Local Access Forums (England) Regulations 2002

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Alun Michael: The forums must be in place by 8 August 2003, but there is nothing to prevent them from being established earlier than that. The hon. Gentleman referred to a forum that is already being put in place in his area. The requirement is merely that it be fully operational by that date.

Mr. Gray: I take comfort from the Minister's reassurance on that. The mapping process of the coming year or so is crucial. During that period he may wish to take every opportunity to encourage as many local access forums as possible to be put in place. They will be important bodies during that complex and difficult process. They should be put in place sooner rather than later.

In addition to those general concerns, I wish to raise a couple of specific points. I welcome the provision for joint local access forums between neighbouring local authorities: Wiltshire county council and neighbouring Swindon borough council are talking to each other, which is sensible. However, I regret that the statutory instrument does not contain a formal provision that allows dialogue between neighbouring local access forums. Where there are local access forums in neighbouring counties, there should be a formal provision for them to discuss matters with each other. Frequently, the access land will straddle the county boundary, and I would have preferred some means for two neighbouring local access forums to talk to each other. Such dialogue would be especially desirable on the border between England and Wales, as there is no provision for the local access forums on the English side of the border to have any formal contact with those established by the Welsh Assembly. It would be nice if the Minister were to comment on how there could be sensible discussion across borders.

The Minister has made it clear that he is considering whether to allow access to be introduced on a regional basis, as the final maps are concluded. If he were to allow access in one area—I imagine that would be in

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the south-east or the north-west—the publicity attached to that may give walkers in other parts of the country the feeling that they have the right to roam in areas that have not yet been properly mapped. Therefore, I am concerned about the notion of allowing access to be introduced on a regional basis. Will the Minister say how his consideration of that matter is progressing? It would be useful to know whether he is considering introducing access on a regional basis. If he is, will local access forums also be introduced on a rolling regional basis? He has given us an assurance that they can be put in place before August 2003. However, if access were to be granted in a region before that date, would he require a local access forum to be put in place, even if that were not required under the statutory instrument? It would otherwise be entirely wrong for access to be allowed in a specific region. Will the Minister clarify whether he will allow regional roll-out? Can he ensure that a local access forum will be in place before regional roll-out?

I reiterate Conservative Members' wholehearted support for walkers. We need to find ways to encourage them into the countryside and we welcome many of the provisions in the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 that will help walkers in several areas. However, we have reservations about how many walkers are unable to find somewhere to walk.

Given that the Act is in place, we support the principle of local access forums, which seem to have much to recommend them. We need to know that they will be brought into play in the correct manner, and I hope that the Minister will deal with my worries. Local access forums have a good role to play but they must operate properly to do that.

The Chairman: I am in receipt of a request from a male Member for permission to divest himself of his jacket. I see that one of his colleagues has anticipated my permission so I am happy to spread it to everyone else. However, I strongly urge hon. Members not to be so presumptuous in future.

4.45 pm

Andrew George (St. Ives): As the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) rightly pointed out, the regulations are relatively uncontentious. Liberal Democrats Members have no intention of detaining the Committee unnecessarily, but several issues should be addressed.

The hon. Gentleman appropriately spent time addressing the important issue of balance in relation to regulation 4. It is essential that local access forums achieve an appropriate balance among rights of way organisations, countryside users and landowners to maintain the credibility of the forum and the regulations. The hon. Gentleman rightly said that countryside users come in many shapes and sizes and use the countryside in different ways, which means that many bodies may represent them, whereas relatively few bodies represent landowners.

Alun Michael: As the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for North Wiltshire have both made that

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point, it may be as well if I intervened so that we do not pursue something that is not in the regulations. They require balance—that does not mean that every organisation that wants to be represented has that right, nor does it mean that the representation of organisations should be allowed to cause imbalance. The regulations require a balancing of interests.

Andrew George: I am grateful to the Minister for that reassurance. I am sure that many authorities will ensure that landowners are represented within what is often a wide geographical area. That is true of both Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly, although the geographical extent of the former is perhaps rather smaller. The Government should encourage local authorities and national park authorities to use every endeavour to ensure balance. The Minister's words of reassurance are very helpful.

Many public as well as private landowners are subject to rights of way legislation. Will the Minister acknowledge that and assure us that landowners from both the public and private sector will be appropriately represented? That would send a helpful message to the authorities appointing the new access forums. If an individual who represented an organisation found it difficult to maintain his regular membership, would he be entitled to send someone else to represent it if he could not attend? The regulations say that members of an access forum automatically lose their membership right if they fail to attend a meeting for more than a year. Will the Minister advise us about that?

