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Baroness Byford: My Lords, I support my noble friend's amendment. Clearly, the Government considered our original amendments. I remember "football pitches" being referred to in Committee and it was said that the original size proposed in the amendments was too big. I urge the Minister to consider the amendment that is now before the House.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Lord Whitty): My Lords, the noble Lord seems to regard this as a bit of a negotiating session; indeed, we have gone down from 10 to 5 and now to 2. I suppose that I should be grateful for that. However, there is a principle involved here. The Government have recognised some of the arguments put forward from various quarters of this House. We have, in total, tabled about 40 amendments, most of which give some further leeway or greater flexibility to landowners. Therefore, most of them reflect the degree to which we have been prepared to listen to arguments in this House.
The amendment now before us, and many that follow, seeks to take those restrictions further. We have provided a flexibility for the countryside bodies to take them further in appropriate circumstances. There seem to be two problems. The first is that there is a mood in some quarters of this House that the restrictions should be greater than the Government have accepted. We believe that we now have a sensible range of amendments, which take account of earlier arguments. However--I say this not necessarily in relation solely to this amendment--we believe that we have gone far enough down that road. Minor alterations may be necessary here and there which we will accept in terms of today's arguments, but, in general, we believe that what we now have is a sensible balance.
We have also provided for a means to adjust that balance in response to factors that become apparent in the administration, in the mapping, or in the experience of operating access. We have given a discretion to the countryside bodies, under Clause 4(5) of the Bill, to decide not to map small areas of open country if it appears impractical or not sensible. That provides a practical and sensible tool, but does not mean the exclusion of all small areas of open countryside, many of which are quite attractive and ought to be open to the general public. That provision will allow bodies to exclude parcels of land that would involve wholly disproportionate effort, wholly disproportionate costs to survey or provide wholly insignificant benefit to the potential users.
In implementing the legislation, the countryside bodies may exclude land greater or less than two hectares. It is a matter for them to resolve in the light of the mapping process and in the light of experience. For example, they may decide to apply different thresholds to some types of land. We do not see any reason to interfere with that discretion. Part of the problem seems to be that some noble Lords, especially from the party opposite, do not trust the Countryside Agency to exercise this discretion fairly and equitably. If we cannot trust our public bodies--there are great public servants who operate within the Countryside Agency--we shall have difficulty in making this Bill work in general. We should not make the situation worse for the agency by imposing on it arbitrary limitations. We should leave such matters to its discretion. I hope that noble Lords, both in respect of this amendment and others, will overcome their paranoia about the Countryside Agency and recognise
The amendment would not excuse the countryside bodies from the duty to consider including such land; it would simply introduce an arbitrary cut-off point. That seems to me to represent an inhibition as regards achieving equity and common sense in their task, rather than making it easier. The amendment also fails to recognise that open country comes in many shapes and sizes. A small area of wasteland formed by the angle of two roads might genuinely provide a useful recreational area in the vicinity of a village. But a similar sized area would be less significant if it were on the edge of, say, Dartmoor. We are certainly not prepared to assume that it is not worth granting a right of access to all land of a size of less than two hectares. Indeed, it is much better to leave such discretion to the countryside bodies. I hope, therefore, that the noble Earl will not pursue this amendment, and others, that would fetter such discretion and make the job of mapping that much more difficult.
The Earl of Caithness: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister. However, I cannot follow his final comment; namely, that it would make the job of mapping more difficult if we excluded small areas. I believe that it would make that task that much easier. The whole point of my amendment is that if you say that no land below two hectares is to be mapped, it will make the whole process for the countryside bodies so much simpler. Indeed, everyone would be clear on the position--the countryside bodies and the owners and occupiers of land. But if you have a fully flexible system, which the noble Lord advocates, that will lead to wholly disproportionate costs in many areas and to inconsistencies throughout the country.
I believe that the noble Lord's arguments are wrong. It is not a question of mistrusting the countryside bodies. At the end of the day, it is a question of pure practicality. That is what I am trying to achieve. It should be clear for the countryside bodies and for those occupying the land that small areas need not be mapped. That would be clear, cost effective and surely must be right. However, I realise that the Government are utterly entrenched on the matter. I believe them to be wrong, but only time will prove who is right. I hope that the Minister will be able to quantify in due course the extra costs to the countryside bodies of this work and that he will account to Parliament for it. I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.
However, during our discussions in Committee, the words "discretion" and "sensitivity" were mentioned many times in relation to the Countryside Agency. Indeed, I believe that the Minister mentioned those words just a short while ago. The way in which the agency exercises such discretion is obviously crucial. These amendments were prompted by concerns as to exactly how that discretion will operate. It is clear that the Countryside Agency will not be able to begin to implement all of the functions that it will now have to undertake as a result of the Bill. It will obviously have to contract out a large number of the tasks that will arise as a result of this legislation, as is the case with the mapping.
In practice, contractual arrangements depend very much on how successful the original specification is in drawing up the exact responsibilities of the private enterprise as regards the people with whom it will be dealing. Given the fact that the agency will have a relationship between access authorities, local access forums and the agency--with the contractor somewhere in the middle--we need to hear from the Minister exactly what is in the Government's mind in terms of giving guidance to the agency about contracting out these very sensitive areas of work. Indeed, they would include not only the mapping but also appeals on behalf of landowners about closures, which was something that exercised all our minds in Committee; for example, when it would be reasonable to grant discretion to landowners to close their land beyond the 28 days given in the Bill. However, I am sure that we shall debate that issue again at equal length.
I should like to know what sort of guidance the Government intend to give the agency on such matters. In the event of the contract not being a happy arrangement in a certain area, can the Minister say what process could be followed in such circumstances? For example, will there be a right of appeal to the Countryside Agency because the contractor is not carrying out its duty in the way that people had hoped? Alternatively, will the appeal be to the Secretary of State? At present, I am quite unclear as to how that relationship would work in these extremely sensitive areas. I beg to move.
The Chairman of Committees (Lord Boston of Faversham): My Lords, although the meaning of this amendment, as printed, is no doubt clear, I must point out to your Lordships that there are two printing mistakes in it. The quotation marks should appear before the words "covered" and "of", not before the words "leave" and "insert".
Baroness Carnegy of Lour: My Lords, this seems to me a sensible amendment. I believe that probably most Members of your Lordships' House have become increasingly anxious that the agency will have an enormous amount to do, and some of that in a short
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