Previous SectionIndexHome Page

5.35 pm

Dr. David Clark (South Shields): I congratulate the Minister and his colleagues on the Bill. We have waited a long time for it, but it is good to have it now.

This afternoon's sideshow was provided by, in a sense, two Conservative parties. I felt that what the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) said about managing society and the countryside--it was echoed by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath)--formed the kernel of the debate. I find it sad that Opposition Front Benchers have not yet grasped that we should be trying to manage our countryside for both environmentalists and farmers. That is possible and practicable, but sad to say, it is not the official Conservative line. It is sad that the Conservatives do not

20 Mar 2000 : Column 752

appreciate the needs and aspirations of our citizens, who are demanding today what they have demanded for many years.

I have been examining the history. When I looked at the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, introduced by a Conservative Government, I realised that its hallmark was the wish for conciliation and consensus. We have heard no conciliation or consensus from the Opposition today; they simply do not understand.

I digress, however. I want to thank the Government for realising the aspirations of many people, including many Members of Parliament, throughout the decades, who have tried to secure the right to roam in Britain, and to extend people's rights to enjoy our beautiful countryside for the purposes of air and exercise.

The first legislation was introduced in, I believe, 1888--even before old Labour--by James Bryce, a Liberal. Thereafter, the point was taken up repeatedly by MPs--mainly, ironically enough unless we think about it, MPs representing the older industrial areas. I am thinking of people such as Charles Trevelyan, who gave Wallington to the nation and represented Newcastle upon Tyne, Ellen Wilkinson, who represented Jarrow, Hugh Dalton, who represented Bishop Auckland, and Chuter Ede and Arthur Blenkinsop, who both represented my constituency.

Indeed, I find that back in 1980--20 years ago, almost to the day--I introduced a private Member's Bill in an attempt to effect the purposes of this Bill. I am surprised and encouraged to discover that at least two of the likely suspects, my hon. Friends the Members for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) and for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours), sponsored my Bill. As I have said, we have waited a long time for this legislation, but it is good to see it now. As for the accusation that it is political, I thought that that was why we were here. We are honouring a manifesto pledge to our citizens.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Workington said, the hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Mr. Norman), the Conservative spokesman, built his case on exaggeration, myth and half-truths.

Let me try to reassure the House. The Lake district national park is one of the two oldest national parks. By a quirk of history, under the National Trust Act 1907 and the Law of Property Act 1925, almost all the commons in the national park have a right of access along the lines that the Bill proposes; in fact, it is far more liberal than is proposed in the Bill. That has been the position since 1925.

Over the years, that has caused problems, but as someone who was born within sight of the lake district national park and who grew up there, I see those problems diminishing as the years go by, with farmers realising that their business opportunities increase as more people are attracted to the national park. We should try to develop and to build on that. The Opposition have to build their case on practical experience, not on half-truths and myths.

The Government could be on weaker ground in respect of the public rights of way. Some forces argue that that part of the Bill weakens and reduces our network of registered public footpaths. A definitive numbered footpath is the Queen's highway; it is not a concession, but a right. One has as much right to walk along a registered public footpath as a registered road, but there is a fear that the network will be reduced under the

20 Mar 2000 : Column 753

Government's proposals. I hope that the Minister will make it clear that, although there may be cases where footpaths are redirected or, indeed, closed, that is not the general purpose of the Bill. Incidentally, I take the point that, in certain urban areas where footpaths encourage crime or vandalism--clause 68 recognises it--diversions may be a better way forward.

I make one suggestion to the Minister on footpaths. Will he consider the possibility of each local authority area creating a footpaths panel that represents all interested groups: country landowners, the National Farmers Union, ramblers, the Open Spaces Society--whoever it may be? In the early 1970s, we tried that as an experiment in the Kirklees district. I sat on the forum for a number of years. Although at the beginning there was much suspicion between the opposing sides, on no occasion did the council refuse the panel's recommendations. It was a good way in which to build consensus and understanding. It was the right way forward.

I ask the Minister to address certain other issues: for example, marine nature reserves. I thought that they had already been covered by the Wildlife and Countryside (Amendment) Act 1985, which I introduced and got on the statute book. I was surprised to learn that so little progress had been made. Equally, I was surprised that there had been so much discussion, deliberation and confusion about mapping of open land in the national parks--I emphasise, in the national parks. The national park authorities were required to do that under the 1985 Act.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) said, we are losing hundreds of thousands of kilometres of hedgerows. It looks as if the pace of their removal is still quickening. However, they are part and parcel of the fabric of our countryside. It is very important that the Government should take this opportunity--if they cannot provide another one in the near future--to try to deal with the problem.

I end where I began, by thanking the Government for their action on the right to roam. So many people in the United Kingdom would feel better--one cannot describe it in words or in literature--if they could get out into the countryside. When they do get out there--on the mountains, the moors or the downs--aspects of life will become much more meaningful for them. The more we encourage people to get out into the countryside, to exercise their legs and their lungs, the closer we will be to having a much more balanced society. I should have thought that both sides of the House are trying to achieve that objective.

5.45 pm

Mr. Peter Atkinson (Hexham): I declare an interest which is in the Register of Members' Interests: I am a consultant to the Countryside Alliance. I should also say that I am a member of the Country Landowners Association and the National Farmers Union, so that the House will have no doubt about where I am coming from in the debate.

In countryside debates, it is always a pleasure to follow my north-east neighbour, the right hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark). He has a very detailed and deep

20 Mar 2000 : Column 754

knowledge of the countryside, and I respect him for that. However, he was completely wrong when he said that Conservative Members should not object to the Bill on principle. Of course we should object to it on principle. My right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) said that there is not much point in arguing about principle today because the Government's majority will force the Bill through. In his speech, he therefore wanted to address management issues.

