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

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Mr. Gray: I thank the Minister for his constructive response to this useful and interesting debate. However, he should not rest on his laurels too much. Although I will always seek to be constructive in opposition to the Government's proposals, there may be matters over which I will be less constructive—I would never go so far as to be destructive. None the less, he may not find me such a patsy in other areas of discussion over the next 12 months.

Although I do not have Hansard to hand, I was surprised by the Minister's assurance that Her Majesty's loyal Opposition did not vote against any aspects of the Act. I served on the Standing Committee that considered the Bill and remember voting several times. I thought that we voted against the Act on Third Reading. I may be incorrect and I am happy to

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accept the Minister's assurance, but there was certainly deep concern on the Opposition Benches about the principle behind the Act.

Alun Michael: The words that I used were chosen carefully: I said that at no stage in the passage of the Bill did the Opposition vote against the principle of the new right that it provided. Therefore, there was common ground in trying to implement that right as expeditiously and efficiently as possible.

Mr. Gray: I am puzzled by that statement. We were opposed to the principle of the right to roam—of access in itself. We are strongly in favour of people being able to walk about in the countryside, and of attracting as many people as possible to the countryside. My memory of the progress of the Bill was that we expressed real reservations about the principle of access at the time. However, the matter is one of history.

The Chairman: Order. We are discussing the regulations, not the principles of the Bill. I am sure that both hon. Gentlemen know that.

Mr. Gray: Indeed we do.

The Minister said that some of the proposals in my introductory remarks would add to the costs of the process. It is more important that things are done as well as possible than that they are done as cheaply as possible. Some of my proposals may be expensive for the Government to implement, but it is reasonable to expect them to spend that money to ensure that those things are done properly. The conclusive maps will be in place for all time, although they will be reconsidered every 10 years. Therefore, it is only reasonable to expect that they should be done as well as possible now.

I am slightly puzzled. I think that I am right in saying that one of the costs to which the Minister referred is that the Government must pay copyright to Ordnance Survey; that is another reason why they are reluctant to make the maps more widely available. Ordnance Survey is a freestanding agency, but it is also a Government agency, so money that is transferred from the Countryside Agency to Ordnance Survey would not result in a net loss to the public purse. It is my understanding that Ordnance Survey's substantial copyright charges is the reason why the Government are so reluctant to make the maps more widely available, and I am unsure whether that is a convincing argument.

The Minister referred to the withdrawal of the south-east's provisional maps and their reissue, because of the errors. He said that it was possible to exaggerate those errors, and that they could not matter less in any case. If that were so, why did he go to the great trouble and expense of withdrawing the maps? Presumably, the Government believed that the 20 errors, amounting to 1 square mile, were so important that it was necessary for them to withdraw the map. If that were not the case, they would have left it out there and said, ''We have made a few errors. We will put them right when we get to the conclusive-map stage.'' Therefore, I do not accept the argument that it is possible to exaggerate those errors. It was the Government—or the agency—who said that the

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errors were substantial, which is why they went to the trouble and expense of withdrawing the map.

I turn to the website, to which my hon. Friends briefly referred. That is a nice idea. However, we must bear it in mind that most landowners in the UK own fewer than 100 hectares, and that many of them live in remote areas. The notion that they are all going to switch on their computers and log on to the website to check whether their land is on the map is fanciful. The Minister was right to talk about broadband, but British Telecom is not making broadband available in places where there are fewer than 50 users per exchange, and most of the places that we are talking about are remote areas where there probably are fewer than 50 users. Therefore, broadband will not be available in large parts of the countryside. It is wishful thinking to assume that there are thousands of people out there who are logging on to the website.

A landowner may have visited his local library to check the draft maps to look up his farm of 100 or 50 acres, and he may be content that he does not have to do anything—that he does not have to worry about liability or access, to put his gates right, or whatever. However, meanwhile—during the consultation process—the local ramblers association may have demonstrated to the Countryside Agency that that land should now be included on the maps, and it may suddenly appear on the provisional map. The farmer who is busy milking his cows twice a day will have no way of knowing that his land has suddenly been included. It is a forlorn hope to expect that every landowner and farmer in England will go along to the public library to check the maps not only once, but a second time at the provisional mapping stage, to see whether somebody has mucked around with the maps in the meantime.

