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Viscount Colville of Culross: My Lords, I am well aware that I have overrun my time. If the noble Baroness had not interrupted me I would have sat down 30 seconds earlier. I do so now. I hope that the Minister will tell us where the Government are going on these matters.
I shall not follow the noble Viscount, Lord Colville of Culross, down the footpaths and bridleways that he has opened up, except to say that on that subject I entirely agree with the noble Lord, Lord Bridges, that the assumption that every track to which there has ever been vehicular access should now be open to motorised vehicles is idiotic and should be reversed.
Turning to the subject of the debate, so excellently introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Gladwyn, following the Statement made on 8th March by the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, I expressed concerns, particularly in regard to the damage that could be done to fragile ecologies. I chose as my example lowland heathland. I have had a number of conversations on this matter and have taken care to reread the Statement and attempt to understand what it is all about.
I am to some extent reassured by the fact that much heathland is already open to general roaming and no harm is apparently suffered by the wildlife there. Also, there will be a continuing ability for the owners and managers of such land, and all other land covered by this approach in legislation, to close the land, or parts of it, at certain times of year and for certain lengths of time. Nevertheless, I still have some reservations about this approach to access to the countryside. Some of the attitudes that I wish to express were expressed much more ably by the noble Lord, Lord Hardy of Wath, in an excellent and most interesting contribution which will certainly bear rereading.
My first specific question is: what will happen to open land owned by the Ministry of Defence? It is an important element in open, uncultivated countryside in Surrey, Hampshire, Dorset and Wiltshire, and no doubt in other parts of the country such as Yorkshire, where traditionally there have existed large military encampments of a permanent nature. It is an important matter that the Government are the owner, pro tem, of the land and they may wish to set a good example to others.
Secondly, there is the question of extending the right to roam to woodland. I come from Surrey, which is the most heavily wooded county in England. Much of that woodland is extremely remote. I assure noble Lords who may think that it is impossible to be remote in Surrey that that is not the case. The woodland is remote from any highway. The question would arise as to how anyone could reach it, supposing that any right were established for people to roam in it. The only way that it could be done would be by establishing rights of way through cultivated land. I wonder whether the Government have given any consideration to that problem, which no doubt arises in respect of other parcels of land, not merely woodland.
The question of cost has been referred to by several speakers. I have attempted to understand the Entec report commissioned by the DETR, which deals precisely with the cost-benefit analysis of various methods of achieving the Government's ambitions to grant a right to roam. In every case there are quite heavy costs which will be borne on an on-going basis by the owners of land. As the right reverend Prelate, among other speakers, reminded us, in some cases the people who are responsible for such uncultivated or open land are by no means among the richest of landowners or land managers. Nevertheless, as I understand it, the Government are not speaking in the same breath about compensation; they are simply talking about costs.
More generally, my doubts about this approach to increased access to the countryside can be summed up in the idea of creating an absolute right to roam. Every year, at Liberal and Liberal Democrat conferences and assemblies we have sung enthusiastically, "God gave the land to the people". Maybe He did, but most gifts require responsibility in their use. I do not share the optimism of some noble Lords that everyone knows how to use those gifts wisely.
The other day, on Leith Hill, we found a grass snake or slow-worm; to be honest, I cannot say which it was. The first group of people who found it, left it. However, we later came across a couple of young men carrying the said snake over a stick. When my daughter remonstrated with them she was subjected to abuse. In those circumstances everyone who has expressed doubts as to the balance of rights and responsibilities which the Government intend to build into forthcoming legislation is justified.
Lord Peston: My Lords, I was not sure whether I should take part in this debate. However, I was considerably encouraged, indeed cheered up, by the remarks of the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers. The noble Earl pointed out that I have the rare distinction of being a life Peer rather than a common or garden hereditary.
The debate focuses on the Government's Statement on access to the open countryside. I believe that the policy outlined achieves a reasonable balance between the needs of all the interested parties and is worthy of support. We look forward to the proposed Bill, which we shall be able to scrutinise in detail. I know that we cannot anticipate the gracious Speech, but it would be less than satisfactory if the story in Monday's Guardian were true and there is to be no legislation in the coming year.
I wish immediately to raise a point concerning existing rights of way. There appears to be persistent flouting of the law on the part of some, albeit a minority, of farmers and landowners. They rely on public ignorance and complacency on the one hand and a shortage of local authority resources on the other to deny people access to paths which they are legally entitled to use. In my judgment local authorities ought to act more vigorously than they currently do and bring the law into play sooner for persistent offenders.
In that connection, will my noble friend the Minister tell the House what is the maximum penalty that can be imposed in such cases? Will he also tell us, in connection with one or two of the most appalling cases, whether, when the offender is a foreign national, there are legal powers which can lead to the person concerned being denied the right of residence in this country?
