Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page


Baroness Young of Old Scone: My Lords, I should declare another interest, as vice-president of the RSPB. I categorically assure the noble Lord, Lord Kimball, that the RSPB has never translocated goshawks and would never think of doing so. Goshawks are super birds that translocate themselves rather well.

Lord Kimball: Goshawks certainly hatched in a sparrowhawk's nest in Kielder Forest, which is in the middle of a red alert area for the re-establishment of red squirrels. Any older bird book, although it might not be politically correct, will say that the main food of the goshawk is squirrels.

What about the translocation of the white tailed sea eagle, or the translocation of the red kite to the Midlands, where the species has never lived? Having carried out all that translocation, I do not understand why the RSPB does not agree to our translocation of the hen harrier from areas where our research has categorically proved that damage is being done.

I am concerned about the high penalties in Part III. Without some compromise, particularly on avian predation densities, we shall get into a difficult situation. A good working relationship was building up between English Nature, the moorland keepers and local people. I hope that it was not the arrival of the vice-president of the RSPB as chairman of English Nature that set back that progressive and fruitful relationship.

I am concerned about the draconian powers in Schedule 11. If they are not sensitively applied, we will end up with a difficult relationship in those fragile areas.

The one thing that I welcome in Part III is the creation of statutory area of outstanding natural beauty conservation boards. After the problems that my noble friend Lord Renton of Mount Harry has had on the South Downs, rather than making a new national park, it might be sensible to make a big AONB conservation board covering the whole of the South Downs. I shall certainly examine any AONB proposals against the interests of those who live and work there.

26 Jun 2000 : Column 701

7.46 p.m.

Baroness Masham of Ilton: My Lords, I add my congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Brittan of Spennithorne, on his excellent maiden speech. He will be a most valuable Member of your Lordships' House.

I must declare an interest, as my husband owns and runs some grouse moors and I farm in Yorkshire. Many people who live and work in the countryside are concerned about the problems that may arise from the Bill. I hope that your Lordships will be able to improve the Bill, which gives the impression that the owners or occupiers of land may be liable for other people's accidents just because they happen to take place on their land. That cannot be just. If a member of the public climbs over a stone wall and it collapses and they damage themselves, whose fault will it be? If a member of the public sees a bit of farm machinery in a field and climbs on it and gets spiked, who will be at fault? When mapping is being considered, I hope that the owners or occupiers of the land will be involved.

The countryside is full of hazards. It should be respected, not taken for granted and thought of as a recreational outlet for those living in the towns. Law-abiding citizens who want to enjoy the many interesting aspects of nature that the countryside can give them will be welcomed by most people, but there are others who cause concern. How does the Minister think that they are best controlled.

I shall give a few examples. Until a few years ago, Masham, where I live, always had a resident policeman who knew the area and the people. In the past few years, the police system has been changed. If the police are needed, they may not even know the area. A few miles from Masham, on the estate, is a realistic copy of a druid temple, with all the stones, including the sacrificial stone, in the correct positions. One Sunday afternoon, my secretary was going for a walk with a friend when she found a pig's head sitting on the altar, which gave her a terrific shock. It is thought that there has been devil worship there.

On another occasion, I had to leave home early one morning. Just outside Masham, I found a small group of Leeds University students who had spent the night at the druids temple. They were cold and frightened. With the night shadows and the country noises, such as owls hooting, they had fled. As I was going towards Leeds, I gave them a lift. They told me that they had had a terrible experience.

Increasing access to the countryside at night may give rise to many problems in isolated areas, such as the fear of crime, if not the real thing.

Another incident at the druid temple was a large gathering of people from Manchester who took over the place for the whole night in order to have a rave. They tore gates off their hinges and broke down trees to make a huge bonfire. The police were called and with the gamekeepers, could only watch at a distance. It was only after a fight had taken place within the group and one of the people had been taken to hospital with severe injuries that the rave subsided. When my nephew visited the site the next day to inspect the damage, he found half-burnt probation orders and

26 Jun 2000 : Column 702

such discarded documents. The Bill suggests that occupiers of land should challenge people who may be causing damage. In some circumstances, the people may be very difficult and sometimes dangerous. Is it wise, in such circumstances, to challenge them?

I should be grateful if the Minister would tell the House how he sees the wardening system working. Will wardens be available on bank holidays and at weekends? To whom will they be responsible? I have had two Texel ram lambs gored and killed by two roaming red setters, which also killed six of my sister-in-law's sheep. Will wardens be able to help control dogs?

Having been on a recent visit to Devon, I saw a designated field for dogs to go with their owners and have a run. Why cannot some of the fields which are "set aside" be used for that purpose?

It is of great concern to farmers when dogs run amok among sheep, especially before and at lambing time. The National Farmers Union believes that a period of 28 days per annum in which occupiers would have the discretion, subject to notification to the relevant authority, to exclude land would not be adequate to reflect the wide variety of needs of land managers. The non-availability of the discretion for weekends and bank holidays means that many sheep farmers must apply for exclusions to cover lambing periods. How can we expect sheep not to be stressed if they see strangers with dogs roaming around them at weekends and bank holidays? Has that part of the Bill been drafted by someone sitting in an office who has never watched the lambing season at first hand?

I was born and bred in the north of Scotland. We had moorland. The red grouse is unique to some parts of the UK. Our grouse deteriorated during the last war when the Army undertook many manoeuvres with tanks on the moors and the land was not properly keepered. Then forests were planted and as grouse eat young heather shoots, that was another problem for them. Fences were erected to keep the deer from damaging the forests and the grouse flew into the fences, which killed many of them.

The red grouse has a unique flavour and it is a great delicacy for many people. I wonder whether the Minister has eaten a grouse. If not, I should be glad to bring him one, so that he could discover the difference in its flavour from that of any other bird. Many people fear that this Bill will damage the grouse in England if people trample over the nests at nesting time, squash the eggs and chicks and disturb the hen grouse.

Many people derive their livelihood from moorland husbandry. Foreign visitors bring money to the rural areas. People's ways of life need protecting. Many feel that this Bill threatens the countryside and that more protection and help is needed. I hope that the Minister will be willing to listen and to help sort out some of the anxieties in the Bill.

Many other countryside issues need to be addressed; for example, access for disabled people. Due to motor bicycles causing problems, the access for wheelchairs was blocked at an interesting place for picnics on our estate, much to my consternation.

26 Jun 2000 : Column 703

Another concern I have is the crippling rates which local authorities put on riding establishments in the countryside. People coming into the countryside need and want things to do. It is destructive of local authorities not to help with those facilities. Instead, they cause them to close down. Because of that, I have little faith that local authorities will try to help those who are trying to give services to people visiting and living in the countryside. I hope that the Minister and the House will do something to rectify those concerns.

7.56 p.m.

Lord Buxton of Alsa: My Lords, I shall not say everything that I was going to say because it has already been said and said very eloquently. I want to talk about custodial sentences.

First, perhaps I may say that I am not against organised access and have organised it very successfully at home, where I have wetlands and marshes in a reserve. I have an informal relationship with English Nature, which is nearby, and that has worked very well.

All that is voluntary and it is working extremely well. Visitors tend to act as wardens themselves. They keep in touch; they talk; and they thoroughly enjoy it. I hope that I shall not live to regret all the permissive paths which have been granted. People think that they have rights. My noble friend Lord Ferrers referred to an incident which occurred a year or so ago. But last month, one of the ramblers on the permissive path rang me during lunch and said that two people were walking straight through the avocet colony. It turned out to be two charming schoolgirls, aged about 16. They said, "Mum said we can go anywhere we like now". I want to make sure that the Minister has taken that on board because I believe that we shall be faced with an absolute tidal wave. Even though we are well organised, I do not know how we shall handle it.

However, I want to speak about custodial sentences. Therefore, I must concentrate on birds of prey. There are 15 species of raptors, or birds of prey, in this country. Of those, 14 are listed in various publications as doing well or with splendid prospects. The prospects of the kite are described as "brilliant" by Chris Mead at the British Trust for Ornithology. He is the leading authority. According to him and the trust, we can apparently expect to be overwhelmed before long by buzzards, marsh harriers and by record numbers of peregrines. In about 20 years' time in this country there may be 400 pairs of osprey. That is official.

The present overall increase in birds of prey since we got rid of pesticides and chemicals is about 200 per cent. The Government and conservation authorities need to consider what will happen when the overall increase is about 400 per cent. I may not be here myself, but some noble Lords will be. Perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, will consider holding a conference on the subject as serious consideration should be given to it. As far as predators are concerned, we must be virtually the only country in the world where the "sky's the limit". The conservation

26 Jun 2000 : Column 704

authorities, including the RSPB--I am unsure about the position of English Nature--flatly refuse to discuss or consider the long term.

The hen harrier, one of the 15 birds of prey species, is the only one about which there is a problem of numbers. They do well on keepered grouse moors, because they eat grouse. In bad grouse years, when they are short of prey, the numbers of harriers fall. The bird zealots blame the keepers, but henceforth they should be more objective in their conclusions as there is plenty of evidence. There are practically no hen harriers nesting on unkeepered moors and uplands--although they are ideal sites--because there are foxes, stoats and people roaming about. Hen harriers have disappeared from areas such as Exmoor because there are no keepers and there is intrusion.

Under this Bill, unrestricted access in remote areas may well eliminate hen harriers altogether. It will be no good blaming landowners and keepers. It will be the sole responsibility of the Government and their advisers, whoever they may be. The irony is that having failed to look after birds like harriers on open, unkeepered land, the snoopers and sneakers, who are encouraged to go around looking for trouble, now concentrate on private keepered land simply because the birds are there.

If birds of prey are doing well--some very well--what on earth is the purpose of threatening citizens with prison when heavy fines are already in place? Surely it will be seen as proof that this Government are yet again going backwards. In the Middle Ages a peasant may have been put in the stocks or even exiled for killing birds, but in the 21st century, in the new millennium, a Government that hope to unite the nation, is to resort to medieval practices and ancient class warfare and they propose to send a young man to prison for killing a bird.

Let us consider a circumstance. A keeper lives, of necessity, in an isolated place with no protection with a young wife and probably children. The children have to travel to school and the wife has to shop so the house is left untended. This Bill proposes to remove that man after he has committed an offence and leave a young family defenceless at the mercy of robbers, rapists, travellers and so on, in a situation where even if the wife and children scream their heads off nobody will hear. In most cases they would be more isolated than Mr Martin, the farmer in the Fens.

