Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page


Noble Lords: Yes!

Earl Peel: My Lords, I have no doubt that the Government's response will be that there will be a duty of care incumbent on walkers which will form part of the legislation. Everyone knows that realistically the message will get through only to those who want to hear the message. At the moment, English Nature and national parks authorities' signs, asking people to keep to paths and to keep their dogs on leads, are very often torn up and discarded.

I am not against access--far from it. I have long argued that there are considerable opportunities to expand people's enjoyment of the countryside through extending the footpath system. That is why we were so disappointed, like so many others, in particular the CLA and the Moorland Association, when the Government abandoned the voluntary approach which was leading to some worthwhile progress. I believe that so much goodwill has been lost.

Most of the uplands of England and Wales will be covered by the Government's legislation. Where I live, the red grouse has long been a symbol of good habitat management and local employment. So many areas managed for that game bird have been designated as SSSIs and SPAs, which I believe is a testament to the management system. In my view, it is imperative that access must not allow the economic dynamo that has driven the conservation and wellbeing of the heather moorland for so long to be compromised.

That vulnerable and internationally important habitat relies on the shooting interest and still supports considerable numbers of other ground-nesting birds which are in major decline in other parts of the United Kingdom. Of course, I refer to birds like the golden plover, the green plover, the curlew and the snipe. I believe that to allow such species to come under any further threats would be nothing short of environmental vandalism.

With speculation about the possible closure orders at certain times of the year, I urge the Government to make a full commitment, as soon as possible, that there will be no access other than on footpaths, at least during the nesting, fledging and mating season, if, for no other reason, than to comply with their international obligations. Furthermore, I support, without any question, the fact that dogs must be kept on leads at all times, not just from a wildlife point of view, but also from a sheep point of view.

I agree with the words spoken by the right reverend Prelate about hill farmers. At the moment their position is perilous. The seven tenant farmers on my estate feel as strongly as I do about the proposals that the Government have put forward on the right to roam.

We all have a stake in the countryside, but that cannot give everyone on this small island of ours the right to decide what to do there and when. Management

19 May 1999 : Column 316

decisions based on experience and local knowledge must be allowed to prevail. That means managing people along with the land itself. It is no good the Government bringing in new rules to give so-called benefits to the public only to leave those on the ground with the task of picking up the costs and the responsibilities of making the system work. The occupiers' liability has not, as yet, been addressed, but that is also of enormous importance.

I am particularly concerned that once on the statute book there will be no compromise in future. What happens when access becomes an intolerable burden on landscapes, as indeed is happening in certain areas already, when restrictions will undoubtedly be necessary? I suspect that there will be a fudge. For that reason I have always supported the voluntary approach, with its built-in flexibility, relying as we have done for so long on the precautionary principle.

Noble Lords spoke in your Lordships' House as long ago as 1981, when I made my maiden speech, on this subject. How can I forget the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Sandford. The Sandford principles became an integral part of the way in which we considered that land should be managed in this country. It is a tragedy that this legislation appears to propose abandoning that principle.

I ask the Government to consider carefully the consequences of their actions. I say that purely as someone who has a great love of the countryside. I want people to enjoy the countryside, but I want them to do that in a way that does not compromise the countryside and does not lead to conflict between town and country, something that we should avoid at all costs.

4.4 p.m.

Lord Chorley: My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Gladwyn for initiating this debate. It is an important topic. He speaks with a background of considerable practical knowledge and experience.

I believe that this is the first occasion on which we have discussed the subject since the Government's White Paper, Framework for Action, published on 8th March, nearly two months ago. In my view, the announcement gave rise to a huge amount of hype and uninformed comment. I believe that the CLA overreacted in one direction and the Ramblers' Association in the other. It is not surprising, therefore, that there was considerable public misunderstanding of what was being proposed. The White Paper referred only to so-called open countryside, which I believe is an Ordnance Survey definition, a cartographic classification, defined loosely as mountain, moor, heath, down and registered common land, and it did not apply to ordinary farmland. It applied only to access on foot, and for much of that land there was already, particularly in the national parks, pretty good access. So it is not surprising that the public and, to some extent, farmers and landowners have overreacted.

