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Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order.

5.18 pm

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for West Lancashire (Mr. Pickthall) and, in particular, the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry). I found myself in agreement with so many of the points that the right hon. Gentleman made during his speech. He juxtaposed the two positions of opposing in principle and opposing on practicalities, and rightly said that it was the practicalities that mattered.

I am at a loss to understand the position of the right hon. Gentleman's colleagues on the Front Bench, who want to oppose Second Reading in principle. Leaving aside the irony--which will be lost on no farmer--of the hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Mr. Norman), with his business history, now purporting to speak for farmers who are finding it difficult to make an economic living, I fail to understand how the Conservatives can oppose in principle a Bill that has not been opposed in principle by the vast majority of people in this country, including those who speak for countryside and agricultural interests, who all find parts of the Bill that they can support, but nevertheless have serious doubts about some of the practical applications of the legislation and want those explored in Committee.

Mr. Damian Green (Ashford): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Heath: As the hon. Gentleman has not yet spoken, I am delighted to give way to him.

Mr. Green: If the hon. Gentleman reads our reasoned amendment, he will realise that while we object in principle to parts of the Bill, we welcome other parts. I recommend that he reads the amendment.

Mr. Heath: I hope that the hon. Gentleman does not believe that I would come to the debate without reading the amendment. I question the position that Conservative

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Members have adopted of opposing parts of the Bill in principle. The detailed briefings from the many interests that have examined the Bill oppose not the principle but its detail. Those interests include the National Farmers Union, the Country Landowners Association and the Countryside Alliance. If we accepted the amendment tabled by Conservative Members, we could not amend the details in Committee; we would not have the opportunity of clarifying the access provisions, extending environmental protection or reforming rights of way. That would do the country a disservice.

I am indebted to the hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Green) for the concept of the blue-green dimension of Conservative policy. That was included in a recent press release. However, the response from the hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells was reminiscent not so much of cyan as of the purple of the grouse moor. That is unfortunate because we have an opportunity greatly to strengthen legislation on the environment and rights of access. We do not oppose the principle of the Bill; we welcome the principles that underlie much of the measure.

A succession of "buts" will now follow. The Bill does not tackle some practicalities properly and we will have to explore them in Committee. The Bill is disappointing in many ways, and its lack of aspiration is sad--[Interruption.] Hon. Members mumble from a sedentary position that it is overdue and overhyped; it is over the hill and far away in terms of the aspirations of many people who wanted environmental legislation to be strengthened during this Parliament. We want to explore the Bill's limitations.

The right hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) was right when he said that one of the key anxieties was about definition. It is important that we all understand how the Bill will work. Even our brightest and best educated constituents will not understand several definitions and some of the working practices in the Bill because they will not be on public display or in a digestible form. That will cause confusion and create tensions where none previously existed. That is sad and should be tackled.

Our second major concern is the scope of the Bill and some of the missed opportunities, which we hope to remedy in Committee. That applies especially to environmental protection and to reforming the rights of way system. The latter needs reforming and the Government have ducked the issue. They may want to revert to the matter; perhaps the Bill is half written and they will table a plethora of amendments in Committee. However, the measure is currently undercooked.

Our third major anxiety is about resources. For the Bill's intentions to be realised, it must be backed by a substantial amount of money. I have my doubts about that. My hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Mr. Brake) and I wrote to the Minister about that very issue on 1 March, but I have not yet received a reply, nor has my hon. Friend. That is not surprising from this Government, but what worries me is that the collusion between the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food may mean that the contagion that has overcome MAFF for the past three years may have spread to DETR. We may have to wait months.

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The success or otherwise of the Bill ultimately depends on adequate resourcing. The Secretary of State started the process of consideration by saying that the cost would "not be significant", but that is belied even by the explanatory notes and all informed commentators say that the likely cost will be more than the Government estimate. There will be significant costs for supporting the mapping process, the administration, the appeals and the new procedures--that is all self-evident--but there will also be a significant cost for creating the liaison structures, which will underpin its functioning on the ground. We need firm commitments not only to produce the resources required at this stage, but to continue that resourcing for a considerable number of years. There will be not only start-up costs but a continuing need, and meeting it will be critical to the success of the countryside bodies, local authorities and farmers themselves if they are to meet the Bill's requirements.

I want to deal with the access provisions. We welcome public access to uncultivated countryside. That is the basis of the Bill and we support it. However, we have concerns. First, the regional forums will be critical to its success, but their structure, the way in which they will operate and their existence are not dealt with by the Bill. The forums simply will not work unless the various interests with a direct concern in this matter are properly represented. We have always said that the forums represent a local matter that needs to be dealt with locally.

