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Baroness Byford: I thank the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, and the noble Lord, Lord Addington, for their contributions to the debate. We have discussed the issue for nearly 40 minutes. I think that it reflects how important we consider the provision of the facility for exercise.
The noble Baroness, Lady Strange, said that all of us over the age of 21 would need such provision. I suggest that that need starts from the cradle. Good health starts when one is very young. We "oldies" should encourage those younger than ourselves. My grandchildren are taken on as many walks as possible around the countryside. It is an important issue, not just for adults, but also for children. I am not telling the noble Baroness off; I believe that it is such an important factor.
In his introduction, the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, referred to the British Heart Foundation. I, like one or two other noble Lords who have had the unfortunate experience of having a heart attack, know how important walking is. Having left hospital, one is a little hesitant to go too far. Building up those walks is important. I walked for half a mile, a mile and then a mile and a half. It is an important issue on which the Committee will reflect.
The noble Lord, Lord Hardy, touched on cycling, which I enjoy (when we are not debating in this Chamber!). I understand the worry of some parents about the safety of their children when out riding. Wearing helmets is part of their security. That is an important issue to which we shall return.
I have to go back to square one. The original aim of the Bill was to give greater access to walkers. One of the difficulties facing the Government is that there may not be sufficient provision in the Bill for horse riders and cyclists. When the Minister responds perhaps he will cover that point. I should declare an interest as an ex-rider of horses; I am now retired from that activity. In many areas we are lucky enough to have reasonable access to rides. But close to my home is a farmer who has diversified. He now has about 50 horses. They are his main income. Those horse riders are completely dependent on the rides available. It is quite a problem. The farm is not on the main A13 but even on our country lanes some people pass at worrying speeds. We must not lose sight of that.
My noble friend Lord Peel mentioned the need for footpaths near to where people live. Members of the Committee have referred to that. Perhaps I may say to the noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu, that many individuals are disappointed that the Bill does not contain provision for riders. But as I said, I suspect the Bill was never designed to cater for such facilities. On Second Reading, I think in another place, the Minister referred to that and suggested that at a later stage the Government would come back with some provision for horse riders and cyclists. The Minister may wish to comment on that. I agree with noble Lords that this improvement plan gives us the opportunity to look much wider. When the noble Lord winds up I hope that he will be able to do so.
I return to the question of footpaths. I remind the noble Lord, Lord Greaves--I am concerned about the narrowness of his view--that many landowners (I cited the example of my own farm) are now in negotiations with MAFF to open up new public paths.
Lord Greaves: Perhaps I may reassure the noble Baroness that my point of view is not narrow. I welcome the moves in this direction. Catering for the needs of walkers and riders in the countryside is a means by which farmers and others will be able to make a living.
Lord Whitty: As the noble Baroness says, it has been a good and wide-ranging debate, much of which I agree with. At the end of the day I am not sure that any of these amendments are the best way to achieve noble Lords' aims.
As regards public health, I have some sympathy with what the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, says. Indeed, my own doctor told me yesterday that I should take more regular exercise and not be stuck in the House of Lords all night! We consider that the public health dimension is covered effectively by the reference
Many of the provisions in the Bill will have the effect of improving health. However, the way in which it should be addressed by individual authorities in individual cases needs to be kept reasonably flexible.
There are a number of topics. Perhaps I may address the issue of circular walks. Circular walks may or may not consist entirely of rights of way. Some of the paths which make up circular walks may well be permissive paths rather than rights of way. Clearly, the Bill already requires local authorities to consider the adequacy of existing rights of way. The question of circular paths comes into the likely future needs and therefore should be covered by the improvement plan. There is a problem in specifying circular walks and nothing else--quite apart from the geometric quibbles of the noble Lord, Lord Greaves. A number of other desirable forms of walk have been referred to: access to public transport which connects with where people live; connecting with viewpoints and other attractions; and access for the disabled, which is partly covered in the next clause. Those are all desirable types of walk. If we specify circular walks and nothing else, there is the danger of that being too restrictive.
We intend that the Secretary of State's guidance under this clause should contain clear advice that authorities should create circular walks or, where appropriate, circular routes; and there will be other provisions dealing with the other desirable types of walk. But if one limits it to that aspect, there is a slight difficulty.
We recognise that there are many factors which local authorities will have to take into account when developing their improvement plan. If one puts particular weight on circular walks, there could be a problem of exclusion of other issues.
By cycle tracks we mean highways with a right of way for pedal cycles with or without a right of way on foot. Although we focus on access by foot in the first part of the Bill, rights of way include those for horse riders, cyclists and, indeed, vehicular traffic. The issue becomes more complex in this part of the Bill.
As the Bill is currently drafted, cycle tracks, with or without a right of way, may not be covered by the definition of "local rights of way" and would therefore be excluded from the rights of way improvements plans. We want the interests of cyclists to be properly represented in the Bill. We can see the sense in making sure that cycle routes are included. We agree that other countries such as France may have a better balance, although we have made substantial improvements to our network over the past few years. We are prepared to consider an amendment to extend the definition to cover cycle tracks.
However, there is a possibility of conflict between horse riders, cyclists and walkers. I shall come back to that. The point raised by the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Addington, and by the noble Baroness,
Lord Roberts of Conwy: Will the Minister say more about what the Government have in mind for people with mobility problems? I am sure that he is aware that catering properly for people with mobility problems will be very costly, with the need to remove stiles and make other changes. Do the Government have a plan?
Lord Whitty: As the noble Lord, Lord Addington, said, it will not be appropriate for all rights of way to have wheelchair access, for example, but in the overall improvement of the network of rights of way, attention must be paid to providing adequate access to rights of way that would be appropriate for disabled people who have mobility problems. The vast majority of people who suffer from other disabilities are able to use footpaths anyway, so issues such as signing are important, but wheelchair access clearly has to be taken into account, although we must recognise that it cannot be provided on all rights of way.
The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, the noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu, and others asked about horse riders and bridleways. Local authorities have the power to create bridleways under the Highways Act 1980 and we agree that there is a case for more of them. The Bill will require authorities to take that into account in developing their rights of way strategy. Local rights of way will include bridleways. Local highways authorities are under a specific duty to consider the needs of the public. That clearly includes horse riders.
Lord Greaves: I understand that there are national targets for the length of new cycle tracks to be developed every year or every five years. Will the Government consider adopting similar targets for the creation of new bridleways?
Lord Whitty: That is rather difficult. I cannot commit myself to it. Cyclists clearly use particular tracks, but bridleways are not the only rights of way that horse riders benefit from in the countryside.
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