Moreover, some recreational organisations, such as the British Mountaineering Council, make a point of maintaining good relationships with landowners. They

19 May 1999 : Column 317

regret slogans such as "right to roam", which says nothing about duties and responsibilities. It is a nice slogan but we should have checks and balances.

I propose to speak mainly about the management of access, about the problems and issues of open space recreation. Currently, I am a patron of the British Mountaineering Council, and like the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, I am a vice-president of the Council for National Parks. From 1991 to 1996 I was chairman of the National Trust, which I suppose is the biggest "supplier"--if that is the correct word--of access in England and Wales. It has 600,000 acres, not all of which is open space land and about 600 miles of coastline.

In effect, acquiring open space landscape and making it available for the benefit of the nation is a statutory purpose of the trust, so we take access management very seriously. A few years ago we set up a working party to review our access policies and arrangements. The report of that working party is really a handbook on access management, written by people who know what they are talking about. Incidentally, the new chairman of the Countryside Agency, Ewen Cameron, was a member of that working party, as was the chairman of the Open Spaces Society.

The report enunciated two principles: first, if serious conflict arises between access and conservation, conservation needs should prevail. Secondly, the trust will ensure that our countryside will retain those characteristics which ensure the widest range of experience and will enable people to enjoy access to its properties. I want to suggest to the Minister that those principles, or something along those lines, should be enshrined as the main purpose of the proposed legislation.

Conflict between recreational access and conservation is only one form of conflict. Conflicts also arise between different kinds of recreation. The trust has listed over 40 different sorts of open space use. The Government do not have the same problem, as they are limiting the proposals to access on foot. That limitation in itself raises issues, although I am inclined to think that the Government are right. Equally, one can think of a list of foot-based activities--my noble friend Lord Gladwyn hinted at some of these--for example, angling, orienteering, fell-running, parapenting and, pre-eminently, climbing.

I can see a considerable danger of the legislation tying itself in knots and getting into a muddle in trying to define what we mean by "access on foot". I wonder how the Government will tackle this issue. After all, one activity in one place, or at one time of the year, may be acceptable but not so at another place or another time of year; for example, when does walking become scrambling and scrambling become mountaineering? Those activities form part of a continuum whose character changes with place, season and person. I could expand on that at some length.

I should like to touch briefly on three other issues in my remaining couple of minutes. The first is the need to protect from over-use areas that are valued for their

19 May 1999 : Column 318

remoteness and wildness. That is particularly important to mountaineers. Secondly, and related to the first, is the problem of serious physical damage being caused in popular areas by foot erosion. Footpaths need to be repaired and new paths created. But who pays for that? The National Trust now spends around £750,000 a year on such matters from its budget. But what will the landowner do?

The third point relates to the important issue of occupier's liability, which has already been touched on. The White Paper refers to ministerial discussions on whether liability should be reduced more generally for recreational users. Can the Minister tell us where those discussions have reached?

The Government have decided to legislate. We must make it work, and there is a huge amount of work to be done in preparation, not least all the mapping and the detailed administrative arrangements. Then there is the ongoing work. All my experience tells me that local access forums will be the key--that is the experience of both the trust and the BMC. They will have a difficult and complicated job to do.

I conclude by saying that I do not believe that the countryside will be overrun by the anorak brigade any more than it is already. In the event, ramblers and landowners will behave like grown-ups and we will all enjoy our countryside.

4.11 p.m.

Lord Hardy of Wath: My Lords, I join in the commendation of the noble Lord, Lord Gladwyn. He provides the House with a useful opportunity for debate. It is also an opportunity for a third Yorkshire Peer to take part, not counting the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Carlisle who is extremely familiar with my area from the days when he was very much our leading Anglican.

I see the Government's approach as one with a good pedigree. It is a manifestation of the commitment to the environment and the countryside demonstrated by the government of 1945--a government who also did a great deal for the farmers. From that time we have seen an enormous increase of interest in conservation with a proliferation of bodies and organisations committed to our natural heritage and conservation to the point that membership of all those organisations must dwarf that of the political parties. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds may actually have more members than all the political parties in Britain put together.

Interest in these matters is enormous. But the Government may already have helped the voluntary movement to which reference has already been made. While many farmers in my area are friends of mine, there are a few who were not very good at being helpful to the voluntary movement. I used to go round with my deer-hound and wolfhound to open blocked footpaths. The deer-hound would jump over, but the wolfhound would not jump and went straight through. We frequently cleared footpaths by that approach.

