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Earl Peel: I, too, support the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne. It was interesting that time and again during the consultation process representative groups and individuals commented on the need for a proper footpath system near to areas where people actually live. Circular walks received particular mention.
I am certain that opening up large tracts of open land will appeal to a certain type of person and that more people will begin to enjoy the opportunities afforded to them. But many, I am certain, will seek opportunities nearer to home, and the amendment goes some way towards addressing that need. Whether such proposals will lead to a clear conscience, as was suggested by the noble Baroness, Lady Strange, I do not know. That apart, I strongly support what the noble Lord has said.
Lord Renton of Mount Harry: I, too, support the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne. It is a well-known fact that the deterioration in health in this country is in large part due to lack of exercise. Anything that can be done to encourage those who live in towns to go out into the countryside and take more exercise is for the better.
I declare an interest as chairman of the Sussex Downs Conservation Board. The board has made a strong move in recent years to develop what the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, rightly described as circular walks. Under the heading, "Take your bus for a walk", we have put out a number of leaflets, for example, to those living in Brighton, showing how they can take a bus out of Brighton into the Sussex Downs, get off the bus, walk through the Sussex Downs for three or four miles, possibly stopping at a pub on the way in the middle of a walk--which I am sure would also be good for their health--and then return to the bus stop or another bus stop and thus return to Brighton. These have been extremely popular, and we are in the process of increasing the number of leaflets that we produce.
I follow up the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, and the noble Baroness, Lady Strange, in introducing the amendment. I very much hope that this proposal will find favour with the Government and that some provision along these lines will be inserted in the Bill.
Baroness Carnegy of Lour: There is one point in favour of the amendment which no one has mentioned--possibly because it is so obvious. Many people from towns and cities visit more remote areas, but they go there in their cars, they congregate at a picnic place, they sit down and have a picnic and may then walk 50 yards up a hill or along a road; they then go back to their car, go home and say that they have had a day in the country and have thoroughly enjoyed it. It certainly does not help their health, and they miss a lot too.
The kind of invitation suggested by my noble friend Lord Renton and the noble Baroness, Lady Warnock--an invitation possibly to choose between several circular walks, with documentation describing what can be seen there and mentioning points of interest--is an attractive one. It might induce people who visit an official picnic place and feel that they have seen everything that there is to see in the wilder countryside to expand their horizons. I hope that the Government will take this idea on board in some way and that if they do not accept this amendment they will frame one which encourages this kind of activity.
Lord Greaves: I support the amendment, with two cheers rather than three--which I shall explain shortly. Its content is positive. This clause, dealing with rights of way improvement plans, is the only provision in Part II of the Bill offering positive encouragement to walkers, riders and cyclists to believe that there is indeed an intention to improve the rights of way network rather than look for ways of restricting it, making it smaller, reducing the status of rights of way with higher rights and so on.
As I said earlier, there is a general view among many organisations and among many users of countryside rights of way that Part II of the Bill contains little for them and that its purpose is possibly to provide a sop to landowners, who will clearly have their rights over the land that they own reduced under Part I. Whether right or wrong, that view is widely held among ramblers, riders and so on. It is important that the final version of the Bill should give encouragement to people and offer a clear indication that that is not the case. The amendment provides a positive statement of the purpose of rights of way improvement plans. To that extent, it is valuable.
Circular walks have been discussed. Being slightly pedantic, one might say that they could be triangular, rectangular, rhomboidal or whatever, and it does not really matter. The point is that they do not have to be circular. They could be linear, if we are talking about areas within reasonable reach of urban areas where public transport can be provided to drop people at one end of a walk and pick them up at the other end.
Those authorities should be taking a positive view of these improvement plans; for example, they should be considering how they can improve the rights of way network, and the services associated with them, in order to provide people with the kind of open-air recreation that we are discussing. I am delighted to find that, on this issue at least, the noble Earl, Lord Peel, and I are absolutely on the same side.
The amendment also talks about "cycle tracks". I should declare an interest in that I have a bike and I use it. I can often be seen puffing miserably as I cycle up the Pennine hills and then recovering somewhat as I ride down the other side. The cycle way network in this country is abysmal. Improvements have been made recently in different places, but, in general, it is abysmal. That is true in urban areas, on the fringes of urban areas and in the rural areas. As part of the work that local authorities and highway authorities will undertake following the passage of the Bill, I hope that a much more sustained attempt will be made to improve cycle ways--not just the long-distance ones that organisations like Sustrans are considering, but also local ones.
I had my eyes opened during the summer of last year when I spent part of my holidays cycling across France, which was a fascinating experience. I was absolutely astonished by the standard and quality of cycle ways in many of the areas of France that I visited. Indeed, it really puts this country to shame. Those are the two cheers.
I should like to give the amendment a third cheer, but I shall not. That is because of the absence in it of any reference to bridleways. I am not a horse rider, although I have done enough in my life to know which end of a horse is which. However, I would not describe myself as a rider. The refrain that I am certainly getting from the horse riders to whom I have spoken about this Bill--and, indeed, from the bridleway organisations--is that there is nothing in the Bill for them. That is a constant refrain. The Government really must take this issue seriously.
The kind of proposals put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, should also apply to bridleways. I say that because 25 per cent of horse riders have an annual income of £10,000 or less, 80 per cent are female and over half of them are under 25 years of age. We are talking about a very important and significant section of the population. At present, bridleways make up only 20 per cent of the network. In the mid-Pennines, my part of the world, the figure is a great deal less.
If a proper bridleway network is to be provided, the rights of way improvement plans that local authorities will develop must tackle not just circular walks and cycle-ways; they must also tackle the major problem of the creation of bridleways. There is a fear that, after this legislation is passed, many arguments will take place rather more vigorously and quickly than has hitherto been the case about the status of routes, and so on. Many people--led, perhaps, by some landowners--may try to downgrade existing bridleways and turn them into ordinary footpaths. We need to see a positive programme from the Government as regards these rights of way improvement plans in the Bill along the lines put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne. That programme should include not just footpaths and cycle-ways: it should also include bridleways.
Lord Wright of Richmond: I should also like to express my support for the amendment. I hope that Members of the Committee will allow me to take a few minutes to commend the example set by Luxembourg, where I lived in the 1970s. At that time, Luxembourg had already published information on well over 100 circular walks that could be taken in that very small country. Such documentation showed not just the point at which one could join the walk by public transport or by car--and where there was a car park, a railway station or a bus station; nearly all of it specified picnic areas so that one could take one's picnic to a certain place and then go on a circular walk of the length of your choice. However, not content with the "exercise advantages" of a circular walk, the Luxembourgers also put in many of those walks what was known as a "fitness parcours", which is an exercise place where, if one had not taken enough exercise, one could take a little more.
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