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Ms Candy Atherton (Falmouth and Camborne): The hon. Gentleman is three years out of date.

Mr. Tredinnick: We were in power for a very long time--a lot longer than this Government. To make the Bill work, the Government must seek the co-operation of the rural communities. At the moment, they are on a collision course, and that is regrettable. The Wildlife and Countryside Act was steered through the House with great care and consensus. New Labour has demolished much of the old structures of the other place, but many of the hereditary peers spent hours pondering that legislation to try to get it right. I do not claim that this Bill will not be carefully considered, but the 1981 Act certainly was.

What are the other issues of concern? Unrestricted access to sites of special scientific interest is bound to lead to damage. It takes only one careless or negligent person to do tremendous damage. As for dogs, I get the feeling that Labour Members have never walked a dog. If dogs are taken out into open countryside, they do not want to stay on the lead. Once they are off their lead, many owners find it difficult to get them back on the lead. That will lead to sheep worrying and other problems.

I am also concerned about the effect of clause 21(6) on ground-nesting birds and lambing. However, a devolution issue arises, which most people have missed, in

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connection with wildlife and nature conservation provisions. The improvements in management and enforcement envisaged in the Bill must be accompanied by adequate funding for the conservation agencies. The Minister can deal with English Nature in that respect, but the Countryside Council for Wales comes under the auspices of the Welsh Assembly. I wonder how the hon. Member for Cardiff, West (Mr. Morgan) will look at those issues. The hon. Members for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Livsey) and for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) also raised that issue.

Other problems include statutory rights of access to village greens if they have not already been registered. What will happen if a disgruntled person decides to disrupt a cricket match? Will he in future have a statutory right to interfere with the match? The requirement for the mapping of all-access land will, I suspect, cause much repetition and should be closely monitored. The Ordnance Survey has, over the years, produced copious maps of the countryside.

I welcome the exclusion of woodland from the scope of the Bill. If it had been included, even more wildlife damage would have been likely, especially for nesting birds and other animals. I am sure that Labour Members believe that they understand the damage that can be done by a dog or one person walking in the wrong place at a particular time of year, but it is not unless one has lived in the countryside on a farm that one is truly aware of just how much damage can be done. I hope that that problem will be thoroughly addressed in Committee.

What appeal mechanism will exist for access points to the new open areas? "Local access forums" is a lovely phrase, but who will hear an appeal if that is necessary? How many wardens will be needed to enforce the measures and where will the money come from? The Bill provides no statutory protection for areas of outstanding natural beauty nor any duty on local authorities to maintain wildlife sites. That is another weakness.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) mentioned a greater role for parish councils. I agree with him. For example, they could examine the possibilities of exchanging footpaths and creating new ones. That could be one way to provide the access that Labour Members want. I approve the safeguard in clause 74, which allows an appeal to the Secretary of State if a local authority refuses to act on a request for a diversion. It often happens that responsible landowners and other parties request a diversion--for example, for a housing estate--and the requests are refused or ducked.

The report "The state of the countryside 1999" found that the three main concerns of people living in the countryside were development, pollution and the removal of hedges and woods. The removal of hedges is a legitimate concern, and I have always hated the idea that the countryside could lose all its hedges. I confess that I think that the previous Government should have done something about that, and the Minister should do something now to ensure that we do not experience the mass removal of hedges when economic circumstances change.

Farmers face a desperately serious situation. We need co-operation, not confrontation, and I look to Ministers and my Front-Bench colleagues to make the Bill what it should be--an excellent Bill.

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6.16 pm

Ms Candy Atherton (Falmouth and Camborne): I am very pleased to be able to take part in this debate, and I am proud to represent a constituency and a county known throughout the world for their great natural beauty. I welcome the Bill because many of its elements relate to causes and issues that are close to my heart.

I shall begin with a personal perspective. Like many other hon. Members, I am a keen birdwatcher. For me, a great day is a day spent watching little egrets feeding in the Exe estuary, or red kites in Wales. My interest in wildlife conservation grew out of my love of birds, and it is obvious that if we do not take care of the landscape, wildlife cannot thrive. In that context, SSSIs are rightly described as the jewel in the crown, and it was for that reason that I introduced a ten-minute Bill last year, which was supported by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and many other countryside and wildlife organisations, in which I sought to place obligations on landowners and users of land to repair damage sustained on SSSIs. The then Minister kindly agreed to adopt my Bill as part of the consultation. I am delighted to see that this Bill will enable conservation bodies such as English Nature to serve management notices on those landowners or occupiers who persist in refusing to co-operate in the best interests of the land.

I have at the moment a SSSI in my constituency which many feel could be under threat from development at Swanpool in Falmouth. Like many other hon. Members, I could give some of the worst horror stories chapter and verse, but we are all too well aware of the problems. I propose instead to look at the answers that the Bill provides.