That does not mean that I am not appreciative of the work of a number of farmers and landowners in serving the cause of conservation. I understand what has

19 May 1999 : Column 319

happened since 1945 when there were few cars. There is a great deal more mobility, nuisance, injury and damage today; and there is a great deal of anxiety. Like the noble Earl, Lord Peel, I am involved with the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust. I have been a member for 40 years and a patron for a long time. I hope that the Government will pay clear attention to the trust's submission, which I am sure will be echoed by many other conservation bodies in Britain.

The trust has 78 nature reserves. Inherently a nature reserve cannot be open to unfettered public access. A number of noble Lords, on our all-party visit to Kew last week, will have heard the director speak about the lady's slipper orchid. The lady's slipper orchid featured in the Bill I took through Parliament in 1975 when there was one single surviving plant. It had to be treated with absolute security. If we have complete, unfettered licence to roam, someone could put a hobnail boot on it. It is in a better state now but it is not yet so secure that the veil of confidentiality can be relieved. I made it quite clear at that time that I did not wish to know where it was. I still do not know where it is and I do not want anyone else to know until there is a proliferation of the plant.

In my area I estimate that the skylark population has dropped by around 90 per cent. I can see three pairs from my study window. I believe they are breeding. I was therefore less than pleased last weekend when off-the-road motorcyclists were cavorting up and down the area where one of the pairs have their nest. I would rather see skylarks than off-the-road motorcycles.

The litter problem is growing enormously in country as well as in town. Only last week I took a number of photographs of litter within 1.5 miles of my home and within one mile of a very good dumping site. I sent them to the local media, the chief constable and the chief executive of my local authority as an illustration of the scale of the problem.

There is also the problem of people who believe that access to the countryside does not include any commitment to responsibility or common sense. A man was about to shoot birds on a lake for which I have some care at the side of my home. He seemed to believe that the Government's White Paper will allow him to do just what he likes; that is, to shoot what he likes, when he likes. He went away somewhat puzzled. The Government will have to make clear that access is for walkers, not shooters, coursers, motorcycles or off-the-road motor vehicles.

There is responsibility and ignorance, but there is also danger. I put a great deal of effort into promoting the economic and environmental recovery of my area. We received substantial sums of money and the local authority dedicated great energy to transforming our environment. We have a big lake where there was once a colliery. People decided to take motor boats to the lake across an area of newly planted shrubs and trees causing thousands of pounds in damage. Children are attracted to the lake. I took the number of one of the vehicles concerned and offered to be a witness in court. I warned that there was a great deal of danger. A boy drowned the following week. There are risks in access where there is no common sense.

19 May 1999 : Column 320

I want to see people enjoy our countryside; it is a great source of inspiration in English literature, poetry, music and art. We have seen too much of it destroyed in recent years, often in an eagerness to produce food at all costs. Thousands of miles of hedgerow were taken up for that reason. In recent years it has become set-aside. We must ensure that our countryside remains worth seeing. We must ensure that it is also enjoyed, but enjoyed with an attitude of common sense and wisdom.

4.18 p.m.

Earl Ferrers: My Lords, I, too, thank my noble friend Lord Gladwyn for introducing this debate and for his excellent speech, in which he asked a number of pertinent questions. I differed from him only when he said he thought the conflict between the urban and non-urban populations was less than it was before. I remember when I read agriculture at university many years ago being told that one of the difficulties was the conflict between the urban and rural dwellers. It was said that that must be lessened. But I feel that that gulf has widened, which is a great pity.

I should declare an interest in so far as I am involved with agriculture and have been involved with land and land management in various ways during a large part of my life.

I hope that this will not be regarded as provocative, but it is quite nice to have a break from the House of Lords Bill and all the issues that we have been discussing over the past few days. Indeed, if we were to remove those who are speaking from the Front Benches, it is interesting to note that of the 23 speakers who are taking part in today's debate 17 are hereditary Peers. I just mention that as an interesting statistic and noble Lords can make of it what they wish.