That situation applies to every keeper and warden, not only on mountain and moorland, but everywhere in the British countryside, in woods, fields and farmland. In my view, Members of both Houses of Parliament, of all parties, may have blood on their hands if they heartlessly vote for imprisoning young family men for killing a bird. That sort of tyranny can soon spread to other creatures because a Minister can easily extend the list without coming back to Parliament. We may find that something like a mole or a field mouse is added, and one of your Lordships is in trouble for running it over.

Nobody is more fervent than I am about birds, as instanced by my own reserve. It is just as good as most SSSIs. We disapprove of people breaking the law, but

26 Jun 2000 : Column 705

a civilised way of dealing with such offences is fines, heavy only when appropriate, and perhaps when an offence is repeated. The publicity and embarrassment will do the rest.

The most important factors are education, persuasion and good PR, not savage punishment. Apart from the timing being wrong, one may seriously wonder whether the Prime Minister picked up this idea from Mr Putin or the Chinese president.

One great thing about the last century of conservation, in which I was involved for over 50 years, was that the fathers of conservation inspired the nation: Huxley, Max Nicholson, Peter Scott and so on. The exciting new movement for the conservation of wildlife of the last century became a bandwagon. There was complete harmony and a national surge of support.

Long ago, the noble Lord, Lord Callaghan, for whom I have always had a warm regard, gave a lunch for me at No. 11 at which all the mandarins were assembled and subjected to a lecture on conservation. He was the first Cabinet Minister of any party to give such a lead. The noble Baroness the Leader of the House is not present this evening, but if she had been I would have suggested that she should emulate some of the activities of her father.

To everyone's distress, wildlife conservation has now become unpopular with many people in the countryside, the very people who matter most of all to birds and wildlife. Threatening to put people in prison will severely worsen the feeling. The ultimate error, therefore, will now occur if the Government are imprudent enough to send people to prison for conservation offences. There will be no end to this process once it starts. I trust that the Minister will persuade the Government to withdraw this divisive and savage part of the Bill before Committee stage.

Such custodial sentences could give rise to serious injustices in court, of which, within the past month, there has been proof. A keeper in north Norfolk was found guilty in connection with poisons for foxes, but which killed kestrels. That was a serious offence and he was fined. There is no argument about that. However, the prosecuting officer implied to the court that kestrels were an endangered species and that there were,


    "only 50,000 pairs left in the whole country".

That was an unpardonable distortion, evidently concocted to influence the magistrate. Birds of prey are territorial species which fiercely protect their own hunting grounds and 50,000 pairs is a substantial threshold.

Mr Crampton, the prosecuting officer, went on to say,


    "this crime came against the context of the current decline of kestrels in the UK".

Perhaps he did not know that recent evidence published by the Government's own UK raptor working party states that kestrels are common but that a recent small decrease is due entirely to the decline of prey species such as shrews and voles.

26 Jun 2000 : Column 706

It is now clear that if some bird-of-prey zealots come before the courts, the prosecution can be wrongly briefed and facts may be distorted and fabricated to secure a custodial sentence. I cannot believe that the Government could possibly want to blemish further their cold relations with country people by introducing custodial sentences into a harmonious, non-party, universally popular cause. I ask the Minister to take on board what I have said.

8.7 p.m.

Baroness Gale: My Lords, as a member of the Ramblers' Association and as someone who enjoys walking on the mountains and in the countryside, I greatly welcome this Bill. I speak in support of the Bill, particularly in relation to Part I on access to the countryside.

The popularity of walking has never been greater, with more people engaged in that activity than ever before. The majority of people in this country support the Government in their aim to open up the countryside. In an opinion poll carried out in August 1998, 85 per cent of those surveyed supported a statutory freedom to roam over mountains, moors, heath and down and common land.

The benefit to the rural economy is illustrated in a report by Professor Peter Midmore of the University of Wales, Aberystwyth, published in March of this year, entitled The Economic Value of Walking in Rural Wales. He has estimated that £132 million is spent on walking activities in Wales, generating 4,800 jobs. The report also suggests that walking is still under-exploited as a means of regenerating Wales's rural economy. It suggests that better access to rural amenities, through the proposals in the Bill for a legal freedom to roam and through greater efforts to improve Wales's rights-of-way network, could lead to higher income and new Welsh jobs.

There is evidence to show that more tourists would be attracted to rural areas if there were greater access to the countryside. A national opinion poll commissioned by the Ramblers' Association showed that 40 per cent of British people would be more likely to consider visiting Wales once a freedom to roam Act is in place. Further surveys found that 35 per cent of Americans and 55 per cent of Germans said that they would be more likely to visit Wales if freedom to roam existed.

Last year 10 million Britons visited Wales, each spending around £30 a night, according to the Welsh Tourist Board. The potential huge increase in visitors to Wales from other parts of Britain and abroad would lead to a much needed boost to the rural economy and provide more jobs in the area.

Access to the countryside is of great value not just for the boost to the economy, as I illustrated, but also in terms of people's health. All the experts regard walking as the best possible exercise. This policy on access has a major benefit to health because it will promote walking in the open countryside by granting a legal freedom to roam. More people of all ages could be encouraged to walk, including children. As a result we will become a healthier nation.

26 Jun 2000 : Column 707

But this right of access to the countryside should not be limited to the daytime. Many in the Chamber today spoke of night access in a detrimental way. The noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Conwy--he is not in his place at the moment--spoke of what he thought might happen in Wales. He spoke of a Wales with which I am not familiar when he talked of drug parties on the mountains and bonfires on the hillsides. It may be because the noble Lord lives in North Wales and I live in South Wales; that may be the difference.

Night access is supported by many organisations, including the Scout Association, the Girl Guides Association, the Long Distance Walkers Association and a number of organisations associated with mountain climbing, as well as the Ramblers' Association. I was pleased to note that the Minister for the Environment, Michael Meacher, said in another place that,


    "If there is a legitimate reason to restrict night-time access, that can be dealt with through, for example, local restrictions on access or even byelaws. The Bill provides the flexibility to deal with genuine problems that may arise locally without the need for a blanket ban ... on all access land ... For all those reasons, I am not inclined to accept restrictions on night access".

I applaud his view and hope that it will remain the view of the Government.

In conclusion, this Bill is welcomed by the majority of people, fulfilling the Labour Party's manifesto commitment to allow people much greater access to the countryside, bringing to a conclusion a campaign that began over 100 years ago when James Bryce introduced the first Access to Mountains Bill in 1884.

8.13 p.m.

The Duke of Montrose: My Lords, I speak of course, in the first instance, as a farmer and a landowner from a mainly mountain and moorland area. I hope your Lordships will be forbearing of another Scot taking the Floor. This is not an extension of the West Lothian question. But the Scottish Bill on this subject has yet to come before the Scottish Parliament and, naturally enough, Scottish Natural Heritage is taking a great interest in the outcome of this Bill in your Lordships' House. I feel therefore that any contributions we can make have some relevance both North of the Border and down here.

I feel that in the Countryside and Rights of Way Bill as it stands, the Government are effectively dismissing the present guardians of the countryside, be they farmers, foresters, gamekeepers or simply countryside dwellers, from that role. No one will risk the stream of abuse they will receive by going up to 10 or 20 different people and saying, "Show me what that lump in your jacket or knapsack is", with the hope of catching somebody with ill intent.

I should like to pick up the arguments used by the noble Lord, Lord Hardy of Wath. The security offered to many homes and situations through their remoteness from public rights of way will now be removed. In a town, much of the security that we have is because we are surrounded by a community who have the same interest in the peace and security of their homes as us. The idea that casual visitors have the

26 Jun 2000 : Column 708

same interests as a remote countryside dweller and that they will be able to act effectively against criminals is rather fanciful. It will become easier to steal a car, break into a building or even mug someone in the country and get away with it than it is in the town. The miscreant will be unchallengeable in his rights until the moment he actually commits the crime. As a corollary to that, one of the costs of this Bill which will never be taken into account in the Government's calculation is the increased security in which every countryside dweller will have to invest.

But it is not just this Bill that is changing the situation. My noble friend Lord Kimball hinted at the other side; that is, the whole improvement to the road system and increased car ownership, which is broadly welcomed. But it has already affected the vulnerability of those in the countryside. The MFU Mutual Insurance Company, in its last report, spoke of a dramatic increase in rural crime and an estimated cost at the present time of £93 million per annum.

It is not so long since, in my home area which is a mere 24 miles from the centre of Glasgow, any vehicle or person seen in an unusual place would be noted, and if a vehicle, the number would be taken in case a crime was later discovered. Now that we have a long-distance footpath, which is basically a good thing, directing 100,000 people a year through the farm, it is a little harder to keep track of things

This Bill is just removing another substantial brick from the wall that has supported the viability of country life. I feel that the present structure is being replaced by theories, some even labelled as scientific, the proof of which lies many years in the future.

Clause 19 of the Bill gives a cursory nod towards the whole issue of the appointment of wardens. But it does not go anywhere near addressing the issues facing the countryside. The numbers and duties and the financial implications are all to fall on local authorities. When funds are to be provided, as the Bill suggests they may be, will they be ring-fenced? Local authorities have many pressures and there are no guarantees that there will be any wardens in the places where they are needed.

Wardens and rangers can be useful people. I know quite a few of them in the context of our local regional park. Appointed under this Bill their duties will be to look after the public, to enforce any by-laws and then take care of anything else that the local authority thinks appropriate. That is a completely different order of priorities from those whose powers have been diminished or, as I said before, effectively dismissed. Their order of priority had to be economic production and ecological management of the area, or a combination of both. The results of their efforts were generally regarded as pleasing to the public and were often readily available to them. We do not at this stage know what kind of a countryside the new arrangements will produce.

Wardens with the powers proposed in no way address the question that, if people and property in the countryside are to enjoy an adequate level of security, larger numbers of police or people with the full

26 Jun 2000 : Column 709

authority of the law behind them will have to be appointed. Again, I felt that the noble Lord, Lord Hardy of Wath, was hinting towards that.