The definition of what land falls into what category is a problem, as is the fact that the mapping procedure is not yet complete--the cart has been put before the horse. We have to recognise and quantify the associated environmental costs and the Government have to meet them. I am concerned about restricted access because it will cause a lot of difficulties. The provisions are not workable and, for example, 28 days of restricted access is not sufficient for a double lambing. That has to be addressed, as does the exclusion of high days and holidays and the nonsensical idea that the farming calendar can somehow be put on hold during such periods. Is not it possible to encompass partial restrictions on a general area to establish sequential use of land for a particular purpose in 28-day periods--or whatever limit is prescribed--to achieve proper economic land use without restricting public access?

I am also concerned about night-time access and the more I think about it the more I question whether it is necessary. Will not it produce more access problems than it solves? The proper security of individuals is an issue, as are liabilities, and perhaps the Minister needs to reconsider that provision. I am worried that the code of conduct may not have the force of law. Where possible, codes of conduct should be transformed into byelaws so that everybody is absolutely clear about the way in which they apply.

I listened carefully to what the Minister said about liability and compensation, but still was not persuaded. How is a natural feature defined? Is a tree a natural

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feature? Is a tree doing what trees do--dropping a branch every now and again in a high wind, acting as a natural feature?

Mr. Bennett: Of course it is.

Mr. Heath: The hon. Gentleman says, "Of course it is," but is that the landowner's responsibility? There is a lack of definition and that is precisely what we need to explore in Committee.

I do not believe that the Government have gone nearly far enough in reforming this country's rickety rights of way system and they probably recognise that their proposals are incoherent and represent unfinished business. Local authorities are being given a new duty, but it is a duty to provide plans, with no duty to implement them. I have some experience of local authorities and they are always producing plans. The question is whether they ever bring them to fruition and whether they have the resources to do so. We cannot have a coherent and definitive--that is perhaps an unfortunate word to use in this context--rights of way system until we address that issue.

We should reconsider signposting, so that the public know exactly what they can and cannot do. We also need to address the issues of freedom from obstruction and bridleways, and establish a hierarchy to make the position clear when access through rights of way and conservation interests clash. My view is that conservation interests must take precedence, but that is by no means clear at the moment.

I listened carefully to the comments about RUPPS and their transition to restricted byways, and about the fact that there could be a challenge on vehicular use. I hope that it will not be all or nothing--either a restricted byway closed to vehicular traffic or a BOAT and open to all vehicular traffic--because that is nonsense. People may have proper rights of access because they need to use a particular restricted byway, but it should not be opened up to general vehicular use. It would be nonsense if local authorities had to go through the process of a road traffic order and had to put up a plethora of signs on the top of hillsides to stop what everyone knows should not be happening.

We welcome the strengthening of the current framework of conservation and wildlife protection as far as it goes. We regret the fact that there is no statutory underpinning of what was developed as a result of the Rio conference. Biodiversity action plans are not to be put on a statutory basis, as I believe they should be. We regret that there is no provision in the Bill for making good existing damage to SSSIs, but perhaps there will be provision elsewhere. Protection of SSSIs over the past few years and the amount that has been lost has been a disgrace.

We regret the fact that there is nothing about species protection outside SSSIs. I understand how difficult it is to produce definitions in that area, but the Government must address that problem if they are to take wildlife protection seriously. To echo an earlier point, we regret that the Bill contains nothing on marine conservation. Many years ago I was involved from outside the House in producing the amendments to the Environmental Protection Bill--as the right hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) will recall--which has never made a

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great difference. We need to address that issue. We should also consider the position of interim development orders. That applies particularly to peat moors and the effect that they can have on mineral workings. The Bill does not contain provisions for areas of outstanding natural beauty. They should be included, and we must address that issue in Committee.

My hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Livsey) hopes to catch your eye later, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to talk about Wales. My view and that of our party is that the Bill should not cover Wales, because this is a devolved matter for the Welsh Assembly and for the conservation and countryside bodies in Wales to deal with. It is wrong for the United Kingdom Parliament to retain this matter under a devolved system, because what happens in Wales has no effect outside the Principality.

The principal point is that it is possible to have environmental and societal benefits at the same time as agricultural sustainability: the two are not mutually inimical. Sustainability in environmental terms is not only compatible with but essential to the development of our rural communities, the rural economy and agricultural interests. There is a synergy between offering better protection and redirecting the present price support to farming through the CAP, which is wasteful and wholly indefensible. The Bill can go only a little way in that direction. It is for the Government to argue elsewhere how they achieve that.

Paradoxically, although the Government are making progress, there is limited progress on the common agricultural policy. We have the nonsense of the new IACS--integrated administration and control system--regulations and their effect on our hedgerows. The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food should be arguing with Brussels about that. We have the nonsense of environmental support for agriculture being effectively capped, and certainly not meeting the aspirations of the industry.

We need joined-up government. We need improvements in the Bill during its passage. However, we also need the underwriting of environmental support for rural areas by the Government, through the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions and through MAFF. We understand that the Bill is no more than a platform in terms of some of those developments, but it is a good platform. We shall not oppose it in principle, although we shall seek to improve it during its passage.

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