Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page


Earl Peel: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. I am very interested in what he says. Perhaps he will explain to the House who is to implement the country code.

26 Jun 2000 : Column 654

Lord Addington: My Lords, that is the 64,000-dollar question. Parliament must help to set it up and get it across. We must ensure that it is discussed and that we continue to work on it. I merely suggest that we work towards it, not what should be in it. For one who is in public life I make a very rare admission: I do not know the ultimate answer to the noble Earl's question.

Many disabled groups take slightly different attitudes to access. Some believe that access merely means having good gates; others say that footpaths should be better maintained; or it may be a combination of both. If one has a hard surface a person who carries a stick or has an injury can walk across it slowly. However, someone may depend on a semi-motorised vehicle. At one time the Disabled Drivers' Association, which is now more closely associated with the ramblers, believed that those with cross-country wheelchairs should be able to have greater access to the countryside. Again, we incur costs in our approach to the countryside.

If the Government want this Bill to be truly effective there must be a far greater financial input than they appear to be willing to make at the moment. Wardens, stiles, gates and codes of conduct all require resources. At the moment, local authorities do not have the resources to do it all. Effectively, in solving old problems we create new ones. I hope that we all join in the debates on the Bill with an open mind as to the ultimate aim and try to establish a consensus. To go back to an earlier remark for which the noble Earl upbraided me, we must come up with something with which we can all live.

4.40 p.m.

Baroness Trumpington: My Lords, I shall start with an unfashionable expression. I was worried that the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, was going to shoot my fox. However, I do not think that the noble Lord finished it off so it gives me the chance to support him and speak about my serious concern about safety should the public have the right to roam across horse training grounds.

I am aware that, quite rightly, racecourses are to be excluded from the areas over which the public will have a right to roam. However, the same does not apply to training grounds; hence my great worry not only for the riders but especially for the public.

Perhaps I may give your Lordships a few facts. I take Newmarket as an example. As the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, said, over 2,000 horses are exercised on the training grounds every day between early dawn and 1 p.m. Unlike race tracks, the gallops themselves are unfenced but marked out with "bushes", white plastic markers, which are regularly moved on to fresh ground. It is not unusual to have up to five loose horses each morning. Those loose horses bolt home at a full gallop and although the training grounds, extending over 2,800 acres, are largely fenced, horses occasionally escape on to the roads and into the town. On average one rider a week will sustain serious injuries and have to be hospitalised. I am told that over the years a number of riding accidents have resulted in death--three in 1997.

26 Jun 2000 : Column 655

Of course the Jockey Club Estates works very closely with the Health and Safety Executive to minimise any possible risks. I should be extremely surprised if the latter were not to support my case that the public should not be given right of access on to the training grounds while training is in progress. Perhaps the Minister will reply.

It is my view that the public would be exposed to very real danger and compound the already dangerous environment in which stable lads have to work. I picture to myself the happy rambler, perhaps with his dog, innocently setting forth for his pleasure perhaps on the Downs near Lambourn. Picture again that same happy rambler suddenly and too late becoming aware of half a tonne of riderless horseflesh descending at speed upon him or her. Surely that same happy rambler could wait until 1 p.m. when training ceases in order to walk in safety?

If a notice is erected, as at present, stating "No pedestrians until after 1 p.m.", that notice would in future be illegal. I do not take seriously the reply given in another place on 4th April by the Minister Mr Meacher to the amendment of my honourable friend Mr Paice. He said that Opposition Members seem to be unwilling to accept that access might be compatible with the training of horses. He said that they should visit Epsom Downs where the training gallops are situated on land to which a statutory right of access applies. He also quoted Cleeve Hill near Cheltenham where the same public rights and private interests co-exist without apparent problems. These are very bad examples. Few trainers still exist at Epsom compared with other centres of excellence. For instance, there are 200 horses on the gallops at Epsom compared with the 2,000 at Newmarket.

Your Lordships will take note that at present the Epsom and Walton Downs Regulation Act 1984 states that horses in training have a right of way between 0615 and midday. Under that Act no member of the public can commit any action which will interfere with the training of racehorses before 12 noon. For instance, any pedestrians with a dog must keep it on a lead and if they fail to do so they will have committed an offence. That Act would be nullified under the countryside Bill as drafted at present. I should be grateful for the Minister's reply to these points. Epsom is deeply concerned that a right to roam Act may be allowed to supersede the 1984 Act in relation to the gallops in that area.

We shall be dealing with a completely new set of ramblers who may come from far away and will be unaware of the risks. For as long as can be remembered, when training is over local people have enjoyed access to Newmarket Heath and other gallops. I believe that that freedom of access is very much appreciated. Exercising a blank invitation to those who wish to roam is, however, clearly a very different issue. I shall be most interested to hear the Minister's reply.

This is most definitely not a party political matter. It is one of sensible safety for the benefit of everyone. If the Minister turns down this small but important change to the Bill, I submit that he will not be exactly a happy man if and when accidents occur in the future.

26 Jun 2000 : Column 656

4.45 p.m.

Baroness Young of Old Scone: My Lords, in welcoming the Bill, I must declare an interest as chairman of English Nature, one of the bodies named prolifically throughout the Bill. Noble Lords may not have recognised its alternative name: the Nature Conservancy Council for England. During the passage of the Bill, I hope that the Minister will agree that the title is a trifle confusing.

I do not declare an interest in the technical sense. I hope that I also convey a sense of great excitement. The Bill is the first piece of major wildlife legislation before Parliament since the Wildlife and Countryside Act almost 20 years ago. It is a long-awaited Bill. I hope to deal briefly with the three parts of the Bill although my excitement may mean that I am unable to constrain myself with sufficient brevity considering the size of the speakers' list.

