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Column 1113introduced. There must be a system that will ensure that new and greater access to the areas that are held by the water companies can be opened up.
Mr. Christopher Hawkins (High Peak) : The hon. Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor) said that the opinion of the Ramblers Association's Queen's counsel firmly stated that the duties imposed in the Bill for recreation and access did not relate to land whoever it was owned by. The opinion was not quite as firm or all-embracing as that, although I agree with the hon. Lady that certain aspects are not properly protected in the Bill. I arranged the meeting between my hon. and learned Friend the Minister and the Ramblers Association and its QC at which the association expressed its worries.
I thank the Government for responding to the anxieties of the public, especially in areas such as my constituency, which has been mentioned several times, and for tabling amendments to meet some of those concerns.
I support what the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) said ; we want to know that the Bill will protect not only the legal and statutory rights of access but all existing rights that have been agreed on a voluntary or permissive basis by the water authorities, sometimes in a public-spirited way to which I pay tribute. I also agree with the hon. Gentleman that we do not want people to be charged for access to the national parks or to have little people with machines asking for money for tickets as climbers come down a steep limestone face in the Peak district. There is a case for some areas of the countryside to be freely available-- by which I mean, at no charge--to members of the public.
It would greatly help to increase public support for the Bill if Ministers made it clear that these rights and freedoms will be protected. If they are not fully protected by the amendments tabled today, which I welcome--I am pleased that my hon. Friend intervened to say that Ministers are still considering the legal advice that has been given to them--I hope that steps will be taken in another place completely to clarify the issues so that the public do not feel that the Bill removes current rights to access.
Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South) : As I am sure you will be aware, Mr. Deputy Speaker, we live in the age of the looter. Public assets which have been accumulated over 100 years due to the foresight of our ancestors are now, in every walk of life--and water is only the latest-- being auctioned off to the highest bidder and the proceeds used to fuel the illusion of prosperity. No doubt the perpetrators will be in Bermuda by the time the roof comes in, and the Labour party will then be called in to clear up the mess. When this subject was raised in Committee, Tory Members became quite agitated when I said that behind the urbane and civilised men and one or two women on the Conservative Benches lay every species of spiv and con man known to civilisation. I know that some Conservative Members care about what happens to the great land assets owned by the water authorities, but they are very few. That must be our conclusion, particularly because only one Conservative Back Bencher has had anything to say on
Column 1114this issue today. Increasingly we are falling to the tender mercies of the estate agents and accountants who clutter up the Conservative Benches.
What is about to happen to the half a million or more acres of some of our most beautiful landscape owned by the water authorities is, I am afraid, a result of the actions of Conservative Members. There have been many references to beautiful landscape in the Peak district national park, in Thirlmere and in Kielder which is within the Northumbrian water authority area close to my constituency. Reference was also made to the Elan valley.
Yesterday the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Latham) entered special pleas for exemption from proposed development for land in or near his constituency. It would be easier to take such pleas seriously if there was a general concern on the Conservative Benches about what might happen. It is a little distasteful to hear Conservative Members asking for exemptions or assurances from Ministers simply for a particular landscape or site which happens to be close to their constituents and their own backyards. We would like to see the measures in clause 7 addressed to all the assets and not just to those where personal concerns are involved.
Mr. Deputy Speaker, did you see that excellent "Panorama" programme on Monday evening about the impending privatisation of the water authorities? It contained an interview with a farmer in Thirlmere in the Lake district. He was a water authority tenant who had farmed there all his life, as had his father before him. The father was recovering from cancer and was worried whether the tenancy would survive to be handed on to his son. He was also concerned to know whether the cowsheds on his farm were to be handed over for development and turned into luxury yuppie housing. We may have thought that it was basic enough to get an assurance about this as it must be the easiest case in the world for such an assurance to be forthcoming. However, "Panorama" could not obtain an assurance from North West Water that there were no such plans. That provides a clue about the future and it must be matched against any assurances which we may receive from time to time from the Government Front Bench. All the signs are that those who are about to buy up the water industry and the land that goes with it consider the assets ripe for looting and can hardly wait to get their hands on it. Clause 7 brings us to the heart of the matter. It is a grudging acknowledgment by the Government that there are assets worth preserving and that there is something worth handing over to our ancestors.
