Local Access Forums (England) Regulations 2002

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Mr. Gray: I should be most grateful if the Minister sent us a copy of the guidance. I am a strong supporter of Wiltshire county council, but the local access forum, the composition of which I read out, does not represent a fair balance between users and owners. The local authority may have had the best intentions when it set up the forum, but it may be sensible to nudge local authorities such as Wiltshire county council in the direction of balancing the interests of landowners and users.

Alun Michael: I do not think that it would be appropriate for a Minister to nudge on behalf of one side or the other. We want a balance between the two and I am sure that Wiltshire county council will feel the odd nudge from elected representatives in this place. I encourage such authorities to get the balance right because that is the key. People on either side will, from time to time, want to nudge the balance to one side or the other. It will be in the interests of both sides that the balance is right because the dialogue can then be balanced.

Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire): In achieving a balance, will the interests of district and county councils and national park members be taken into account, or will they be neutral?

Alun Michael: I think that those bodies would be seen as neutral. I am waiting to hear from local access forums, which will advise on the way in which they exercise their responsibilities. We have been careful to ensure that the local access forums cannot be

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overbalanced by the usual suspects. They must focus on access issues, not issues that are dealt with elsewhere.

To return to a point that was raised earlier in our discussion, we expect the authority that establishes the forum to listen to the forum and to respond to suggestions made by it. The discussion will be grown up. It will not be a case of establishing the forum and then forgetting about it. The whole point of such forums is to achieve reconciliation of views. We all know that from time to time there are conflicts of interests between land managers and those who seek access. The great secret of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act is that it sought to balance those arrangements and to make progress while respecting the fact that there are interests on both sides of the divide. Getting the balance right in the legislation helps people to debate the matter locally and to get the balance right in arrangements made locally.

Jeremy Corbyn: The Minister heard my intervention about Ministry of Defence land. I realise that that is not covered by the regulations. However, are there any thoughts in his Department about extending the provisions to cover Ministry of Defence land or some form of consultation about improving access?

Alun Michael: I understand the point that my hon. Friend makes. I simply make the point that we are discussing a statutory instrument, which is secondary legislation, and it would not be appropriate for me to anticipate whether there may be changes in primary legislation at a later date. I see from your face, Mr. Cook, that I would quickly be called to order were I to stray too far in that direction.

We want people who want to walk, ride and use our open countryside to have maximum sensible access, consistent with particular uses. Today we are dealing with matters to which the regulations specifically refer, but that applies to all sorts of arrangements.

To turn to something that was said by the hon. Member for North Wiltshire, the purpose of the regulations is to get the balance right and to resolve conflict. When the Opposition refer to conflict resolution, the Government should quake in their shoes. However, I welcome that development. Conflict resolution is the key to access. It will be easy for matters to become out of proportion if, on one hand, people are too resistant to reasonable access or, on the other, push too far or are careless in the way in which they use that access.

I urge all hon. Members to balance the way in which they refer to access. Some periodicals seem to enjoy winding up Members to demand greater access or to oppose access. We are making progress with interested parties. When we celebrated the re-opening of the countryside following foot and mouth disease with the launch of the ''Your Countryside, You're Welcome'' campaign, it was interesting to see that representatives of the Ramblers Association sat between representatives of the Country Land and Business Association. Everyone recognised the

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importance of access to all parts of the rural economy. During the past year many farmers as well as business people in rural areas have spoken to me about the interdependence of farming and tourism. Nowhere is that mutual interest more apparent than when dealing with access. It is important to deal with the matter sensibly and constructively and to resolve conflict when it arises, as it will from time to time, rather that seeking to escalate conflict.

The hon. Member for North Wiltshire referred to dialogue between local access forums. I hope that local authorities will encourage their forums to look over the borders at the implications elsewhere, including the border between England and Wales. I have frequently walked from England into Wales and vice versa because the border is long and porous with beautiful areas on both sides. Areas of outstanding natural beauty such as the Wye valley have an interdependence with neighbouring areas in terms of their local economy and environment. I encourage the co-operative approach across boundaries to which hon. Members have referred.

The hon. Member for North Wiltshire referred to some of the details of what we are trying to do. I confirm that we are trying to avoid confrontation and dispute. I certainly endorse his view that the forums should not become campaigning organisations for either side and I hope that I have reassured him that we are tying in the arrangements to avoid that.

The hon. Gentleman said that steps should be taken to avoid domination by either side. The answer is in regulation 4(4), which refers to ''reasonable balance''. I was amused when he referred to regulation 6(6), which covers the rules of the chair and vice-chair of the forum. It was precisely to ensure that the two roles were occupied by people from different viewpoints and that the team that led the forum was balanced, that I asked my officials to write that regulation. It was not easy to write. If the chair of a forum resigns and a new one is elected, consideration must be given to whether the vice-chair should be re-elected at the same time to ensure that the balance is maintained. That is the reason for the tortuous wording, which points out that when an election arises, the implications must be considered to ensure that the balance that the hon. Member for North Wiltshire wants is achieved. He spent the whole of the weekend worrying about regulation 6(6). I would worry about him were the opportunity of red boxes arriving three or four at a time to come his way. I wonder what he was doing when he was a special adviser. Perhaps the weekend was particularly challenging for him.

It is not possible to allow for substitutes, because members will have been selected for the interests that they represent, rather than as representatives of an organisation. Those interests could include nature conservation, which the hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George) mentioned in one of his questions. Nevertheless, it would create a gap if an individual regularly had a problem attending, and one would expect the establishing authority to recognise that.

With regard to timing, as I have said, the Government encouraged the establishment of forums long before the legislation was enacted. All that the

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statutory instrument does—it is a negative instrument, so the hon. Member for North Wiltshire has not delayed it by praying against it—is to set the deadline by which they must all be in place, which is 8 August 2003. It is to be hoped that most forums have already been set up, although they may accelerate their activities as the mapping continues and the need for their work becomes more immediate.

The Countryside Agency and officials from my Department have held seminars with local authorities in order to identify key tasks; we have not simply set out the requirements and left them to get on with it.

I was asked about the introduction of the definitive access maps on a regional basis. It is simple common sense to do that if we can, because all sorts of arrangements have to be made. Lessons have been learned in producing the first of the provisional maps. Learning all the lessons at the same time across the country is an unattractive way in which to proceed. However there are, as the hon. Member for North Wiltshire has highlighted, concerns about communications—we have to be clear about what we were doing and when, and the progressive nature of the change. There are also financial implications. I am working through those with officials and with the Countryside Agency in order to come to an early conclusion. However, I want to get it right and I shall let the hon. Gentleman and other members of the Committee know as soon as the matter is decided.

Valerie Davey (Bristol, West): I welcome the Minister's statement. Many people are concerned about the apparent delay, so I am sure that they will be glad to know what he has said and will look forward to his decision being made public as soon as possible.

Alun Michael: I assure my hon. Friend that there is no delay. We are proceeding with implementation as quickly as we can. It is a complex programme because the legislation has enshrined in it the balance—argued for by the hon. Member for North Wiltshire—between the interests of those who need or want access and those who have to manage land and must deal with the implications of that access. Nobody is more keen than I am to conclude the matter. However, I want to be sure that our decision is right, rather than discovering complications after we make it. I hope that I shall soon be able to give a conclusive answer about the way in which the programme will be rolled out.

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