Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire): The Minister says that access will be available immediately to land over the 600 m contour. Is he aware that access to most land above 600 m will be across other land, which will not yet be mapped? Will he delay access to land over 600 m until the mapping exercise has been completed?

Mr. Meacher: I did not say that access to mountain land over 600 m would be available immediately. I said that that land is most easily mapped, but the hon. Gentleman is right--one must take account of accessibility, which might require a further delay, depending on the circumstances.

Mr. David Tredinnick (Bosworth): Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Meacher: No, I must get on.

The Bill contains two provisions to extend rights of access beyond mountain, moor, heath, down and registered common land. First, clause 3 permits the Secretary of State and the Welsh Assembly to extend the right by order to coastal land. That reflects a recommendation from the Countryside Agency. I give an undertaking to the House that any order of the Secretary of State to that end will be subject to approval by each House of Parliament, and that no order will be laid until a full public consultation has been carried out and a regulatory impact statement has been prepared.

Secondly, clause 16 is a new power for landowners to dedicate their land to permanent public access in accordance with the Bill's provisions. That is voluntary;

20 Mar 2000 : Column 726

there is no question of any compulsion. That power will be available to both public and private sector owners and may be used, for example, to permit access to woodlands.

Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarfon): The Minister mentioned the role of the Welsh Assembly with regard to access to land adjacent to the sea coast. Does he accept that in Wales circumstances are somewhat different from those in England, not only with regard to the management function, but with tourism, agriculture, leisure and environment all coming under the National Assembly, and a different body of subordinate legislation developing? Will he re-examine the Bill before Third Reading to see whether it is possible to insert a clause--in line with the commitment given by the Secretary of State for Wales when he addressed the National Assembly before Christmas--to enable us to make modifications to the Bill, as may be deemed necessary from our own experience and needs in Wales?

Mr. Meacher: I am happy to consider the Bill further for that purpose, but I am not sure that it is necessary. It is clearly right for the National Assembly for Wales to exercise powers in Wales similar to those that Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions Ministers exercise in England. The National Assembly will be able to exercise all regulation-making powers. I believe that the Bill achieves the right hon. Gentleman's aim; if it does not, I will consider the matter further.

Part II deals with rights of way. Modernising the administration and management of the rights of way system is a natural complement to our proposals for more access to the open countryside. We are proposing radical improvements; we want the system strengthened, developed and brought up to date to respond to the modern-day needs of users and land managers.

There is a growing demand for safe and quiet recreational routes away from busy roads. We want to encourage the creation of new routes and changes to existing routes when there are good reasons for that.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) rose--

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish) rose--

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire) rose--

Mr. Bob Russell (Colchester) rose--

Mr. Meacher: I shall give way in a moment.

We want to extend the opportunities for linear access to users, such as horse riders and cyclists, who would not benefit from our proposals for more access on foot. Local highway authorities will be required to draw up and publish plans to improve their rights of way networks. They will have to take account of the needs of local residents and visitors, including people who experience mobility difficulties. We shall ask those authorities to report to us on their progress.

Miss McIntosh: Has the Minister considered who will be liable for any accidents that happen on the regular access routes? Will the landowner be solely responsible or will the Government make some contribution?

Mr. Meacher: If the hon. Lady is referring to access land, I have made it abundantly clear that the landowner

20 Mar 2000 : Column 727

will not be liable for accidents. However, public rights of way are different. Any accidents are a matter for the person who had the accident and the local highway authority. Responsibility depends on the circumstances of the accident.

Mr. Bennett: Is my right hon. Friend happy that the provisions for footpaths are in good shape at this stage, or does he hope that changes will be made as the Bill progresses through the two Houses?

Mr. Meacher: My hon. Friend knows me well. I do not believe that the Bill is simply a cosmetic exercise. Part II, which deals with rights of way, was the last of the four parts to be settled. The matter is complex, and we held an extensive consultation exercise on it. We have already changed our proposals significantly in the light of the consultation to take account of what we genuinely believed to be the good case that was made to us. If others continue to press the case for change in an acceptable way, I am prepared for further changes to be made to the Bill.

Mr. Barnes: Are bridleways included in the provisions for protecting rights of way? They are used by motor cyclists to create mayhem in my constituency, following court cases in which the definitive map has not been treated as definitive by the courts. Can the Bill include a provision to close that gap and to ensure that bridleways are used for the purpose that Parliament originally intended?

Mr. Meacher: My hon. Friend anticipates my next point. We are worried about the matter. We do not want to discriminate against scrambler and motor bikes, but we propose to close the legal loophole and prevent the unauthorised use of off-road vehicles on land away from roads. They cause substantial damage and I am concerned--

Mr. Bob Russell rose--

Mr. Meacher: I must make progress, particularly as I want to deal with the point referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes).

Roads used as public paths--RUPPs, as they are known in the jargon--will be designated as an entirely new class of public highway called restricted byways. Those will offer a public right of way for walkers, cyclists, horse riders and horse-drawn vehicles and will be without prejudice to any pre-existing vehicular rights. Anyone with evidence of those rights will be able to apply, as now, to have a restricted byway reclassified as a byway open to all traffic--which is rather curiously known as a BOAT--with motor vehicular rights. Such evidence will have to be provided, and what I told my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire will apply. Most people do not want the quietness and tranquillity of the countryside torn apart by noisy and extremely obtrusive off-road vehicles being used in a manner for which I believe they were never intended.

Mr. Andrew Hunter (Basingstoke): Can the Minister explain why the Government have moved away from the consultation paper proposal that all RUPPs should become restricted byways?

Mr. Meacher: We have not moved away from our proposal--the hon. Gentleman does not recount that quite

20 Mar 2000 : Column 728

correctly. The original proposal was that RUPPs would remain as bridleways, although in a limited way. We changed our mind only as a result of the consultation and decided to introduce restricted byways. At present, bridleways can be ploughed up by the landowner and can be gated off, and there were strong objections from cyclists, horse riders and drivers of horse-drawn vehicles that that would limit their access. We believe that that view is reasonable, which is why we made a change to introduce restricted byways. That should assist cyclists and horse riders.

We are also tackling the long-term problem--

Mr. Paice: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Meacher: This must be the last intervention I take for a long time, but the hon. Gentleman has been trying to intervene for a while.

Mr. Paice: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way--if only because of my perseverance. May I pursue him on the business of RUPPs, BOATs and, in particular, the restricted byways? He said that it would be open to anyone with historical vehicular use of what will be a restricted byway to have it converted to a byway open to all traffic, but is there not a significant difference between a right of access used to gain access to land further up a restricted byway and its free-for-all use by the four-wheel-drive vehicles that he rightly denigrates? Should there not be protection for the person who wants to take a vehicle up such a route for access purposes; and would not the change to a BOAT create full open-to- all-traffic access and open the route up to the disturbance that he described?

Next Section

IndexHome Page