I am also unconvinced that the Government are advertising those things as well as they should. If landowners have checked that their land is not on the map as access land, surely it is only reasonable to ask the Countryside Agency to get in touch with them to tell them that since the draft map was produced their land has been included.

The Minister seemed to be sheltering behind those parts of the nation where we do not know who owns the land; that is the case in a few parts of the country, but not in many. Surely it is reasonable to expect the Government to take some steps to find out who does own that land. They are sheltering behind an unfair excuse if they say that they are not going to get in touch with landowners who are affected in this way, simply because in some parts of England it may not be clear who owns that land.

The Minister has failed to answer a couple of other points. I wish him to take a look at Hansard—or to ask his officials to do so—so that he can respond to a few of my questions, such as the question about restrictions and suckler cows.

I accept the Minister's general approach—I think we are of the same mind—of encouraging walkers to visit the countryside. We are keen to find ways to do that and we are not opposed to granting people access to land. It is important to carry out the mapping

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exercise with sensitivity and care, so that farmers will look back on the process and say, ''Fine. Perhaps I'm not happy with the outcome or with ramblers coming across my land, but at least the way the Government did it was fair and reasonable.'' I suspect that several of my points show that we may not reach that happy conclusion. We do not want farmers saying in retrospect, ''What a shambles the whole thing was. They treated me very badly and wouldn't let me know how I was going to be affected.'' That would leave a bitter taste in the mouth, but the Minister has the opportunity to avoid that.

11.40 am

Alun Michael: May I respond briefly to a couple of the hon. Gentleman's points? I hope that people will see that the Government have acted fairly and reasonably and, indeed, that both DEFRA and the Countryside Agency have tried to make a complicated process operate well, and to make it as simple and easy to access as possible.

The hon. Gentleman suggested that we should do even more about one example: a landowner who is clearly aware of the first stage of the process because he has gone to find out what is on the map. He would be aware that further stages followed. I have mentioned the way in which the agency intends to inform people who have raised worries when the process reaches the later stage. I said that there is often uncertainty about ownership, and the land that is mapped is often associated with complications such as common interests and overlays of ownership. We should not require a specific purpose to be in regulations, but I am sure that the agency will examine methods of ensuring that people are aware of the way in which the process develops, as far as that is humanly and sensibly possible. I shall draw hon. Members' comments to the attention of the agency's representatives when I speak to them.

I was not so dismissive as the hon. Gentleman suggests about areas on the south-east map. I suggested that he overstated—albeit gently—the nature of the errors. When I learned that the map contained errors, I asked to be briefed immediately. I satisfied myself that the errors were so small that one would normally disregard or simply correct them, but that was not possible because, however miniscule an error is, it cannot be corrected on the maps as they stand.

We are using powers in the Act to find a better way of dealing with such minor issues. The map was withdrawn not because the errors were substantial—they were extremely minor—but because there was only one way to correct them: to withdraw the map and issue a correct map. That is why I agree with the agency's approach. There was no doubt about the map on which consultation was occurring. We took steps so that a person who had registered an interest or a wish to appeal would not have to do that a second time. We have done as much as possible to avoid creating additional paperwork and bureaucracy for people.

I assure the hon. Gentleman that I shall study the record and write to him if I have not dealt accurately with any of his many points. I hope that the

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Committee will approve the regulations and that we will move forward the positive process for the countryside and for those who wish to enjoy it.

Question put and agreed to.

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Resolved,

    That the Committee has considered the Access to the Countryside (Provisional and Conclusive Maps) (England) Regulations 2002 (S.I., 2002, No. 1710).

Committee rose at twenty-six minutes to Twelve o'clock.

The following Members attended the Committee:
Stevenson, Mr. George (Chairman)
Ainger, Mr.
Barker, Gregory
Bradley, Peter
Dhanda, Mr.
Gray, Mr.
Grayling, Chris
Green, Matthew
Lucas, Ian
Mandelson, Mr.
Michael, Alun
Ruane, Chris
Skinner, Mr.
Trickett, Jon
Wareing, Mr.
Williams, Mr. Roger

 
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Prepared 29 October 2002