There is a fairly open commitment to finance contained in the Bill. But I should like to think that all those elements have been taken into account. In fact, my noble friend Lord Buxton mentioned Tony Martin and his rather "over-the-top" reaction to the situation. But it is an indication of the worries that may be going through the minds of many rural dwellers as they contemplate this legislation.

So much of the detail about a right of access in the Bill may look very good from a distant, urban perspective. But from the experiences I have had on the ground, many of them are anything but. As I mentioned, shortly after the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, I agreed to a major long distance footpath running through my farm, on a route where there was no previous access. I have welcomed this from the start, as the banks of Loch Lomond are something that the whole world should enjoy. I hope that this has taught those who use it something about the countryside in my area, but it has also taught me quite a lot about dealing with the public. In much the same way as I understand this Bill is envisaged, I receive no money from the exercise.

Paragraph 5 of Schedule 2 imposes a restriction, which will limit the right of access to anyone who has a dog that is not on a lead in the vicinity of livestock. This relates to one of my experiences and I should like to explain what happened. My long distance footpath runs through a large enclosure of rough ground where I summer a herd of hill cows with young calves at foot. Because of this, a notice at the boundary says, "No dogs, thank you". One summer day I walked up there to find a hot and breathless man running towards me clutching to his chest a large and terrified Labrador dog. He explained that he had just been in the middle of the enclosure when the cows began to chase the dog which had come running to his feet for protection. All the man could do was pick up the dog and run himself. I have a funny feeling that if anyone were hurt in these circumstances the authorities would not regard this as a naturally occurring hazard! However, as far as I understand it, everyone in this case was behaving perfectly naturally. Perhaps it would be wiser if those with dogs were constrained to avoid enclosures with unknown cattle.

I should like to support the way in which my noble friend Lord Brittan of Spennithorne so eloquently gave a perspective on the question of night-time access in his marvellous maiden speech. I am afraid that I am not quite in agreement with the noble Baroness, Lady Gale. Perhaps a little more open attitude on the part of some landowners is required, but I contend that night time access should be perfectly adequate as it is at present. If people like the noble Lord, Lord Hardy, want to go to watch badgers at night, is to too much to ask that they find out who the landowner is and let him know their interest? If, as the argument goes, these people have an intention of helping to deter criminal activity, they will need to know who the owner is

26 Jun 2000 : Column 710

before any effective action can be taken. Perhaps this sort of information could be available from these, at present, hypothetical wardens.

If there is to be any move towards night time access, I feel that there should be some regulation on the question of spotlights. Some people will be bound to take this as an opportunity to go out with such equipment. Surely that would, in a way, defeat the original idea of people experiencing what it is like to be out in the dark. It might also lead them open to being charged with recklessly disturbing wild birds and animals under paragraph 1 of Schedule 10.

My noble friend Lady Byford, among other speakers, spoke about money being available for the management of land. I know that that is covered under the legislation for SSSIs, but it seemed to me as if it were being considered for a wider area under Part I of the Bill. Can the Minister tell me whether there is any such consideration and where it is likely to appear?

For the 1.2 million hectares that are classified as SSSI, this Bill certainly has a lot to offer. For birds of prey and a few species on the verge of extinction in the rest of the country it may mark an improvement. It may curtail the interference by human beings. But for the 1.2 million or 1.8 million hectares--depending on which bit you read in the accompanying notes--of mountain, moor, heath and down, it is no use pretending that it will improve the habitat for wildlife and it could cause a good deal of harm.

8.23 p.m.

The Earl of Mar and Kellie: My Lords, I am a walker, a canoeist, a dinghy sailor and an estate owner. This Bill clearly does not apply in my native Scotland, but I feel that I ought to contribute to its Second Reading as many of the issues are relevant to my work as an estate worker, albeit in a different legal and philosophical framework. I acknowledge that legislation leading to a right of responsible access will be introduced into the Scottish Parliament in the near future.

I am involved with the management of a network of mainly woodland footpaths in the peri-urban setting of Lowland Clackmannanshire. I am also involved with a new wetland project--a managed retreat project--in conjunction with Clackmannanshire Heritage Trust, Scottish Natural Heritage and, it is to be hoped in the future, the RSPB.

Some of the estate's land is identified as a listed wildlife site by the Scottish Wildlife Trust. One of the national cycle route's link routes is about to be created through the estate, leading past Alloa Tower and on to Stirling. The context of this reform is, of course, at a time when the three rural primary producer industries--livestock, arable and forestry--are all flat on their backs economically.

I should like to focus on the issues surrounding the new right of access and the footpaths. I maintain a number of footpaths. Some are asserted rights of way, others are designated as "other footpaths" and some I have rediscovered and re-created from old Ordnance Survey maps, mainly from 1860. These paths and

26 Jun 2000 : Column 711

tracks all aid the maintenance of the estate and the public are welcome to use them; that is, on the unwritten proviso that they leave only their footprints. Extra stiles have been provided, as well as small bridges.

The annual maintenance of this path infrastructure is acceptable in financial terms to the estate. By that, I mean the cutting of the grass and the removal of obstructions to walking; the pruning of both sides of the path; and the overhead pruning. The paths are mostly beaten earth and some become muddy in winter. All this is quite fair, given the privilege of land ownership. However, what is not fair is the litter and the damage. The damage comes in the form of, for example, fires, the cutting down of young trees, the erection of makeshift shelters and vandalism to stiles, walls, bridges and fences. Damage also comes from motorcyclists, who are, of course, invariably acting without insurance and, hence, acting both illegally and without permission. Motorcycles always damage beaten earth footpaths.

I should like to say a few words about the proposed horse riding access. For the beaten earth footpath horses pose two problems. Their hooves always disturb the footpath surface and it is very difficult for an estate worker on foot to carry out the necessary overhead pruning.

I turn to the issue of mapping and enforcement. In consequence of the many discussions on the ground, I hope that the new right of access will not be brought into force until the new access maps have been published. For the land manager, estate staff or wardens arguing the score, the published map and an accompanying new countryside code will be very helpful. Most people will want to comply and, it is to be hoped, these altercations, or perhaps I should call them "discussions", will be largely interpretative. Obviously, signage or way-marking will help, as will the provision of clear and definite paths.

I appreciate that the right of access is to all open country as designated, but most people will keep to the paths, if only for ease of walking and for safer navigation. Therefore, keeping the paths in continuous good order will certainly help to mitigate any resentment felt, or real fear, over the new right.

I have two further points to make. The first is that of insurance. Clearly, land managers will have increasing risk. What advice will the Government be giving to the public about insuring themselves? They will, after all, have the insurance status of trespassers. Presumably the Government will recommend new insurance cover.

Secondly, as a canoeist, I have to regret that any promises made earlier to open up access to non-tidal water have been dropped. I have to presume that this issue of access to water has thrown up much greater difficulties than originally envisaged. I hope that the Minister can explain why access to water has been excluded from the Bill.

To conclude, I support the general thrust of the Bill but I feel that land managers will have an increased burden.

26 Jun 2000 : Column 712

8.30 p.m.

The Earl of Arran: My Lords, if you are number 31 on the speakers' list you still try to persuade yourself that you are part of the quality. However, I am perfectly relaxed in admitting that I am probably part of the quantity at this hour of the night!

This is an historic Bill for a number of reasons. First, it represents a fundamental shift in our understanding of property rights. Secondly, it has the potential to impact significantly on the well-being of the countryside from a conservation perspective. In the West Country, where I live and where my wife farms and works--here I declare an interest in that she does all the work--we know from the experience of the national parks how important is the management of access and that an absence of effective management can be absolutely disastrous.

As we all know, this Bill is in three parts which concern the right to roam, rights of way and SSSIs. Properly managed, these three dimensions of the Bill are compatible. However, the irony of this legislation is that by virtue of Part I the Bill could end up destroying the very landscapes, habitats and species that the latter part of the legislation is designed to protect.

On the question of access, I draw your Lordships' attention to what this part of the Bill represents in terms of property rights. Until now a key element of ownership was a right to the free enjoyment of property. This principle applied equally to a town house with a small garden as to a large agricultural holding. The test was not the scale but the right in a free society to own property and to enjoy that property. What this Bill does is to mark out large areas of privately owned land and take away the right of control and enjoyment and give it to outside authorities and individuals. This, of course, may affect land use, its viability and ultimately, of course, its very value. The impression one gets is that if one is a landowner or farmer one has less right to the enjoyment of one's property than have others.

There is a general misconception that those who own land in rural Britain have deliberately excluded people for no good reason. The reality could not be more different. The experience of most groups wishing to conduct outdoor recreation on private land has been that an approach to the relevant landowners has resulted in a mutually agreeable settlement without any costs involved and with responsibilities being recognised. This approach has also ensured that land management and conservation considerations have been given adequate attention.

When we talk of the British countryside we are not talking about a wilderness; we are talking about a managed and working environment. The countryside is the source of people's livelihoods. Should we put recreation ahead of the well-being of rural communities? Whatever militant ramblers might say, the countryside is not a playground. To take away the rights of owners so that the small minority can have a right to roam is, I believe, a travesty of justice. The

26 Jun 2000 : Column 713

fundamental problem with this legislation involves not the idea of improving access to rural Britain but the concept of a right.

I think it is fair to say that landowners recognise the desire on the part of many for greater public access to the countryside. However, land managers also know the costs involved and they will have to pick up the costs of increased access with little practical redress against those who abuse that right. How is access to be managed? I think that it will be managed with great difficulty. For, without adequate wardening, all restrictions and safeguards for land management and conservation will be in vain.

I draw your Lordships' attention to two areas that will need close examination. These are the questions of liability and access at night that so many noble Lords have already mentioned. Both of those questions could have grave implications for farmers in terms of legal costs and pest control. For example, in reducing occupiers' liability, the current definition of "natural feature" and "semi-natural feature" would not include walls and gates or other items reasonably associated with land management. This is surely an absolute absurdity. How can farmers remain liable for injuries arising from objects which are an intrinsic part of the countryside and of land management? Moreover, defining land on paper is one thing, identifying it on the ground is another.

Recently at the Countryside Live show at Syon House, organised by the Game Conservancy, one child looked at a Jersey calf and commented to the farmer owner, "That is a big dog". When increasing numbers of people are growing up in total ignorance of animals, farming and the countryside, and where their view of rural life is "Bambified", how are they to distinguish, for instance, intensively grazed land from that which is extensively grazed?