I agree with the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Carlisle that the "right to roam" is a controversial expression. We ought to find something else which is less controversial. It is controversial because it is a right. Once you give people rights, you impose obligations upon others. That is a matter which has not been considered nearly enough. Any one who holds any part of the countryside in this country has a great privilege. I do not agree with the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, who said that the countryside belongs to the people. With the greatest respect to him, I think that that is a whole lot of old rubbish; indeed, it belongs to the individual owners. That does not mean to say that others should not have the advantage of it and indeed access to it. But to say that it belongs to the people is simply not true. Sometimes it belongs to a smallholder, sometimes to a landowner, sometimes to a person who just has a house in a garden, sometimes to a company and sometimes a trust. So all those different owners enjoy a certain privilege. However, they also enjoy a great responsibility. I agree that people ought to be encouraged to use and enjoy the countryside for all the reasons which the noble Lord, Lord Hardy of Wath, gave so eloquently.

We all take pride in the countryside. It is a cause of pride because it has been managed. However, as the right reverend Prelate has reminded us, it is also

19 May 1999 : Column 321

people's workplace. I was impressed by what he said about the problems of fell farmers--for example, when people find a broken wall, they crawl over it and it has to be replaced. If they find a broken gate, it, too, has to be replaced. All those costs have to fall upon someone and I just do not think that the Government have thought enough about it.

It has been said that 80 per cent of the people who answered the consultation document were in favour of the right to roam. But if you sent out a consultation document which asked, "Would you like a free bottle of champagne?", I should think you would get quite a substantial answer in one way. The fact is that if that document had asked, "Are you in favour of people trampling over nesting birds?", a different response might have been received.

The access to the countryside has to be managed. People do not walk in a straight line. Dogs will be let off the lead and they will sniff out birds and worry sheep. Moreover, people will want to brew up a cup of tea and, inadvertently, set fire to a place. Indeed, what happens when people camp at night? Who will see them off? What right has that person to do so? These people may well say, "We have now been given a right", and the response could be, "Yes, you have a right to roam but you must not go over that particular area because it is a site of special scientific interest". Those people may reply that they did not know that, so who will explain it to them?

Whose responsibility is it to look after such places? Is it to be the responsibility of the landlord? Further, what happens if he has to take out greater liability insurance? What happens if someone falls down a hole on someone else's land? Who will pay for that? These are matters of great concern. I agree with my noble friend Lord Peel that it would have been far better had this been done on a voluntary rather than a statutory basis.

There are many interests involved in the countryside, especially in the uplands, and so on. There is agriculture, tending the countryside and the protection of birds, nesting birds and wildlife, together with the lambing of sheep as well as the shooters, the horse riders, the walkers and everyone else. If all this is to be opened up, it must be controlled. If you are going to control it, you must consider how you will do so. Indeed, rules, laws and regulations will have to be made and there will also have to be administration. It may perhaps be necessary to have wardens and car parks--heaven knows! The fact is that this does invite another huge array of bureaucracy. That is what worries me.

I have just suffered a momentary lapse of memory, as happens frequently to some people, but I now recall that it is the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, who is to respond to the debate. He will be replying for the department in which I once had the responsibility of being an ornament. There is one great thing about that department: it has an in-built dynamo to interfere. As I believe I said only the other day, following the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Hardy of Wath, on hedgerows, that is not a reflection on the civil servants. However, when Ministers say, "Let's have a right to roam", it must

19 May 1999 : Column 322

be controlled. But how will you control it? The answer is that there will be endless laws and regulations--indeed, 15 pages of regulations were introduced covering hedgerows--so heaven knows how many regulations will come out on the right to roam. What will it cost, and who will pay for it? Is it really right when all this should be done in a voluntary way? There are an enormous number of unanswered questions here, many of which go far deeper than giving people what seems to be a very nice right to roam.

4.26 p.m.

Lord Bridges: My Lords, I must first thank my noble friend, and neighbour, Lord Gladwyn, for his excellent choice of a subject for one of our Wednesday debates. He introduced the topic in his usual clear and level-headed way. This is extremely timely: we have today an opportunity to give some considered reactions to the important government Statement of 8th March, and to seek answers to some particular matters arising from it. Indeed, I suspect that our proceedings this afternoon resemble a sort of Second Reading debate without the text of the Bill--or is it to be Bills, in the plural?--which the Government have promised. I trust that some of the points raised may be useful to the Government in preparing the text of the legislation.