We have heard much about the risks of increasing access. I welcome the general principle, enabling more people to have the opportunity to experience and understand more about the countryside. We rail about the lack of understanding of the predominantly "townie" British population of issues in the countryside, but it is difficult to expect people to value the countryside and wildlife if we do not give them the opportunity to see them.

Seventy per cent of SSSI land is to be designated access land. Seventy per cent of our most important wildlife sites will come within the definition of access land. Access is not necessarily bad for wildlife and special sites. Along with other conservation bodies, English Nature has had considerable experience of access on national nature reserves; it is by and large positive. However, the Bill needs to take account of three issues. First, access needs to be on sound science-based advice. Such advice needs to be the basis for necessary restrictions for the protection of wildlife. Secondly, access needs to be managed. If properly managed, it can often be combined with the needs of wildlife. Such management needs to be properly resourced. Thirdly, we need to ensure proper sanctions and penalties for those few people who misuse the privilege of access.

Under Part I, there is concern over the issue of dogs. Generally speaking, dogs and wildlife do not mix well. The period for dogs to be on leads, March to June, is probably too short. Many ground-nesting birds, in particular those depending on second broods, are still nesting in July. Perhaps the Government will take into account the considerable body of scientific evidence which supports an extension to July for the restrictions on dogs.

An important principle is embodied within Part II of the Bill, which deals with rights of way. We must not encourage people to believe that getting in their cars and driving long distances to walk on access land is the best way of experiencing the countryside. Many people, particularly those in conurbations, do not want to see areas which are the most glorious, the most special and the most full of wildlife. They want a nice, open, green space which is free from noise, enabling

26 Jun 2000 : Column 657

them to open up their lungs and feel that they are out of the city. For many people, such space is to be found on the edges of cities and I therefore commend in particular the provisions on rights of way and additional access to land close to large centres of population in ways which can be managed successfully for larger numbers of people.

I am excited primarily about Part III of the Bill; the provisions dealing with wildlife and sites of special scientific interest. It is a vital part which the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, said was long overdue. I agree with her. More than 4,000 SSSIs cover a tiny proportion of the countryside; less than 7 per cent. However, they are, to use that hackneyed expression, the "jewels in the crown" of nature conservation. They are the basic building blocks upon which much of our conservation depends. They are the equivalent of cathedrals and stately homes. Indeed, as with cathedrals and stately homes, they are managed by a wide variety of people; 32,000 owners and occupiers. They are also managed in close partnership with the statutory bodies and others. The noble Lord, Lord Whitty, emphasised the importance of that partnership and I agree with him.

I believe that the Bill enhances the partnership. It will provide help to owners and occupiers in the form of advice and, perhaps more importantly, financial support for the positive management of the sites. These days, that is often the most useful resource for hard-pressed land managers. The Bill will help land managers and owners as regards the vexed question of damage by third parties. There are few provisions to prevent such damage, but the Bill will help. It is an issue of common ground between landowners and those responsible for conservation.

Perhaps more controversially, during the remainder of the debate and in Committee we shall hear that the Bill makes provision to issue management notices and restoration orders. Those are vital in ensuring that SSSIs thrive and prosper. At present, 30 per cent of our sites of special scientific interest are in unfavourable condition; up to 70 per cent in some of our upland habitats. That is unacceptable. It is as though we were saying that our cathedrals should be allowed to stay black and to crumble, subside and rust. We in this country cannot live with that.

In many cases, the unfavourable condition is not due to deliberate damage. That is rare. More often, it is due to neglect and the lack of adequate management; management that is not sufficiently sympathetic to the vital component of the site, which is the nature conservation interest. The Bill gives new powers to address those problems with landowners. Those new powers are accompanied by real, ample checks and balances, including rights of appeal ultimately to the Secretary of State if consents are refused or management notices are served. Therefore, I believe that the Bill provides a proper balance between the legitimate needs and interests of landowners and of conservation.

26 Jun 2000 : Column 658

In such a long debate, it is perhaps unfair to discuss what the Bill does not do. However, some of the omissions might be remedied as it passes. The issue surrounding local wildlife sites has been highlighted. Many of our species depend not only on nationally important SSSIs, but also on the wide range of local wildlife sites which are inadequately protected. I am not looking for a system similar to that in relation to SSSIs--that would be using a sledgehammer to crack a nut--but modest changes can be made to the Bill in order to improve the safeguarding of local sites.

Mention has been made of a statutory underpinning for the biodiversity action plan, which is a unique feature in British public life. I know of no other sphere of human endeavour in which a common hymn sheet, a common set of priorities, is shared across the statutory and voluntary sectors at local, regional and national level. Without too much difficulty, we have agreed on a set of priorities, and that is a rare phenomenon. It would be useful if the Bill could give the biodiversity action plan a gentle statutory underpinning. It need not be bureaucratic or onerous--it need not even be excessively committing of individual bodies--but it could point up the importance of the plan and of its continuation.

Of course, the Bill does not and cannot "join up the dots". The SSSIs are the building blocks, the foundation, on which nature conservation in this country is based. If we are to reap full value from the Bill and from the SSSIs, we need to join up the isolated dots; to ensure that the general, farmed countryside around them is as environmentally friendly as possible. I know that steps which are afoot in common agricultural policy reform need to be accelerated in order to achieve that.

I am delighted to see a long list of speakers today. It is a most healthy sign. I am looking forward to full discussion of the Bill, not only tonight but during subsequent stages. I want to commend the Government on bringing the Bill forward. It can be improved--and I hope that in modest ways it will be--but I want to sound a note of caution. It will be a black day for the English countryside if in attempting to improve the Bill it is obstructed.

4.56 p.m.

