Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order.

5.56 pm

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle): I welcome the Bill, and I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment on bringing it forward when all about him were ranged the forces of conservatism. What a glittering speech he made. What a tonic it was, compared with the dire contribution of the hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Mr. Norman), who spoke from the Opposition Front Bench. The speech of the hon. Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) was not much better.

Whenever Conservative Members speak on issues such as this, they bang on about compensation. They want compensation for this and compensation for that. In effect, they are saying, "Hand it out, give us the money." What happened during the previous Parliament? I note that the hon. Member for Hexham is disappearing. I believe that a head deboning firm in your constituency, Mr. Deputy Speaker, went out of business without compensation. We must understand that, under the Conservatives, there is compensation only when it suits them.

The Conservatives come to the House with spurious arguments from, for example, the Country Landowners Association and the so-called shooting and conservation lobby. They will do anything to keep out the great unwashed. That is what it is all about. It is their countryside, not ours. That was exemplified by my parliamentary neighbour, the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry), when he talked about those who owned the countryside.

This may sound like a revolutionary sentiment to the House, but the land belongs to us all. [Interruption.] It does. Conservative Members may laugh, but the last laugh will be on them because the Bill will give millions of people the chance to enjoy countryside that is now out of bounds.

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield): My chief recreation is walking. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that over 25 years of doing it I have trespassed on innumerable

20 Mar 2000 : Column 757

occasions on other people's land. On no occasion do I remember having been ordered off the land or objection being taken to my activities. However, the keeping of the law of trespass is a residual power to the landowner that is vital to prevent abuse.

Mr. Prentice: I hope that the Bar Council was listening to the hon. Gentleman's intervention. There is a practising barrister who is a lawbreaker in the House.

We have heard about what is and is not principle. My principle is that there are good reasons for keeping people off open land, but ownership is not one of them. Was it last year that someone was going to buy Snowdon? Sir Anthony Hopkins, with his Welsh antecedents, came forward. He said that he would put up the money to ensure public access to Snowdon. Are Conservative Members seriously suggesting that if someone has a pot of money and wants to buy a tract of beautiful countryside in this country, he can do so and keep people off it? If that is not what they are saying, let one of them intervene now, because that has always been my understanding.

I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) that the Bill has been a long time coming. The Countryside Agency is busily mapping the country, and I understand that the exercise will be completed by the end of 2003, which will be six and a half years after the general election that brought Labour to office. Why is it taking such a long time? Because my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister likes to bring people with him.

The Countryside Agency is doing a good, enthusiastic job and showing tremendous commitment. We must ensure that it is properly resourced. We must also ensure that we listen to the arguments and reservations expressed by people such as the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath). The Prime Minister does not want to be ideological about this. He is a hugely pragmatic politician. If there are problems about exercising the right to roam and the farmers and landowners have legitimate grievances, he will want to listen to them. He is a Prime Minister who consults like mad. No Bill has ever been consulted on more than this one. I think that we have consulted 60 million people in the United Kingdom.

The Bill is a good Bill, and should be welcomed, but--there is always a but--it can be improved in Committee. Inexplicably, it contains nothing about areas of outstanding natural beauty. I listened carefully to my right hon. Friend the Minister, and I think that he said that there would be a ministerial statement on AONBs at a later date; but why not have it now? We pass countryside legislation about once every 10 or 15 years. The Bill should be the vehicle. I would appreciate a response to that in the winding-up speech.

We all know that the Prime Minister wants to ban fox hunting, as all Labour Members here do. He said as much on television. The Bill could be a vehicle for that. I have an amendment in mind--when the Whips put me on the Standing Committee--that will allow us to ban fox hunting painlessly by saying that no hunt can take place within a mile of a public footpath. I am sure that that will be in order. It will be very effective when the entire country is criss-crossed with public footpaths.

There is a power to extend the right of access to coastal areas such as beaches, but why stop there? Why not extend the right of access to lake shores, river banks and

20 Mar 2000 : Column 758

canal tow paths? Why not go the whole hog? We have come a very long way from what the Country Landowners Association said a couple of years ago, just after the general election. I have used this quotation many times, because I just love it. They wanted a "right of visual access". I do not want a right of visual access. I do not want to look at the hills. I want to walk on them. That is what the Bill is for.

I want the landscape to be improved. What incredible hypocrisy we see in the reasoned amendment, as if we had inherited a glittering legacy of a thriving countryside and it all went dreadfully wrong in May 1997. The Tories left the landscape in a terrible state. Much of it was derelict. I have already referred to the 158,000 km of hedgerows that were ripped out. Walls were left to fall down: almost a third of dry stone walls are derelict. That is the great legacy. Every time I walk up Boulsworth hill, I pass a rusting tractor graveyard. The planning system has never tackled the piles of rusting machinery, and it should.

The right to roam is central to the Bill and I welcome it. The opponents who regularly go over the top do their arguments a disservice. People have stopped listening. The National Farmers Union has given a briefing to Members of Parliament. It says:

That is just ridiculous; it is farcical. In the forest of Bowland, North West Water has a catchment area that is open to the public. Why does the NFU still peddle that rubbish and ask us to give weight to it?

Nicholas van Hoogstraten has been our greatest ally. The Ramblers described him as a bullying millionaire. I can think of a choicer description, Mr. Deputy Speaker, which you would--

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order.

6.6 pm

Mr. David Tredinnick (Bosworth): The hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) spoke with great passion. I cannot understand why he is not sitting on the Front Bench, considering the way in which he spoke about the Prime Minister. I remember him well from the year that we spent together on the Channel Tunnel Rail Link Bill. He spoke with passion then, too.

There is a certain irony about the Bill. Part III is about endangered species. Following the Ayr by-election, when I look across the Chamber I see about 200 endangered species. The probability is that many Labour Members will lose their seats. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Bradford, North (Mr. Rooney) may yawn, but that is the fact.

I declare an interest in that I come from a farming background. My father farmed. I do not own any land, so it is not a registrable interest, but I love the countryside and I am very concerned about conservation and access. I resent the idea that all Conservative Members are against the principle of people enjoying the countryside. There is

20 Mar 2000 : Column 759

much to be done to improve access to the countryside but the Bill contains a lot that needs changing, and it will probably spend a very long time in Committee.

Farmers will feel threatened by the Bill as it stands. If we are to have a happy compromise, with the constituents of the hon. Member for Pendle and others enjoying the countryside, the farmers' fears must be allayed. I was taken by what the right hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) said about our needing conciliation and consensus to manage the countryside. In fairness to Conservative Members, he referred to the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, which was a triumph of our Government. It was a great Act, and much care went into it.

Those who live in the countryside feel under threat in many respects, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) said. Rural communities are desperately concerned. Their livelihoods are under threat. We have lost many small farmers in Leicestershire recently, and there are problems with transport costs, planning and countryside sports. I attended the countryside march and rally in London. If ever there was an example of country people expressing their worries about the future of their way of life, that was it. It was not just about hunting.

One of the major bones of contention will be clause 21(6), about when landowners can exclude the public and whether they can do so on weekends, Christmas day and other holidays. The Minister for the Environment avoided the issue, which is crucial. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon said, how on earth are we supposed to deal with the problem of nesting birds and other breeding animals if there is an automatic right of access and the land cannot be closed off for more than four or five days at a time?

The message from the countryside march was, "Listen to us." I say to the Opposition--I still think of the Government as the Opposition--

Next Section

IndexHome Page