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Lord Rotherwick: I wonder why the Government want to go down that route. They say clearly that they are prepared to accept certain land management techniques. They talk of shooting and other activities, but I do not understand why they cannot be more specific now by saying which management techniques they accept. I do not understand why the Government are not prepared to do that but are prepared for the Countryside Agency to do so. That gives land managers a certain amount of uneasiness. It would be better if the Government could go that bit further to give them comfort. I believe that everyone would be much happier if that could be done.
Lord McIntosh of Haringey: I believe that if I were a landowner, which I certainly am not, I should take much comfort from knowing that the definition of land management was being provided by the Countryside Agency, the Countryside Council for Wales or the national park authority on the basis of the information before them and that it was not being distorted by a statutory definition imposed in October 2000 which might be different in future years. I am afraid that the problem is that any list of activities in any of the amendments, except, of course, the catch-all
The Earl of Caithness: I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey, for what he has said. It has relieved some of my concerns. I believe that there was common ground between us in much of what he said, particularly at the beginning. I was trying to get away from the idea that someone with an interest in land can go to the appropriate authority with a flimsy reason. I was trying to be helpful to the appropriate authority. My amendment is not restrictive. It merely includes certain types of work but is not exclusive. In fact, it allows people to go further than that. However, it gives some guidance as to the ambit both to the appropriate authority and to the land manager.
I should like to go away and read what the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, said. I believe that he may have met most of my concerns but probably not all, and I reserve the right to come back at a later stage.
Lord Glentoran: I thank the noble Lord for his usual clear explanations and, in particular, for his anecdotal piece about Amendment No. 265. I felt that Amendment No. 258 was the all-emcompassing amendment that could have been of some use.
I hear what the noble Lord has said. The debate has been very useful and worth while. The fact that the noble Lord has said what he has said, and it is in Hansard for future reference, probably would suffice to reassure certainly me and others who may be concerned about this definition of management. I also understand that to some extent where the legal process is concerned it is sometimes better not to be too precise and to leave some flexibility. We will have another look at it, but, for the moment, I beg leave to withdraw these amendments.
The noble Lord said: Clause 23 currently provides that weather conditions alone, and exceptional weather conditions at that, which would be difficult to define, are to be used to determine whether or not land should be closed for the purposes of fire prevention.
We feel that this is inadequate. The condition of the land is also a highly relevant factor when considering the need for closures to avoid risk of fire. The amendment would remove the reference to weather conditions so that closure could be considered on any grounds where fire risk had to be avoided.
I think that I can be brief because it is fairly self-explanatory but it is clearly a very serious possibility. We would like to feel that this amendment was acceptable to the noble Baroness and the Government on the basis of the fire risk. I beg to move.
Earl Peel: I would very much like to support this amendment. I accept that at first glance it may appear somewhat pedantic. I think that my noble friend has drawn attention to a very serious matter because, as he quite rightly says, it is not the weather as such, it is the condition of the ground that should determine what decisions are made and what closure orders should be imposed if necessary.
I can envisage a situation where--although I accept that, as the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, said yesterday, in North Yorkshire the weather has not been very good recently--there have been two or three weeks of intense heat and the heather is extremely dry and could be a fire risk. One may then have a week of rain and everybody thinks that the situation has redeemed itself. With one or two more days of sunshine, particularly on heathland as opposed to blanket bog, one could be very quickly back into the same situation again. It is the condition of the ground rather than the weather that counts. I need hardly remind your Lordships about the dangers of fire, both from a public sector and environmental point of view. Fires, particularly summer fires, can do immense environmental damage. I can bring a number to mind. There was a particularly bad one in 1976 on Rosedale on the North Yorkshire Moors and that ground has not recovered to this day. It has had quite a serious impact on that environment, with obvious effects on the bird species which use that part of the moor.
Therefore, this is a serious amendment. I do not suggest that the other amendments are not important, but this is of particular importance. As I said, it may look unimportant and appear to be pedantic but it is not. I hope very much that the Minister will take it extremely seriously.
Lord Williamson of Horton: I invite the Government to look carefully at the wording of the current Bill. The phrase "exceptional conditions of weather" is quite difficult to interpret. So, irrespective of the argument as to whether it is the condition of the land or the weather, the Bill, as drafted, seems to be capable of causing some difficulty for the authorities who would have to take these decisions. Perhaps the wording could be looked at.
The Earl of Caithness: I must confess that I had not taken on board quite the relevance of this matter until this debate. When I listened to what my noble friend Lord Peel said, my mind went back to the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, as a result of which closure orders could be made to prevent shooting when land is under certain conditions.
In particular, I remember there being a prevention order made--and I think it was under that legislation, although I stand to be corrected because I am speaking entirely from memory--against shooting snipe. Although the weather at the time was absolutely fine, the previous weather conditions had been such that it was deemed wrong, because there had been so many hard frosts, to continue shooting. However, by the time the order was made, the weather had changed but the relevance was in relation to the ground conditions. It is in that regard that I support my noble friend Lord Peel. That is so particularly in relation to heather and moors because any Members of the Committee who have been involved in fighting a fire on a moor will know what a horrible and dangerous experience that can be. It takes more than a week of rain to soak a moor which has dried out.
Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: At this time of night, it becomes difficult for all of us to concentrate. But my attention has been caught by various noble Lords referring to the very hot weather that occurs in Yorkshire, on the other side of the Pennines. I think I shall travel to Yorkshire more often!
This amendment would remove the reference to exceptional weather as a precondition, so that closures could be considered on any grounds where fire risk needs to be minimised. We do not think that it is likely that conditions of high fire risk will occur independently of exceptional weather conditions. I have listened very carefully to the points made by Members of the Committee during this short debate.
We believe that the circumstances which have been outlined, where there has been a long period of dry weather followed by a short period of rain, would be covered by the Bill with the wording proposed because, even if the conditions no longer prevailed in terms of the immediate weather, the preceding weather conditions would have been exceptional. Therefore, the preceding weather conditions could be the reason for acting. The relevant authority would be able to make a direction in those circumstances.
It may be that there are other circumstances where there is a possible fire risk which has not arisen due to exceptional conditions of weather; for example, some types of vegetative cover may be flammable even in an ordinary summer. We do not believe that such circumstances are exceptional and, therefore, we do not believe that they are caused by unusual weather conditions. They are part of the fabric of the open countryside. We are not satisfied that they give sufficient reasons to restrict access to the land.
If we were to allow restrictions to be placed on public access in ordinary circumstances such as I have just described, that could mean that many parts of the countryside would be closed to the public throughout
I hope that the reply that I have given has been detailed enough to give the reassurance that noble Lords have sought without denying access to the open countryside in many parts of the country in a way which, were we to go too far in the other direction, would deny access almost completely in the summer.
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