Earl Peel: My Lords, I want warmly to welcome my noble friend and neighbour Lord Brittan, who made an excellent speech. I am delighted that for his maiden speech he chose this subject and not Europe or one of the many other subjects on which he is well qualified to speak. In our part of the world my noble friend is well known for his interests in the countryside and is a great walker. Therefore, I hope that the Government will take heed of his wise words.

Whatever one's attitude towards the Bill, it is a hugely significant piece of legislation which will have a profound effect on the countryside and on those who live there or visit. It will also influence attitudes, which could be highly relevant. I am bound to say that both politically and practically I have grave reservations about the Bill.

26 Jun 2000 : Column 659

Perhaps I may begin by declaring an interest. I own and manage an upland estate in the North of England where I already have wide-ranging responsibilities in trying to balance the needs of farming, of nature conservation--the whole estate is an SSSI--of public access and of grouse shooting. Perhaps I may make it clear from the outset that the latter is the economic dynamo which drives the management of the estate and in turn provides the wildlife, which is why it was designated in the first place.

Of the 3 million to 4 million acres of land to be covered by the access provisions in the Bill, 800,000 are heather, of which 70 per cent has been designated as SSSIs. As was pointed out by the noble Lord, Lord Moran, a recent survey carried out by the RSPB and the Game Conservancy Trust shows that heather moorland managed for grouse produces twice as many curlews, five times as many lapwings and five times as many golden plover as moorland not managed for grouse. Those statistics are relevant. Of course, it is no accident that those areas are great wildlife havens; that is due entirely to a combination of habitat management and predator control, financed by the grouse interests at no cost to the taxpayer.

It is largely against that background that I have followed the history leading up to the Bill and refer most of my remarks this afternoon, although much of what I say will affect the whole of the access areas within the Bill. Therefore, I apologise if I take up a little more of your Lordships' time than have other noble Lords, particularly when dealing with Part I of the Bill.

I realise that there are strong feelings attached to the principle of the so-called "right to roam". Those feelings come from both sides and conjure great passions and great rhetoric. I fully appreciate and understand the aspirations of those who wish to enjoy and share in the pleasures of the countryside. Indeed, I myself would be very much in that position were I not so fortunate as to live where I do and own the land that I do.

However, as W H Auden wrote in 1954 about the Pennines:


    "I mention them with mixed feelings. On the one hand, I want all worthy people to agree with me about their beauty. On the other, I have a feeling of personal possession which makes me jealously afraid of unworthy or unappreciative intruders".

The truth of the matter is that, unfortunately, difficulties are already brought about by unworthy and unappreciative intruders, although I am bound to say that the majority of people whom I experience behave impeccably and have a great desire to understand how these areas work.

However, we already have difficulties, and therefore it is little wonder that the Yorkshire Dales National Park, in whose land my estate is, and, indeed, the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust both have expressed grave concerns about the access provisions in the Bill. From a personal point of view, I am sorry that the Government did not pursue the voluntary approach. They talked about it but never gave it a chance. I believe that it would have worked, but that is history.

26 Jun 2000 : Column 660

The point is that behind all the emotion, the rhetoric and the political dogma which so often have clouded fruitful discussion is the real world of dealing with management problems on the ground. It falls on the farmer, the shepherd and the gamekeeper to pick up the pieces left by ill thought through legislation. I am bound to say that one cannot blame people if they regard the Bill as yet another kick in the backside for the countryside.

However, as the Minister, Mr Meacher, said when referring to the Bill at the Standing Conference on Countryside Sports:


    "If we do not succeed in making people who live and work in the countryside feel that these policies are relevant to them, and better for them, then we will have failed".

I concur entirely with such a bold statement. But, in truth, unless we see major concessions within the Bill, I believe that that will be no more than a ministerial dream. What I find so disappointing is that the Government have had every opportunity to amend the Bill in another place and to overcome the inadequacies that litter this piece of legislation but have failed to do so. As usual, it now falls on your Lordships' House to try to rectify some of the problems.

Of course, we should recognise that the Bill was mentioned in the Queen's Speech. I certainly do not want to waste time by arguing the philosophical rights and wrongs of the case or by going back over old ground. However, if I may, I should like to touch briefly on some of my major concerns. I now deal specifically with Part I.

Clearly, the closure periods for open access and the way in which they will be administered by the park authorities and the Countryside Agency will be essential ingredients in the ultimate success or failure of the Bill. As is always the case, the devil is in the detail, and much will depend on the guidance and regulations which as yet have not been published. However, whether it be the 28 days when the owner can close his land or an additional closure order made by the relevant authority, how on earth will such orders and by-laws be adhered to if visitors are unaware that they exist?

Given the innumerable points of access that exist on to access areas, I therefore ask the Minister to explain how a closure order or, indeed, by-laws will be observed if there are to be no statutory access points. As I believe noble Lords have already mentioned, information and education are essential if this legislation is not to be reduced to a farce. It seems to me that to date the Government have failed manifestly to address that point.

I turn to the access provisions themselves. On the one hand, it appears somewhat contrary to give open access and the likely disturbance that goes with it and, on the other, to give additional powers to the countryside agencies in order to protect SSSIs. However, as I have already pointed out, most of the moorland areas are SSSIs and all ground-nesting birds, including grouse, are susceptible to disturbance, as shown by Professor Hudson in his submission to the DETR. Therefore, I ask the Minister how the

26 Jun 2000 : Column 661

Government will balance their responsibilities--the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, also made reference to this--under the habitat and birds directive? And if doubt remains, will the precautionary principle prevail?

I have no doubt whatever that the Minister will have scrutinised in great detail the well known document on how the European Commission wants to apply the precautionary principle. I can assure your Lordships that it is a right riveting read! No doubt he will have noticed the paragraph which states:


    "Measures based on the precautionary principle should be maintained so long as scientific information is incomplete or inconclusive".

