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Lord Whitty: The noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, was being Delphic in his final point. This is a complex matter and it is not easy to see the balance of the way through. I recognise that there are some serious events which could be seen to threaten wildlife and certainly quality of life in the countryside as a result of landowners giving permission. We are not talking about people acting illegally; we are talking about where the landowner has given permission for events in the countryside which have detrimental effects on the environment and on the quality of life. On the other hand, the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, and the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, are right that there is a demand--and not just in Northern Ireland but right across the country--for this kind of activity. In some cases, local authorities have met it.
I take issue with the noble Lord, Lord Roberts. This is not about access. These are not the access provisions as described in Part I of the Bill. These are situations where the landowner has voluntarily given access to a group--unaffected by access provisions in the Bill or elsewhere. The problem is that that has perhaps endangered nature conservancy or has caused other damage.
My noble friend Lord Williams is trying to resolve the matter by extending the definition of "lawful authority". The National Assembly for Wales has indicated--by and large, we would agree with its view of current law, but with a qualification, to which I shall come in a few moments--that lawful authority by the landowner allows such events to take place, subject to other provisions. Others do not have a role in that. The position with common land is slightly more complicated because the landowner does not necessarily have to have any concurrence from commoners before agreeing to recreational use of this kind. But there are circumstances in which he may need to do so. The owner can use the land as he wishes as long as it does not unnecessarily interfere with the rights of the commoners, which may vary from common land to common land. There is a residual right for commoners there. But, in general, my noble friend is right. The landowner is the sole repository, or virtually the sole repository, of the lawful authority.
My noble friend's amendment seeks to introduce a requirement for the statutory agencies--the Countryside Agency and the Countryside Council for Wales--to provide guidance on nature conservancy and conservation issues and a requirement on those using the land to notify the local authority and the local police of their activities. It is not clear to me whether that amendment would also require the local authority and/or the police to give permission in those circumstances, but that is there in the background.
There is a difficulty here in that the proposal would then introduce a new set of provisions which would impose additional burdens on three different bodies. It would require the drivers themselves to give notification to the countryside bodies--and here I should point out that it would not involve the Countryside Agency because English Nature is the body with statutory responsibility for nature conservation--and to the local authorities and the police. The process would become extremely complex to cover a single event--in particular in the context of trying to decide what would constitute "lawful authority". It is not entirely clear to me that it would bring any significant benefits.
We also have to recognise that in relation to nature conservation, a great deal of the land about which my noble friend is concerned is already covered by regulations, at least to some extent. In cases where the area is protected by falling within an SSSI, notification will be required to allow English Nature to reach some kind of agreement with the landowner about the nature of the activities. I appreciate that my noble friend pointed out that much of the territory of mid-Wales is not of SSSI status and that could also apply
Furthermore, they may withdraw permission which has previously been granted for motorsports by using their powers to impose an Article 4 direction on the land concerned. Even if a site has no statutory nature conservation designation, and even if it is not covered by by-laws or Article 4 directions, the drivers or those organising the event will still have to comply with the relevant species protection legislation. This Bill of course strengthens such protection for rare species. Finally, on linear routes, traffic regulation orders may well also apply. My noble friend will see that there is already in place a great deal of legislation in this area.
Lord Williams of Elvel: On the question of species legislation, is my noble friend saying that anyone who organises a trial event on Gilwern Hill is obliged to abide by the species legislation? What does that mean?
Lord Whitty: As I understand it, it means that if wanton damage is caused to a species, the organisers will be liable under the offences created under the various different pieces of conservation legislation which will be enhanced by this Bill. I believe that what lies behind my noble friend's question is to query whether that will be known in advance. I believe that that is a valid question but one to which I regret that I do not have a direct answer. Nevertheless, I can tell my noble friend that this is not a totally unregulated activity. Even in those areas where no by-laws apply, there is no SSSI status and the local authority has not already taken action, some responsibilities continue to rest with the organisers and drivers involved in the event.
Clearly this is a difficult area and one on which concerns have been expressed. I suggest that there is an entirely separate issue whereby off-road driving takes place without lawful authority which is not addressed by these amendments. However, I think that my noble friend's requirement to redefine "lawful authority" effectively to require notification and de facto permission from the local authority and/or the police does not fully deal with the situation about which he is concerned.
Given the expressions of concern, I shall look at this again, but I do not think that my noble friend's amendment provides a wholly sensible solution. Clearly the landowner does have the right, subject to all the restrictions to which I have referred, to decide to whom he will give permission to use his land. Making that right in general subject to a form of local authority override would be extremely difficult. In addition, we need to take into account the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, and the noble Baroness, Lady Miller; namely, that if a local authority was put in that position, it would probably have to find an alternative site, no doubt in Powys or mid-Wales. The problem would simply be transferred elsewhere.
The amendment does not provide an adequate solution. I do not think that my noble friend or those who have spoken in support of his amendment have the right answer. Certainly the Government do not have a complete answer at the moment.
Lord Hardy of Wath: Has my noble friend also considered that quite often vehicles are driven off the road in order to pursue criminal activity? The question of the theft of limestone pavement and other rocks was debated last week. People do not carry these in bags; they get a vehicle as near to the rocks as possible. Recent cases of the highly mobile criminal have attracted a great deal of attention--not merely thieves but people who engage in coursing, lamping, dog-fighting and so on in highly movable fixture venues.
Many of these activities take place off the road. While they are in breach of the law and do not have the owner's permission, there is no adequate regulation to discourage those activities. The police are sufficiently thin on the ground in rural areas for these people to have been getting away with it for a very long time.
Baroness O'Cathain: In view of the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Williams, the Minister must realise that there is a serious problem in this regard. Will the Government come back with a solution at Report stage?
Lord Whitty: As regards the point made by my noble friend Lord Hardy, that is a separate issue. There are undoubtedly criminal activities--and probably a serious increase in such activities--involving off-road driving, but that is different from the situation where a landowner has given permission for an activity to take place.
This is a complex issue. While I should like to say yes to the noble Baroness, I cannot promise that we will come back with an adequate solution. The debate over the past 35 minutes has indicated that there is not an easy solution. No doubt we shall return to the issue on Report, but I cannot promise that the Government will have come up with a solution by then. Nevertheless, I hope that my noble friend will not pursue his amendment.
Lord Williams of Elvel: The definition of "lawful authority" is not right; it is not consistent with what the Government are trying to do in the Bill in terms of nature conservation. My noble friend criticised my amendment--he said it was not the right solution--but I cannot think of any solution other than nature conservation. I thought we were in the business of nature conservation in this Bill.
I hope that my noble friend will seriously consider my amendments and come forward, as the noble Baroness, Lady O'Cathain, suggested, with a government solution to this admittedly complex problem.
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