I believe that there is no justification for night-time access nor any legitimate reason for it. Indeed, I believe that there are severe misgivings on that matter on all sides of your Lordships' House.

The final point I wish to make on the access part of the Bill is that the right to roam does not respond to the genuine needs of people in this country. Landowners accept that ownership brings with it not just responsibilities and management care but also wider social responsibilities as guardians of the countryside on behalf of the nation and future generations. As such, most land is de facto open for walking already. Most land managers are sensitive and responsive to public needs. Only a few highly publicised cases have been manipulated to give the impression of obstreperous owners.

It is a mark of the success of that management that our island is so rich in areas of outstanding natural beauty and SSSIs. Over 60 per cent of our heather moorland is designated SSSI. To some it may be embarrassing or indeed politically incorrect, but it is an undoubted fact that country sports have helped to create and sustain the rich biodiversity of the moors and many of our most beautiful landscapes elsewhere.

26 Jun 2000 : Column 714

In the interests of your Lordships' patience and time I shall pass straight over Part II. Part III of the Bill deals with SSSI protection and wildlife crime. Here the criminal sanctions must be proportionate and fair. It cannot be reasonable that a person exercising the new proposed right of access can do serious damage and receive a cursory punishment or be able to get away with such damage due to a failure of wardening and ability to trace an individual. We must look carefully at this part of the Bill.

On the one hand greater access is being given and on the other greater protection for SSSIs is being sought. These two aims may not always be compatible. We seem to live in an age of increasing coercion and attacks on the countryside. That point was made by my noble friend Lord Monro. Are we not in danger of losing that spirit of co-operation--which the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, said was so important--and negotiation that should characterise any relationship between a land manager or owner and someone wishing to use his land? Such a relationship allows for flexibility and takes into account the needs of recreation, conservation and management. I cannot overemphasise the need for less confrontation with people who live and work in the countryside than we have seen recently.

While I recognise the merits of greater access, I cannot wholeheartedly support the Bill in its current form. I trust that your Lordships will look at it carefully in order to ensure that the right balance is struck between the needs of rural communities and a desire for access on the part of others. The importance of this balance is essential in a free property owning society and people's livelihoods must never be put second to recreation. If we do not get this Bill right, those who seek this right of access could end up destroying the very thing they seek. This would be a profound tragedy which we must ensure does not happen for the sake of all those who live in England's green and pleasant land.

8.40 p.m.

Baroness Nicol: My Lords, the noble Earl, Lord Arran, complained about being number 31 on the list; number 32 is even worse.

I propose to keep my remarks as short as possible. I welcome the Bill. Unlike many previous speakers, I believe that it will bring joy to many thousands of people who wish to walk peacefully in our beautiful areas of mountain, moorland and common land which are at this time closed to them. I note the anxiety expressed by some noble Lords. I believe that many of their fears are largely unfounded. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Gale, I find it impossible to reconcile some of the horror stories that we have heard--particularly from the other side of the House--with the realities of past experience. As the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, said, large areas of the countryside have been available to walkers for many years under the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949 and through the National Trust. Experience

26 Jun 2000 : Column 715

shows that the vast majority of walkers who visit these areas behave sensibly and are as concerned as the landowners to protect the countryside they enjoy.

I came across an article in this summer's edition of the Timber Grower--which may not be required reading for some of your Lordships--and I should like to quote from it. A former chairman of the Timber Growers' Association, Mr Andrew Christie-Miller, writes of the difficulties which could arise from forest access. I am aware that the Bill does not affect forestry, but the comment which he makes is relevant. Having dealt with the potential difficulties of access, many of which we have heard rehearsed today, he goes on:


    "How many of you who are giving widespread permissive access, predominantly for the benefit of local people, find they very soon adopt your woods as their own? This doesn't mean they wander everywhere but they do tend to treat it as a privilege and with great respect. What's more, if they see something amiss (litter, vandalism, etc) they very soon are in touch".

This comment from someone who does not basically approve of public access is surely worth noting. It supports the view of many of us that the presence of responsible walkers, who care for the facility they are enjoying, will help to ensure that those who misbehave will be identified and dealt with.

Concerns have been expressed on all sides about night access. I understand some of the anxieties--I am sure that we will explore them thoroughly at Committee stage--but, again, where there is existing experience of night access it shows that many of these fears are unfounded. I agree with the suggestion of the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, and my noble friend Lord Dubs, that local by-laws should be used to suit local conditions. This is well worth considering because one cannot apply exactly the same rules up and down the country to entirely different pieces of countryside. A lot will depend, too, on who lives next door.

Several noble Lords want an extension of the closure period. The noble Baroness, Lady Byford, was very strong on that. I suspect that that is right--I hope that we shall talk more about it in Committee--and 40 days seems to me to be quite reasonable.

The problem of dogs is much more difficult. I understand the potential for disturbance to stock and to wildlife. We shall have to explore the issue in Committee. My own feeling is that dogs and wildlife simply do not mix under any conditions. But I understand that for many people their dog is a part of the family and that an outing without it is not complete. Somehow we shall have to find a way to reconcile those two points of view.

Part II of the Bill deals with rights of way and other paths and seems to be causing some anxiety among the non-governmental organisations. The British Horse Society, the ramblers, the Open Spaces Society, the National Federation of Bridleway Associations, the RSPB, and others have expressed concerns which we shall need to examine. I especially welcome Schedule 7, which controls off-road driving of motor vehicles. I cannot believe that any noble Lord will object to that provision.

26 Jun 2000 : Column 716

Part III, which covers nature conservation and wildlife, is particularly welcome to me. I think that, by and large, it has been welcomed throughout the debate. I agree particularly with the comments of the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, and my noble friend Lady Young. The shortcomings of the 1981 Act became obvious soon after its introduction. I entered the House at the very beginning of 1983 when it had not settled down. Since then we have made many attempts, some successful, to amend the Act, but it still remains inadequate. The provisions of Part III of the Bill are very welcome.

I am disappointed that we have not succeeded in including a section on marine protection. The same happened during the passage of the 1981 Act when the marine nature reserves were tacked on as an afterthought. I am not suggesting that we repeat that now--it is a subject which will need careful consideration--but I hope that we tackle marine problems before too long.

This is a good Bill as it stands. It is a balance between the desire of all of us who wish to enjoy the countryside and the need to preserve our natural heritage. It is so much more than we had dared to hope for just a few years ago. I support my noble friend Lady Young in her plea. It would be a tragedy if those who basically approve of the Bill with its existing provisions were to cause it to fail by their pursuit of what they consider to be perfection. I urge all who have welcomed the Bill to try to ensure a swift passage for it.

8.46 p.m.

Lord Burnham: My Lords, my noble friend Lady Trumpington complained that the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, had shot her fox. The "fox" now looks like one of the dubious photographs published by the RSPCA. Nevertheless, I intend to stick to the one point that I wish to make--your Lordships have covered much of what is included in the Bill--and that concerns the issue of training grounds for racehorses.

It is a major problem in Middleham in the former constituency of the noble Lord, Lord Brittan; large numbers of horses are exercised there daily on the high moor and the low moor. In Lambourn, there are large areas of privately-owned gallops which have footpaths all over them--designated tracks which those involved with the horses would not wish people to leave. It may be said that in Lambourn the worst problem at the moment is the didicois and their lurchers, who inhabit the downland and the Ridgeway and make an enormous nuisance of themselves.

In Epsom, which both my noble friend and the noble Lord seemed to say was no longer an important training area, the ground is covered, as my noble friend said, by the Epsom and Walton Downs Regulation Act 1984, which sets out perfectly the situation between those who wish to take recreation or activity on the downs and those who are training horses there. Can the noble Lord confirm whether or not this Bill will nullify the terms of the 1984 Act? If one looks at the back of the Bill, one sees the older Acts which are in any way affected by it, and the Epsom and Walton

26 Jun 2000 : Column 717

Downs Regulation Act is not included. I hope that the noble Lord will be able to give me some information about the relationship between this Bill and that Act.

As my noble friend said, Newmarket is the largest area for training. It has 2,800 acres of training grounds and employs 25 men to ensure safety. I have no doubt whatever that health and safety officers would have strong views about letting people loose on the gallops when horses are being trained because, as has been said, approximately five people are thrown every day. Half a tonne of panicking racehorse galloping, as it will if it is not caught, for its own stable is likely to cause considerable damage to anyone going for a walk with his dog.

Malton is another main area but there are smaller training establishments and smaller gallops in other areas. It would be extremely dangerous for the public to be allowed on those grounds when horses are being exercised.

At present, particularly in Epsom and Newmarket, there is a satisfactory situation whereby pedestrians and dogs are allowed on the training ground after midday when the exercising of horses has finished. That works extremely well. The local people know the form and the situation is not abused. But if the Bill is enacted and the arrogant militants of the Ramblers' Association go wandering all over these training grounds at all times, someone will be hurt. I do not know whether it will be the rambler, the rider or the horse, but it will be a most unsatisfactory situation. Therefore, it is important that there should be no dogs on these training grounds. It is even more important that there should be a method of ensuring that no bottles or tins are left on the training grounds. A bottle can cut a tendon and write off a racehorse for life.

A further point is the texture of the gallops and the danger of people always walking in the same place. The gallopsmen work very hard to ensure that there is permanently a good texture for horses to work on. However, if people are allowed to walk all over the ground, that will not be easy to achieve.

Paragraph 6 of Part I of Schedule 6 refers to:


    "Land used for the purposes of a golf course, racecourse or aerodrome".

"Aerodrome" is a wonderfully old-fashioned word. I do not know where the parliamentary draftsman found that one! We should like the exception to include land for the training of racehorses. I do not intend to move an amendment to that end in Committee but I hope that the Minister will study the matter and realise that without such an exception there will be a serious situation. Perhaps local access forums could be set up under the aegis of the Countryside Agency--such forums should include an industry representative--in order to achieve the relative balance between the different interests in this matter. I hope the Minister will be able to give the House some assurance that when we come to the next stage of the Bill the Government will be able to achieve a short and simple wording which will enable this problem to be solved.

26 Jun 2000 : Column 718

8.55 p.m.

Lord Bridges: My Lords, at this stage of the proceedings I must be rigorously selective. Instead of walking through the three separate parts of the Bill, I shall concentrate on two quite separate aspects: first, those which I think are praiseworthy, and, secondly, those parts which I suggest may require some further attention.