Given that, can the Minister inform the House what science is available regarding the effects of disturbance on ground-nesting birds in the spring and summer; whether such evidence will be taken into account; and, in the absence of such research, whether the precautionary principle will, indeed, be maintained? Where there are holes in our knowledge, will the Minister assure the House that further research will be forthcoming?

I turn to the question of dogs, a subject on which a number of noble Lords have already touched. How on earth dogs managed to get into this Bill I simply do not know; I thought that it was a Bill about people. However, I am bound to say that I find it absolutely breathtaking that anyone drafting the Bill from the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, no less, could even have contemplated allowing dogs to be let off leads on access areas in July. I imagine that the department took advice from English Nature and from the Countryside Agency. I believe that it is the view of all organisations who represent management and, I suspect, all conservation groups as well that dogs must be kept on footpaths at all times, as my noble friend Lord Denham has already suggested.

My noble friend made reference to the fact that he was involved with the Peak Park in Derbyshire when he was a countryside commissioner. Interestingly, that authority recently mounted a campaign to keep dogs on leads and prevent them from running wild. It failed miserably, with more than 60 per cent of people ignoring the advice that they were given. We are talking not about municipal parks but about some of the finest wildlife areas in the country. I urge the Minister to take great note of what we are saying.

My noble friend Lord Brittan put the issue of night-time access very well and I shall not add to what he said. The Association of Chief Police Officers and the local watch organisations are concerned about the additional provisions. Lindsey Waddell, chairman of the Moorland and Gamekeepers Association, said recently:


    "The poaching fraternity who use dogs with lights at night will hardly believe what the law has given them if this is allowed. They will be able to enter land at night with dogs unchallenged on the premise that they are going for a walk".

That speaks for itself.

26 Jun 2000 : Column 662

The Bill's provisions on owner's liability are unjust and the Government will have to think again. I appreciate that they have already made a concession on what they call "natural features", but that is not enough. For the situation to be equitable, unnatural features will also have to be removed from the provisions.

I am sure that other noble Lords will refer to the inadequacies of the compensation provisions. Reductions in capital values as a direct result of the legislation will be difficult to prove. No doubt that is why the Government have moved away from that. However, I suspect that that will not prevent cases going to court. Even ordinary costs that have been established are being ignored. Access agreements have been built up over 40 years in the Peak park, where the authority now acknowledges that additional management costs to landowners and farmers are in the region of £4 an acre. The Bill will discard that payment. Can we please have an indication from the Government of the likely additional costs to the national park authorities and the countryside agencies of implementing the legislation? Unless proper resources are made available, wardening will be yet another pipe dream.

Another point touched on by my noble friend Lord Brittan was the disparity between the penalties to be imposed on owners and occupiers who fail to comply with the provisions and the paltry measures designed to prevent abuse by visitors. Many organisations have expressed strong concerns about that. A dog owner letting his dog off the lead during the nesting season will merely be a trespasser who can be prevented from returning to the same piece of ground for 24 hours. That is not good enough. Owners and occupiers must be allowed to manage with the confidence of knowing that they have the proper redress against anyone who undermines their interests or those of the wildlife that they manage. Equally, walkers must have the confidence to be able to enjoy themselves by knowing where they can go and what they can and cannot do, but with the clear understanding that there will be equivalent penalties if they undermine the interests of those whose land they are on. Anything less than that will lead to bad feeling and conflict.

There are many other items in Part I that we shall have to come back to in Committee, but I shall move on briefly to Part II. I accept that there are some useful and welcome new measures, particularly a more streamlined system for diverting and coding rights of way. I also very much welcome the recent amendment that allows local authorities to stop or divert rights of way to prevent crime. However, I suspect that that power could be largely negated in open access areas for reasons that have already been mentioned.

The noble Lord, Lord Moran, referred the increasing amount of damage being caused by four-wheel drive vehicles and bikes. That is of concern to many noble Lords and I suspect that we shall have to look at the issue closely in Committee to try to redress the difficulties and damage caused.

26 Jun 2000 : Column 663

Part III is also enormously important. I acknowledge that SSSIs are still being damaged, but that is due largely to the inadequacies of the common agricultural policy and the shortage of funds available to the countryside agencies to engage in worthwhile management agreements with managers. I do not know whether the noble Baroness, Lady Young, endorses the figure, but I read the other day that English Nature needs £20 million to carry out proper management agreements with landowners and farmers to ensure that such damage does not continue.

Payments to owners for positive management is the right way forward, but it is vital to remember that there will always be one or two cases in which payment for profit forgone will remain relevant and it will be fair and equitable to maintain that system. That will not happen often, but we must not lose sight of the possibility.

The Bill gives English Nature and the Countryside Council for Wales considerably more powers. They must be used wisely and with great discretion. Good relationships do not come easily. It took a long time for English Nature and the landowning and farming fraternity to build up the special relationship that now exists. I do not want that to be put in jeopardy by hard-handed and over-zealous behaviour by English Nature, given the additional powers in the Bill.

I read in the newspaper that the Government are considering spending £60 million on compulsory purchase orders for potential access land in the South Downs without even negotiating with the farmers beforehand. That gives out all the wrong messages and undermines confidence. I hope that the Minister will refute that story and tell us that big brother is not on our tails.

In conclusion, I remain deeply sceptical and concerned about much of the Bill. It is based on ideology rather than common sense. That always results in bad legislation. I firmly believe in the maximum amount of access for all within the strictures of pragmatism. I wish to avoid conflict and I want people to enjoy the countryside with the confidence of knowing where to go and what to do and why. That requires information and education. Above all, I want the countryside to thrive in all its guises. That depends on management and a rural economy. I believe that there is a real danger that both could be compromised.

