Fourth Standing Committee
on Delegated Legislation
Tuesday 29 October 2002
[Mr. George Stevenson in the Chair]
Access to Countryside
(Provisional and Conclusive Maps) (England) Regulations 2002
Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the Access to the Countryside (Provisional and Conclusive Maps) (England) Regulations 2002 (S.I., 2002, No. 1710).
It seems odd that I should move the motion, but I am told that that is procedurally correct, despite my party's reservations about the statutory instrument.
I welcome you as Chairman of the Committee, Mr. Stevenson. I remember how often we agreed on things when we were both on the Environment Sub-Committee of the Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs. In fact, it is incredibly rare for you to disagree with anything. We shall certainly be considering that happy relationship today.
We were naturally concerned to read in the 38th report of the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments of the three drafting errors that were found in the statutory instrument. Those errors are not of huge significance; if they were, I should have sought an adjournment of the Committee, so that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs could redraft the statutory instrument.
I was concerned that even after redrafting the Department did not get it right. The Joint Committee does not think that the second attempt to get it right is correct. That is not worrying in itself because none of the three errors will make the statutory instrument totally unworkable. None the less, the fact that the Department cannot get the drafting of the statutory instrument's provisions on something as delicate, important and sensitive as the mapping process correct, strikes me as a worrying precedent.
The Minister for Rural Affairs (Alun Michael): Later, when the opportunity arises, I shall explain the errors that were rightly identified by the Joint Committee. However, I urge the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) not to over-egg the pudding. The errors, as he acknowledged, are extremely minor. They do not directly affect the mapping and the processes about which people will be concerned. I invite the hon. Gentleman not to make too much of a minor issue.
Mr. Gray: I entirely accept the Minister's point; I certainly would not seek to over-egg this or any other pudding. In the brief time that I have held my current portfolio, I have been greatly encouraged by my relationship with the Minister and his Department. Issues such as that which we are considering, and many other policy areas, are worthy of sensible, quiet and intelligent discussion. On occasion, what Her Majesty's loyal Opposition say may be useful, and the
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Government may want to accept some of our input. The statutory instrument and similar policy areas may be some of the subjects on which the Government may want to listen carefully to what we say.
So far, I have not tried the Minister's approachable, ameliorative and gentle approach much. I am not certain whether that approach will continue in the months ahead and on some of the difficult issues that are looming on the horizon. None the less, so far I have greatly enjoyed the experience of that approach, and I hope that I will do so today.
Her Majesty's loyal Opposition were, of course, opposed to the principle behind the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000, but given that access is now going to be given, it is important to ensure that the mapping process is done as well and as carefully as it can be. The Government have often said that the 2000 Act must be a delicate balance between the rights of owners and the rights and privileges of walkers who want to go over owners' land. Neither side must be unduly upset.
Getting the mapping exercise right, and doing it sensitively and delicately, is important if we are to avoid the long-term worries, arguments and court cases that have been part of the scene for Acts such as the Common Land (Rectification of Registers) Act 1989 and the definitive Rights of Way Act 1990, which have caused much bitterness and worry over the years. We would not want that to happen again. We must get this exercise right.
We are not encouraged by the mapping exercise so far. In one ludicrous moment, the Secretary of State issued the provisional map for the south-east and quickly had to withdraw it because of errors. That is hardly likely to inspire great confidence in the countryside. I understand that there were 20 errors in the maps of the south-east. The Minister has tried to excuse that by saying, ''Don't worry—the errors amount to only 1 square mile.'' That is the size of the City of London—1 square mile is a substantial area. If a mapping error of 1 square mile occurred on your land, Mr. Stevenson, you would be rather concerned; and if an error of 1 square mile occurred in each of the regions, we would be talking about a substantial amount of wrongly mapped land across England. Will the Minister assure us that, in the provisional maps that will come out over the next year or so, no such substantial errors will occur?
Equally worrying is the admission that, in the north-west, wholly inadequate data were used, causing extensive errors in the draft maps. Can we be certain that that will not happen again?
Will farmers be reimbursed for the costs incurred when appealing against an error of the Countryside Agency? If the error is on the part of the Countryside Agency and not on the part of the farmers, it is only reasonable that farmers' costs in making an appeal should be reimbursed.
Originally, it was claimed that the purpose of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act was to provide new rights of access to the public while protecting the rights of the land managers affected. Preserving that balance of rights will be vital if the Act is not to be
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brought into disrepute. For example, leaving aside the errors in the drafting of provisional maps, does the Minister not agree that, if representations on the draft maps lead to access land being added, the Countryside Agency should advise the owners that that has happened?
