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Lord Donoughue: My Lords, I shall now turn to the Bill. Having looked at the list of speakers, I am impressed that 45 Members have chosen to contribute to the debate. I note that many come from Benches opposite. Indeed, I recall how during the passage of the House of Lords Bill it was suggested that one of the downsides of those reforms would be the departure of representation of the countryside in this House. I am sure that we are all reassured to note that that has not been the case.
I would like to say to my noble friend how much I support this Bill in general. I congratulate the Government on bringing it forward. It will be and has been welcomed by most of those who are interested in and enjoy the countryside. Most of it will have my enthusiastic support.
I have two reservations, one of which has been touched upon; namely, that it does not appear to improve the guaranteed access of horse riders who, numbering upwards of 3 million, represent a very important body in our country. The Pony Club is the largest youth club in Europe, and yet our country roads grow more dangerous and horse riders need greater access to bridleways. Local authorities have the power to enable that but in practice do not do so. I ask my noble friend and his ministerial colleagues to look again at any way in which the access of horse riders can be improved.
More acutely, I am concerned with the fact that access appears to be guaranteed to horse-race gallops and training areas--Lambourn, Newmarket, Manton and many private gallops. This is a matter of great importance, where I think that the Government are wrong. I should declare an interest, being now and having been in the past painfully an owner in various slow horses which were deeply in need of exercise on the training gallops; but that is not my sole consideration.
These gallops are already very dangerous places. Some 2,000 thoroughbreds a day exercise on them. They are nervous horses; they are big, fast horses. They often get loose; they bolt. Injuries already take place. To open those areas to access would be greatly to increase the dangers. That aspect must be rectified. I have seen the clauses in the Bill. There are possibilities that local authorities could do this, but our experience is that they do not.
This is a most important issue. I would appeal to my noble friend, who is very wise, to come back to us this evening with a positive reply. I would ask that he does not mention Epsom, however. It was mentioned in another place without it being made clear that Epsom is not a good example: it now has few trainers, and anyway it has its own legislation. Having replied positively, I hope that he will then speak to his ministerial friends, not all of whom, given their many other responsibilities, may understand this issue as well as he will, and that he will come back to the House with proposals to correct this situation; to limit this danger; to make sure that we do not have increased accidents on the gallops.
Lord Moran : My Lords, the last occasions on which I spoke in your Lordships' House were on the Local Government Bill and the Learning and Skills Bill, in both cases in relation to Section 28. I am relieved that this time I have not had a briefing from Stonewall and am in more familiar and agreeable territory--for today we are talking about the countryside.
The Government as a whole do not, to judge from their actions, care for the countryside: forcing local authorities to allow the building of many more houses than they think can be fitted in; giving hardly any help to struggling farmers; making small abattoirs pay such exorbitant charges for hygiene inspection that they are driven to close; and now threatening to ban hunting. But however perverse the Government's rural policies may be, this particular Bill deserves careful consideration.
In fact it is two Bills: one on the right to roam--earlier described as the "John Smith Memorial Act" and promoted by the Ramblers--the other to increase the protection of wildlife, for which environmental NGOs have been pressing for some years. Such is the congestion of the legislative programme, they have
I do not much like Part I on access. I would have preferred a development and extension of voluntary arrangements. I can see both sides of the argument. When I was in Canada, at weekends we would drive to the lake country round Ottawa and look for somewhere to walk. Again and again we were met by notices saying "Private" or "Keep Out". At home in Wales, however, ramblers left the gates open on our small farm. Our cows got out and into a rocky river, where one of them damaged her leg. It took us seven hours to get them out of the river and back where they belonged. That evening I was not particularly enthusiastic about the right to roam. Nor was I a couple of weeks ago, when I came across a youth trying to cut down a small tree in our woods. He seemed quite unaware that there was anything wrong about that.
Ramblers do not put anything into the countryside, unlike farmers or the young volunteers who help the RSPB, the wildlife trusts and those in the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers. When, during lambing, a farmer and his wife have to set their alarm clock to go off every two hours or need to sit up half the night to tend a sick cow, the ramblers are not there. When summer comes, however, they are there, sometimes asking quite aggressively why there is not a ford or a stile where their maps say that there should be one.
I believe that the vast majority of walkers want footpaths which take them up to and across wild places, not blanket access to every part of open land. As the RSPB has pointed out, a large amount of the land that is to be opened up is of high wildlife interest and has special protection status, giving the Government an obligation to take steps to avoid disturbance of the species concerned.
That statement is greatly to be welcomed. However, it means that on grouse moors for example, as the Game Conservancy Trust has pointed out, the public must be kept to defined pathways during the spring nesting season--March to July inclusive--and forbidden to take dogs onto the moors. The Game Conservancy Trust has reminded us that it is grouse shooting that has enabled this country, alone in western Europe, to retain a good deal of heather moorland. It and the RSPB have established that ground-nesting birds--curlews, lapwings, snipe and golden plover--are much more abundant on managed moors than on unmanaged moors. We must ensure that these birds are undisturbed in the breeding season.
