Access to the Countryside (Provisional and Conclusive Maps) (England) Regulations 2002

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Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire): I, too, welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Stevenson, and look forward to the work that we will do.

We accept the amendments that were made to the draft statutory instrument. We think that they are sensible and hope that they will make the legislation work better. We, too, have reservations about the way in which the regulations have been drawn up and about several implications that stem from them. We are particularly concerned that the public should be notified in the event of an inquiry. I understand from the regulations that the Countryside Agency may advertise the fact that an inquiry will take place. We would like that to be made patently obvious. The public should have the opportunity to find out when inquiries are taking place, so that they know about them and can attend, if they wish.

I take the point that was made by the hon. Member for North Wiltshire about the way in which the process is taking place in Wales. We are also concerned about that matter, and I have some personal understanding and experience of it. Recently, in Wales, there was a series of roadshows in local towns.

The Chairman: Order. I hesitate to interrupt, but the hon. Member for North Wiltshire referred to Wales just to make a point. The regulations apply only to England, so we do not want to drift too far into Wales, as pleasant as that might be.

Mr. Williams: Thank you, Mr. Stevenson.

It would be as well if as many landowners as possible were contacted face to face during consultations on maps. It is only when that sort of relationship develops—with opportunities for personal expressions and exchanges of views—that we achieve a better mapping process that allows access for the public.

I do not know if you will allow me to make my next point, Mr. Stevenson, but I will try. I know that the regulations apply only to England, but you will understand that land is continuous between England and Wales. I have considered what is happening in the Welsh Assembly.

The Chairman: Order. Having travelled quite often to see my mother-in-law in Wales, I am fully aware of the continuous nature of the land. That does not alter the fact that the regulations apply to England. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would want to confine his remarks to England.

Mr. Williams: Thank you for your guidance, Mr. Stevenson. I am very pleased that the land is continuous, because otherwise I would have had great difficulty in attending the Committee.

Inquiries that take place near the border in England may include land across the border and it would be as well if the regulations, which relate to England, had some relevance to and coherence with those that operate just across the border. Some of the inquiries

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may relate to a place that I will not mention—hon. Members know what it is.

The draft maps have already been published in the south-east, the north-west and central southern England. The provisional map is already in existence in south-east England. It is about to be produced in the north-west, and the dates for consultation in central southern England will finish in early December. Twelve appeals have already been lodged against the provisional map in south-east England; it is my understanding that all of them—or at least 11 of them—have been lodged by landowners or land managers who wish land to be taken out of the provisional map before a conclusive map is produced. It is difficult to know how many of those inquiries will be in the form of written representations, and how many will go to a public inquiry. However, a huge amount of work will be generated if appeals carry on appearing at this rate and are spread out through the whole of England.

I take on board the point made by the hon. Member for North Wiltshire about informing unsuccessful appellants of the reasons why their wish to have land taken out of the maps has not been granted, and how long it will take for them to be given those reasons when their appeal is turned down. It is only right that people should know the reasons why such decisions have been made. If we do not know the reasons, we cannot have a coherent and rational approach to the problems.

We accept the modifications that have been put to us, and hope that the Minister will reply to some of my points.

10.56 am

Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell): I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Stevenson.

I wish to raise a couple of simple points with the Minister, but before I do so, I think that it is worth putting on the record again that these regulations apply to England. In this sitting, we should be mindful of that—and slightly disappointed, because the Liberal Democrats and the Government are fielding hon. Members who represent Welsh constituencies. That highlights certain broader issues that the House should consider.

Ian Lucas (Wrexham): Your party does not have any Members who represent Welsh constituencies.

Chris Grayling: Since these regulations do not apply to Wales, that point is irrelevant.

I wish the Minister to address the issue of the information that is provided to landowners as a result of part II of this statutory instrument. Hon. Members who, a few years ago, read the book or watched the series of ''The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy'' will remember that the story begins with planet Earth being destroyed by an alien species that are clearing the way for a motorway, and that say in their defence that notice of that has been published in the planning department of a neighbouring planet for a goodly period.

Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd): On a point of order, Mr. Stevenson.

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The Chairman: I will take it as an intervention.

Chris Ruane: The Chair has ruled that Wales cannot be mentioned in this debate, but the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) is mentioning other galaxies.

Chris Grayling: When I have finished making my point, the hon. Gentleman will understand exactly why I have referred to that story. Part II refers to a consultation and information process for the public that goes through the traditional mechanisms of publication of notices in the local press, in libraries and through local authorities. However, we are assuming that the landowners who are affected will be aware that those notices have been published—that they will see the articles and announcements in the local press. We are talking about decisions, taken as a result of the mapping exercise, that will have a direct effect on the land of individuals who are involved in the process.

Gregory Barker (Bexhill and Battle): To expand on the point about notices being published in the local press, several of my constituents have raised precisely that problem in relation to other planning issues and the granting of licences. In many rural areas, there is not one natural local newspaper, as there often is in towns and cities. In part of my constituency, up to seven newspapers could be deemed to cover the area. That is quite confusing. Certainly, few people take all of those newspapers, and many take none.

Chris Grayling: The key point is that, to many of the people affected by published notices, such notices might as well be published on another planet, because they simply do not see them in their day-to-day lives. The Minister should carefully consider whether there should be a duty upon those who are preparing the measures to ensure, at the very least, that those such as the constituent of my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire receive direct communication.

I hope that the Minister will reassure us that landowners will not be left to find out about information that affects them simply through local papers, notices published or websites. It must be remembered that many in the countryside, and the older generation of landowners who are affected by the regulations, do not use the internet. They do not have access to it or the technical knowledge to use it.

The Government cannot rely on electronic means as a core deliverer of information about the mapping process and its impact on landowners in an environment in which many of those landowners will not receive that information. I would be grateful if the Minister dealt with that issue. We do not want people to discover after the event, when it is too late to do something about it, that a decision that affects them fundamentally has been taken. That must not happen, and I hope that the Minister will make sure that it does not.

11.1 am

Matthew Green (Ludlow): I make two points. First, there has been mention of the provision of information, but not maps, through websites. I realise that the maps take up considerable amounts

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of memory space and are large to put on websites, but with advances in computer technology it could be done. That would make the maps much more accessible than if one had to go to the local council or the regional centre to see them. In Shropshire, the regional centre is an hour and a half or a two hour drive away from most of the areas that may be affected.

Secondly, I should like to amplify a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams). Some parcels of upland straddle the English-Welsh border. What if it were decided that land on one side of the border should be access land, and land on the other side should not, even if there were no fences or any demarcation to show where the border was? I should like the Minister to say how that would be dealt with, and which body would be responsible for any inquiry about such land.

11.3 am

Alun Michael: It is a pleasure to debate the statutory instrument under your strict but fair guidance, Mr. Stevenson. I say that with a note of optimism, as ever. We started with a note of optimism, when the hon. Member for North Wiltshire described his approach as one of constructive opposition. That is something that we have not enjoyed since 1997, so it is a welcome development, and I hope that it does not lead to the hon. Gentleman being removed from his position. Joking apart, I intend to respond in the same vein, as the exchanges between us have, up to now, been constructive and positive.

The hon. Gentleman may admit on reflection that one or two of his suggestions would add to costs and increase bureaucracy without necessarily improving the experiences of landowners and land managers. I hope that I will be able to persuade him and other Committee members that the regulations as they currently stand protect the interests of all concerned and constructively implement legislation that received cross-party support in the House.

The hon. Gentleman referred to errors in the map, which had to be withdrawn. There were about 20 errors in an area of 1 square mile. However, they were not major errors; they were minor points of detail. He is right to urge us to try to ensure that everything is as near perfect as possible, but the importance of such errors can be exaggerated. One of the issues that was raised was that such minor errors could not be corrected, even when it was absolutely clear to everybody that it was a minor detail and it was in the interests of the general public and landowners that a correction be made. As a result of that, we looked again at the powers in the Countryside and Rights of Way Act, and we have brought forward regulations to ensure that that process can be simplified.