Finally, I go back to the day that the Government announced the Bill. The cartoon by Matt in the Daily Telegraph featured a walker going across open countryside with a lawyer in his backpack. I hope that we do not come to that, but unless changes are made, there is a real chance that we shall.

5.20 p.m.

Lord Beaumont of Whitley: My Lords, when there is a Bill about the countryside which is welcomed by all the parties, even if slightly half-heartedly by the Tory Party, it would be very unusual if the Green Party did not also welcome it; and it does. It seems to me to produce extremely long overdue regulation of a difficult issue. Your Lordships are not to think that

26 Jun 2000 : Column 664

because my contribution to this long debate is short, that that is at all indicative of any lack of enthusiasm. Indeed, I must warn that the brevity of speeches which we have had until just recently will undoubtedly be balanced by a certain pertinacity at later stages.

Part I gives new right of access to much of the countryside. We welcome that wholeheartedly. But we recognise that stewards of land--commonly and, in our view, mistakenly called "owners"--need protection in relation to the livelihood that they can get from it and also to protect their stewardship of biodiversity, which is ultimately much more important.

It is my experience, going back to my youth, when my father was quite a large landowner, that most landowners recognise that they are stewards, although all their actions are not consonant with that recognition. It is a standpoint--that of stewardship--which is theologically sound and consonant with a British tradition which goes back to feudal times.

As regards the amendments that I am likely to want to see moved and that we are likely to see moved, I shall help to resist any attempts to make the right of access available only in daylight hours. For a number of reasons which we shall no doubt explore in Committee, access is important at night and, as was found in another place, the arguments to the contrary have little force. Particularly in an age when light pollution denies to most of the population appreciation of the night sky, it is important that there should be an opportunity to get out into the countryside to see it, although I take the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Brittan, about the use of rights of way for that.

Bird-watchers do not need to be out only during the dawn chorus and at evening. There are various birds which it is only possible to see at night and modern technology in the form of ultra-violet or ultra-red light--your Lordships must forgive my lack of expertise in that area--provides an opportunity to see those birds, as we have seen in a large number of television programmes.

But I am fairly sympathetic to the need to control dogs. Keen as I am on animal rights, I do not see that a right of access extends to pets. I absolutely agree with the noble Earl, Lord Peel, that there is no need to increase the liability of landowners to the public. We are moving too quickly as it is into a litigant society. If anything, I should extend the exemptions from responsibility.

As has been pointed out in another place, the idea that a 28-day restriction of access for good reason should not include weekends and holidays is total nonsense, as every farmer and countryman knows.

I support amendments to Part II designed to give more protection to SSSIs and I wholeheartedly support the protection given to wildlife and nature conservation. As one who piloted through this House the first Bill to protect wild plants, that is particularly close to my heart. The spokesman for Plaid Cymru in another place made a serious point when he suggested

26 Jun 2000 : Column 665

that the sanction against a trespasser who damages, albeit inadvertently, an SSSI of being told to go away for a day is inadequate, to put it very, very mildly.

I cannot conclude without commenting that welcome though this Bill is, far more welcome would be measures to save the family farms of Britain. This is not in any way a Bill against farmers, but in some ways it is a Bill which is almost geared to a situation like that in New England where farming has, for all practical purposes, ceased. It would be good to know that the Government were prepared to take some steps to halt that progression. A helping hand in Brussels for the French Government's attempts to introduce territorial farm contracts would be a start.

I welcome access to the countryside. I only hope that when my many grandchildren grow up, there will still be a recognisable countryside in which they may exercise those rights.

5.24 p.m.

Lord Monro of Langholm: My Lords, first I join Members on all sides of the House in congratulating my noble friend Lord Brittan on a brilliant maiden speech. Also, I say "Well done" to my noble friend Lord Peel who has put so much of this Bill into context.

If I had a text for my few remarks, it would be the word "harmony" because without harmony and good-will it is difficult to achieve the objectives of the Bill. At present, farming in the countryside is facing the worst crisis that it has had in living memory. It is hardly the moment at which to impose additional burdens and expect enthusiastic co-operation.

I do not think that the Minister realises the resentment against his Government at present. Petrol costs 86p per litre or £4 per gallon and is expected to rise to £1 per litre by Christmas. There are problems in relation to the Post Office, transport and council tax and, more important, the huge drop in farming income.

Over the years, farmers and landowners have made the countryside what it is and they cannot understand the lack of support which they are now receiving from the Government. The Minister of Agriculture should be on their side. For example, the Government have pledged neutrality on the Bill to deal with foxhunting, yet we find the Minister of Agriculture passionately opposed to it. So the Government have created totally the wrong environmental climate into which to introduce the Bill. It will receive a very thorough examination in this House.

It is difficult to know quite where the Liberal Democrats stand. The noble Baroness, Lady Miller, gave the Bill a warm welcome and then spent most of her speech tearing it apart and announcing a team of opponents to the Bill which could have won the European Cup.

On many occasions in his speech, the Minister highlighted the fact that this is a balanced Bill. That is manifestly not so. It is weighted heavily against the countryside in each of the parts which matter.

26 Jun 2000 : Column 666

Part II will receive the easiest passage. Footpaths are always a complicated matter and they require simplification and swifter procedures at far less cost. Again, it is no use burdening the farming community with legislation relative to footpaths which will cost a great deal of money.

We want the consultations to be fair. Too often, the Government go out to consultation and listen only to the Environment Agency or English Nature or a governing body like the RSPB and ignore the advice of other bodies which have just as much, in fact more, practical experience. I know the problems. I spent nine years on the council of the Nature Conservancy Council. I was sometimes driven to despair. Indeed, I did much to encourage the formation by the Secretary of State for Scotland of Scottish Natural Heritage so that Scotland could get out of the clutches of Peterborough.