In addition to providing an appropriate political balance, it is important to ensure that the expertise of local access forums is properly balanced. Will the Minister assure us that representation on local access forums will enable them to receive, for example, advice on nature conservation or countryside law? Regulation 12 relates to the annual report. There is no requirement in the regulations or the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 for an authority to address or respond to issues raised by a forum. It would be helpful if the Minister would comment so that the right message is sent to authorities—it is not simply a question of the local access forum producing a report. The authority must make a full and proper response to a report, and should not ignore issues raised by the forum.

Bearing that in mind, will the Minister tell us how conflicts will be resolved? In what circumstances would the Secretary of State intervene to assist in the resolution of any conflicts that may arise? When, if at all, would she intervene in conflict about the exclusion of a certain group or interest? Would she intervene if a conflict arose about failure to maintain a proper balance? Would she intervene if there was a failure to address essential issues, if the authority failed to accept advice or ignored advice in a report? Much effort and work has gone into establishing the forums—including the Liberal Democrat amendment about which the hon. Member for North Wiltshire spoke—and we want to ensure that an access forum's work will not merely result in the publication of a report that sits on a shelf, with no action being taken and the authority able to ignore it completely. Any advice from the Minister would be helpful.

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Mr. Gray: The amendment was tabled by the Liberal Democrats, but it was sponsored by the Countryside Alliance. None the less, we commend the Liberal Democrats on their amendment. I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman's suggestion that the Secretary of State should intervene constantly. The forums should be made up of local organisations and should work together to make things run as well as possible. If they do not work together, that is their lookout. If the Secretary of State was constantly invited to step in because the forums were not working properly, or to try to make them do things that it was felt ought to be done, she would, in effect, be given a great deal more power than she would otherwise have.

Andrew George: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I am not seeking to allow the Secretary of State to intervene at every opportunity. I hope that the Minister's answer, once it is on the record, will help local authorities and national park authorities recognise that they have methods for resolving conflicts. It would clearly be undesirable for the Secretary of State to be forever stepping in to resolve conflicts. After all, what are the local access forums for? I hope that the Minister will reassure the Committee that when concerns are raised but not properly resolved a local mechanism can be used to resolve them whenever possible.

I have no further comments on the regulations and I look forward to the Minister's response.

4.56 pm

Alun Michael: I shall respond as succinctly as I can to the excellent points that have been raised. It is always a pleasure to defend a statutory instrument that has been prayed against by the official Opposition and then find that everybody wants some credit for it. I have acknowledged the fact that it was a Liberal Democrat amendment in the House of Lords that led to the statutory requirement for the establishment of local access forums. Even before that amendment was tabled, the Government were promoting the idea of access forums and suggesting that good local authorities would go down that road before being required to do so in statute. Nevertheless, I am pleased that the requirement is now in legislation, as that will allow consistency across the country in the way in which forums are established.

The hon. Member for North Wiltshire seemed slightly peeved about the Liberal Democrat amendment and kept mentioning the Countryside Alliance as if it had nothing to do with the Liberal Democrats. I do not know about the Liberal Democrats' relationship with that organisation any more than I know about the hon. Gentleman's relationship with it. However, I am delighted to have the support of the Countryside Alliance. We frequently agree on issues. Only last week, we were able to join together in promoting British food. We are not talking about that today, but we welcome it when the Countryside Alliance has got things right and is supporting what we are doing.

Both hon. Members who have spoken have mentioned balance. Regulation 4 makes it clear that ''reasonable balance'' is required. That means not that

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everyone must be allowed a place at the table but that there must be a balance between the different interests. We have issued guidance to local authorities, asking that they consider carefully interests relevant to their areas—in other words, that each authority considers carefully the forum in the local authority or national park area. In the regulation, the phrase ''reasonable balance'' means just that.

In our guidance, we refer to the need for users of the new right of access introduced in part I of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act—principally walkers, but also horse riders, cyclists and carriage drivers—to be represented, and for owners and occupiers of access land, or land crossed by local rights of way, to be involved. We say that those two elements should be balanced. Of course, the many different types of landowners—farmers and land managers, for example—manage their land in different ways so simply having one representative would be entirely inappropriate. I can therefore assure hon. Members that balance is taken into account in the phrasing of the regulations and the guidance that has been sent to local authorities. It may be helpful if I send a copy of that guidance to Committee members because the point that concerns them is well dealt with.

The requirements refer to other interests that may be appropriate to an area. For example, one area may have great tourism interest. Common sense is required by the authority establishing the forum to ensure that it gets the balance right. I assure the hon. Member for North Wiltshire that the balance between those who require access and those who manage land is crucial to the correct implementation of the regulations.

 
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