First Standing Committee
on Delegated Legislation
Monday 4 November 2002
[Mr. Frank Cook in the Chair]
Local Access Forums (England)
(S.I., 2002, No. 1836)
Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the Local Access Forums (England) Regulations 2002 (S.I., 2002, No. 1836).
I am delighted to move the motion on this occasion, because Conservative Members wholeheartedly support the principle of local access forums. I believe that they were originally conceived of and proposed by the Countryside Alliance, although I am reliably informed that the Liberal Democrats proposed them in an amendment to the Countryside and Rights of Way Bill.
I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Cook. I assure you that the regulations are relatively uncontroversial and I hope not to try your patience or to delay the Committee too much.
Her Majesty's loyal Opposition wholeheartedly support the principle of walkers being invited into and welcomed in the countryside. Local access is a good principle, although we have reservations about its implementation. It is immensely important because it preserves a careful balance between the rights of farmers and the pleasures and rights of walkers. Properly run local access forums are central to that balance. It is essential that local communities are truly represented in mapping, negotiation and conflict resolution. Local access forums will facilitate that, and I congratulate the Countryside Alliance on thinking them up and lobbying for them in the first place.
Four principles must be central to local access forums. First, although we endorse forums as an important addition to local democracy, their effectiveness will depend on their constitution. That may sound dull, and one or two of my hon. Friends may have wondered why on earth they were coming here today—the front pages will certainly not have been held for the occasion. None the less, the constitution of forums will be hugely important if they are to work correctly.
Secondly, it is essential that forums become the mechanism for resolving or, preferably, preventing conflicts between different groups in the access area. They must be the arbiters of disputes and debates. Thirdly, it is essential that farmers, landowners and others immediately affected by the exercise of the right of access are guaranteed fair and proportionate representation.
Fourthly, it is crucial that the structure and powers of access forums ensure that the desire for recreational access does not ride roughshod over the needs of farmers and land managers. There must, of course, be
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a balance, but recreation should always be subordinate to the livelihoods and needs of rural communities.
We welcome the regulations, which broadly encapsulate those four principles, but we seek assurances on several detailed matters. First, local access forums must avoid disputes, and their proceedings must not be allowed to degenerate into barneys. Secondly, they must avoid becoming campaigning vehicles for one side or the other. It would be wrong for them to be taken over by the Ramblers Association or, indeed, the Country Landowners Association; that must be avoided at all costs. Thirdly, forums must avoid being dominated by one side or the other.
We take great comfort from regulation 4(4), which plainly states:
''The appointing authority shall ensure a reasonable balance is maintained between the number of members appointed''
in accordance with regulation 4(3)(a), which deals with users of local rights of way, and regulation 4(3)(b), which deals with occupiers of access land. However, it is important to examine exactly what ''reasonable balance'' means. After all, the people who may use the right of access—I understand that the provision refers to rights of way as well as access land—include ramblers, riders, four-wheel drive users, motorcycle groups, green lane enthusiasts, environmentalists, hang-gliders and a host of other people, who could reasonably claim a place on the local access forum. On the landowners' side, there is only one person.
I took soundings on that matter in my county of Wiltshire, which has always taken the lead in setting up such forums; it has had a sort of local access forum in the past. The shadow local access forum has already had two or three meetings, and kindly sent me a copy of the minutes of the meeting on 9 October. It is a good example of exactly what should not happen. First, however, I pay tribute to Wiltshire. I think that it has more rights of way than any county in England, and it does a first-class job in keeping them open. It is very much onside. There is a very good relationship between landowners, the county and ramblers. Wiltshire is therefore an exemplar of all that is good about access.
None the less, I was concerned that, at that meeting, there were representatives of the South Wiltshire Rights of Way Preservation Society, the Trail Riders Fellowship, the Wiltshire Wildlife Trust, the Ramblers Association, the Council for the Protection of Rural England and Wiltshire Tourism. There were two people from the rights of way organisation. However, there was only one person from the National Farmers Union.
The forum is only a shadow organisation so far and does not come under the statutory terms of the regulations, which are not yet in place. None the less, it is easy to imagine how, if that situation were replicated across England, local access forums may end up heavily weighted in favour of the users of the land and against the interests of those who own it and who, after all, have a primary interest in it. I seek an assurance from the Minister that a better balance will
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be found when local access forums are set up under the regulations.
I also seek an assurance from the Minister about the chairman and vice-chairman of the local access forum. I have read and re-read regulation 6(6) time and again, but it seems to be a classic example of official gobbledegook. It states:
''With a view to maintaining a reasonable balance between the interests of which the chairman and vice-chairman are respectively representative, a local access forum shall take such steps (as regards the selection of candidates for election as chairman and vice-chairman, determining the order in which they are appointed or the duration of their appointments as such, any combination of these or otherwise) as may be necessary to ensure that so far as practicable the chairman or the vice-chairman or each of them is a person who on his appointment as a member of the forum was eligible to be so appointed''.
That seems absolute gibberish. I have read it about 16 times, but I still fail to understand what it is about.
The Minister for Rural Affairs (Alun Michael): I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for allowing me to put the provision in simple English. It is designed to ensure that the two interests to which he referred at the beginning of his remarks are both represented in the forum's leadership. It is designed to achieve precisely the balance that he seeks, and I am glad that we were able to anticipate his requirements in that regard.
Mr. Gray: I am grateful for the Minister's reassurance. That is probably what I read into the regulation after I spent most of my weekend reading it. However, I am certainly glad to have the reassurance that there will be a balance between the chairman and the vice-chairman.
The second major issue on which we seek the Minister's reassurance relates to when local access forums will become statutory—
Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North): I am sorry that I missed the first part of the hon. Gentleman's speech. As he represents a Wiltshire constituency, what consideration has he given to the role of the Ministry of Defence in access to public rights of way, particularly on Salisbury plain?
Mr. Gray: The hon. Gentleman speaks with some knowledge of the matter, as he was born and brought up in Chippenham in my constituency. I believe that I am right in saying that his father was involved with the Ministry of Defence in those days. The hon. Gentleman doubtless spent a large part of his childhood rambling around Wiltshire.
Jeremy Corbyn: For the record, my father was not involved with the MOD. However, my mother was involved with Cruise Watch, which involved going round Salisbury plain observing cruise missiles.
Mr. Gray: I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman has had the opportunity to re-establish his political credentials with his own side, and I am extremely grateful for his interest in Wiltshire.
With regard to open access and the right to roam, Ministry of Defence land was specifically excluded from the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000. We are therefore not discussing that today, although local access forums will address rights of way issues.
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Salisbury plain is covered with rights of way, byways, roads used as a public path and byways open to all traffic—RUPPs and BOATs. Under the last Conservative Government, the MOD changed the policy on access to MOD land, and most of Salisbury plain is now open for reasonable recreational use. I know Salisbury plain well, and I would not wish to walk across much of it; if one were to walk across many areas, the likelihood of one reaching the other side would be remote, because much of the land is covered with unexploded ammunition. Theoretically however, most MOD land is already open to reasonable access.
Local access forums should be involved in the mapping of access land, as their members are the people who know where their walkers should and should not go; their knowledge and advice would be invaluable in assisting the mapping bodies to strike the right balance between the interests of users and walkers. Given that the mapping process is already well under way, it is imperative that local access forums become fully operational as soon as possible. However, under regulation 3(1), they will not become operational before 8 August 2003, by which time much of the mapping process will have been completed.