Of course, that has been overtaken by devolution. But we must have a good relationship between Scotland and England. The legislation must move in parallel. The birds and mammals do not appreciate where the borderline is and nor, indeed, I am afraid, do a great many walkers in the countryside.

Just north of the Border is the Langholm Moor. Obviously, from my name I know all about it even if, sadly, I do not have a financial interest in it. The Langholm Moor was subject to most detailed scientific research and a report. Speaking in shorthand, because it would be wrong to go into the details, the SNH and the RSPB refused to accept that report and as a result there have been vast repercussions in relation to the scenic beauty of that wonderful moor and there have been job losses. It would drive anyone with any common sense to despair.

Possibly new legislation is required. To me it seems odd that the RSPB, the SNH and the NCC, whom I supported at the time, have translocated the sea eagles and red kites. I am now told that they are thinking about corncrakes, but the mere mention of a raptor and all those organisations go into orbit. They take an autocratic view that they are right and everyone else is wrong. If that lack of harmony and lack of understanding continues, in a decade or so many grouse moors in this country will follow the same route.

Part II is less draconian than its equivalent in Scotland. I welcome the opportunity to see the recreation of hill walking throughout the United Kingdom. However, changes must be made to the Bill if it is to be effective and understood, not only by those who come from urban areas, but also by those who live in the countryside.

In Committee we shall have to argue so many detailed points. I read the debate on grassland at Report in another place. On a hill farm grass is crucial and in April, May and June it must not be disturbed. It is grown for feeding lambs or more importantly for hay or silage. That grassland will not be renewed every year, as the Bill indicates--only grassland under a year old will be excluded--but it will be down for several

26 Jun 2000 : Column 667

years in rotation and then reseeded. That is the way things operate in hill farms, unlike the normal rotation of a farm in the lowlands.

In relation to night access, with the exception of the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, who has just spoken, in everyone's view that must be carefully monitored and restricted. It cannot go ahead as laid down in the Bill at present. Not only is there the difficulty of seeing obstructions at night, but the farmer would have to pay compensation if anyone were injured. There has to be some sort of compromise. If the farmers are to give, as they are ordered to by this Bill, access to their farms throughout the day, surely the limited number of people who want access at night must accept certain restrictions. There has to be some give and take if this is to work.

I appreciate only too well--I have been responsible for it in Scotland and in this country--that if someone wants to walk the high peaks they have to leave in the dark and perhaps return in the dark. However, they should walk on known routes and they should tell people where they are going, particularly in winter.

The noble Earl, Lord Peel, and others have highlighted the major issues of dogs. Of course, they must be restricted on leads for a much longer period than the Bill indicates. The noble Earl put it so well: however much one wants to insist that dogs are kept on leads in May, June and July, people will not care two hoots. Once they are around the corner or over the first ridge they will let them off the leads. I do not see how that can be policed fairly. Can the Minister tell the House how that will be done, how the wardens and rangers will work and who will pay for them? How will the police operate and who will pay for them? So many factors are in the air. It is no wonder that those in the country are gravely concerned that the Government are driving ahead without caring two hoots about those who live and work in the countryside and who are responsible for its beauty at present.

A number of noble Lords have mentioned education. When I was on the Nature Conservancy Council I tried to arrange for a simplification of the biodiversity site designation. At present we have nine: Ramsar sites, special protection areas, special areas of conservation, national nature reserves, sites of special scientific interest, and so on. The public do not know what their rights or responsibilities are when they see various sets of initials put on a post. We must simplify and educate. That education should start at school, where children can learn about the pursuits that take place in the countryside and the agricultural work that helps to keep the countryside as beautiful as it is.

I may be biased because I took the Wildlife and Countryside Bill through the other place, but I believe that that has stood the test of time. It was right to pursue the voluntary agreement principle. When I came into office in 1979 a Bill was suggested by officials that was full of compulsory agreements. We changed those agreements to voluntary ones. I believe that they have worked well because taking people with you is so much better than confrontation. I believe we have to be careful about how we work within SSSIs.

26 Jun 2000 : Column 668

I read in the Scotsman that, rightly or wrongly, SNH has made the whole of the Island of Aran an SSSI and every farmer has to go through a check list of 36 operations to get permission for various things. That seems to me to be ludicrous bureaucracy. We must try to be practical. Farmers are practical people and they expect to work with practical people and not with bureaucrats who sit there with a mountain of red tape around each file that they bring to the farms.

I do not know whether it is possible under this Bill, but I would like to see a greater flexibility within the schedules of the Wildlife and Countryside Act. Moving birds and animals from one schedule to another as required and as proved by scientific reason is something that we ought to be able to achieve. In the 1950s, when Sir Arthur Duncan was chairman of the Nature Conservancy, as it then was, they put Brent geese on the protected list, and he said that when they had increased in numbers they could be put back on to the quarry list. Brent geese are all over the place now--there are tens of thousands of them--and yet they have not moved an inch as far as the schedules in the Wildlife and Countryside Bill are concerned. We must be more flexible and helpful in every possible direction.

In regard to national parks, I am concerned that we have pressed ahead with national parks in Scotland and in England because they are already honeypots. They are under severe pressure. The national parks are there to promote pleasure and not protection. New parks add to the heavy pressure and do no good to the environment. The Highland Regional Council has asked for a referendum in relation to the Grampian national park to ask whether the people actually want a national park. All the planning legislation is more able to cope with anything that needs to be done in the countryside at the present time, particularly when there appear to be no additional resources available for local authorities, land managers or the farm community to deal with what is about to be thrust upon them. All in all, this legislation is proposed by those who have little understanding of the countryside and little respect for those who live and work in it.