If owners go to the local library, have a look at draft maps and are reassured that their land is not on them, most of them will say, ''Fine,'' and be content. However, if during the consultation ramblers or others have land added to the maps, the owners may well not know about it. The Countryside Agency should be required to say to owners that land has been added to the draft maps or that boundaries have been changed, and that owners may, if they wish, appeal. That seems only reasonable. We should not ask owners to make two trips to the library to find out what has happened to their land.
A brief analysis of representations received between the production of the draft and provisional maps in the south-east may add weight to that argument. The number of representations seeking to add land more or less balanced the number of representations seeking to remove land or change boundaries: 1,341 representations sought to add land and 1,396 sought to remove land. However, there is an interesting difference. Of representations that sought to add land, 87 per cent. were turned down. In other words, lots of members of the public sought to have access land added to the maps, but 87 per cent. of the representations were turned down. Of representations that sought to remove land or to change boundaries, 60 per cent. were passed. Between the draft and the provisional processes, most representations—60 per cent.—by landowners were reasonable, fair and correct, whereas 87 per cent. of representations by the public, seeking to add land, were incorrect. However, if land were added as a result of the 13 per cent. of representations from the public that are correct, the landowners would not be told. It would surely be reasonable for the Government to require that they be told.
We are concerned about the availability of provisional maps. It is surely reasonable that copies be provided free of charge following a request from an individual with an interest in the land, as has been done in Wales. If land in Wales were mapped, a person could ring the Welsh equivalent of the Countryside Agency and be given a map free of charge. A person in England would not have a similar opportunity.
That seems wrong. We would like the Government to make free maps available to people with an interest. A suggested alternative is that people could purchase for £20 a 1:25,000 scale map covering 120 square miles of land. That is a pointless exercise given that the average size of an English agricultural holding is 100 hectares or less—a tiny area of a map. Farmers are told, ''If you want, you can spend £20 on a large-scale map on which your farm is a minute dot in one corner.'' Maps with a scale of 1:10,000 are more appropriate, and they should be given to farmers for free.
DEFRA says that the circulation of smaller-scale maps would be
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''excessively costly and impractical for the public wishing to see the map''.
DEFRA's use of the word ''public'' gives an interesting glimpse of its thinking. We are not discussing the public because they do not have the right to alter the map when it is at such a stage. Only farmers may appeal against it. We are not discussing the broad mass of the public—many people—but relatively few people: the farmers whose land will be affected. I ask the Minister to make 1:10,000 maps available to farmers on request.
Let us consider other Government agencies. English Nature, for example, makes detailed maps available to all owners who are affected by sites of special scientific interest. A person with an SSSI on their land automatically receives a free map. About 35,000 farmers in England are affected by SSSIs, which is roughly double the number who will be affected by the regulations. It is only fair that the Government make maps available to affected farmers.
I take encouragement from my recent experiences. The Countryside Agency wrote to me on 22 August to inform me that my constituency would be mapped. It said—very grandly—that I could purchase a copy of the map if I rang a telephone number. I wrote back a strong letter on 12 September to say that that was quite wrong because I am a Member of Parliament and my constituents contact me to find out whether their land has been mapped. Surely it is reasonable for me to receive free maps from the agency.
The Countryside Agency replied on 16 September and said no. It said that the maps are large, complicated and laminated, so they are difficult to look at. It suggested that I look at the maps in Chippenham library. If a farmer visits my surgery to ask me whether his land is on the map, I will have to say, ''Excuse me a moment. I've just got to go down to the library to look at the maps and find out.''
The Committee will not be surprised to hear that I sent a strong letter back to the Countryside Agency. On 19 September, it wrote back. Incidentally, that happened after I told the agency that I would be take the opportunity to speak in this debate, as shadow Minister with responsibility for the countryside, to make a big fuss about the situation. The letter from the agency said:
''We have since reconsidered our policy on this matter. Even though members of parliament are not statutory consultees under the regulations, we recognise that your constituents are likely to seek advice on this matter from you and are therefore prepared to supply, on request, an extract of the draft map for your constituency.''
I hope that hon. Members whose constituencies contain affected land will do that. I am grateful to the Countryside Agency for making that concession and I hope that it will make a similar concession to landowners and farmers who own affected land. That is only fair.
I also question the adequacy of the maps' public promotion. The Government claim:
''The Agency's extensive programme of publicity for provisional maps . . . will ensure that the overwhelming majority of land managers will be made aware of their opportunity to appeal against the maps.''