As my Friend the Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor) said from the Opposition Front Bench, and as many hon. Members of all shades of opinion have said, it is pathetically weak to use phrases like "having regard to", "take into account", "desirability" or "reasonably practical". The purpose of the amendment is to mitigate the great damage which we believe will be inflicted on the half million or so acres owned by the water authorities.
The concern is very widespread. All the members of the Standing Committee were deluged by briefs from every conceivable interest. Only in the past few days, I received a brief from the Council for the Protection of Rural England which states :
Column 1115"There is no technical justification why the freehold of the half a million acres of land currently owned by the water authorities should be transferred to the new water utility PLCs."
It also states :
"There are currently no effective arrangements in the Bill to safeguard the existing public interests which are currently enshrined in all water authority land under section 48 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act. The Secretary of State's watchdog role over the clause 7 environmental duties is hopelessly inadequate, since he will only be able to intervene on a sporadic and post hoc basis." That is not a party political broadcast from the Labour party. That is the view of the Council for the Protection of Rural England which enjoys the support of many people who, on most issues, take the opposite view from that of my hon. Friends and I.
The CPRE proposes something more robust than is contained in the amendments. It wants to see all the land presently vested in the water companies handed over to the National Rivers Authority and administered and protected in that way. Our amendments are more modest in the hope that they will extract a generous reply from the Minister.
Amendment No. 121 seeks to exempt from charges access on foot to water authority land. Amendment No. 119 seeks to bring all water authority land within the miserly protection proposed in clauses 7 to 9. We had a discussion in Committee about the code of practice provided for in clause 9, which is supposed to give effect to the good intentions in clause 7. The essential flaw is that the code of practice is completely unenforceable. It is totally advisory and no one need take the blindest bit of notice of it and all the signs are that that is what will happen. The most outrageous flaw--we have pursued the Minister about this--is that the code of practice does not apply to land hived off to subsidiary companies owned by privatised water companies. It will not apply to land which is sold. We pursued the Minister up hill and down dale over that. He wriggled a great deal, but we eventually extracted one or two points. He said that the code and the good intentions in clause 7 would apply to what he called all "operational land". There is no definition in the Bill of "operational land". We do not know whether that is land on which a sewage station or a reservoir is located. We do not know whether the definition is wider than that. However, we have some clues.
Several weeks ago, the hon. Member for Delyn (Mr. Raffan) was told by the Secretary of State for the Environment that 95 per cent. of the Elan valley --88,000 acres--would be regarded as "operational land". If that is so, it is quite encouraging. However, there is nothing in the Bill to suggest that it is so. I suspect, as many of my hon. Friends and people outside this place suspect, that this rather pathetic protection will apply to a damn sight less than 95 per cent. of the 550,000 acres currently owned by the water authorities. We take note of what the Minister confirmed in Committee --that "operational land" would apply to 95 per cent. of the Elan valley. Other hon. Members have drawn the Minister's attention to the counsel's opinion and no doubt the Minister will want to comment on it. Our amendments are modest and do not do justice to the outrage that is understandably felt about what will happen to parts of our most beautiful landscapes. I commend them to the House.
Leaving aside the Bill's privatisation aspects, clause 7 and the related provisions, more than any other, have been the subject of lobbying of right hon. and hon. Members in all parts of the Committee. That shows the genuine concern that is felt and why, despite moves made by the Government since the Committee stage, it is necessary to make further amendments. The Minister said that he is considering legal opinion and may make further changes, if he deems that appropriate, when the Bill is considered in another place. I accept the basis on which the Minister gave that assurance, but I hope that he will also be prepared to meet representatives of the organisations that are expressing concern.
Even at this stage, it is unsatisfactory for the Minister to give just this House and another place assurances about the Government's intentions, because they must also convince others outside. Even if the Minister does not recognise this, there is a credibility gap about the Government's intentions between them and the Ramblers Association, the British Mountaineering Council, the Greater Manchester countryside unit, the CPRE, and the National Trust. I could rattle off the names of organisation after organisation and read out any number of comments from various briefs, including one from anglers. The Minister must convince not only Parliament but those outside who are actively concerned about ensuring that in respect of access to land currently owned by water authorities the status quo will be at least maintained if not improved.
Many more people are concerned about the Government's real intention, having heard of the response made by the Secretary of State for the Environment in yesterday's main debate, when he said that one of the Bill's important objectives is the privatisation of 500,000 acres of land. We have said all along that that was the Bill's fundamental objective, and that the only way in which privatisation will pay is by people making money from the land they can acquire. The Secretary of State let that out of the bag yesterday, underlining that that was the Bill's main objective. Whether or not he did so intentionally, I do not know--but he did it.