It is extremely important that the question of closures and restrictions, both for conservation and for farming needs, is put right. Living as I do in Wales, I agree with Plaid Cymru and with the Opposition that 28 days is too short. Something like 40 days would be much more appropriate to protect ground-nesting birds and lambing flocks. We really must not lift all restrictions, as is now proposed, at the weekends and on bank holidays. The RSPB has rightly called for stronger sanctions, such as fines, to safeguard conservation closures.
It is unsatisfactory, indeed dangerous, to extend the right to roam to the hours of darkness. I am sure that there should be no general right of access by night. I understand that the Association of Chief Police Officers shares that view. Special needs can be met by special permission.
We must address the question of liability of landowners. I agree with the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Brittan, in his admirable and stimulating maiden speech, that the attempt to distinguish between natural and man-made obstacles is impracticable. To get the question of liability right will go some way to making the Bill more acceptable to farmers and other landowners.
The question of resources needs to be examined, particularly the financing of wardens or rangers, who in some parts of the country--for example, on moorlands--will be essential. Indeed, the whole question of visitor management and costs needs to be considered carefully.
I am glad that the Government have not included in the Bill access to water or to watersides. This should be dealt with by voluntary agreements, of which there are already many which work well. When considering the question of access by canoes, attention needs to be paid, as the Countryside Council for Wales has stressed, to conservation needs on small and sensitive rivers, on which canoeing ought not to be allowed, and to the need to avoid disturbing spawning salmon and trout in November and December.
I welcome Part II of the Bill on rights of way. However, one point needs to be dealt with. It was discussed but not settled in the other place. It has emerged that the Road Traffic Act 1988 is technically defective in prosecuting motorcyclists who use bridleways--as was demonstrated when eight of them were acquitted in Derbyshire last year. A simple amendment can, I hope, put that right.
I welcome Part III of the Bill on nature conservation and wildlife protection and I declare a small and unpaid interest as president of the Radnorshire Wildlife Trust. It is very important to retain a sense of balance when considering wildlife protection. Much of our wildlife is threatened and we need to do all we can
I am sure that the provisions on SSSIs are right. Indeed, back in 1991, when I was chairman of Wildlife Link, we published a report detailing the damage that was being done to a large number of SSSIs. I am only sorry that it has taken nearly 10 years for the Government to address the problem. The present arrangements are clearly too weak. English Nature has told us that a third of all SSSIs suffer from neglect or mismanagement. As long ago as 1992, the Law Lords said that the Wildlife and Countryside Act,
But we must also think of wildlife in areas outside SSSIs. The wildlife trusts have called for statutory backing for the better protection and management of wildlife outside the network of SSSIs. What they say is needed, and I believe that they are right, is statutory backing at national level for the local wildlife sites process and for the UK's Biodiversity Action Plan, which at present remains a purely voluntary commitment. I very much hope that we can provide for that at Committee stage. The Biodiversity Action Plan, co-ordinated in the DETR by Mr John Plowman, was an admirable exercise, but it needs to be strengthened by a reference to it being included in the Bill.
I welcome Mr Meacher's statement on areas of outstanding natural beauty. It is good news that these are now to be given a higher profile and that the Government will be introducing amendments in this House to bring that about. There is as yet no duty on local authorities to maintain wildlife sites, only guidelines, and no obligation on government departments to look after them. We should address that.
We are supposed to be a seafaring nation, yet we neglect the sea in our legislation. I was surprised that the Bill contained nothing about marine habitats or the protection of marine species. I understand that this is being reviewed by the Government. It may be too late to include provisions in this Bill, but if it is, I hope that we can have separate legislation without delay.
One all-important aspect of wildlife conservation is the question of funding. The statutory bodies must be given adequate resources to do their job and to carry out the duties prescribed in the Bill. In this context, I am very much concerned to find that the Countryside Council for Wales has been starved of funds and is now only able to do work on half the biodiversity action plans which are relevant to Wales. Scottish Natural Heritage and English Nature have received increases in funding of 25 per cent and 29 per cent respectively, but CCW has received an increase of only 9 per cent.
What in essence we have to do in the subsequent stages of the Bill is, first, to correct the obvious defects in Part I--in particular, the arrangements about conservation closures, night-time access, landowners' liability, definitions of cultivated land and resources; to welcome Part II, clarifying the law where necessary; and to make the desirable small improvements to Part III to provide statutory backing for the national Biodiversity Action Plan and for local wildlife sites outside the SSSI network; and to seek an assurance from the Government that they will provide adequate funding for the statutory agencies--all of them.
If all that is done, we shall have a valuable piece of legislation which should be of real benefit to our struggling wildlife and perhaps increase appreciation of the countryside by our overwhelmingly urban society.
Lord Denham: My Lords, I am going to limit the few remarks that I shall make this afternoon to the parts of the Bill referring to access. I was a member of the Countryside Commission from 1993 to 1999, so I was involved at an embryonic stage in the discussions as to what statutory advice should be given to Her Majesty's Government with regard to the access provisions of this Bill. I was also lucky enough to be the commissioner having the responsibility for liaising with the Peak Park Authority, which was the pioneer in voluntary access and which is responsible for over 50 per cent of the voluntary access agreements that are now in effect in the whole of England.
