Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page


Lord Waddington: My Lords, before we--

Noble Lords: Order!

Business

3.10 p.m.

Lord Carter: My Lords, after the first debate today my noble friend Lord Williams of Mostyn will, with the leave of the House, repeat in the form of a Statement an Answer to a Private Notice Question in another place on the Government's proposals to restrict trials by jury.

Business of the House: Procedure

Lord Waddington: My Lords, I apologise for jumping the gun. I was not quite sure how I should raise this matter with the noble Baroness the Lord Privy Seal. Yesterday afternoon, after Questions, the noble Lord, Lord Marsh, put a question about the Government's policy with regard to the Weatherill amendment which brought forth a somewhat choleric response from the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor. I should very much like guidance from the noble Baroness the Lord Privy Seal. What happened seemed to me to be straining the few rules of order we have. I am wondering whether it would be at all desirable if the practice were to develop of individual noble Lords getting up after Question Time and raising matters of their choosing.

I may have a suspicious mind, but what makes the matter particularly extraordinary is that it seemed contrived. The noble Lord raised the question and the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor gave his

19 May 1999 : Column 302

rather intemperate reply. But although it was intemperate, he read very carefully from a script which he had in front of him.

It was a most extraordinary event, not least because the House of Lords Bill was on the Order Paper, and if any question was to be raised as to the Government's attitude towards the Weatherill amendment, the obvious time to raise it was when the business on the House of Lords Bill commenced.

I respectfully submit that it would be undesirable if this practice were to develop. It would be a good thing to stop it now, if only to save the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor from himself.

Lord Marsh: My Lords, after a direct charge and that vicious attack, from which I am still recovering, I should like to say that the sequence of events was very simple. Yesterday morning I discussed with my two fellow signatories to the Weatherill amendment my concern at the way in which the business was being conducted in this place and how it was developing into an endlessly repetitive conversation to which there was no foreseeable end. They tended to share that view.

I made no contact whatever with anyone else until about half-past one or a quarter to two when it struck me that out of courtesy I should inform the Government Chief Whip. He was at lunch, as Chief Whips usually are between 12 and three o'clock, and I then spoke to his private secretary. I said that I intended to stand up after Questions and ask a member of the Government to comment on the progress of Monday's business. He said that he would convey the message. I heard nothing more until he approached me at about twenty past two to tell me that the Lord Chancellor would be responding. I asked what the Lord Chancellor was going to say, and he said, "That is not for me to discuss with you".

When the exchange took place, I did not know what the Lord Chancellor was going to say and he most certainly did not know what I was going to say.

Lord Campbell of Alloway: My Lords, is this not a pathetic situation which should never be allowed to arise again?

The Lord Privy Seal (Baroness Jay of Paddington): My Lords, I have no wish for this situation to arise again. There were circumstances on Monday night that noble Lords on all sides were concerned about. This led to a rising of the temperature which the Government had no wish to contribute to. The noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition laughs, but that led to the circumstances of yesterday afternoon when other people not involved in the usual channels felt justifiably concerned, as the noble Lord, Lord Marsh, has expressed, about the progress of business. The noble Lord, Lord Marsh, asked a question which, as the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, points out, was within our extremely relaxed rules. I am among those noble Lords who feel that those rules should be considerably tightened, and that is something that perhaps we shall move towards in a reformed House.

19 May 1999 : Column 303

Business of the House: Debates this Day

Baroness Jay of Paddington: My Lords, I beg to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper.

Moved, That the debate on the Motion in the name of the Lord Gladwyn set down for today shall be limited to three-and-a-half hours and that in the name of the Earl of Iveagh to one-and-a-half hours.--(Baroness Jay of Paddington.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Access to the Countryside

3.16 p.m.

Lord Gladwyn rose to call attention to the issues raised by public demand for access to the countryside, in the light of the Government's Statement of 8th March (HL Deb, cols. 40-42); and to move for Papers.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, a new chapter in the long history of public demand for access to the countryside was opened with the Government Statement of 8th March. This statement was triggered by Gordon Prentice's Private Member's Bill on the Right to Roam, which was debated at Second Reading in another place on 26th March. It is therefore appropriate that your Lordships' House should have this opportunity to debate the subject. In raising it I have no interest to declare. I am not a landowner, nor have I held a position of authority in any of the interested organisations; but I am the author of several books about counties in southern England, of which three are guides to long-distance walking trails, and I therefore consider myself to be an informed observer. I look forward to the maiden speech of the noble Viscount, Lord Eccles.