The organisations whose fears we are expressing will be even more fearful of the consequences of clause 7 if amendments are not made. If the Government are not prepared to move today, there will be even less time available for dealing with that aspect, because the Bill has only to pass through the other place. I hope that the Government recognise the genuine fears that exist and that they must do something if they are not to lose the confidence of people throughout the country who want to ensure that recreational
opportunities--whether for rambling, angling, or whatever--are retained.
Mr. Moynihan : My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I are more than happy to meet relevant bodies to discuss the important issues that have been raised. Yesterday, I met representatives of the Sports Council, and a couple of days ago I met the chairmen of all the regional councils for sport and recreation, when we discussed those issues in considerable detail. My hon. and learned Friend the Minister for Water and Planning met with my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Mr. Hawkins) and other representatives of the Ramblers
Column 1117Association. We shall of course continue to consider
representations, not least those on recommendations concerning the code of practice, which Ministers can still review.
The hon. Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike) reflected on my right hon. Friend's comments of yesterday evening, but he should have listened more carefully to my right hon. Friend's remarks about land. Most national parks land is, and always has been, in private ownership. Ninety-seven per cent. of the Yorkshire dales national park is in private ownership, and--if one includes 10 per cent. held by the National Trust--88 per cent. of Exmoor is privately owned, yet one does not see that land desecrated and spoilt by undesirable development.
It is an inescapable fact that proper regulation does not require public ownership. If it did, not one acre of land on these islands would be other than in public ownership. With planning controls and the proper regulation that we support and are providing, land can be as well protected in the private sector as in the public. If public bodies do not need land for proper public functions, why should they have it?
The Bill preserves in full, in clause 7(2) and (3), the present obligations of water authorities to have regard to the desirability of preserving public rights of access to land and to put their water and land to the best recreational use. Those are broad and substantial duties, but in Committee my hon. and learned Friend the Minister for Water and Planning said that we wanted to consider ways in which they can be further strengthened, clarified and updated. Public access to the water authorities' estates is of great importance because the authorities hold in highland and upland areas much land of great environmental and recreational significance. We concluded that the general power in clause 180 to vary by order local statutory provision as a consequence of the Bill shall not apply to so much of such provisions as concerns public access and amenity. That is particularly relevant to the Manchester and Birmingham local Acts, and my hon. and learned Friend gave an assurance in Committee that the Government have no intention of using that power to revoke or amend the important provisions of those Acts, which provide for public access to the Elan valley and to parts of the Lake district and Peak district.
Mr. Moynihan : I accept that, and it is vital that the flexibility that exists and has operated well in the past does not change in the future. I shall deal later with the specific subject of charging. My hon. Friend makes a pertinent point, because to accept the amendment would be to lose the freedom to make appropriate charges, not least to meet the cost of restocking rivers with fish--an activity requiring much energy, effort and financial expenditure. If charges are necessary for that purpose, there should be no prohibition on their being made in future.
The Ramblers Association and other interested bodies welcomed our assurances, but after further discussion on rights of way, we agreed that it is right that our firm
Column 1118intention should be reflected in the Bill. Some concern has been expressed about clause 7(2), which imposes on the National Rivers Authority and the undertakers the obligation
"to have regard to the desirability of preserving public rights of access"
to water authority land, and about whether that provision should be much clearer about its application to permissive or concessionary routes and, further, to the important and significant right to roam. We concluded that it is important to amend the Bill to embrace all those rights, to ensure that, in future, not just statutory rights of way but permissive or concessionary rights of access and the right to roam are embraced. We achieved that by proposing an amendment to leave out the words "public rights" and insert
"for the public any freedom"
of access to make it explicit that we are preserving for the public freedom of access to the land in question--whether one is considering statutory rights of way, permissive or concessionary rights of access, or the right to roam. I very much hope that the two Government amendments that relate to this debate will be welcomed by both sides of the House.
