Wales. The registers were compiled in response to applications made in the late 1960s, and contain typewritten forms and old ‘county series’ Ordnance Survey maps. Updating the registers in response to applications is slow and cumbersome: authorities no longer have the blank forms or typewriters to fill them out, while the maps are hopelessly out-of-date. Conversion to electronic form is likely to mean that the maps are held as part of a Geographical Information System, although this ought to contain safeguards to ensure that the data are protected against unauthorised alteration, and to ensure an audit trail of changes. The register forms will also be migrated to an electronic database, to allow more flexible handling and amendment.

Conversion of the registers will be challenging, particularly as regards the maps. These were frequently drawn up by council clerks with no cartographic skills, and it shows. Draughtsmanship frequently falls short of the then regulatory requirements (indeed, two Welsh authorities felt obliged to procure costly local Acts of Parliament to correct errors). Boundaries are often poorly drawn, perhaps with a thick pen, or failing to coincide with an obvious physical feature such as the moorland wall. Section 25 carries a strong implication that regulations will provide for consultation on draft converted maps, so that those potentially affected can see that the job has been done conscientiously. But it will be hard to address ambiguities in the paper maps with pragmatic resolutions, while avoiding redrawing boundaries for which the conversion process affords no authority, where it seems ‘obvious’ that a mistake was made.

It’s not clear, but the announcement contains an implication that the new electronic registers will be centrally co-ordinated or even managed, so that changes made by Welsh commons registration authorities are uploaded to a database held by the Welsh Government. That may be an ambitious agenda within the constraints imposed by section 25 of the Commons Act 2006, which only enables the existing registers to be converted to electronic form, but still on the basis of local authority registers. Perhaps new legislation is planned: even if not, the Welsh Government will need to make appropriate regulations under section 25.

No plans have yet been announced to implement electronic registers in England. Section 25 enables implementation on either a voluntary or mandatory basis (in other words, commons registration authorities can be enabled to convert to electronic form, or required to), but under current Government policy, either approach would require additional funding to local authorities to underwrite the costs of conversion, and that is unlikely in the present economic climate.