My background is as someone who lives in a village in an AONB. I am an active member of the National Trust and of the county branch of the CPRE. I am also a vice-president of the National Parks Council. Although I am descended from families which have in the past owned and cultivated land in Thanet and Yorkshire, I myself have never owned land and do not own any now. I do not shoot, except perhaps when required in uniform in wartime.

To take the positive part first, I give a very warm welcome to the undertaking by the Minister in another place, Mr Michael Meacher, that an amendment will be moved here in Committee to give greater protection to the AONBs in the land planning system. The reply given by the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, to the noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry, at the opening of this debate was also excellent news. I believe that to be absolutely essential. Although the terms of Policy Planning Guidance No. 7, which is now in force, state that the AONBs should be protected from major development unless it can be shown to be essential in the national interest and in the absence of an alternative site, experience has shown that some local planning authorities pay scant regard to its terms. The noble Lord, Lord Whitty, may recall that I have mentioned this point before in a debate to which he replied.

I now have another current example. Following the auction of large parts of the audio spectrum to mobile telephone companies, in the Heritage Coast AONB where I live these companies have been falling over each other in their haste to obtain planning approval for tall radio masts, believing that the company with the strongest signal will gain the most subscribers. The planning authorities did not at first feel inclined to question these intrusive structures in sensitive places. It fell to environmental groups, like those to which I belong, to point out that there could be alternative sites in less sensitive places which should be shared between the companies, and that the technical claims made by the companies ought to be examined by some independent expert. That is an uphill struggle. But thanks to the efforts of the parish council and the CPRE, the planners have now been persuaded to refuse these applications until alternative sites have been investigated. That intervention should not have been necessary. I believe that Policy Planning Guidance No. 8 regarding radio masts is in the process of revision. That will be timely. But sparsely populated AONBs are particularly vulnerable to this form of pressure.

It is absolutely vital that this protection should be given to the ANOBs. Furthermore, they should have more resources than they now enjoy. The Suffolk coast

26 Jun 2000 : Column 719

and heaths AONB simply does not receive enough funds from the county to do its job properly. I hope that the DETR will be able to find fresh resources to match its new responsibilities and might verify the arrival of the funds at their destination.

Another welcome change is the proposed improvements to rights of way. Reclassification of RUPPs as restricted by-ways, confining their use to walkers, cyclists and horse-drawn vehicles, is most welcome. I join others in resisting any weakening of this line. However, I hope that cyclists will be explicitly limited to the pedal variety, so excluding the noisy motorbike which has no place on such by-ways. There must also be exclusion of so-called four-wheel drive recreational vehicles. As I read the Bill, I believe that that is the intention of the Government. I shall support them in sticking to this line. The new version of BOATs should also be an improvement.

Perhaps I may speak a little further on footpaths. Over the past 40 years I have walked a good deal in England and Wales as well as in mountains and uplands in Europe and America. My experience has been that the access normally enjoyed by our citizens through the footpath system is generally superior to that available in most other European countries, where the law relating to the protection of game may be used as a barrier to public access. I am thus distinctly dubious about the claims to the contrary from Peter Scott Associates and others, who have sent briefing material to several noble Lords. The only exception might be areas of high mountain terrain in Europe where good mapped footpaths and generally free access are often to be found. That was certainly my experience as a member of the Austrian and German Alpine Club.

However, in general, I would assert that our footpaths are a national asset of no small importance. What we need to do is to improve and extend the network. I applaud the Bill's intention to facilitate this. Local authorities are best placed to do it, but often they are not well equipped for an expanded role. They need more staff, who in turn require encouragement to press ahead with extensions to the network where these will lead to the greater enjoyment by the public in an innocent recreational activity. They should also be more active in the opening of existing rights of way which cannot now be used for a variety of reasons.

My welcome on these points is wholehearted and without reservation. But I should like to indicate a number of points on which I foresee certain problems. First, I turn to the general proposal to designate large tracts of land as "open country" and to have these officially recorded on a map. "Cultivated land" is to be excluded. I know that the National Farmers Union and some others have objected to this. Certainly the converse is incorrect: one cannot say that "uncultivated land" and "open countryside" are synonymous. What, for example, would be the status of set-aside land? Would it be regarded as "temporarily uncultivated"? How would such land be classified?

26 Jun 2000 : Column 720

A common case is found among those owners of open countryside moorland who may also own land in the valley bottoms where they graze stock in winter. Such terrain may be cultivated in the sense that it is fertilised, harrowed, drained or put up for hay in summer. I suggest that this definition is quite crucial and will need more thought. If it is to be adopted, it may require a good deal of refinement.

My next concern relates to mapping. This is crucial to the success of the Bill and will fall to the Countryside Agency to administer. The operation will require very careful surveys and even more careful assessment if public confidence is to be won and maintained. It will be a difficult undertaking and I hope that those entrusted with the task will be most thoughtfully selected and meticulously briefed. It is not a job only for professional cartographers, although their skills will certainly be needed. I suggest that those appointed to this role should not as a rule include professional campaigners or those already strongly committed to or ranged against these proposals. Rather they should be people with a knowledge and love of the countryside who also appreciate the pleasure of walking in it while respecting the rights of those who live and work in it. I know that such people do exist. If they can be located and employed on the work, the chances of success for the whole operation will be greatly improved.

Much discussion has surrounded the difficult issue of night-time access. I, too, have found it hard to come to a conclusion on the matter. Opinions are sharply divided here. A bird enthusiast will say that his only chance of hearing a night-jar, that delicious, summery whirring noise, is by walking late at night in a rural place. Others, like the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, wish to share the delights, like Mussorgsky, of a "Night on a Bare Mountain". But the right to walk at night on private property is deeply suspect to a farmer, who has good reason to fear the cattle rustler and the sheep stealer. We all know that such activities do take place. Perhaps local rules should be negotiated for different locations rather than the imposition of a blanket right or total prohibition. I believe that the noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, suggested moving forward along those lines.

One other worry has been expressed to me by the Council for National Parks. This concerns the intended designation of new national parks in the South Downs and the New Forest. These parks have issues specific to the areas concerned. The council hopes that the status of the national park authorities in relation to planning matters will not be reduced at the instigation of the local authority. The same anxiety was expressed earlier in the debate by the noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry. I believe that there is good reason for concern here.

This Bill is a very mixed bag. I understand its general intention and broadly support its purpose. However, a great deal of detailed work is still required if we are to produce an Act that will be acceptable to all reasonable people. Nothing less than that will be good enough. In my view, this is a serious opportunity rather than a crusade.

26 Jun 2000 : Column 721

9.5 p.m.

Baroness Sharp of Guildford: My Lords, as someone who over very many years has enjoyed the pleasures of walking and rambling over the downs, fells, moorland and gentle mountains of Wales and Scotland, I welcome the Bill. I believe that it is a brave attempt to clarify rights and responsibilities for both the walker and the landowner; to bring up to date legislation covering rights of way; and to provide stronger protection for SSSIs and the environment in general.

I agree with those noble Lords who have argued that many of the difficult issues confronted by the Bill could usefully be covered by local by-laws. However, if we set up by-laws that differentiate by area, it is extremely important that proper information is provided about exactly what is laid down in those by-laws. I know well the Brecon Beacons national park. In the middle of the park stands an excellent information centre in which a great deal of printed information is made available. However, it is in the centre of the park; more information needs to be provided for visitors in the surrounding towns so that it can be picked up by potential walkers. If local variations are to be introduced, people must know about them.

It is inevitable with a Bill as wide and complex as this that certain issues might have been dealt with differently. As has been made clear by speakers from these Benches, the Liberal Democrats have a number of significant reservations about the Bill. I share many of those reservations and I echo two issues in particular.

First, resources: as many noble Lords have made clear, the provisions of this Bill cannot be met without resources being made available. Many of the provisions will fall upon local authorities for implementation, and it is by no means clear that those resources will be made available to local authorities within the Government's control of local finances.

My noble friend Lord Bradshaw made clear that for Oxfordshire alone the annual cost was likely to be in the region of £500,000. If we multiply that round the country, a significant cost will have to be met. At the end of the day and as things stand at present, it is likely that that cost will have to be met by council tax payers, who will inevitably blame their local councils rather than the Government.

Secondly, the environment: I do not think that the Bill is bold enough in its environmental aspirations. To give one small example, we have lost so many songbirds--larks, thrushes, warblers--and adding to this all the other flora and fauna, it is clear that we need tougher protection for our SSSIs and not just for the SSSIs but, more generally, for biodiversity within the countryside. I join with those who have been asking that the biodiversity action plans, BAPs, should be included within the broad legislation.

There are, however, two particular issues that I would like to raise in this debate. First, the areas of outstanding natural beauty, the AONBs: I live in Guildford, on the doorstep of the Surrey hills AONB. We have the Devil's Punchbowl, Box Hill, Leith Hill--all very well known and protected by the Green Belt,

26 Jun 2000 : Column 722

one of the green lungs for London and the south-east, visited and loved by many. Earlier this year there came the announcement that two new national parks--the South Downs and the New Forest--would be created, the first national parks to be announced for over 40 years. I congratulate in particular the noble Lord, Lord Renton, on his hard work in relation to the South Downs. As he made clear, however, there are many hurdles yet to be jumped before this beautiful area does become a national park.

Those of us who live in the Surrey hills regret that our area of outstanding natural beauty did not achieve the same status. Originally the AONBs were supposed to have the same status as national parks but have lacked the planning protections, and above all the resources and the organisation, necessary to make such status effective.

When this Bill first emerged last January it was a great disappointment that the Government had not used it to make good this omission and to give the AONBs the status and the resources they deserved. We were therefore delighted when on 13th June this year the Government announced that they were going to bring forward amendments to the Bill to safeguard the status of the AONBs and to provide for their proper protection and management. In particular, for larger AONBs such as Surrey hills the amendments will provide for the setting up of a conservation and management board and encourage an approach which provides for a cohesive and comprehensive management strategy.

In addition, amazingly, they have also promised some of the resources necessary to put this strategy into effect, with funds coming through from the Countryside Agency and, according to the press release, increasing from £2.1 million to £5.9 million. I believe, but am not sure, that this is in a year. I would be glad to have clarification from the Minister.