I join other speakers in asking whether the Minister can tell us more about the timing of this legislation. Noble Lords may recall that the Statement said that legislation will be introduced, "as parliamentary time allows", an expression which sometimes turns out to mean the Greek Kalends. I am sure that that is not the Government's intention, but any decoding of the expression which the Minister can give us would be very welcome.

I should explain briefly my personal position. I do not own land but am an enthusiastic walker over hill and dale, which I have practised from childhood and still continue with some zest. I have walked extensively in this country, and in the other nations where I have lived. It is clear to me from this experience that the access which we already enjoy in this country to "open countryside" compares very favourably with that available in foreign countries, few of which have a system of rights of way, or common land, as we know and enjoy them here.

France does have an ambitious and extensive network of long distance footpaths, called, I think, Les Grandes Routes, which I have walked on in Provence and recently seen in Corsica. I have also walked on the Appalachian trail and in the Rockies in the United States and elsewhere. The conclusion I draw is that no one abroad has anything comparable with our rights of way which are a national treasure, to be maintained and nourished for use by everyone.

It is not clear to me from careful study of the Statement just what it is that the Government propose to do with our rights of way. Perhaps they do not yet know themselves. As I see it, the need here is for an increase in resources rather than any fundamental change. The biggest threat to our footpaths just now is the explosion in the number of mountain bikes and

19 May 1999 : Column 323

four-wheel drive recreational vehicles. It would surely be a mistake to change the law so as to permit the more extensive use of green lanes by these powerful, noisy and destructive monsters. It is absurd to create a general right to open a lane to motor traffic, because it might once have been used by a pony trap or horse and cart earlier on this century. That is the kind of decision which is actually being taken at present. Per contra: there is a case for reclassifying the RUPPs as bridleways by statute, to afford them greater protection. In general, reclassification should be for the benefit of the non-motorised user, a point upon which I heartily agree with the noble Lord, Lord Hardy of Wath.

I also greatly welcome the recognition that access to the open countryside should be for quiet enjoyment. That is a matter which we have debated in recent years and constitutes a welcome change of heart by the Government. I see from the Statement that there is a commitment to make some improvement to the rights of way system. I am sure that its prime need is to have more resources than have lately been available. It is, I think, generally understood that for this purpose local authorities have tiny budgets which are manifestly inadequate. Increasing these resources should be the first priority in this whole subject as it would enable the system to operate more effectively. There is little or no cash to hand at present to mend stiles or to spend modestly on signage. Let it be modest, please: our village has lately sprouted a forest of smart metal signs with arrows decorously picked out in white paint to indicate the direction to be taken. That is quite unnecessary for anyone with a map, particularly as these lanes do not go anywhere in particular. Yet there is little or no officer time available to arrange visits to those who may be privily obstructing a registered right of way.

I also suggest to the Minister that this question of rights of way is cardinal to the whole question of access to the open countryside because many of these areas will not necessarily have road access or other means of access. Therefore it may be necessary to identify particular rights of way to enable the walker to reach these places. I am particularly intrigued to learn of the proposed local access forums which will have an advisory role in assessing these matters. Can the Minister explain how these appointments are to be made and who will choose the members? Will the selection be in the hands of the elected authority and not, I trust, in the gift of the regional development agency?

I conclude with this simple observation. The Government are now committed to introducing a Bill which will fundamentally alter the concept of land ownership. The noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, made a number of valid points in that connection. I greatly hope that the change can be undertaken without reducing the sense of responsibility which most owners of land in this country have felt about their property. The best of these people have indeed acted as stewards for life, and it is important to maintain, and not to diminish, that sense of responsibility as these measures are devised and take effect.

19 May 1999 : Column 324

4.32 p.m.

Lord Marlesford: My Lords, I too declare an interest as the owner of land in Suffolk. I find myself very much in agreement with the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, as regards the privilege of owning land. I was interested to note the slight distinction that I felt was made between my noble friend Lord Ferrers and the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, on that point. I regard the privilege as equalled only by the obligation one has. In my case there are not many things I want to achieve in this world more than to leave my own little cabbage patch more attractive than I found it. I believe passionately in that because I believe passionately in the protection of rural England. It is because I believe in that protection that I believe the more people from urban areas visit the countryside, the more powerful will be the lobby to protect the countryside from undue or insensitive development.