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I wonder about the basis on which that claim is made. Does the Minister have statistics that corroborate the claim that an extensive programme of publicity has made land managers aware of the opportunity to appeal? We understand that there is evidence that toward the end of the draft map period, most affected people had no idea of the appeal process. What assurances can the Minister give us that the agency is doing all that it can to inform land managers, especially those who do not belong to a representative organisation, that the appeals process has started and how they may appeal? It is important to tell farmers that their land will be affected and to tell them how they may appeal. That has not happened through the publicity process so far.
I shall address the appeals process itself. I am relieved that provisional maps that were withdrawn due to inaccuracies have been reissued. Will the Minister assure me that if a map has been reissued for that reason, the three-month appeal period starts anew? The clock should start ticking from the moment the correct map is available. That is not the case at present, but it is only reasonable that it should happen.
The procedure is supposedly based on the planning system but planning refusals come with detailed reasons for the refusal and the background documents on which reasons are based. As far as I am aware, nobody has ever received a planning refusal with a letter saying, ''We will give you the reasons for refusal within the next few weeks.'' Even if that were the case, one would not expect the appeals clock to start ticking until the reasons had been given. Will the Minister assure us that the three-month appeal period will start when the reasons for the refusal are known? The town and country planning regulations require a planning authority to give notice of its decisions and to state clearly and precisely the full reasons for refusal. Why has that principle not been adopted in the mapping appeals process?
I am told that some of the decisions reached by the agency on representations made by land managers are baffling—they do not know the reasons for the refusal. The process is, in effect, forcing applicants to go to appeal simply to discover the grounds for the decision. That is wrong. Surely it is only reasonable for the agency to say, ''This is why your representation has been turned down. You now have three months to appeal.'' There is a lack of clarity about why some representations are turned down. Will the Government find a way to make the process clearer?
I understand that heath lands included in the provisional maps must be open. Have the Government yet defined ''openness'' with regard to heath land? That important matter is being contested in several different areas.
When will the closure and restricted access regulations be published? They are available in Wales—they come before the Welsh Assembly this month. When will they be published in England?
Has the Minister yet considered whether the Countryside Agency or local authorities will make
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some contribution towards the cost of notices of closure or of restricted areas? Land will perfectly legitimately be closed from time to time. Will the landowner have to pay for all the notices or will the agency or local authority do so? Will the presence of suckler cows on one's land be a sufficient reason for authorised closure, as it is in Wales?
A great deal of countryside stewardship, environmentally sensitive land and 70 per cent. of sites of special scientific interest will be subject to access regulations. English Nature recommends linear access only on such land, but how will that be achieved and who will pay for it?
We have shown the mapping process to be defective in several important ways. Indeed, the regulations themselves are defective, although, as the Minister correctly reminds me, I should not over-egg that pudding. However, does he agree that getting the mapping process right is important and that the way to do that is by delicately and sensitively balancing the interests of walkers and the rights of farmers?
After all, it is unlikely that many of the pieces of land or boundaries in dispute will have much effect on the ability of walkers to enjoy the land—the area of land under discussion is small. If we can get the process right, keep farmers and landowners with us and avoid the barneys and battles that we have seen in similar areas, the operation is more likely to be successful and owners are more likely to welcome the fact that walkers can cross their land. For example, my constituent, Mr. Maurice Avent, of Manor farmhouse, Biddestone, Chippenham has an area of limestone downland that has been mapped as open access land—the only limestone downland in Wiltshire to have been mapped as such. It is criss-crossed with rights of way and bridlepaths. That is extraordinary given that there are plenty of paths all over it already and it will not benefit walkers even slightly to have it mapped as open access.
The case is a classic example of when we need to keep the landowner onside. He must ensure that the rights of way and bridle tracks across his land are satisfactory. By incorrectly mapping his land and without explaining why his land is the only limestone downland in Wiltshire that is access land, all that will happen is that he will get grumpy and fed up with the whole thing. We will get into a confrontational situation rather than one in which walkers and farmers work together. The 2000 Act and the mapping process must be seen to be finding a way that allows the two groups of people to work together.
I hope that the Minister will deal with my main concerns and also those of the National Farmers Union, the Country Landowners Association and other organisations. I pay tribute to the CLA for the work that it has done and for the brief that it has given me. I hope that the Minister will agree that it is important to deal with the concerns that are present throughout the countryside. We should find a way of saying to farmers and landowners, ''Don't worry, it is not nearly as bad as you think. Here are the things that we are going to do to help you.'' All sensible people are keen for walkers to be given as much access to the countryside as possible. My remarks and questions are
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designed to make sure that that happens in as wide an area as possible with as little confrontation as possible.