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Baroness Byford: I thank the Minister for his full response. I accept his assurances. I am grateful to him

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for adding that those concerned will have an opportunity to look at the improvement plans and, where necessary, to appeal against them.

I was going to thank the noble Lord, Lord Hardy, for his contribution but, given the vein of his remarks, I am not sure that I should. We missed the noble Lord on Monday when we had serious debates about the way in which some of our footpaths and bridleways are currently being spoilt. When he has an opportunity to read Hansard, he will find that we had a good debate on that issue.

I thank other noble Lords for their contributions. I should say to the noble Lord, Lord Addington, that this is not intended to be a lawyers' paradise. It is a sincere attempt to ensure that the people on whom the general public rely for their rights of access are not short-circuited when the improvement plans are brought forward.

Having had those assurances from the Minister, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Northbourne moved Amendment No. 416:


    Page 34, line 44, at end insert--


("( ) the desirability of providing opportunities for regular exercise in the interests of public health including the availability of circular walks and cycle tracks easily accessible to residential areas,").

The noble Lord said: The amendment concerns the health of the nation. It concerns giving more people the opportunity to benefit more often from regular, health-giving walks and cycle rides. It seeks to require local authorities, when preparing their quinquennial rights of way improvement plan, to consider the desirability of providing opportunities for regular exercise in the interests of public health, including the availability of circular walks and cycle tracks easily accessible to residential areas.

The Government pride themselves on their concern for public health. If I were them, I would have put access and exercise at the very heart of the Bill. Recent research has shown that more than 70 per cent of the population take less exercise than they need for their own good. Opportunities for exercise need to be attractive to people; they need to be pleasant and they need to be accessible to the places where people live.

To make clear to the Committee the importance of exercise--and particularly walking for health--I can do no better than to quote Dr William Bird of the Sonning Common health centre, which has been seminal in addressing this subject. He is a pioneer and member of the access forum. In a recent letter to me he said, inter alia,


    "Perhaps without realising it, this Government has the potential in this Bill to create the most important public health change since the Clean Air Act 1953. In fact, the health benefits to society and to the NHS could probably be greater. Increasing physical activity from sedentary to walking two or three times a week halves the risk of having a heart attack, a stroke or of developing diabetes.


    "In fact, lack of exercise is as important a risk factor for heart disease as smoking, high cholesterol or blood pressure, and it affects twice as many people as all the other risk factors added

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    together. Exercise also significantly increases the length of time an older person remains independent by reducing the risk of falling and fracturing a hip, among other things".

He goes on to say, rightly or wrongly, that,


    "There is no argument to suggest that health will somehow improve with the wording of this Bill as it is. It won't. One clause must be added to the statute book and then Britain will be the envy of every other Western nation trying to tackle the epidemic of physical inactivity".

Amendment No. 416 would place health at the heart of the Bill. It would require local authorities to consider providing opportunities for regular exercise in the interests of public health when they are preparing their rights of way improvement plans.

I believe that the Minister may say that there is no need for this amendment because authorities are already required to consider the needs of the public. With respect, I disagree. As the Bill is drafted, there is not a single mention of health. With the wording of the Bill as it is, some local highway authorities will take health into account in preparing their plans--but a considerable number will not. Indeed, those who do not want the expense and sweat involved will simply ignore the issue of public health. As far as I can see--the Minister may correct me--there is nothing in the Bill that enables the Government to prevent them from doing that. There is nothing in the Bill to persuade them or force them to take health into account in preparing their plans.

I suggest that, in view of the importance of health to the nation, to the taxpayer and to each of us, the amendment should be accepted. The desirability of amending the public rights of way to benefit the health of the nation should not be left to chance. I beg to move.

Baroness Strange: I support the amendment of my noble friend Lord Northbourne. Anyone who is the least bit interested in health--and most of us over the age of 21 are--will know that there are three essentials for a long, healthy life: a clear conscience, a healthy diet and a reasonable amount of exercise, both mental and physical. Many Members of the Committee fulfil all these criteria. In regard to the third criterion, I think the Committee will agree that there is nothing better, nicer or healthier than walking in the countryside in the open air--provided, of course, that you can do it with a clear conscience and do not destroy or spoil someone's livelihood.

Many people like circular walks because they do not need to retrace their steps through the same scenery. We should be creating circular paths for the future health of our nation.

Baroness Nicol: Many Members of the Committee are smiling kindly about the amendment. I think it is an attractive proposition. I suspect there will be very few places where this can be done, but I see no harm at all in drawing the attention of local authorities to the attractions of circular walks, so that where it is possible to create them they will at least consider the possibility of doing so.

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Circular walks are attractive to many people because, as the noble Baroness said, one avoids the necessity of having to retrace one's steps, which can be very boring; or, alternatively, the necessity of having to find transport or an unmarked way back.

I hope that some thought will be given to at least putting on record the thought behind the amendment so that local authorities are reminded of the possibility.

The Lord Bishop of Blackburn: There is no doubt that the work of Dr Bird has been seminal in this area. The ideas and practicalities that he has worked out at his own health centre certainly deserve support. He has passionately pursued the issue with the Countryside Agency, the National Access Forum, the British Heart Foundation et al.

I do not have a problem with the first part of the amendment--that is,


    "the desirability of providing opportunities for regular exercise in the interests of public health".

It is important to put that on the face of the Bill. However, when it becomes prescriptive about circular walks and cycle tracks, that is one step too far--although I support the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, about the desirability of circular walks.

When the Minister replies, I hope that he will give some encouragement for the work to continue, and an indication that a nudge of this kind may be included in the legislation.

Baroness Warnock: I support the amendment. Quite apart from the question of public health, which is important, it seems to me that the enormous majority of people who want access to the country prefer fairly short circular walks of three or four miles. In my part of the country--east Wiltshire--these walks are extremely popular, as indicated by the number of books and maps with titles such as "Six Walks Around Marlborough", or something of that kind. In fact, one does not see many people on these walks, but I think they are what people want--far more than they want access to wild parts of the country that cannot easily be reached except by using another form of transport.

I am strongly in favour of including in the Bill a provision for the creation, wherever possible, of circular, fairly short walks. Such provision would no doubt have a spin-off in terms of public health. But whether that should be the first motive, or whether it should be to satisfy what I am sure is a real desire on the part of people, I do not mind.

6 p.m.

Lord Renton: The idea that townspeople should have the advantage of the countryside is an ancient idea and principle but it has never been adequately implemented. Indeed, nearly 2,000 years ago a Roman senator pleaded that there should be rus in urbe. But we now have towns where there is no park and no easy access to the countryside. We ought to be observing that principle.

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From time to time, the principle has been observed. I was delighted to hear the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, refer to the Clean Air Act, which I took part in piloting through another place in 1953. In London, the parks are a help to many people; but there are parts of London where there is no access to the countryside without travelling a long distance. We should conscientiously try to implement the principle put forward by the noble Lord and the noble Baroness, and this Bill offers the opportunity. Admittedly, it is a countryside Bill, but there is no reason why it should not be blended with the need to give townspeople the advantages of the countryside so far as possible.


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