The hon. Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor) raised three significant and important points, and I shall swiftly respond to them. 5.30 pm
The amendments focus on the central features of the general environmental duties concerning conservation, public access and recreation to be imposed on the NRA and the appointed companies. I remind the House of the scope of our proposals. First, they preserve for the privatised industry all the present duties of the public sector. That includes the duty to further conservation and to put its water and land to the best use for recreation. Those duties are supplemented by a duty on the NRA generally to promote conservation and recreation. In addition, all the duties are made enforceable by the Secretary of State who is to take into account how far the companies have complied with the code of practice which we have already published in draft and which represents the fullest expression so far of what good practice in those matters represents. Therefore, there are absolutely no grounds for arguing that conservation, access and recreation are inadequately covered in the Bill. The water industry will be subject to fuller and clearer obligations after privatisation. Those obligations are more substantial than those attaching to any other industry in the country in the public or private sector.
In amendments Nos. 115 to 118 the House is asked to apply those duties not only to the performance of functions but to the ownership of land. Amendment No. 119 seeks to extend the duties to any successor owners of the land. Let me begin with the proposals that the duties should attach not only to the performance of functions but to the ownership of any land. The central question is simple. The general environmental duties in the Bill are special ones designed to apply specifically to water industry functions, reflecting their uniquely extensive impact on the environment through the collection and
Column 1119control of water resources, draining operations and pipelaying and sewage activities. The nature of those functions, and not any characteristics of the land in question, requires those obligations. What logic could there be in applying them to the ownership of that land? It would create a quite unparalleled protective regime for land, based not on any special quality or requirement of the land, or any pressures or operations to which it might be subject, but simply because the land happens to be or to have been in the ownership of an appointed company.
Hon. Members can imagine the absurdities to which the amendments would lead. One can readily visualise small patches of urban land of no conservation or amenity value whose use for housing, employment or some other social need was for ever blighted by the need for further conservation and recreation in ways related to the performance of functions that it no longer serves. The general management and use of land outside the special functions of the industry are matters for the planning system to regulate.
The same considerations apply to amendment No. 119 which would extend the duties to any successor owner of the land. As long as the conservation, access and landscape duties apply to the performance of all water industry functions, full and sufficient protection is afforded.
The hon. Lady stated that "having regard to" duties are ineffective. That is wrong. Under that duty the water authorities have been opening up access and taking down fences since 1974, and, in any case, the Bill makes the duty fully enforceable by the Secretary of State. It is also irrelevant. Ramblers and climbers are further protected by the duty in clause 7(4) on companies to put their lands to best use for recreation. That is an unqualified duty, not a "have regard to" duty.
The hon. Lady referred to counsel's opinion about transfers to subsidiary companies. I hope that I have made it clear to the House that the opinion suggests that in certain circumstances the duty might not be effective. As I mentioned, we are considering the limited and technical arguments in the opinion, and if a technical amendment to the Bill is necessary, we shall table such an amendment, but, generally speaking, if undertakers continue to use any land transferred for their functions, the duties will bite.
Finally, the hon. Lady referred to charging. Nothing in the Bill changes the present position. The provision in clause 7(5) exists simply to make it clear that companies, like water authorities now, can charge for the use of recreational facilities. That must be right, as that flexibility needs to continue. The scare stories put about by Opposition Members are quite wrong. For the most part, the water authorities do not charge but allow people to roam freely on their lands in the highlands and uplands. Quite reasonably, there are often charges for car parks and jetties, but not for ordinary access on foot. Where no specific facilities are provided, the levying of charges has usually been considered unrealistic and impractical. Without the amendment, that sensible and pragmatic position is expected to continue.
I have touched very briefly on the main points raised in the debate. I apologise to the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) for not giving way, but it gives the Opposition Front Bench the opportunity to respond.
Ms. Walley : Because of the guillotine, there is not time for me to raise with the Minister some of the important comments made and issues raised in the debate. The Opposition wish to make clear three basic points. First, we want clause 7 to have teeth, and our amendments give the clause teeth. Secondly, the Minister tells us that he is currently having discussions with the Ramblers Association, the Sports Council and other bodies. Now is the time for action. The Bill will soon be the law of the land and, unless we receive some real assurances from the Government, there will no longer be any time for further talks.
Access to land is an old problem which has been with us for a century. Organisations such as the Ramblers Association have been campaigning for proper access to land, whether it is in private or public ownership. We want there to be public access to all the land in the ownership of the water authorities post-privatisation. When we debated this matter in Committee it appeared that there was no difference between the views of the Government and the Opposition, yet the necesary provisions are still not spelt out clearly in the Bill.
The amendments are very clear, and if the House accepts them, or if the Government give us an assurance that they will accept them in another place, we shall ensure that there is access to all the land, which people throughout the country have campaigned and fought for for years, and for which in certain parts of the country they are still campaigning, with the help of organisations such as the Ramblers Association. For that reason, we feel that the amendments are important.