I would like to use this opportunity to say how pleased we are in Surrey at this decision. We will look forward to seeing these amendments when they appear at the Committee stage of the Bill. I also take the opportunity to thank the Secretary of State and his advisers for doing so, and also to thank the noble Lord, Lord Renton, whose Private Member's Bill very much paved the way for this.

The second issue I wish to raise is a more difficult and esoteric one, discussed without conclusion at the Committee and Report stages of this Bill in the other place. It relates to rights of access to houses which front on to common land. Traditionally, many of these houses have had access rights by foot; over time, this access was translated into vehicle access. However, the 1993 Court of Appeal judgment in Hanning v. Top Deck Travel decided that, since under the 1925 Law of Property Act it was illegal to drive a vehicle over common land, householders who had had free access on foot could not translate that into vehicular access. The only way that a right to drive from a public road to a property over common land could be obtained was to get an easement from the owner of the common land; that is to say, a proper deed granting access.

26 Jun 2000 : Column 723

I do not want to go into detail, but the issue is causing considerable worry and grief to those who bought property assuming that they had access rights. In some cases, private owners of common land are asking as much as 10 per cent of the value of property for such easements and, with house prices at the level that they have reached in Surrey, that can mean very considerable sums. The problem is compounded because mortgage companies will not grant mortgages until access rights are settled, but sellers at the lower end of the market cannot raise the necessary money without selling their property and are therefore being "boxed in". Much of the land is, however, owned as common land by parish, district or county councils. In such cases people expect to be able to purchase their easement at either zero or cost price--but again councils are enjoined by the Local Government Act 1972 not to dispose of such land,


    "for a consideration less than the best that can reasonably be obtained".

The current situation is most unsatisfactory. In some cases private landlords are asking extortionate prices. Then there is a variation among the public landlords: some of the district councils in Surrey charge no cost at all; others, including Surrey County Council, ask what they regard as a reasonable price.

The Secretary of State was not unsympathetic in principle to the amendments that were moved in the other place designed to bring some clarity to the law, although he saw problems with the specific form of words being proposed. I very much hope that, before the Bill is passed, it will have been possible to bring forward amendments to solve this problem. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say.

9.15 p.m.

Lord Luke: My Lords, this has been a long and fascinating debate. I shall not detain your Lordships for long.

I have been fortunate in that I have lived most of my life in the country. I love the countryside, and, like all my colleagues on these Benches, I am keen to encourage as many people as possible to visit the countryside, enjoy it, and benefit from some of the eternal truths of life which are sometimes easier to appreciate away from towns and cities. So I support the main stated aim of the Bill.

Many discussions took place between the Government and bodies interested in this subject. The discussions were fruitful, and agreement on many issues and problems regarding voluntary access was nigh on achieved. Then, bang!--the Minister, Mr Meacher, announced that voluntary arrangements were no good, little progress was being made in local access agreements and he intended to introduce this Bill. Why? Because, of course, voluntary arrangements did not quite add up to the "right to roam" so loudly trumpeted in the manifesto. "Right to roam" has the authentic ring--as does banning hunting with dogs and banning fur farms. All three of them seem to be coming up at rather an extraordinary time, your Lordships might think--in the run-up to a general election. No matter that "right to roam" is

26 Jun 2000 : Column 724

really rather restricted and circumscribed in the Bill; it is fundamentally an attack on property and rights of ownership.

What about the needs of those looking for recreational access, the needs of riders, carriage drivers and other traditional users? I have a particular interest in motor sport. I hasten to stress that I do not mean the indiscriminate riding of motorcycles and four-wheel drive vehicles everywhere. I am talking about regulated motor sport. The Motor Sports Association, which has briefed me, is worried about a number of provisions in the Bill. It is mainly worried about weekends, when most motor sport takes place. The sport can be dangerous; therefore, it really would not be possible to have members of the public at constant risk of being run down.

It is understood that motor sport comes under the general heading of "land management", so weekend closures could be sought under the provisions of Clause 22. However, some of the authorities to which landowners would have to apply in order to obtain permission for motor sports are not known to be sympathetic to motoring issues. Will the Minister kindly reassure me on this matter? It is a question of restricted byways. These will not, of course, be for motorists, but they could possibly be used for motor sport. That could be achieved by means of the statutory instrument which, I understand, is likely to be used. Will the Government support motor sport in this?

How do you gain access to the access land when a great deal of it is approachable only by means of rudimentary, narrow roads, with few parking areas and certainly no public transport? Bicycles?

The farming community, which is in such dire straits, is continually urged by the Government to diversify. Some of the provisions of this Bill may very well be a deterrent to diversification. Is not the timing of the Government just marvellous? Surely, the last thing that hard-pressed farmers want is a whole new set of regulations to learn, plus probably heavy cost implications.

The framing of many of the provisions of the Bill shows the Government's complete lack of knowledge of the countryside. Lambs are to emerge in accordance with the law, not at weekends; birds are to nest by numbers. Night time roaming is bound to lead to unfortunate accidents--horrific accidents according to one noble Lord, whose name I have forgotten--increased poaching and, worst of all, will make it easier for the burglar and thief.

The Prime Minister said in an interview with the magazine Country Living:


    "We have always said that the right to access open land comes with responsibilities. So we are preparing codes of practice that will include do's and don'ts such as when to shut farm gates and when to leave them open".

There are not many gates in open moorland. If that is all that is meant by codes of practice, presumably without the force of law, they will not be of much help, particularly with the kinds of people described by the noble Lord, Lord Hardy of Wath, who I see is not in his place.

26 Jun 2000 : Column 725

This is a bad Bill with some goods parts. A lot of this legislation is unnecessary. We on these Benches will try to modify the Bill so that at least some of it becomes worth while.

9.21 p.m.

The Earl of Shrewsbury: My Lords, I declare an interest as a landowner, sheep farmer and enthusiastic field sports participant. I cannot say that I thoroughly welcome the Bill because I believe that in parts it is heavy-handed, unnecessary and damaging to the proper functioning of the countryside and those of us who work in that environment. I refer to the so-called right to roam proposals.

However, I give a cautious welcome to the parts of the Bill which seek to ensure the protection of rare flora and fauna and ancient woodland. I welcome the proposals to tighten up SSSIs, but I must flag up that sometimes the authorities get it wrong. Those authorities should practise a much greater spirit of understanding and co-operation with farmers and landowners. After all, it is they who know best about the land that they work and own. The authorities should pay greater attention to, and work closely with, such august bodies as the Game Conservancy Trust and the Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group, to name but two.

The authorities must practise care and diplomacy in their dealings with farmers and landowners. Many times one hears of situations which could so easily have been avoided.

My main concerns arise from the provisions of Part I of the Bill. I shall be as brief as possible. Most of it has already been said in this debate. There are some 800,000 acres of heather moorland in England and Wales, and I believe that it is that land which is under threat from the Bill. On much of that land grouse shooting is practised. First-class moorland management is required to ensure the survival and proliferation of both grouse and many other varieties of ground-nesting birds. Both the RSPB and Game Conservancy Trust have established through painstaking research that ground-nesting waders are particularly abundant on grouse moors. As my noble friend Lord Peel said earlier this afternoon, there are twice as many curlews, five times as many lapwings and five times as many golden plovers on grouse moors as there are on unmanaged moors.

One has only to look at much of the Welsh heather moorland to see how quickly a moor can be sterilised through lack of good management. Predators and vermin move in, sheep numbers rise dramatically and white grass and bracken invade the moor. Very soon the grouse all but disappear along with a very serious decline in the numbers of other ground-nesting birds.

Good moor management requires heather burning to promote the growth of young heather which is the staple diet of the grouse. It requires the careful control of predators, vermin and sheep numbers, the spraying of bracken and the harvesting of game in a controlled manner. The latter is important as it reduces the

26 Jun 2000 : Column 726

incidence of disease and the pressure on food during the winter. Without man's involvement in the management of such upland areas the grouse would die out from disease, lack of adequate food supply and pressure from vermin and other predators. Man manages the balance of nature and improves it to the benefit of many species whose habitat is to be found on these uplands. Through careful management man sustains benefits to the fragile local economies of such areas. Good moorland management means good conservation. It is vital, therefore, that the provisions of the Bill should not compromise this delicate balance.

Schedule 2 requires dogs to be on leads between 1st March and 30th June and when in the vicinity of livestock. But experience has shown that requirements for dogs to be on leads is largely ignored. On heather moorland areas where there exists an abundance of ground-nesting birds, surely it would be good sensible practice to ensure that dogs are prohibited, with the exception of guide dogs. Even the most controllable dog can suddenly, like mine, develop selective deafness when its blood is up and a bird or a hare springs from the surroundings.

Secondly, I refer to access at night. For the life of me, I cannot understand for what reason a rambler would wish to walk on an upland moor after dark. Moors are by their very nature wild areas. Previous mining over past centuries has left unprotected shafts and quarries. Peat hags exist. The terrain is rough and changeable. Weather can come down within a few minutes. In short, to walk on a moor at night is to court disaster; and because moors are in secluded areas and are usually vast in size the chances of finding assistance should disaster occur are very limited indeed. I believe that to wander on a moor at night is completely irresponsible and, at the very least, foolhardy. In addition, the highly effective and necessary method of shooting foxes at night on moorland with lamp and rifle by gamekeepers would create a further danger for walkers after dark, especially as expanding ammunition is not appreciated.

Furthermore, access at night would provide a charter for poachers, longdogs, terrier men and lamping. It would provide a charter for criminals who wish to approach dwellings in remote moorland areas after dark in order to burgle. I am aware that the Association of Chief Police Officers is completely against the provision for access after dark. I believe that access must be restricted to daylight hours or, at the very least, by prior arrangement with the owner or his appointed agent.

Thirdly, I refer to the 28-day closure rule and access on weekends and bank holidays. Will the 28-day closure provision give enough time in practice for proper management purposes? I doubt it. Much depends on weather regarding burning of heather, for example. I agree entirely with the noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, as do many people involved in moorland management, that 40 days is a more realistic figure. Although Clause 22 allows application to the relevant authority for additional closure, there is no guarantee that consent will be forthcoming. Will other persons

26 Jun 2000 : Column 727

with interests apart from the owner be able to exercise the 28-day provision? How will those interests be defined? I believe that the provision as drafted is not satisfactory.