When I introduced my Bill, I met local conservation bodies, including English Nature, which knew and made it quite clear that, while I wished the wrath of God to fall on the heads of transgressors, co-operation was the preferred way forward. They argued that, in the first instance at least, they wanted to work in partnership with landowners to seek agreement and find common ground. The Bill offers that possibility, and should be commended for the sensible path that it treads. The support that it has received from a wide spectrum of sources is testament to its skilled approach to this issue. It is right, for example, that compensation can be paid to those severely inconvenienced by a management scheme.

Of course, the sad reality is that a few would rather hinder this process than move it forward. The provision in this Bill for compulsory purchase where agreement proves impossible may be a last resort, but it is a necessary resort. Equally, while the Government are dangling the carrot of financial support, those found guilty of damaging SSSIs will rightly face a fine of up to £20,000 and--perhaps more important--will be forced to reinstate the land.

Compulsory restoration may prove far more effective than the fine as a preventive measure. The costs of repairing land where it has been deliberately despoiled could amount to hundreds of thousands of pounds, and the threat of financial repercussions must be the most powerful of disincentives.

I now turn to another part of the Bill that I particularly welcome--the protection of wild birds. To me, the egg collector and nest stealer represents the lowest form of life. I once visited a warden working for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds on a remote Scottish island.

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He described coming across a peregrine nest thief hanging by his fingernails after slipping in pursuit of a nest. He graphically described the internal conflicts that swept through him as he pondered whether to rescue that sad individual. That may sound unduly harsh, but that warden saw the effects of such crimes all too often--the distraught parent birds and the depleted numbers the following season. Perhaps most disturbing of all, he saw birds deliberately poisoned by a sick minority of people--a practice that is thankfully in decline.

It will come as no surprise to the House to hear that I welcome the increased penalties and enforcements provided in the Bill. Those who seek to deceive by snatching birds from the wild and rearing their chicks will face their comeuppance. The ancestry of birds will be traced. Inspectors will have greater powers--and quite right too. If we cannot protect these birds, who will? I hope that some exemplary sentences will be meted out to those who hoard and steal wild bird eggs. They make big money from those birds--they should face big sentences.

Access and rights of way have received more attention than most aspects of the Bill--both during its preparation and since its publication. We have heard some excellent speeches. I have little to add to the comments of the majority, to the effect that these provisions are overdue and are to be applauded. They will open up vast tracts of our countryside and will enrich the relationship between the public and our natural heritage.

I have had many letters from constituents outraged by blocked footpaths, and I take this opportunity to pay tribute to my constituent Hazel Perham from Treverva, who has led the campaign in Cornwall for a number of years. Hazel is very supportive of the Bill, and for her, as for many like her, its successful passage through Parliament will be the realisation of a dream.

I believe and hope that landowners and farmers who oppose such measures will stop to consider the opportunities that they offer. The Bill is another key step in the creation of a living, breathing countryside, protected and embellished for the enjoyment of us all. What attracts people to living or visiting the countryside is its beauty, its landscape and its serenity. The more people experience the joys of the countryside, the more they will appreciate its value and value its existence. Alternative forms of income may be sought by those who maintain this natural heritage, through farm tourism and the sale of local produce. Our natural heritage will increasingly become a recognised label of quality--whether for the life style that it embodies or the produce that it supplies. To use the parlance of the time, this is a fine example of joined-up thinking and should be encouraged within the rural economy as well as within government.

It is partly in that context that I suggest that the omission of measures providing for the improved management of areas of outstanding natural beauty is disappointing, although I am heartened to hear that there may be an announcement. Again, I choose to focus more on the opportunities such measures would offer rather than on the supposed problems that they would cause.

Cornwall has a high proportion of areas of outstanding natural beauty. Some 20 per cent. of England's heritage coastline is in our county and is enjoyed by the whole nation. Unfortunately, existing legislation does not provide for its proper management, and there are not

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sufficient resources to handle the task. By making management a statutory duty of local authorities, that deficiency could be addressed. This is not simply a question of landscape management, but of integrating the economic management of rural areas and building local partnerships that include landowners, local interests and national agencies.

It is my belief that that would benefit the rural economy. The potential would exist for the improved marketing of local produce and for the sensitive development of tourism. Such areas would be given an enhanced identity, to be used to their advantage in a number of ways. I encourage Ministers to give the question some thought. I also make a plea for Cornish hedges to be debated in Committee.

Notwithstanding those suggestions, I believe that the Bill represents an important step forward. It contributes to the creation of a living, breathing and working countryside. It facilitates an improved relationship between the public and the countryside, and it is with pleasure that I give it my enthusiastic support.

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