I do not totally agree with my noble friend Lord Ferrers that the division between town and country is getting greater, because all the figures show that more and more people visit the countryside. I shall return to that point in a moment. The most beautiful areas should be open to public access. Much was achieved after the war with the Acts that designated national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty, heritage coasts and so on. In my view, that was one of the two great achievements of the Attlee government, the other being the establishment of the National Health Service.

In more recent years we owe a particular debt to the National Trust, especially for its Enterprise Neptune scheme. The National Trust now owns about 600 miles of the 900 miles of coastline that it originally targeted to achieve conservation and access. Without that we might well have the kind of denial of access that is, for example, to be seen on some parts of the coast of the south of France. We are particularly fortunate in access to our coast.

The biggest problem is to get people to visit many of these areas. I believe that the access that is already available is arguably one of the great under-used assets of this country. I refer to five areas that I know well. I have been lucky enough to walk in certain parts of the Suffolk AONB with the noble Lord, Lord Gladwyn, to whom we owe a debt for giving us the opportunity to discuss these matters in this debate. The Lake District National Park is the most heavily used national park, but if one ventures away from the roads one can at almost any time of year soon enjoy deep solitude. On a number of occasions I have been fortunate enough to walk in Yorkshire with my noble friend Lord Eccles, who spoke with the authority of someone who uses the countryside in that part of the world. One can walk in that area in the height of summer and see practically no one. That is remarkable. I refer to one of the most obviously visited counties; Hampshire. I have walked with the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, in various parts of Hampshire, including the New Forest and the Isle of Wight. Again, even in the height of summer it is possible to enjoy solitude and the beauty of the countryside.

19 May 1999 : Column 325

I refer finally to Cornwall, which has arguably the most beautiful heritage coast in our land, both on the north and south coasts. For 10 years now I have visited Cornwall every other year and I have walked there fairly strenuously for about five hours a day. Only three weeks ago on a bright Saturday sandwiched between a wet Friday and a wet Sunday my wife and I walked with friends in Cornwall for some six hours on part of the south coast of Cornwall near Fowey. During the whole of that walk I believe we passed about 35 people. We walked on the National Trust coastal path. Therefore I believe that at present there is a great deal of public access to land which is not fully used.

There have been conflicts with regard to access. It has become a difficult issue which is deeply rooted in history. The current conflicts are caused sometimes by the arrogance of a few landowners. Sometimes that arrogance is deliberate but sometimes they are just thoughtless. The closure of a footpath can be an act of thoughtlessness or of arrogance. I would like to see bodies such as the CLA and the NFU take tough action against their members who behave in that way because they bring great disrepute to the landowning fraternity.

One can also encounter aggression among ramblers. I think that things have moved on, but I remember that some years ago Mr. Alan Mattingley, who was then the chief officer of the Ramblers' Association, wrote an article in the Tribune or the New Statesman on the foundation of a body called the Socialist Countryside Group, of which he was a founder member. Incidentally I do not think it is appropriate for a national officer of a voluntary organisation to become involved in an overtly political organisation. He said that the Labour Party had a simple policy as regards access; namely, land nationalisation. Noble Lords will realise that this incident took place a long while ago and that view is as far out of the frame as it is possible to be. However, I recognise the point made by my noble friend Lord Peel that special protection is needed for those who obtain their living from sporting activities in the countryside. Special protection is also needed in conservation areas.

I wish to make two specific points. First, I believe that there is great virtue in the new gates that many local authorities provide which open and shut automatically. They are sometimes called Yorkshire gates. It is difficult for bicyclists to get over them. In that respect they are just as difficult as stiles. However, they are easier for disabled people to negotiate than stiles. That is important.

Secondly, I would like to see parish councils, which I regard as the real grassroots of government, have the power to issue orders that footpaths should be opened where there have been obstructions rather than having to go through the whole bureaucracy of county councils.

Finally, I congratulate the Government on their subtle approach to the matter. They cleverly leaked the idea that the matter would be dealt with by voluntary methods and then produced the promise of legislation. It will take a long time for the legislation to mature because there must be full consultation. It is slightly similar to the hedgerow legislation which took the

19 May 1999 : Column 326

previous government some 10 years between pledge and implementation--and then it was not perfect, as my noble friend Lord Ferrers will know. As one who is perhaps to remain here for a while, I hope to do what I can to improve the eventual legislation.

