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Earl Ferrers: My Lords, I did not want to interrupt but was tempted to do so because the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, did. I hope that the noble Lord will correct himself. He said that he agreed with the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, that the land is owned by the people. In fact that is not right. I can understand the sentiment behind it; but factually that is not correct.
Lord Whitty: My Lords, I did say "emotionally". I said it "belongs" to the people and that does not necessarily imply the legal right on which the noble Earl and many of his noble friends are insisting. But in my view there is fundamentally a right for people to have access to the more beautiful parts of our countryside, and that is what this legislation is about.
We have been asked why we do not proceed on a voluntary basis. We have been trying for 50 years to proceed on a voluntary basis. If we continue to proceed on a voluntary basis in the way that we have, it will take a century or two to achieve the level of access to land that this White Paper provides. It is almost as slow as the reform of your Lordships' House. Those more malevolent than me may say that the parallel is perhaps not entirely coincidental.
We believe that once we have legislated here, the best way forward thereafter is to deal with the issue at local level by involving everybody--landlords, tenants, ramblers, voluntary organisations and the local community. Until we have so legislated, we do not believe that any significant increase in access to the open countryside will be provided.
There has been some over-reaction to this White Paper. I accept that there has been an over-reaction on the part of some of those who advocate access to the land--the ramblers' organisations and others. But there has also been over-reaction on the part of those who own land. We are not in any sense talking about access to the vast majority of enclosed agricultural land; we are not talking about an unfettered right to roam; we are talking about controlled and responsible access to the open countryside. Previous governments have tried to legislate for this; they have tried the voluntary approach. We now need to go further.
There is no doubt about public opinion; 80 per cent of those surveyed, whatever the origin of the survey, are in favour of seeing more of our countryside opened up. Therefore in March we announced the introduction of a new right; that is, the right of access on foot, but only on foot, to mountain, moor, heath, down and registered common land. In total, that is 4 million acres of open countryside. We have now asked the Countryside Agency, the Countryside Council for Wales and the Forestry Commission to report on access to other types
Lord Gisborough: My Lords, the Minister said that access will be provided to 4 million acres. Is he aware that 1 million acres have been opened up by voluntary agreement since 1991. That is not all that slow, is it?
Lord Whitty: My Lords, in most cases there are severe limitations on those voluntary agreements. It is not totally open access. Nevertheless, there has been some progress in recent years, partly because people have begun to feel that at some point the Government are going to have to legislate.
In terms of operating this locally, we are looking for a consensual, integrated approach to access. So we will have national and local access forums. As the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, said, these will be vital to the implementation of this policy. It is important that local arrangements are publicised, as my noble friend Lord Grantchester said. It is important also that the right of the tenant hill farmers, to which the right reverend Prelate the Lord Bishop of Carlisle referred, are reflected in those forums where appropriate.
Greater access will not, in my view, create the vast range of problems that were referred to in this debate. Indeed, making the countryside more accessible should help foster interest in its well-being and encourage the reporting by all parties of any illegal and inappropriate activities, of which there will no doubt be some. Moreover, it will enable us to modify the right of access where issues of conservation and protection of wildlife arise.
The noble Lord, Lord Montagu, and the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, referred to wildlife. It is important that we provide additional protection for especially fragile and important habitats. It may be necessary, as we recognised in the Statement, to restrict access either temporarily or indeed permanently, or to linear routes where habitats are endangered. We will be giving the countryside agencies and the national parks authorities powers to close land where it might threaten wildlife.
In addition to those safeguards for wildlife, we intend to give landowners discretion to close access to land temporarily for a number of days each year. The annual limit will be set at 28 days initially, with perhaps 12 of those 28 days available for reasons other than land management. Moreover, in special circumstances, as the noble Lord, Lord Gladwyn, suggested, where there is a need, landlords will be able to apply for longer closures where the discretionary powers are insufficient.
Questions were raised as to what we mean by access on foot. We mean precisely that. The White Paper does not provide any additional legal access except on foot and any recreation which follows will be for those who are coming to that land on foot.
Lord Whitty: My Lords, I can confirm that the Bill will deal only with access on foot to the countryside. There will also be recreational activities, like climbing in certain circumstances, which people who have access on foot may then pursue. But that is only access on foot and not by horseback or by mountain bike, although I praise the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, for advocating the role of biking to create greater health for some of our population, especially the younger element. However, the latter is not covered in the legal rights which apply here.
We on this side of the House pay tribute to those landowners who have already voluntarily engaged in access. We pay tribute to them for their management of the land, and indeed to organisations such as the National Trust. However, there are still vast areas of land through which there is no adequate access. We believe that legislating for a statutory right, followed through by local voluntary agreements on how to implement it, is now the best way forward.
A number of detailed questions were raised on this access. For example, the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, asked how one would get to the land if, in order to get there, you had to go through enclosed agricultural areas--the problem of "inaccessible islands", as I understand it is known in the trade. It will be necessary for local forums and local authorities to negotiate access across those areas. There will be no imposed right of access across such areas. However, we believe that we can deal with that problem in most cases provided that the local forums work. The noble Baroness also asked about MoD land. It is true that the MoD now provides a very substantial amount of public access to its training lands, and much of its estate falls within the definition of "open countryside".
Reference has been made to horses and dogs and to other means of access to the countryside. My noble friend Lord Peston and the noble Lord, Lord Gladwyn, referred to the effects of motorised access on existing roads. We recognise that there may be a problem and that we should perhaps have greater powers for local authorities to enable them to close off certain roads where access to areas is in fact destroying the countryside. We are considering giving greater traffic regulation powers to local authorities in that respect and will be issuing a consultation paper shortly.
As far as concerns dogs, I tend, like the noble Baroness, to be more motivated to walk in the countryside if I have a dog rather than a human being accompanying me--and I say that with all due respect to those who walk with me. Nevertheless, the legal rights which apply here will require dogs to be kept on a lead. They will be reinforced clearly by local by-laws, many of which are already in place. Therefore, it is important that there should be no additional problem of
I turn now to the question of occupiers' liability. The noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry, accused me of being dismissive previously. I hope that I am not being so on this occasion. All the research that we have conducted indicates that the increase in insurance premiums would be very small, the reason being that all parallel circumstances indicate that there is not an enormous amount of additional damage upon which insurers would have to pay out. The example I gave previously in answer to the noble Lord was the National Trust, which has millions of acres of open countryside. Indeed, over a six-year period the trust only had 47 incidents in respect of which there was any question of damage and that resulted in only 15 claims, totalling £60,000, for the whole of that acreage. Such an amount is not an enormous one for the insurers to cover. Only one claim was actually successful.
Therefore, while we are not dismissive of the problem and will take on board any other information, we believe that it is a greatly exaggerated problem--
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