On a more pleasant theme, access to the countryside is part of our national tradition. I speak as someone who has always enjoyed the right to roam in the big city. But that is complementary to walks in the countryside rather than a substitute. The city environment has certainly deteriorated, especially in London, not least because it is now so much more crowded and congested. But my subjective impression is that there has been a different kind of deterioration in the countryside. That is not so much to do with crowds, although I understand that there are places in which there are so many ramblers that a solitary and quiet walk becomes impossible; it is much more that farming and other developments involving wire, impenetrable fences and locked gates make it almost impossible to walk across open countryside. I do not believe it is only in my imagination that my sisters and I when young ran across fields and gathered bluebells in the local woods. I appreciate that the world moves on, but it would be a great pity if young people in the future were denied the freedom that we used to have and experienced the natural world only in a structured and controlled way.
This takes me to another favourite theme. If one lives in the country one must get to the paths along which one wishes to walk. That means going down country lanes which themselves used to be suitable places for rambling. Without pavements, and with motor transport now out of control, they are no longer as safe as they used to be, especially if young children are involved. Speed limits are not low enough and are ignored by country folk who engage in so-called "rat runs" to save a minute or two rather than use main roads. These are the same people who are loudest in their protestations of the need to preserve the rural environment.
In the past, joining with other inhabitants of East Anglia, I have remarked that this is a problem in Suffolk where I live. The local authorities, the county council, the police and so on are always sympathetic but carry on blithely doing nothing. I am told that the problem is as great in other counties. I would prefer that local authorities acted on their own behalf than called for central government intervention, but we shall see whether that becomes necessary in due course if matters deteriorate further.
I revert to another of my favourite themes: the excellence of local newspapers. In this case I refer specifically to the East Anglian Daily Times which every week outlines a suggested local walk. That is most helpful to amateur ramblers like myself--perhaps I should now refer to myself as an amateur limper--both in terms of sticking to rights of way and stimulating interest. I know that other local newspapers perform an excellent service in guiding people towards such excellent walks.
To conclude, I join with others in saying how grateful we are to the noble Lord, Lord Gladwyn, for introducing the debate in such a well-informed and sensible manner and for reminding us of the value of the countryside to our national heritage. As other noble Lords are aware, the noble Lord, Lord Gladwyn, is the author of an excellent book on Suffolk, which I read with great pleasure. So much of our history is set in rural areas and so much of our great literature is remarkable for its countryside scenes. It would be dreadful if young people viewed the countryside much as they view Mars--as a strange and distant place which they can read about but cannot visit or, when they do visit, are not welcome. Equally, it would be dreadful if no parts of our countryside retained an air of tranquillity. I hope that the debate will help to limit the damage that has occurred in some places and lead to policies that in due course will reverse it.
Viscount Bledisloe: My Lords, I rise to seek the views of the Government on two specific cost issues which will arise if--I suppose that I should say "when"--they require the occupiers of land to allow people onto that land with no discretion as to their suitability or likely behaviour and no power to require from them terms and conditions. I join with the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Carlisle in stressing that the occupiers in question are not just owners of large estates, who are often wrongly deemed to be rich, but include tenants, particularly upland tenants, who seek to earn a living from unpromising and unfruitful land.
The first issue I raise is the cost arising from the need to insure against occupier's liability. This point was raised by the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers. As a lawyer I recognise that the Government propose to impose on occupiers only the same level of duty as they owe to trespassers. Accordingly, the Government have said that they do not expect the cost of insurance to be much greater than it is at present. But let us take the case of open land quite near a population centre, and therefore likely to be visited, which has features such as rocks, caves or the mineshaft to which the noble Viscount, Lord Eccles, referred, that may attract people who want to climb, go down potholes and so on.
In those circumstances I suggest it is quite possible that with this potentially large influx of people who are exercising a right, and therefore are more likely to bring claims, insurers will either insist on a higher premium or require works to be done, notices to be put up, safety precautions to be taken and so on. Surely, that cost, if it arises, must fall on the Government who have sent these people onto the land rather than on the reluctant occupier who is being ordered to receive them.
My second issue raises perhaps a greater problem and concerns damage done by these new compulsory visitors. I wholly agree with those who have said that however much rules are made, bureaucracy imposed, monitors created and so on damage will occur. I take two examples: first, dogs that are let off leads--however much the rules say that they must be kept on leads--and then chase sheep, killing lambs or causing ewes to abort. Secondly, what about picnickers who light a fire
In those circumstances, if such damage occurs it is highly unlikely that the occupier will have the name and address of the culprit. Even if he does, that culprit may well not have the assets to pay the damages. Surely, in those circumstances the Government, somewhat like the Motor Insurers Bureau, must accept ultimate liability for damage caused by those they have sent onto the land when no other source of compensation is available to the occupier.