The hon. Gentleman referred to three defects that were identified during the scrutiny of the statutory instrument, a constructive process that highlights inadvertent errors. I think that the word ''minor'' in relation to those drafting errors is correct. The first point was the inclusion, in the introduction to the provision setting out definitions, of the general qualifying words

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    ''unless the context otherwise requires''.

On reflection we accepted that these words were superfluous.

The second point related to the requirement for the Secretary of State to forward to the appellant or the agency, as the case may be, a copy of any additional information that is supplied at her request by the other party. The information in question is further information required in respect of the other party's statement of case. As drafted, the provision refers to forwarding a copy of the other party's statement of case ''together with'' this further information, when in fact the further information, the need for which arises from an examination of the statement of case, is only likely to be available some time—albeit possibly a quite short time—after the statement of case is available. Since the statement of case must be forwarded as soon as practicable, the further information is unlikely to be capable of being forwarded at the same time as the statement of case. The Joint Committee therefore rightly criticised the phrase ''together with'' and asked whether it implied that further copies of the statement of case had to be forwarded with the further information. It is clear that that is a minor error that should be put right, and the Department has accepted that.

The third point related to the provision enabling an inspector to take any steps which the Secretary of State has power to take under certain specified provisions of the regulations. One of the provisions specified should have been omitted, since it relates to a power conferred on the inspector rather than the Secretary of State. Therefore, that was a simple drafting error.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept, in the spirit of generosity that he has so far brought to our exchanges, that these were minor drafting errors, and that as soon as they were drawn to the Department's attention we accepted that and put matters right.

It would be helpful if I were to talk a bit about the regulations themselves, before returning to some of the points raised by hon. Members. These regulations constitute one of several statutory instruments that must be put in place to pave the way for the commencement of the additional rights of access that were promised in the Countryside and Rights of Way Act. I am pleased to tell the Committee that we are making good progress towards making access a reality as early as possible. I have written to hon. Members at various stages to keep them fully informed of the process, because it is complex.

The mapping of open country and registered common land is one of the most important elements in implementing the new right of access. It is complex for a very good reason: the Government sought to deliver rights of access in a way that recognises the interests of land managers and landowners, as well as those of walkers. The Countryside Agency is managing that complex and demanding task, which has not been undertaken in this way before. The agency's team is working hard to ensure that the maps are as accurate and comprehensive as possible. I meet it regularly to ensure that I am aware of how the work is progressing. We will reap the benefits of the careful,

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painstaking approach that is being adopted by the Countryside Agency when the mapping programme is completed.

The regulations enable the Countryside Agency to issue provisional and conclusive maps, which are the second and final stages of the mapping process in each region. The process has started in the south-east and the lower north-west and those pathfinders are helping to improve a new and innovative process. It was expected that we would find out about any problems once work had started on the ground. It has already been mentioned that the provisional map for the south-east was issued in July. That map was withdrawn because the Countryside Agency discovered a number of errors and the revised map was issued on 7 October. The provisional map for the lower north-west will be issued on 18 November.

The regulations make provision for appeals by individual land managers against the showing of specific land on a provisional map. We undertook full public consultation on our proposals for regulations and the responses that we received suggest that most people are content with the overall approach. We have, however, listened to other views and made several changes to our proposals. Free copies of maps, for example, will be sent to a range of organisations, including those that represent landowners and land users. We have also made it easier for appellants to appeal and relieved them of the burden of providing copies of any comments that are made on the draft map; copies will now be provided by the Countryside Agency.

The hon. Member for North Wiltshire referred to the fact that maps have been made freely available to him. I discussed that matter with the Countryside Agency after representations had been made. We want to avoid producing a mass of maps that simply sit in drawers and are not used. When hon. Members such as the hon. Gentleman are genuinely engaging with their constituents and trying to deal with concerns, we want to make that process as easy as possible. The Countryside Agency has accepted the need to facilitate such work for Members of Parliament who approach it as the hon. Gentleman did.

 
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