It will also be necessary for shooting purposes to have the ability to close the moor for access on Saturdays and bank holidays. Often those are the only days when shooting can take place on moors due to the time constraints during the week on shooters and staff. Moorland keepers need to plan their diary, especially in seasons of prolific grouse numbers, in order efficiently to cull to reduce the potential spread of disease and to conserve young heather for winter months when foodstocks are low.

Finally, on the question of damage to upland areas from walkers, I believe that a cautionary remark is necessary. On the whole, walkers are wholly responsible people. However, damage through sheer numbers does occur. Anyone who is familiar, as I am, with the Derbyshire Peak District, Ilam and Thorpe Cloud in particular, cannot have failed to notice the serious erosion and associated damage--and litter left behind, as the noble Lord, Lord Hardy of Wath, mentioned--caused by the large numbers of visitors. It goes with the territory.

All these matters and more will need to be scrutinised carefully by your Lordships during the passage of the Bill. The Bill must ensure that a workable, sensible environment for the future is the result, fair to all and especially taking on board the best interests of landowners and those whose incomes are wholly dependent on the efficient and responsible working of these parts of the countryside.

9.30 p.m.

Baroness Gibson of Market Rasen: My Lords, only since coming to live permanently in London have I realised how privileged I have been to spend most of my life in our wonderful countryside, which I had taken totally for granted. Before I moved to London I was fortunate enough to live in Suffolk, a beautiful, tranquil county. Before that, I was born and brought up in Lincolnshire, as my title suggests. Coming from Market Rasen, and also being a health and safety commissioner, I want to support the wise words of the noble Lord, Lord Burnham, about the exercising of horses.

Because I love the countryside and believe that all my countrymen and women should also be able to enjoy its glory I am pleased to be able to support almost all of the Bill. I do not believe that the Bill attacks the countryside or those who live in it, but I have two worries. First, it is important that people have a right of entry on to access land. Open air recreation is vital to people's well-being, most especially as regards those who visit the countryside from large conurbations. However, while recognising the advantages of such forays into the countryside, the need for constraint of those who do not respect such advantages must also be recognised.

Therefore, the retraction of right to access for those who break any of the restrictions is a necessity. Landowners should have their rights protected and I,

26 Jun 2000 : Column 728

too, believe that the Bill is light in that respect. Currently, the Bill allows for the right of access to be curtailed for the remainder of any day upon which any misdemeanour occurs. I, too, believe that that provision needs reconsideration because I fear that it will prove to be too lax. Surely, if a person is to be banned from land it should be for longer than a few hours.

Secondly, I believe that dogs should be kept firmly under control and not be allowed to attack animals around them. That is my belief whether they are called "dogs" or "hounds".

I now turn to the positive points. The general redesignation of roads used as public paths (RUPPs), which in future will be shown as restricted byways, is a welcome clause. The redefinition will clarify the situation relating to clear rights of way and will relieve surveying authorities of their current obligations to reclassify RUPPs. Likewise, it is particularly important for local authorities to be allowed to divert footpaths, bridleways and so forth where they cross school premises. That has not yet been mentioned and is particularly pertinent after some of the horrifying happenings in our schools during recent years. Local authorities should do everything in their power to protect school pupils and school staff.

Like my noble friend Lady Nicol, I believe that further control of vehicular traffic on unclassified roads and byways is welcome if we are to conserve flora, fauna and the physical features of the landscape. That is of great importance if we want to retain the beauty of our countryside.

I turn from restrictions to expansions. It is a pleasure to see that people with disabilities are specifically considered within the Bill. When in future improvements are made to rights of way in the erection of stiles, bridleways and footpaths, consideration must now be given to those with mobility problems. As someone with a mobility problem, the proposed guidance to be given by the Secretary of State to competent authorities in exercising their powers are particularly welcome. For too long, the needs of people with disabilities have been virtually ignored in much of our legislation. Therefore, this is a welcome step forward. It is to be hoped that many more Bills will contain such references and that disability organisations will be involved in the drawing up of the Bills.

Finally, perhaps I may put the Bill into its historical context. The 1949 Attlee government introduced the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act. At its introduction, it was said:


    "The enjoyment of the countryside is just as much part of our health and wellbeing as are the building of hospitals or insurance against illness. This is not just a Bill. It is a People's Charter for the open air, for everyone who loves to get out and enjoy the countryside. Without it, they are fettered, deprived of their powers of access and the facilities needed to make holidays enjoyable. With it, the countryside is theirs to preserve, to cherish, to enjoy and to make their own".

Fifty years later, this countryside Bill is of equal importance, both for those who live permanently in the countryside and for those who do not but who have the same right as anyone else to enjoy it.

26 Jun 2000 : Column 729

9.35 p.m.

Lord Reay: My Lords, when one comes to speak after listening to 30 or more expert previous speakers, one begins to wonder whether noble Lords will be willing to listen to one more repetition of half the points one intended to make. Having heard the contrary arguments several times, one starts to lose confidence in the remainder.

I occupy a family home in the north of England. The property consists largely of grass farmland and forestry, with some established rights of way which I do not expect to be affected seriously by the provisions of the Bill.

I join with others who would have preferred the Government to build on all that has been achieved over the years, extending both public access and environmental protection by means of voluntary agreements with landowners and in many cases with compensation being paid. I am not convinced that it was necessary to depart from the route of proceeding by voluntary consensus. However, the Government in their wisdom eventually decided to do so. Plenty of perils lay in that course of action in terms of upsetting the good relations which are necessary on the ground for managing public access, and in this House we must do our best to remove some of the Bill's flaws.

First, the absence of recognition that access could result in a loss of value for the property itself or of rights pertaining to it--for example, shooting rights--in my opinion represents a regrettable departure from most previous practice. It may also contravene the convention on human rights which in October becomes law in this country--an opinion expressed in the brilliant maiden speech of my noble friend Lord Brittan.

Nor is there sufficient recognition of the additional costs with which landowners may be faced as a result of provisions in the Bill. Surely it is unjust that a landowner should now be saddled with liability for those who, in availing themselves of public access, injure themselves on any man-made obstacle. Landowners will find themselves exposed to increased costs in carrying out risk assessments and to higher insurance premiums. At their back will always be the spectre of court action.

I believe that another injustice lies in the lack of balance so far as concerns the rights and responsibilities under the Bill as between landowners and the general public. I was pleased to hear what the noble Baroness has just said on that point. If in that relationship the sanctions on one party are much more severe than on the other, as now they are, surely that is inequitable. Nor does it seem to me that the lightest of taps on the wrist of the trespasser, which at present is all that the Bill allows, reflects adequately the promise contained in the Labour Party manifesto:


    "We will not . . . permit any abuse of a right to greater access".

What guarantee will there be of being able to enforce the restrictions? It seems to me at least necessary that all local authorities with access land within their

26 Jun 2000 : Column 730

boundaries should be put under an obligation to appoint wardens and be given funds earmarked for the purpose.

It seems to me that another example of unfairness is the refusal to allow closure at weekends. I can see this issue from the Government's point of view. Having provided access in the way that they have, they do not wish to see it removed at all the times that it will be most prized by the public. However, the same applies to landowners. Why should they be deprived, for example, of the right to shoot at weekends? The rental income from some grouse shoots will be hugely impaired by the removal of such a right. Of course, as we know, birds do not cease to sit on eggs, nor sheep to lamb, at weekends.

Perhaps there will be a chance to accommodate competing interests by limiting the number of weekend days and bank holidays on which access is restricted. In effect, we may see the benefit shared between the landowner and the other users with an interest; for example, the upland lambing farmer on the one hand and on the other the general public. That would be easier if the 28 days were to become 40 days.

Then there are the impracticalities of the Bill. The first is the distinction between natural and man-made obstacles. Quite separate from the unfairness of making the landowner liable for injury caused by any non-natural obstacle of whatever size or antiquity, the introduction of such a distinction creates a huge opening for lawyers. It is also bad law in that it could encourage destructive behaviour. A landowner might be wise to remove any article such as a stile or a bridge that could cause damage to a walker, even though its purpose was to assist them, if that would reduce his exposure to court action.

Another major impracticality of the Bill that the Government have not fully faced up to is how to bring notice of closure to the attention of the public. I agree with everything that my noble friend Lord Peel said about that. Without designated access points and with the public able to access open land from all points of the compass, how can they possibly be informed about whether access land is open or closed? The Government and their agencies talk about the Internet and notices in local shops and pubs, but there is no adequate alternative to on-site information. Without provision for designated access points where such information can be provided, the 28-day closure option for the landlord will have no meaning.

I would also support an attempt to confine access to daylight hours. It is common practice to close urban parks at night to remove a cover for crime. As everyone knows, crime is rampant in the countryside, which is seriously under-policed. We should not give unnecessary new opportunities for criminals.

I shall not say anything about Part II, but Part III, like Part I, removes owners' rights and, unless handled sensitively, risks upsetting the delicately balanced relationship between owners and government agencies. The Bill introduces substantial new powers--draconian powers, as my noble friend

26 Jun 2000 : Column 731

Lord Kimball described them--for government agencies on SSSIs. That will reduce the say that owners have in their management.

The noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, was her characteristic sweet, reasonable self. I hope that she is able to ensure that English Nature has an acceptable face and that owners do not have to deal on the ground with a lot of little local autocrats. Magistrates will be able to levy fines of up to £20,000 on owners if they do not carry out the management plans that English Nature will be able to require them to adopt. The fines are unlimited if the case goes to the Crown Court.

The agency's powers of entry and compulsory purchase are also increased. Is that what the Minister means when he says that the Government have sought to legislate with a light touch? On the contrary, it sounds as though, if we are not careful, the day of big brother and his big sister may have arrived.

The Bill also creates a new offence of recklessly--that is unintentionally--disturbing wildlife. That has alarming implications for all those pursuing their normal economic and professional activities on the land, such as farmers and game keepers, given the excessive zealotry often demonstrated these days in the pursuit of people suspected of such offences. My noble friend Lord Buxton of Alsa gave a vivid example of that earlier. We need to consider that carefully in Committee.

New powers are created for wildlife inspectors and for sending our hard-pressed police officers to the scene of so-called wildlife crime. I am afraid that it will be widely felt to be a measure of this Government's priorities that at a time when the police in rural areas are unable to protect citizens and their property in their own homes, the Government are telling courts and police forces that they must spend more of their time investigating what happens to birds' eggs, to wild flowers that are accidentally dead-headed and to birds that are inadvertently disturbed.