5.38 p.m.

Lord Greaves: My Lords, first I apologise for my voice. At least it has not yet disappeared! I was interested in the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Monro, about education and information for the public. Perhaps, when the Bill becomes law, as I hope that it will substantially, the Government should consider holding a competition among schoolchildren for a new symbol. Clearly, such a symbol could be used on gateposts, stiles and so on, to show the boundaries of access land, such as the discreet acorn that is used on the Pennine Way.

I should first declare a general interest--I have no specific interest--in that I have spent most of my recreational time over the past 40 years hill walking, mountaineering and climbing, mainly within England and Wales at a very modest level. I am afraid I have modest ambitions and even more modest achievements. One of my great regrets is that Lord Hunt, who used to sit on these Benches, is no longer

26 Jun 2000 : Column 669

with us to give us the wisdom of the mountaineering community with the distinction and authority that only he could. I feel a poor substitute, being at the opposite end of the mountaineering spectrum, but I shall do my best.

In this Second Reading I want to concentrate on several major themes rather than cover the detail that other noble Lords have so far addressed. We shall no doubt visit those issues in Committee, as they were visited in great detail in another place.

First, I genuinely welcome Part I of the Bill, at least as a principle, despite what I believe are the many flaws in the way it is set out. I am pleased that the Government had the courage to go ahead with this provision, in the face of powerful opposition interests in the country. I do not often say that I am pleased with this Government. But on this issue, I can assure them that I am.

The noble Earl, Lord Peel, who is not presently in his place, voiced his disappointment in the Government not proceeding with the voluntary agreement. For most of my life the voluntary agreement applied in relation to opening up access. With certain notable exceptions, particularly substantial parts of the Peak District, it simply has not worked because landowners have not been prepared to concede the principle of access to walkers. I believe that 50 years later the time has come to legislate for a substantial degree of compulsion in that regard.

My second point is that there is little that is new in this Bill. What is new is the extension to all areas of open country that which already happens in large areas of England particularly, and also in parts of Wales. The whole of the English Lake District has open access. No doubt many noble Lords have experienced that when they have been on holiday there. Over half the open country in the Peak District is subject to access agreements. Large areas of heather moorland--the noble Earl referred to this particularly--have access by agreement or de facto access; that is, if we walk there, nobody turns us away. I spent many happy days of my life walking in the North Yorkshire Moors--probably the largest single area of heather moorland in the north of England. Unless there is shooting going on--in which case, one is mad for going anyway--one is not turned away.

The opponents of the access provisions of the Bill must show why the situation is different in the areas where access is currently excluded compared with those areas where it is not. I do not believe there is any difference. I do not believe access has any significantly different effect in the two types of area. I spend a lot of time climbing and walking on heather moorland not far from where I live. There are times of the year when access is not allowed, for various reasons. That is fine. We all accept and adhere to that. Equally, there are large areas of Pennine moorland close to where I live where, technically at least, I am not allowed to go, but whether or not I do go is a different matter. Access is not allowed and there are signs saying, "Keep Out". But there is no reason whatever why that should be so. Some noble Lords may say that people want to walk

26 Jun 2000 : Column 670

on footpaths. That may be true for 95 per cent of walkers on moorland areas. But the fact is that there are no footpaths. We cannot walk on the footpaths because they do not exist and landowners have refused in the past to negotiate access agreements to provide footpaths. So legislation is the only way forward.

My third broad point is this. The Bill is exceedingly complex--this applies to Part II and the rights of way provisions as well to Part I--and I am afraid that, as other noble Lords have said, members of the public will have high expectations as to what they can and cannot do. However, nothing much will happen in many areas because of the complex, bureaucratic systems that will have to be operated in terms of mapping, determinations and appeals. The only way round that is for the Government to devote sufficient resources to make the operation work. As yet, as my noble friend Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer said, we have not had the assurances we need on that vitally important point.

My fourth general point is that, by definition, all places are different. I am concerned that the way in which this legislation is being introduced puts all areas of open country, as defined in the Bill, in the same straitjacket. That is leading to great anxiety. For instance, a piece of land at the edge of a town may be defined as open countryside, but security problems or conservation issues may arise if people are allowed to wander wherever they want. So a great deal of local flexibility will be required.

I understand that it will be helpful if people know their rights in relation to access. But every place is different. The answer may rest with local by-laws, which do not have to be identical for every piece of land. For example, generally banning night-time access does not make sense in the great upland areas of the north and west of England and Wales; it flies in the face of experience. I understand that there may be places where it is necessary for security reasons. The sensible application of local by-laws may be a way of addressing the need for local diversity and variation.

I agree with those who say that local access forums have to be beefed up. We need to understand, before we pass this legislation, how the access forums are to work, who will be on them and how local they are to be. For example, will there be an access forum for the whole of Yorkshire or the whole of Lancashire? That would be nonsense, and leads me on to my fifth and final point.

This drive for more access will only work if it is based on understanding, consultation, consent and acceptance by everybody concerned. If landowners and farmers are left feeling resentful about the legislation and do everything that they possibly can to block it, it will not work in a practical sense. Equally, if walkers, ramblers and mountaineers, who believe that they have been given rights, see themselves being denied such rights by obstructive local people--as they would see them--it will not work because people will take it into their heads that they have these rights and will try to exercise them in any event. It must be done on the basis of agreement and sensible negotiation.

26 Jun 2000 : Column 671

I believe that this must, essentially, take place at local level. As it stands, the Bill relies too much on national quangos sorting things out when what is really required is for local people on the ground to negotiate with each other in a sensible way.

