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Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury): During last year's foot and mouth crisis, the Ridgeway path was closed and people—both local people and visitors—adhered to the regulations meticulously, and stayed off the Ridgeway altogether. As a result, paradoxically, by the end of the summer the surface of many parts of it was probably in better condition than it had been for many years.

Mr. Jackson: I agree, and that confirms my point about the law-abiding nature of most users of the Ridgeway. It does not, however, support the contention that the voluntary code of respect is doing the job. The fact is that it is not.

The second objection to the proposal for TROs is more philosophical. I have heard it argued that the right of motorists to use and abuse the Ridgeway is one of the immemorial liberties of the free-born Englishman. I suggest that those who advance that argument re-read John Stuart Mill's "On Liberty"—if they have read it in the first place—and ponder on his distinction between self-regarding and other-regarding actions. The motorised abuse of the Ridgeway is a good example of an other-regarding action in which the pursuit of one man's satisfaction significantly reduces the satisfactions available to many others.

As the debate is taking place on May day, let me end by drawing the Minister's attention to the way in which the honourable traditions of Britain's labour movement, which he represents, bear on the problem I have described. I do not know whether the Fabian Society still holds summer schools, but I know from the diaries and memoirs of Barbara Castle and many others that in the past a summer school walk along the Ridgeway was a common event—perhaps after a weekend with Lord Faringdon at Buscot park, and an inspection of his mural painting of Stalin and Gandhi playing tennis on his lawn. Those Fabians might have been mistakenly slow to recognise how the motor car can liberate the individual, but they would rightly have seen how easily it can also become an instrument of private selfishness with each man wrapped in his metal cocoon, driving wherever and however he chooses.

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The Ridgeway is a species of common land, but that does not mean that access to it must be a free-for-all. The preservation of common assets—this is a good Fabian tradition—depends just as much on self-restraint and, if necessary, the law, as does the preservation of private property. We can stand back and allow our common heritage to be appropriated in selfish ways, treating it as just another throwaway item of the modern consumer society, or—and I appeal to the Minister to do this—we can use the legitimate power of the state to restrain unwarranted and antisocial private appropriations of what should be open to reasonable use, on fair terms, by all. It is in that May day spirit that I commend my proposals to the Minister and the House.

8.8 pm

Mr. David Rendel (Newbury): I am delighted that the debate is taking place earlier than expected, because that gives those of us whose constituencies contain parts of the Ridgeway a chance to support the hon. Member for Wantage (Mr. Jackson). I congratulate him on raising a matter that is important to us. Indeed, it has become increasingly important over the past few years—as he said—because of the degradation now being caused to the Ridgeway, and the difficulties that that creates for other users.

The Ridgeway is a particularly beautiful place. In my constituency, it runs through an area of outstanding natural beauty. It is a place where people like to walk, jog and ride their cycles and horses. None of those uses causes the damage caused by motor vehicles. Motor vehicles are incompatible with other users because of the way in which they tear the place up and leave it full of terrible ruts, making it difficult for others to use. It can therefore be argued that only those who cause the damage—mostly drivers of four-wheel-drive vehicles—should be excluded. Of course, they say, "Why should we suffer, if no one else is to be excluded?" However, the reason is that they are the only users who render the Ridgeway totally unusable by anybody else.

A number of four-wheel-drive owners say that they are careful to use the Ridgeway only on the right days and in accordance with the voluntary code of practice, and that they do much work to repair it. However, even if it is true that only a fairly small minority of four-wheel drive vehicles cause most of the damage, the fact remains that some irresponsible users have caused an enormous amount of damage, to the detriment of other users. They cannot possibly repair the damage that they do; it is far too great to be repaired by individuals. Sadly, it is necessary for the local authority to get involved. As the hon. Gentleman said, it often has to spend a great deal of money on repairing the damage done.

I am glad to have the opportunity briefly to support the hon. Gentleman, and to make it clear that, so far as the Liberal Democrat party is concerned, this is in no sense a party political issue. The same is doubtless true of the Labour party, and I hope that the Minister will back us in this regard. It is simply a question of trying to ensure that all those who have greatly enjoyed this beautiful land can continue to do so.

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8.11 pm

The Minister for Rural Affairs (Alun Michael): I congratulate the hon. Member for Wantage (Mr. Jackson) on securing this Adjournment debate, and on using it as an opportunity to rewrite his maiden speech. With that in mind, I am not sure how to describe today's speech, so perhaps I shall leave that thought there.

I also thank the hon. Gentleman for his courtesy in making clear the issues that he wants to discuss, and I hope that I will be able to respond constructively. Like the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel), I welcome the fact that the debate has occurred earlier than it might otherwise have done. That is always preferable for a debate such as this, not only to enable more Members to contribute, but so that we can conclude our discussion before dinner, rather than after.

My interest in such issues is not just academic, or confined to the fact that they form part of my portfolio. As a walker myself, I know the importance of the condition of paths. I took the trouble to visit several of our national parks, and to examine the situation in areas of outstanding national beauty, so that I might understand what is happening on the ground and the nature of the problems experienced in various places. I certainly welcome the interest in this ancient right of way, and I appreciate that there are long-standing concerns about stretches of the Ridgeway.

I am sympathetic to the concerns expressed by the hon. Member for Wantage, but I must question—constructively, I hope—some of the facts that he offers. I have particular respect for the fact that he has walked the path himself and brought such personal experiences to the debate, rather than simply relying on the reports of others. The challenge is to focus clearly on the real problems and issues, and to ensure that they are targeted effectively. In other words, we must respond in a way that actually solves some of the problems. Today, I shall try to cover both the general issues and some of the specific issues that he raised.

I recognise that some regard the use of motor vehicles on this ancient right of way as totally inappropriate. It is argued that such an unsurfaced way was intended for use only by carts and carriages such as those that the philosopher whom the hon. Gentleman quoted in his support might have used. I understand such concerns, but we must ensure that any action taken is well-founded and proportionate. He may be aware that audit work is under way. It is due to be completed in June, and should provide a real focus of information and a basis for action.

The hon. Gentleman also referred to the growth of motor traffic on the Ridgeway. I do not doubt the figures that he quotes concerning the number of off-road motor bikes and 4x4s. He says that the number of such vehicles has increased by 400 per cent. nationally, but that does not necessarily translate into numbers used on the Ridgeway in general or proportionally. The most recent survey—admittedly, it was conducted some six years ago—actually showed a small decrease in vehicle use on the Ridgeway. That makes it all the more important that we examine the facts emerging from the current audit, so that we can be sure whether the concern expressed by the hon. Gentleman is justified. For example, the audit might conclude that there are problems with a particular part of the Ridgeway, rather than throughout its length. That is

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why we must ensure that we understand what is happening, so that we can target whatever mischief is being made.

Mr. Rendel: Does the Minister accept that it is not just a question of the number of vehicles? Even if the number of vehicles using the Ridgeway has declined in the past few years, the damage done by each one has in many cases increased. Vehicles are getting more powerful, and more 4x4s are being used. What is important is not just the numbers, but the overall damage done.

Alun Michael: Indeed, and the audit must inform us about such matters, but I was addressing the specific point made by the hon. Member for Wantage. He suggested that a 400 per cent. increase in the number of vehicles nationwide means that a similar increase has occurred on the Ridgeway, but we need to know the actual level of use and the damage done. The hon. Gentleman will doubtless agree that we cannot simply extrapolate from statistics.

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