One of the most worrying things we considered was access with accompanying dogs. Dogs are like children, in that we all know that everybody else's are disobedient and totally unreliable, whereas our own are perfect. This applies just as much to people who have been born and brought up in the country--and, in this, 99 out of 100 of us are wrong! When the Countryside Commission discussed dogs early on, we were unanimous that, where access was granted, they should be on a lead at all times throughout the year. The Peak District National Park Authority, which has always been firm about this, urged the Department of the Environment in April of this year to follow its own example. More trouble between land managers and visitors arises from dogs than over anything else. But this Bill allows access to owners with dogs without leads at certain times of the year. Surely a complete ban is necessary; otherwise, people who innocently think they are obeying the rules may make a genuine mistake about the date. For the sake of avoiding acrimony, dogs on leads at all time is a small price to pay.
The second serious reservation about this Bill relates to the right of access extending beyond daylight hours. There really is serious concern about people living in isolated houses in moorland areas being frightened by signs, sounds or lights that suggest that strangers
The third concern--the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, has already mentioned it--is that landowners and farmers, who have been forced to give access, might find themselves victims of an ever-increasingly litigious society, who will sue them for any injury sustained. Putting one's foot in a rabbit hole and breaking a leg may be covered, but slipping off a bridge over a stream, falling off a rotten fence or slipping on damp concrete--all these being man-made--may not be.
The Peak Park agreements and by-laws, rightly, ensure that the people who enjoy access do so totally at their own risk. Can the noble Lord confirm that this safeguard is adequately maintained under this Bill?
This Government, perhaps because of their enormous majority in another place, have been less prepared to listen to, and be persuaded by, genuine concerns regarding aspects of their major legislation than any of their predecessors; in particular, far less than any of my noble friend Lady Thatcher's administrations between 1979 and 1987. Access, especially compulsory access, which personally I find acceptable in principle, will work only if there is good-will on both sides. With voluntary access you have a choice; with compulsory access it is the responsibility of Parliament to see fair play. Will the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, personally accept this responsibility and give every concern expressed in this House the unbiased attention that it demands?
Lord Addington: My Lords, this is a very wide-ranging Bill. I speak basically because of my usual interest in sport and recreational activities. Walking, riding and cycling fall within that interest. I was brought up in East Anglia. Perhaps Noel Coward slightly over-stated it when he talked about "very flat Norfolk". Certainly, we have very little ground over 600 metres above sea level. It is nice when a joke goes down well!
My areas of interest in relation to the Bill are by definition limited. Primarily, my experience of access and public rights of way is limited to a quiet walk accompanied by a dog, usually on a Sunday afternoon. I am in total agreement with the noble Lord, Lord Denham. Any dog has the potential to chase something; it merely depends on the particular situation and fancy of the dog on the day. The only way to restrict a dog is to remove one or more of its legs.
One may have a dog on a lead and then come across a field which one expects to find crossed by a footpath; instead, the field is ploughed up. Alternatively, one's access points may be totally removed. That is my usual experience of access to the countryside, and it is perhaps my starting point. It is a perspective rather different from those who engage in mountaineering or who walk across high, rough ground. That is a much greater challenge and so "sport" is the right word. Such recreational activity demands control and has a culture and organisation. The idea is that one accepts a challenge in trying to negotiate land by map-reading.
I suspect that my usual activity is the norm, certainly in the South of England. One has many problems in gaining access to the countryside. One does not decide spontaneously to go for a arduous walk if one lives in East Anglia. Those of us in that situation do not have great insight into the problem of access to the high moors or grouse moors. Therefore, any comments that I make here are probably confined to my reading of the Bill.
As to night-time access, I had sympathy with the view that this should not be allowed until I thought about access to footpaths. If one lives in a remote country house with a footpath next to it one is as vulnerable as one will ever be.
One turns to lamping, foxes and people firing guns. Some of the briefing material that I have received makes certain areas sound like battlefields with high-velocity shells whizzing past one's head. While that may be a possibility, I think that the risk is over-stated.
As to the ability to use footpaths, to have a definitive set of maps within a certain period of time must be a relief to everybody. My noble friend Lady Scott of Needham Market said that during her years on Suffolk council, in only one of four specific areas of interest was any real progress made. The council was confronted with resubmissions, litigation and repetition of the same points. Many of those who objected were not local residents. Landowners and outside bodies appeared to take up the vast majority of the time. I suggest that, unless local people are the primary point of contact, that will always happen. Local people have a much better understanding of what is required. We shall get nowhere if we do not involve local people. We shall merely have 25 years of wrangling followed by an arbitrary decision--or, most likely, the papers will be thrown away.
As my noble friend Lady Miller said, a model country code will make most of this work. We must establish what is reasonable behaviour. We have heard enough arguments to understand that what some regard as reasonable is unreasonable to others. Just as dogs chase things, people believe that they have right and reason on their side. We must try to formulate a statutory code with which people will conform.
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