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I remember well helping to take the Countryside and Rights of Way Bill through your Lordships' House, participating in the debates and sharing whole nights, several of them late, with some of the noble Lords
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speaking here today. I hope that they will feel as proud as I do at having helped to put such successful and popular legislation on the statute book.
The Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 has delivered huge public benefits, particularly in the north of England. It is an enormous step forward and, thanks to it, many wild and open spaces have been made legally accessible to the public for the first time. Before the passage of the Bill, as the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, mentioned, we heard much scaremongering from its opponents, warning that rural crime would increase, the public would be lured to their death, or there would be an increase in conflict in the countryside. That does not appear to have happened. Even though it is early days, it seems that the implementation of the Act has been largely trouble-free.
Overall, the achievement is massive. The Government should be congratulated but we should not stop here. I wish to take this opportunity to encourage the Government to encourage the public to use the new access and to do so responsibly. The Ramblers' Association, of which I am a somewhat sedentary member, has suggested that there should be a national access database providing comprehensive information on where people can go and what they can do in the countryside, which would be beneficial. The Government floated that idea themselves some years ago but it did not go ahead. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, that www.countrysideaccess.gov.uk is not very user-friendly. We should perhaps rename the website to something such as www.letsgoforawalkinthecountryside.gov.uk so that at least it would tell people what it was about. It should be comprehensive and should show access, rights of way, access offered by agri-environment schemes, and so on. That would be much more useful.
I am pleased that the Government have set up the access management grants scheme to provide funding for local authorities to implement the CROW ActI said that I would not call it that. The funding has already been extended once, to 2007, and I hope that the Government will further extend it to help local authorities to pay for the ongoing management of access scheme.
It is a bit disappointing that not as much land has been mapped as should have been. However, it is an enormous and complicated task which no one has ever attempted before so, I suppose, it was inevitable that some mistakes would be made. I would be interested to know the Government's plans for reviewing the maps.
Earl Peel: My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord for introducing this short debate. I also look forward very much to listening to the maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Smith.
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The Bill could be described as a curate's egg. I hope that the Minister will understand that, given that I have only a few minutes, I will inevitably concentrate on the bad rather than the good. I declare an interest as an owner of access land in the north of England.
One thing we know is that the Bill has been costly. Furthermore, it has been very costly to providers of access, who have had to put their hands pretty deep into their pockets, against the advice and suggestions of the Government during the passage of the Bill. The provision of good clear signage is one of the key ingredients to the success of the legislation. Whereas the Act empowers access authorities to install access signs, there is evidence of considerable variety in practice between access authorities. It is very good in Lancashire, where the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, is from, but in Durham it happens to be rather bad.
One of my aims today is to get an assurance from the Minister. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, I hope that ongoing finance will be available to local authorities, through the Government, to ensure that the Bill can be properly conducted at local level, and that there is in place proper signage that will not only benefit walkers who come to enjoy the countryside, but will also give owners and occupiers confidence that the restrictions and closure orders will be in place.
The Minister knows my view on the issue of dogs, as I have spoken on it previously. We very much welcome the restriction of dogs to footpaths on grouse moors because of the nature of the land, the management structure in place, the importance of ground-nesting birds and so forth. But there is growing evidence that a lot of people ignore those signs and that dogs create serious difficulty, particularly in areas close to large conurbations. As I said previously, I cannot see the point of having designated areas, such as ASSIs, SPAs and SACs, if the reason for those designationsground-nesting birdsis undermined by people who do not control their dogs. I hope that the Minister will take that into account.
On the subject of dogs and disturbance of wildlife generally, is the Minister satisfied that the monitoring of the impact of access on all wildlife is carried out robustly and professionally? Furthermore, will he confirm that any reports emanating from those investigations will be put into the public domain?
The Minister will be aware of the dangers of fire both in terms of economic damage and wildlife damage. The Act includes the strange system of the fire severity index. Closure orders take place only when level five is likely to be reached. Those of us who experienced this year's long, dry summer will appreciate only too well that the prospect of real fire damage, despite the fact that level five on the fire severity index was not reached, was enough to have potentially created an enormous problem. There was not a problem that I am aware of, but the local authorities made little attempt to warn visitors of any potential dangers because of the fire risk. Will the Minister give some consideration to what I regard as a very unsatisfactory state of affairs? Fire damage is a frightening experience, and unless more is done to
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warn the public of it, there is a danger that it might develop into a real difficulty under the Bill. I would hate to see that.
Lord Smith of Finsbury: My Lords, it is with some trepidation that I rise to make my first contribution to the discussions in your Lordships' House. But I am pleased to do so on a subject very dear to my heart. I must declare an interest as president of the Ramblers' Associationand proud to be sobut also, more importantly, as someone who has, over many decades now, tramped the hills, open country and moors of our land.
The Countryside and Rights of Way Act, which enshrines on the statute book a genuine freedom to roam, is based on a very simple principlethat every citizen of our country, no matter who or what they are, where they come from or how much money they have, should be able to walk freely over the open country, mountain and moorland that forms such an important part of the landscape of our islands. People have argued and campaigned for that freedom to roam, in this House and another place, for more than 100 years, since James Bryce first introduced his Access to Mountains (Scotland) Bill.
It was one of my proudest moments as Secretary of State to put my signature to the Countryside and Rights of Way Bill when it first came before another place. I am delighted that now, as you go through the Trough of Bowland, in Lancashire, for example, there is no longer a parade of signs on both sides of the road saying "Keep out". Now it is possible to walk, wander and enjoy the fresh air and fine views. But, of course, the right of access and the freedom to roam is about responsible access. That is why the measured process of introduction of the Act has been essential and, on the whole, has gone remarkably well.
I am very pleased that, on 31 October, the final two regionsthe east and west regions of Englandwill become available for access. There have been some problems and issues. I am puzzled about why substantial areas of land which we would undoubtedly describe as downland in the south-east region have not been included in the maps. Those are issues that, as mapping is refined, will need to be looked at.
The Government deserve genuine congratulations on having introduced the Act and now having carried it through to fruition. But of course I do not want them to stop there. What is now needed is a serious look at what might be done on access to coastal land, particularly to shore and foreshore; then perhaps a look at riverbanks and woodland. Some areas of woodland have been dedicated as access land by owners, particularly by the Forestry Commission. But let us look at what more might be done to ensure that the achievements of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act can be taken even further.
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