Most rock faces in England and Wales are open to climbers. Almost all of them are in private ownership. Climbers make their way to them and climb on them. They do not pay to do so, but it is both accepted and allowed. How does this happen? It happens because there are many hundreds of people in this country who, under the aegis of the British Mountaineering Council, are able to do so. The council negotiates and consults with landowners in order to come to sensible arrangements. That sort of attitude will be required if this legislation is to work.

5.51 p.m.

Lord Renton of Mount Harry: My Lords, perhaps I may begin by joining my noble friends in saying how delighted I am to see my noble friend Lord Brittan in this House. It gave me great pleasure to listen to the clarity and force with which he made his maiden speech. I was not, like the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, immediately taken back to Cambridge; I was taken back to a time some three or four years later when my noble friend was the Conservative candidate for North Kensington. At that time, North Kensington was not quite the place that it is now--Notting Hill had not become famous. I am sure that my noble friend is delighted, from one point in his political career to another, to have exchanged the pavements of W11 for the beauties of the Yorkshire Dales, which he said he now enjoys walking over.

I very much agreed with the final words of the noble Lord, Lord Greaves. This is a most difficult Bill. Its publication was widely awaited; it is very complex in parts; and it will only work if there is more understanding, more clarity, better definition and a better acceptance of it from all sides. I hope that it works. In all my years of parliamentary experience, there has rarely been a Bill which has aroused, on the one hand, such huge expectation from walkers who walk for a few hours to hikers who want to walk for a week, to bird-watchers and botanists and, on the other hand, so much worry on the part of farmers, landowners and those who work on the land and make their living from it. I share the sympathy expressed by my noble friends Lord Peel and Lord Monro for farmers, many of whom are experiencing a very bad time at present, with no particular improvement in prospect.

I believe that the rights of way part of the Bill gives us an important opportunity to update this very complex legislation. The fundamental test of the legislation will be whether the integrity of the rights of way network is maintained and enhanced. We shall have to watch both how the Bill progresses in Committee and what the end result looks like in years to come.

As far as concerns SSSIs, I very much welcome the legislation and the strengthened position that it will afford our key wildlife areas, although I very much

26 Jun 2000 : Column 672

agree with my noble friend Lady Byford, speaking from our Front Bench, that it is disappointing that there is no reference in the Bill to placing a duty upon government agencies and local authorities to prepare and implement biodiversity targets for their area. However, I hope that that position may be changed.

There are two other aspects of the Bill upon which I should like to spend a little time. The first is the extraordinarily difficult question of access. Here I should remind noble Lords of my interest in that I am chairman of the Sussex Downs Conservation Board and have recently become a member of the executive committee of the new Association of Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty--a new association but one to which I believe all 41 AONBs in England and Wales have now become paying members.

Both I and the conservation board that I chair would have preferred to see a voluntary means of increasing access. In the years that I have been chairman, we have had a sort of "target" of 5 per cent a year for increasing access in the very large part of the Downs for which we are responsible, but we have never managed to achieve it. We talk about it, but when it comes down to hard negotiations it does not actually happen. In a way, the board represents a paradigm of what such access is about and of the problems surrounding its definition. In the AONB for which the board is responsible, we have about 4,000 hectares of chalk grassland; we have 100 hectares of heathland; and we have 3,800 hectares of common land. Only the common land is clearly defined. Further, only 3 per cent of what is usually known as the "South Downs" is chalk grassland, so much else has reverted either to scrub, to buildings or has been ploughed up. If we are to make this legislation work, we desperately need a clear definition of what "down", "heath" and "cultivated land" mean, as well as clear guidance as to how these terms are to be applied.

Great problems will arise in preparing and agreeing conclusive open-access countryside maps for our area. The last thing that anyone wants is a succession of continuous appeals, which would be both costly and time consuming. They would also actually nullify the intent of the Bill. In our area, heath turns into scrub and woodland, downs can be chalk grassland, permanent pasture or short-term grassland. We cannot put up postings saying, "Here you are leaving grassland over which you may walk and you are entering scrub", or, "Here you are leaving permanent grassland and entering what is pasture". In his brief and clear introduction to the Bill, the Minister was too dismissive of this problem. It is not a question of opponents inventing difficulties. If the problem is not solved, the legislation will not work.

I turn now to some of those provisions which are not in the Bill but which we are promised. The noble Lord, Lord Whitty, kindly confirmed that promise when answering a question of mine. I refer to the AONBs and the additional powers for landscape protection and conservation and the management plans that are to be introduced at a later stage of the Bill. There is also the possibility of statutory conservation boards being established. However, as I stressed previously to my

26 Jun 2000 : Column 673

noble friends who were worried about this, I believe it is the Minister's intention--as was the case with the Bill that I introduced into this House--that this will only happen if local communities want it to happen.

It is fundamental for us to recognise AONBs as being nationally important landscapes. They have within them a wealth of visual beauty, of wildlife and of history. However, I also accept that these are working landscapes in whose long-term management the needs of the farming community must be understood and implemented.

I am concerned that at the moment there is little information as regards what money will be available for these new, more important--to use a facile phrase--conservation boards. This echoes points that the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, and others have made. At the moment little is known about what funding will be made available to meet the worthwhile, legitimate objectives of the Bill.

I hope that I may now speak in a personal context of the conservation board which I chair. I happened to enter your Lordships' House this afternoon at the very moment when the noble Baroness, Lady Farrington, in replying to a question from my namesake and noble friend Lord Renton, said that if the South Downs and the New Forest became national parks there would be a discreet arrangement about funding. The trouble is that it is all too damned discreet at the moment! We do not have a clue what is to happen. How can one move forward on that basis that there is to be a discreet arrangement over funding? It is rather like going to see one's banker.

I inherited the chairmanship of the conservation board from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Nathan. It is widely recognised as being a success.


Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page