Unless issues such as these are addressed and solved the Government's policy will cause great unfairness and resentment. I hope that in the light of my extreme compliance with the Government Whip's observations I shall receive very favourable answers to these problems.
Lord Renton of Mount Harry: My Lords, I remind noble Lords that I have an interest in what we are debating as chairman of the Sussex Downs Conservation Board. Currently, that is the only conservation board in the country set up by joint agreement between local authorities and the Countryside Commission. I hope that that will be remedied shortly and that there will be other conservation boards as a result of a Bill which may receive its Second Reading in your Lordships' House on Friday. That is a bit of advanced selling of my legislation.
I am delighted to take part in this debate initiated by my noble friend--also one of my oldest friends-- Lord Gladwyn and to have the chance to listen to the maiden speech of another old friend, my noble friend Lord Eccles. Listening to them both I felt that in a sense I had other interests to declare. I have walked with my noble friend Lord Gladwyn. My only criticism of his walks is that he tends to go a bit fast; he likes to get places and not have too many people talking en route. My wife and he have ridden the South Downs Way from the Hampshire border to Eastbourne. That is the longest bridlepath in the country and one that now falls under the bailiwick of my conservation board.
Listening to my noble friend Lord Eccles I was reminded of Bill Bryson's notes of walks around England in his enchanting book written before he returned to the States. I remember walking with my noble friend Lord Eccles and Viscountess Eccles through part of Swaledale not many months ago. The only omission from my noble friend's speech was the name of the extremely good pub at which we ended our morning's walk. I am sure that that is not because he has forgotten it.
I am anxious to agree with the comment of both the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Carlisle that the terminology "agreed access" is very much happier than "right to
The conservation board, which I have the honour of chairing, has done a lot of work on public access to the South Downs and long before the Government announced their intention to legislate on 8th March. That is only right because we are responsible for 2,200 kilometres of rights of way on the Sussex Downs. We put out a number of leaflets headed, "Take Your Bus for a Walk." The aim is to encourage people, for example in Brighton, to take their local bus on a normal bus route into some part of the Downs where they can get off, go on a circular walk and return to the bus an hour or two--or three--later.
The majority of those on the board favour a voluntary route to increased agreed access. We have had a great deal of discussion on the matter. We have always made it a principle to work with farmers, landowners and the local authority to arrive at land management agreements, which often include increased access, perhaps opening up a linear path between two open areas of access which are currently not joined together.
Shortly after I became chairman of the board we set ourselves a target of an annual 5 per cent increase in the amount of open access on the Downs. Although we made some progress, we have not yet reached the target and further progress has now stopped as a result of the Government's announcement. I am sure that the Minister will listen carefully to what I say. It has been stopped not least because the farmers and landowners with whom we were talking now say, in the nicest possible way, "We want to see the shape of the legislation before we go any further." That is a perfectly natural reaction.
The second reason for progress stopping is the Government's decision to freeze access payments under agri-environment schemes, for example, the environmentally sensitive area schemes and the country stewardship scheme. That was a mistaken decision because whatever the final shape of the legislation it has meant that the stewardship schemes, which were designed to open up access, have come to a grinding halt. I hope very much that the Minister will ask his colleagues to reconsider that decision. It was a useful bargaining tool.
I wrote to the Minister for the Environment about some of these issues on 19th March. I pointed out that the particular problem for us in the downlands was going to be the agreed definition of "down". A careful definition is critical to the success of any open access scheme. If it is confined only to chalk grassland it will mean very little indeed; if it is permanent grassland, the maximum definition, then that is likely to upset many farmers and landowners. We have to be wise and clever in making definitions; otherwise the Bill will start off by causing a great deal of confusion and distress.
Are rights of way improvements to be included in the legislation? How will the Government act to stop land being ploughed up before the right to roam legislation comes into force? The Government must take these points very seriously. I hope that in so doing they will consult very widely with a conservation board such as ours. We are there to help, whatever our views about the legislation.
The issue of the public liability of those who are required to open up their land under right to roam legislation and improved access legislation needs to be cleared up. The noble Lord, Lord Whitty, was very dismissive of this point when he answered questions in your Lordships' House on 30th March. I hope that he has had time to reflect further because it is an imponderable of great additional possible cost, a Sword of Damocles that cannot be left hanging over the necks of farmers and landowners.
Finally, I hope that the Minister will give some indication today of when we can expect legislation on these matters. We have been waiting for many months, and the situation of suspense at the moment is intolerable.
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