4.40 p.m.

Viscount Colville of Culross: My Lords, I am sure it is a coincidence that I am the fourth successive speaker from East Anglia to join the ranks of those who wish to congratulate my noble friend Lord Gladwyn on introducing the debate. I do so from a background of some forensic experience of rights of way. I am glad that in his comprehensive and admirable speech my noble friend touched upon that matter. I hope that the noble, Lord Whitty, will take the opportunity of building a little on what he said in his Statement of 8th March about the flexibility that the Government wish to build into the new approach to the network of public rights of way. I hope he will comment also on the documents that have now appeared from the Countryside Agency, referred to by my noble friend Lord Gladwyn.

The present legislation is immensely complex. Starting in 1949, it was amended by the Countryside Act 1968; then by the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981; and then again in 1985. It runs to a large amount of print. It is supplemented by what the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, will no doubt welcome as a typical Department of the Environment circular running to 28 pages, circular 2/93, on how local authorities are to implement the legislation.

There is now an opportunity to cut down on some of the complexity. Circular 2/93 informs local councils of two matters: first, that there is to be no increase of expenditure or manpower. Councils are to ensure that sufficient resources are available from existing budgets to carry out their statutory duties. They are nevertheless to keep their maps up to date and ensure that the rights of way network is kept fit for use and clear of obstructions. Secondly, they are informed that the target date is the year 2000. Perhaps the Minister can say whether local authorities will achieve that target. Everyone will rejoice if they do.

Other noble Lords have spoken of the cost of the legislation, not least to local authorities. Of course they are promised that they can recoup some of the costs of diversions or the stopping-up of rights of way from those who benefit. That was brought into effect by statutory instruments in 1993 and 1996--but it is still discretionary. My local authority footpath officer tells me that the average cost of a very simple, unopposed diversion order for a footpath is between £700 and £800; £400 for the advertisements and about £300 to £400 for officers' time. Some of that money may be recouped but, of course, as it is discretionary, it may not.

The legislation is too complicated and too expensive. We are now 50 years on from the 1949 legislation and we are merely recording existing rights of way and their status--nothing more constructive than that. The legislation is so complicated that it took the Court of Appeal to decide in a certain case in 1990 the point of all the legislation. It is now clear that it is to record

19 May 1999 : Column 327

what is available for public use; it is then for the local authorities to ensure that it is fit and available for such use.

There are problems with maps. A definitive map is created under the legislation and now, very sensibly, it is brought up to date from time to time as part of a continuous process. But the availability of the definitive map is a major problem. The Ordnance Survey has to be given notice of any changes; it then has to incorporate those changes into its maps. Copyright prevents any distribution of the definitive map to anyone who wishes to walk along a footpath. Local authorities are not allowed to give the map to anyone. If they do, it is a breach of copyright and severe financial penalties ensue. That approach stands in great contrast to the approach of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Foods, which publishes maps under various conservation schemes--countryside stewardships, countryside access, environmentally sensitive areas and so on. The ministry will say to a local authority, "Here is a map. We are keen to promote the use of these access sites, so please feel free to make as many copies of the enclosed plan as you require." That is a very different approach from the one associated with the definitive map. I took advantage of the service on the way home. I went to one of the access sites, a heathland regeneration area, which was full of sheep and heavily fenced. I do not know what to make of that.

Now that the network is there and, broadly speaking, we all know who is allowed to do what, perhaps I may ask the Minister what the Government propose to do to bring about a balance. Will local access forums be set up to conciliate between the very sincerely held views of landowners, ramblers and others who wish to use the countryside and to cut down the costs of disputes? Will a conciliation process be built into the legislation?

I welcome the maiden speech of the noble Viscount, Lord Eccles. He made it plain that we must bring forward the process for the wider purposes that the Government have brought into the debate about access to open countryside. He described why one needs to have maps. Will the Minister say something about mapping and copyright within the wider process? I am sure that the Countryside Agency will help. I urge the Government to consider positively the needs of users of both the existing rights of way and the proposed wider areas defined in the legislation in order that everyone will know where they can go and where they cannot go. The Government can make a valuable--


Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page