My noble friend Lord Buxton of Alsa made a most powerful case for, in the present situation, not providing custodial sentences in the Bill to deal with wildlife offences.

In Committee, we shall have an opportunity to try to persuade the Government that they should secure the willing co-operation of landowners and other land users, which has always hitherto been a feature of the implementation of countryside policies, and that they should remove some of those elements likely to cause the most resentment, as well as those most likely to lead to unnecessary confrontation between members of the public and those who are trying to make their living from the land, often in very difficult circumstances. This Bill requires many changes.

I believe that it should be possible to reach that position without compromising the Bill's achievement of making the substantial addition which it does to land with open access. I do not wish to see the Bill obstructed, as some noble Lords opposite may fear.

26 Jun 2000 : Column 732

I do not believe that in this House we have a right to do so. But I just hope that the Government will be listening.

9.46 p.m.

Baroness Thornton: My Lords, at a late hour and following many noble Lords who have covered almost every imaginable aspect of the Bill, I feel that it is incumbent upon me to be brief and not too repetitive. So I shall do my best.

I felt moved to contribute to this debate and add my heartfelt welcome for the Bill to that of many other noble Lords for two reasons which may be described as both personal and political. I come from a long line of urban dwellers who have always walked in, loved and respected the countryside. I learnt the country code from my father and from a youth club group, the Woodcraft Folk, as I grew up being taken on hikes on the moors and hills of Yorkshire, near my home town of Bradford.

I suppose that I could claim to be a descendant of a line of the Kinder scout working class walkers, as mentioned by my noble friend Lord Dubs--a great tradition of people who worked in mills and other places in our towns and cities to whom access to the countryside was vital for their well-being and who felt deeply about the sometimes unwarranted restrictions placed on their walking by landowners who sometimes stopped those innocent pleasures. Those battles may be in the past, but I hope that your Lordships will forgive me for saying that I believe I can hear the cheers of those thousands of walkers throughout history and they are all saying, "It is about time too". Therefore, I very much welcome the access which Part I provides, with a statutory right of public access to more than 4 million acres of land in England and Wales which will be open to the public for the first time.

Secondly, in common with many other noble Lords, I welcome Part III, which is designed to improve nature conservation and wildlife protection. Many noble Lords, my noble friends Lady Young of Old Scone and Lady Nicol in particular, are much more expert in those matters than I am, as the record will show. But last year I was privileged to work under the expert and inspirational chairmanship of Lord Cranbrook on Sub-Committee D of the European Communities Committee when we undertook our inquiry into biodiversity in the European Union. We came to the conclusion that statutory underpinning of the biodiversity action plan process would place a duty on all public bodies to further the objective of biodiversity action plans. Like the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, who is now the chairman of that sub-committee, I too am pleased that the Government are seriously considering that recommendation because I believe that it will give a much-needed boost to that work.

In common with other noble Lords, I have been overwhelmed, if not swamped, with briefings and literature about this Bill, for which I am grateful. I am also grateful for the meetings that have been

26 Jun 2000 : Column 733

organised. I believe that the size, the eloquence and the loudness of the debate show the importance of the Bill. I believe that the Government have listened to what people have said and that they have struck the right balance between the interests expressed. I wish the Bill well.

9.49 p.m.

Lord Mancroft: My Lords, owing to the lateness of the hour and the length of the speakers' list, I believe that your Lordships would appreciate an abridged version of my speech. If any noble Lords feel short-changed, I shall be delighted to deliver the full text later in the bar, but I shall not be surprised if there are not many takers. I never intended to say a great deal because, listening to the debate, it is clear that there are noble Lords present with far greater expertise in these issues. I shall keep my remarks to the bare minimum and make only one or two general comments.

I have not often taken part in a debate in this House in which there has been so much consensus. Although there are different views on a number of the smaller issues, it appears to me that overall the House welcomes the Bill, as I do.

I declare an interest as a board member of the Countryside Alliance, but I do not speak for that large membership. I speak for myself as someone who has a great love of the British countryside and who has derived enormous pleasure from the time I have spent in it. I have also been privileged to enjoy access to large parts of it. Therefore, I am in great sympathy with the objects of the Bill. Anything that we can do to allow as many people as possible to enjoy what I and so many other noble Lords have enjoyed seems to be a good idea.

On the other hand, while I do not own a single acre of land, and never have, my knowledge of landowners, farmers and land managers, both large and small, allows me to understand some of the problems that access creates. Some years ago, as a master of hounds, I was responsible for negotiating the access required to allow up to 120 horses to cross over 600 different parcels of land in Wiltshire and Gloucestershire, covering 450 square miles, four days a week, seven months a year. Quite rightly, at all times the wishes of the farmers and landowners had to be taken into account, which included temporary restrictions to take account of farming and other sporting interests.

I mention this only to draw attention to the fact that that level of access is achievable and, for many years, has been achieved on an entirely voluntary basis on the vast majority of available land with the minimum of disruption and disagreement, but without any legislation. On that subject, I could not help noticing, as I am sure some of your Lordships did as well, that Members in another place even tried to use this Bill to prohibit that particular form of access, successful though it is. I expect that noble Lords will agree that, on the face of it, that really is a little bizarre.

Near my home is a large private park that has been open to visitors voluntarily for over 200 years. Unfortunately, in recent years, the privilege--it is a

26 Jun 2000 : Column 734

privilege--to visit that beautiful place has been so abused that the owner, for the first time in over 200 years, has been obliged to limit access. Gates had been left open; deer had escaped and had then to be shot; people had held barbecues and set up camps on the old turf; dogs had been allowed to chase the deer that roam unrestricted through the woods; and on more than one occasion staff have been abused while trying to do their jobs.

I am sure that only a minority of visitors abuse the places they visit, and I suspect that it is more out of ignorance than anything else, but there are far too many examples to be ignored. Therefore, whether we like it or not, within the Bill there is the capacity to do immense harm to the countryside unless we tread carefully. I am not certain that the Government are yet treading carefully enough.

There seem to me to be two important criteria that must be observed in the granting of access. First, access must not be allowed to damage the very environment that visitors wish to enjoy, and that obviously includes the wildlife. Secondly, it should not be allowed to prohibit the landowner or manager's ability to earn a living from agricultural or sporting activities or lead to extra costs.

Although it would appear that the criteria I have mentioned are recognised in the Bill, as my noble friend Lord Peel said, the devil is in the detail. It appears to me, on the face of it, that the Bill fails both tests. Clearly, as my noble friend Lord Kimball said, there is a contradiction in allowing greater access to fragile habitats such as moorland, while at the same time increasing the obligations on landowners in respect of SSSIs. That is obvious. That is the dichotomy we face.

I suspect that practically every noble Lord who has spoken raised the issue of night access and dogs. I believe I am right in saying--noble Lords will correct me if I am wrong--that nowhere else in the world is there a right of access at night, and I can think of few legitimate reasons for granting such a right, though quite a number of illegitimate ones come to mind without difficulty. Only recently I saw for myself the problem of dogs running loose among ground-nesting birds at the height of the breeding season. Clearly, the owners had no idea of the potential harm their dogs were doing. That is certainly another issue we shall want to examine closely during the progress of the Bill. It is one that I believe, upon reflection, the Government will have to accept is fraught with difficulty.

The whole area of closures and restrictions to access, mentioned by many noble Lords, looks at the moment to be an unworkable muddle and will need sorting out. Similarly, definitions within the Bill, not only in this Bill but in relation to other Acts, are sloppy and imprecise. They will need to be radically improved before this Bill returns to the Commons.

I take the opportunity to ally myself with the words of my noble friend Lady Trumpington and the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, in respect of horses in two specific areas. Certainly the concept of access to

26 Jun 2000 : Column 735

gallops, particularly in places like Lambourn and Newmarket, is ridiculous. We must sort that out. Similarly, the Bill touches upon increased access for horses. It is not the moment now but I hope that we can look further at that. To miss the opportunity would be a great pity.

There are two areas in respect of enforcement that give me great concern. First, the changes to enforcement provisions of the Wildlife and Countryside Act, while broadly speaking desirable, are incredibly complex and time consuming. They need to be undertaken by experts. As we all know and many noble Lords have mentioned, including my noble friend Lord Reay, the police in the countryside are stretched to the limit and are clearly unable to cope with their existing responsibilities. To expect them to take on more duties without adequate resources is, frankly, absurd. Unless adequate provision is made, this part of the legislation will end up being completely pointless.

Secondly, the responsibilities of land occupiers in respect of a number of provisions in the Bill are considerably increased. It is not clear to me how hard-pressed farmers, in this day and age, can take on these extra responsibilities. The Bill is curiously silent on the issue. I imagine therefore that the Minister will bring forward his own amendments to address the matter at a later stage.

In fact, I imagine that the Minister will be bringing forward a large number of amendments at some stage. That is partly because the Government push so much sloppy legislation through the other place that we have got used to seeing flagship Bills being completely rewritten in your Lordships' House; it is also partly because if he does not produce amendments himself he will spend many long summer and autumn nights on the Front Bench listening to what I suspect will be many amendments from every quarter of this House. And it will be every quarter. As I said earlier and do not mind repeating, there is consensus on these issues from all sides.

In spite of my many reservations, I wish the Bill well, and I wish the Minister well. But I fear that there is an awful lot of work to do if we are to turn this particular pig's ear into a silk purse.

9.59 p.m.

Baroness Hamwee: My Lords, judging by the amount of briefing or perhaps "lobbying" that we have received, as mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, the interest in this Bill is considerable. I was struck by the amount of briefing compared with that received for the Transport Bill, which received its Second Reading a few days ago. That is a very much bigger Bill but, interestingly, far less briefing was received from outside this place. We also had more speakers in this debate than was the case for the Second Reading of the Transport Bill, especially, as has been said, from the Conservative Benches. Indeed, the mix of speakers is interesting. We have heard from seven Earls and one Duke and about 40 per cent of the speakers are, I believe, hereditary Peers. However, that

26 Jun 2000 : Column 736

is no reason at all to suggest that they do not have very important points to contribute to the debate. I hope that they do not think that I am in any way being pejorative in making that comment--


Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page