The Government intend to introduce primary legislation to permit access on foot to all open countryside in England and Wales that is defined as mountain, moor, heath, downland and common land, which represents about 10 per cent of the land mass. It is to be regretted that the aim of providing greater freedom for people to explore the open countryside, which was stated in the Labour Party manifesto, could not have been achieved by means of voluntary agreements. But it is also perfectly understandable that the Government should have decided to establish, in clarity and in permanence, the right to roam that had been the intention of the 1949 Act.

On the basis of the figures in the Government's own appraisal document, it seems that although most of our open countryside is currently available for access by one means or another, about a third is not, amounting to some half a million hectares. In the highly sensitive Peak District National Park over half the open land remains closed, if that is not a contradiction in terms.

Understandably, many landowners feel deeply aggrieved about the element of compulsion. Had the present voluntary arrangements continued, they could have stood to benefit from incentive payments for loss of amenity, even if access enforcement orders had been served on them. Now they will get nothing, and will

19 May 1999 : Column 304

incur additional costs. The government's appraisal is that such costs will be only slight on the greater part of land that is defined as being of low visitor pressure.

Where there is high visitor pressure, however, this loss of amenity becomes more significant. The figures may be disputed, and the one group which will certainly have a field day is the lawyers. The central issue of the law relating to property may go all the way up to the Court of Human Rights.

The "right to roam" is an emotive phrase, implying an indiscriminate intrusion. But the Government, as explained in its Framework for Action, intends to mitigate it with important restrictions and an emphasis on responsibilities as well as rights, with codes of practice. To lay the groundwork for the proposed legislation, the new Countryside Agency is charged with the supervision of accurate mapping and with the establishment of access forums of the type already set up in Wales and Scotland. Much will depend on the composition of these local forums, whose remit will cover the entire countryside in their area. The Countryside Agency, which is already engaged in setting up the English National Forum, is determined that its membership should be quite small and well balanced between conflicting interests.

The broad intent of the government Statement raises a host of unresolved questions, and the Country Landowners' Association has already compiled a list of 150. There are questions of definition, for example: what will be the minimum area qualifying as "open land"? How will open land be recognised by those without maps? What about the adjacent enclosed land through which many walkers will seek to pass? What is meant by "extensive grazing"? Access is to be confined to walkers seeking open-air recreation; but what kinds of sport or recreation might that include? Will occupiers' liability insurances incur higher premiums?

There are questions about the effect on wildlife and vegetation. What limitations will be imposed on numbers, on special events and on noise in order to preserve the wildness and tranquillity that are prescribed in the 1995 Act? How much will the public stick to paths or wander across the rough ground? The right of access will not just be roaming in the gloaming; it will be all through the night. So what about camping and rough living? Dogs are to be kept on leads, but how long is an extension lead? How closely will access be monitored?

Then there is the question of closures. Apart from the statutory 28 days, further closures may be imposed for conservation, health or safety or else conceded by the access forums for reasons of land management. Will that standard 28 days be equally sufficient in very varied circumstances? How long will it take to arrange a special closure? How costly will it be for the landowner to implement the closure? How will the closure be recognised by the public?

The Government's Statement also envisages extending the right to roam over other areas of countryside. As well as woodlands and coastal areas, those might include inland water and waterbanks. Rights of access may extend to other users beyond the mere

19 May 1999 : Column 305

pedestrian. That introduces an element of uncertainty altogether greater than the provisions for the open countryside, which have at least been outlined.

Uncertainties such as these persist also in Scotland where the new Parliament is expected to bring in its own Bill in the near future, foreshadowed by the ministerial statement of February. Here the access policy is likely to be even more liberal than in England, with a general presumption of access to land and water everywhere, subject to safeguards and restraints.

With access established as of right, the need to manage and control it will be all the greater. In addition to decisions made by the local forums about what happens on the ground, much can be done by limiting the number of users by means of traffic management, especially at the honeypots of the national parks and the National Trust. Speed limits, calming methods, road hierarchies, cycle lanes and restrictions on car parks will all help. But what will be of far greater effect--and I should like to see far more--would be the closure of sections of road to visiting private motor vehicles, as has been done already in two valleys of the Peak District. Above all, remote areas should be kept remote.