A fundamental point of principle is raised by the Bill: it will take away the central right of property owners to say who may or may not come on to their land. It is a matter of profound principle. However, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon said, it is not worth arguing that particular point of principle today, because Ministers will not listen to such arguments.

My main criticism of the Bill is that it is a wasted opportunity, particularly to provide for reform of the rights of way network. Proper reform of the United Kingdom's rights of way network is one quid pro quo that would have gone a long way to pacifying landowning and farming interests. It is not--as the right hon. Member for South Shields said--a matter of diminishing the number of public rights of way, but a matter of making rights of way more suitable for modern recreational use. I should have liked the Bill to contain a far tougher and more detailed section on rights of way.

The Bill does effectively nothing on rights of way. It simply says that it will give local authorities a duty to produce a plan on how to improve the rights of way network in their area. In most country areas, county councils will produce such plans. However, county councils have for years been fiddling on about rights of way. They have neither the money, nor the will, nor--in many cases--the resources properly to improve rights of way.

Farmers, particularly, wanted the Bill to make it far easier to divert unsuitable rights of way, making a right of way not only more sensible for their agricultural purposes, but more user friendly for those who want to walk it. However, the Bill does absolutely nothing about that.

Currently, farmers who want to divert a footpath have a right to apply to the local highways authority to that end. If the highways authority refuses to make a diversion order, the farmer has a right to appeal against the decision. However, even if the authority agrees to a diversion, the usual mechanisms for making the diversion will apply. We have an incredibly cumbersome and expensive system to divert a right of way. Once again, that system is being enshrined in legislation.

The Government should have done something much braver, by giving parish councils, for example, the right to draw up plans to provide people with proper recreational footpaths through the countryside. That is what people want. The right to roam is an old-fashioned socialist idea--dating back to the Kinder Scout trespass, in the 1930s, at the thought of which old socialist ramblers go jelly-eyed. They should go and see how much wildlife there is now on Kinder Scout. There is an awful lot less now than there was when it was private. Most people who live in towns want proper reform of rights of way, and that is what the Bill will signally fail to do.

My constituency probably contains some of the largest areas that will be affected by the Bill. It includes some of the best heather moors in the country, in the north

20 Mar 2000 : Column 755

Pennines. There is an area of de facto right to roam around Hadrian's wall, and the problems that stem from that right are well known to farmers. Any pretence that the Bill will cause no difficulty to farmers is pie in the sky.

There is first-hand evidence. Farmers who try to farm along Hadrian's wall and in that area know only too well about the problems that an unrestricted right to roam causes. Inevitably it leads to gates being left open, which cause flocks of sheep to be mixed up and cattle to wander into areas where they should not be. There are also the usual problems of litter and disturbance. These are serious management problems for farmers on Hadrian's wall.

If it is discovered that, through the workings of the Bill once it is enacted, there is damage to the environment--let us suppose that the right to roam causes damage to a well-managed grouse moor, which substantially reduces its value--is there provision for the farmer or landowner to seek compensation? The answer is that there is none. That is entirely wrong.

There are important detailed questions that have not been answered. Perhaps the Minister will respond to them when he replies. For example, who will sit on the access forums? It is vital that local people be involved. When the previous Government were setting up new national parks committees, we insisted that parish councils elected representatives to them. That made a substantial difference to the respect in which national park authorities are held by the local population. I hope that there will be room for parish council representatives to be on the access forums. Without that, townies will be seen as imposing their demands once more on the countryside.

I reinforce what has been said about resources. Northumberland county council, which is my local highways authority, is chronically short of cash. It is never short on criticising Ministers of both parties for not providing sufficient funding. If it receives no additional funding after the Bill is enacted, there is not a chance that it will be able to put in place some of the things that will be required of it.

Landowners are asking--no doubt these questions will be asked of Ministers time and time again during consideration of the Bill--how they are to close a grouse moor to public access. The Minister said that they could close it for 28 days without permission, except on weekends and bank holidays. That means that anyone who wants to close a grouse moor or an upland area because of lambing will have to apply for permission. The area will have to be closed for more than 28 days, and there will have to be 28 unbroken days. How will they tell people that the moor is open or closed on a particular day?

What of common land? There is common land in upland areas that will be affected by the Bill, and in parts of East Anglia where there are shooting interests. How is that common land to be closed on shooting days? Who will come out from the Countryside Agency? Will its representatives have to stand round the common and say, "You can't go on there today because it is a shooting day"? Will it be necessary to put fences round common land bearing notices stating, for example, "No access today"? Farmers, landowners and those who look after commons have a right to know how these things will be done and whether it will be to their cost or someone else's.

How do we define cultivated land? Is Newmarket heath, for example, uncultivated land? The House will know that it is used by trainers for exercising their horses.

20 Mar 2000 : Column 756

There are gallops that are used by other training establishments. Will these areas be regarded as cultivated land? What will happen if a farmer decides to plough some uncultivated land? That is frequently done these days before re-seeding. Would that uncultivated land with a right of access become cultivated land with no right of access? How will that be shown on a map that the Countryside Agency will produce?

I reinforce what others have said about the problems of night access. It seems nonsensical that there should be 24-hour access each day to certain land. It will be impossible for many management tasks to be undertaken if there is access at night. The Minister will be aware that a great deal of predator control--for example, the shooting of foxes with the use of lamps--is done during the night in upland areas. If people have a right to roam at that time, there could be serious danger to them and to those who are engaged in the control operation. There is no reason why moorland should be open during the evening.

Finally, when the Bill is considered in Committee, I plead with the Minister to accept amendments to the definition of common land, which will be helpful if the--

Next Section

IndexHome Page