Thirdly, if the Government consider that it is not necessary to include our amendment which would remove the right to charge people for access to the land on foot, why does he not accept it now? Does the Minister envisage that in the future the new companies will not charge only for facilities, which would not be unreasonable, and that it will be in order for new companies to charge people to travel on foot over land which has been open for a long time?
Amendments made : No. 61, in page 7, line 42 leave out public rights' and insert
for the public any freedom'.
No. 62, in page 7, line 46 leave out rights' and insert freedom'.
No. 26, in page 8, line 21 at end insert--
(4A) It shall be the duty of a relevant body, in determining what steps to take in performance of any duty imposed by virtue of subsection (3) or (4)(c) above, to take into account the needs of persons who are chronically sick or disabled.'.-- [Mr. Moynihan.] Amendment proposed : No. 121, in page 8, line 24 at end insert with the exception of access on foot by the public to the land'.-- [Mrs. Ann Taylor.]
Question put, That the amendment be made :--
The House divided : Ayes 204, Noes 285.
Division No. 130] [5.39 pm
Archer, Rt Hon Peter
Ashdown, Rt Hon Paddy
Ashley, Rt Hon Jack
Banks, Tony (Newham NW)
Barnes, Harry (Derbyshire NE)
Barnes, Mrs Rosie (Greenwich)
Benn, Rt Hon Tony
Bennett, A. F. (D'nt'n & R'dish)
Column 1121Bidwell, Sydney
Bray, Dr Jeremy
Brown, Gordon (D'mline E)
Brown, Nicholas (Newcastle E)
Brown, Ron (Edinburgh Leith)
Bruce, Malcolm (Gordon)
Buckley, George J.
Campbell, Ron (Blyth Valley)
Campbell-Savours, D. N.
Clark, Dr David (S Shields)
Clarke, Tom (Monklands W)
Clwyd, Mrs Ann
Cook, Frank (Stockton N)
Cook, Robin (Livingston)
Cunningham, Dr John
Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (Llanelli)
Davies, Ron (Caerphilly)
Davis, Terry (B'ham Hodge H'l)
Dunwoody, Hon Mrs Gwyneth
Evans, John (St Helens N)
Field, Frank (Birkenhead)
Fields, Terry (L'pool B G'n)
Garrett, John (Norwich South)
Gilbert, Rt Hon Dr John
Godman, Dr Norman A.
Grant, Bernie (Tottenham)
Griffiths, Nigel (Edinburgh S)
Griffiths, Win (Bridgend)
Harman, Ms Harriet
Hattersley, Rt Hon Roy
Healey, Rt Hon Denis
Heffer, Eric S.
Hogg, N. (C'nauld & Kilsyth)
Howarth, George (Knowsley N)
Howell, Rt Hon D. (S'heath)
Howells, Dr. Kim (Pontypridd)
Hughes, John (Coventry NE)
Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen N)
Hughes, Roy (Newport E)
Hughes, Sean (Knowsley S)
Hughes, Simon (Southwark)
Johnston, Sir Russell
Jones, Barry (Alyn & Deeside)
Jones, Ieuan (Ynys Mo n)
Jones, Martyn (Clwyd S W)
Kinnock, Rt Hon Neil
Lestor, Joan (Eccles)
Lloyd, Tony (Stretford)
Macdonald, Calum A.
McKay, Allen (Barnsley West)
Mahon, Mrs Alice
Marek, Dr John
Marshall, David (Shettleston)
Marshall, Jim (Leicester S)
Martin, Michael J. (Springburn)
Michie, Bill (Sheffield Heeley)
Mitchell, Austin (G't Grimsby)
Moonie, Dr Lewis
Morris, Rt Hon J. (Aberavon)
Oakes, Rt Hon Gordon
Orme, Rt Hon Stanley
Owen, Rt Hon Dr David
Pike, Peter L.
Powell, Ray (Ogmore)
Quin, Ms Joyce
Rees, Rt Hon Merlyn
Reid, Dr John
Roberts, Allan (Bootle)
Ross, Ernie (Dundee W)
Sheldon, Rt Hon Robert
Shore, Rt Hon Peter
Smith, Andrew (Oxford E)
Smith, C. (Isl'ton & F'bury)
Smith, Rt Hon J. (Monk'ds E)