I turn now to the remainder of our countryside, the great majority of it, all enclosed in one way or another, mostly very beautiful although downright unsightly in parts. Here the issues about access relate to our unparalleled network of rights of way, those gossamer webs which were once vital arteries, in the days when the now empty countryside was full of working people. The Countryside Commission, as it still was, early this year issued its report entitled Rights of Way in the 21st Century and now the Government, in conformity with their 8th March Statement, are to produce a consultation paper.

What does the commission's report say? It criticises local authorities for not doing enough to secure their networks; and it recommends changes to the law so as to make it easier for landowners to obtain reasonable diversions, as well as for the authorities to remove obstructions. It also wants to call a halt to the interminable challenging of the legal status of rights of way by means of a ten-year time limit. I find all those recommendations entirely desirable. The costs of even the most trivial adjustments to the network are ridiculously high. Those recommendations of the Countryside Commission will require substantial additional funding--£150 million has been suggested. That is in addition to the extra funding needed for monitoring and "wardening" the new right to roam on open country.

The great majority of rights of way are footpaths, for walkers only. Naturally, those near or within conurbations are used more than those in remote parishes. Most people take a walk just to keep fit or walk the dog, rather than to explore the countryside, and they want to do so without getting into a car. That simple therapeutic action is now actively encouraged by the medical profession, thus affirming Sir George Trevelyan's brief but splendid sentence in his Essay on Walking:

19 May 1999 : Column 306


    "I have two doctors, my left leg and my right". But there, on the fringes of towns, is where the tension is greatest, where many footpaths have been eliminated by urban spread and where landowners suffer most from inconsiderate behaviour. Those patches of undeveloped rough ground, on which teenagers used to let off steam, have mostly gone. Perhaps replacements should be acquired.

On bridleways, walkers are joined by horse riders and cyclists. Horse riders understandably feel they have a raw deal. Country lanes in south-east England are hazardous enough for walkers who can sometimes feel as though they have strayed on to the Cresta Run. But for riders, they are positively lethal, as accident statistics show all too well. So horse riders are doing all they can to establish bridleway status wherever possible, especially so as to join up fragmented routes and to secure permissive trails with landowners, even if that involves payment.

Cyclists are the newcomers to the scene, thanks to the development of the mountain bike. In fact, they represent the strongest surge in demand for access to the countryside. The South Downs Way now seems to be dominated by them. Inconsiderate cyclists can be very alarming to walkers and horse riders, but all three should learn to respect each other for their physical energy. It is good that Sustrans is making use of new countryside trails, such as disused railway lines and canal towpaths, as part of its system. However--and I say this not just because I am a walker--the Government are surely correct in prohibiting both cyclists and horse riders from the open countryside, because of the damage they inevitable cause to the fragile habitat.

On byways open to all traffic, the muscular users are joined by the mechanical ones. The pressure from drivers of four-wheel drive vehicles to get onto those green lanes is intense. The issue has come to a head in respect of as yet unclassified rights of way--known as RUPPs--and the commission proposes to grasp the nettle and force their redesignation, to the dismay of the defenders of quiet enjoyment.

Access to the lowland countryside is not confined to rights to way, of course. It exists among many voluntary agreements and schemes in agricultural land and woodland, notably in Forestry Commission properties. It exists in local authority country parks and village greens. Then there are the countryside properties of the National Trust and English Nature. There are the parklands of great houses. I suppose one might almost say that it exists in the tens of thousands of golf courses, even if only to a manicured countryside.

Altogether, the British countryside is there to be explored in all its wonderful variety. In that regard, I award the palm to the present American ambassador, Philip Lader, who, since his appointment, has walked every yard of a rough route of 1,000 miles from Land's End to John O'Groats, putting up at bed and breakfasts.

The great question now is: when will the Government introduce their Bill? The danger of postponement is that uncertainty will increase aggravation. Users will assume that they can wander indiscriminately, and some

19 May 1999 : Column 307

landowners may renounce existing agreements. Restraint and understanding are required on both sides. I believe that will prevail.

Despite much-publicised spats and confrontations, there is a remarkable lack of conflict in the 3 billion day visits made annually to the countryside. The Ramblers' Association and the National Farmers Union are in sensible dialogue. The differences between urban and non-urban living are diminishing all the time. I do not believe in the simplistic town versus country social divide. Thanks to TV and educative programmes, the message of the countryside that it is not a theme park but a working environment, is increasingly understood. People appreciate that it depends on profitable agriculture if it is not to deteriorate into a monotonous wilderness, and that private shooting rights have helped to preserve our precious habitat and wildlife. But, in return for subsidies, they demand access.

My Lords, I beg to move for Papers.


Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page