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6.24 pm

Mr. Christopher Gill (Ludlow): In opening the debate, the Minister for the Environment said that changing the workings of the common agricultural policy was more important than the Bill. I agree with that, and I believe that there will be widespread disappointment in the countryside at the Government's choice of priorities. There is a fear that by the time the Government get round to tackling the real problems in the countryside, many involved in agriculture and the allied industries will have gone to the wall. That process will not be arrested or obviated by the prospect of the much-vaunted rural White Paper.

My hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Mr. Norman) pointed out, quite rightly, that there is a fundamental issue of principle at stake in this debate. That view was not shared by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), who seemed to cast aspersions on us for raising a point of principle in the debate. Second Reading debates are traditionally the right time at which to voice reservations about the principle of the Bill under discussion: if we do not raise matters of principle at this stage of the Bill's passage, it will be inappropriate to raise them at a later stage.

The point of principle is an important one. It has to do with the fact that we are increasingly a property-owning democracy. Ownership of property in this country is protected by the law of property. Millions of homeowners will appreciate and understand that an important principle is at stake. They want someone to defend the principle that if one owns a property, one has full rights over that property, which should not be encumbered by the public or anybody else. The Bill, of course, seeks to change that principle in a fundamental way.

When I intervened on the Minister and asked what precedent there was for this departure from what has previously been the case--the sacrosanct right of ownership over property--my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) said, from a sedentary

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position, "Soviet Russia." That opinion would not be shared by my constituent Mr. Parish of Lydbury North, who wrote in respect of the statutory right of access:

    this is an infringement of the basic rights of free and unfettered possession of one's property . . . Not even in the thankfully-departed Soviet Union was the public allowed access at will . . .

It is no defence for the Government to say that a majority of the 2,000 responses to their consultation paper supported the statutory right of access. There are potentially far more users of rights of way or rights of access than landowners. At the risk of appearing somewhat trite, it is like asking the general populace whether they are in favour of free beer when there are more beer drinkers than brewers, or asking whether they want lower taxes when there are more taxpayers than tax collectors.

I have a very lovely constituency in the south of Shropshire. It has notable landmarks such as the Clee hills, the Stiperstones, Long Mynd, Caer Caradoc. Some of them are in private ownership, some are in the ownership of the National Trust. I have never, in my 13 years in the House, had complaints from constituents about access to the countryside. Indeed, the access provided is adequate--certainly in my county--and that is praiseworthy.

Furthermore, as a lifelong recreational walker I have never, in any part of the country--whether in the south-west, in Wales, Scotland, or the Pennines--

Mr. David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Gill: In normal circumstances, I would, but as the hon. Gentleman knows, there is a 10-minute limit on speeches.

I have never experienced any problems when walking anywhere in the country. When I walk in those places, I accept that I do so at my own risk--on that matter, my views might differ from those of Labour Members. In Committee, it is important that we thrash out the limits of the liability of landowners. In a moment, I shall expand on that point in relation to one of my constituents.

There is already a huge network of rights of way. I have never received any complaints about the extent of that network, or about access to it. The hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) is a keen walker, who is dedicated to achieving the aims and objects of the Bill. He pointed out that footpath legislation is not an easy matter. That is an understatement: as we know, the matter is fraught with difficulty. If time had permitted, I should have liked to give the House many examples from my constituency to demonstrate that point.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) was correct to point out that, if the Bill receives its Second Reading, we must be careful to get the detail right in Committee. If we do not, there will be many disputes--possibly leading to litigation. I appeal to Ministers to bear in mind the increasing needs of recreational horse riders, who sometimes experience difficulty in finding paths that they can use. We must ensure that we take their requirements into account before the Bill is enacted.

Will the Minister consider the legal position of my constituent Mr. Hunter of Beckbury, who told me that

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three sides of his three-acre garden are bounded by a footpath and agricultural land? The whole area was fenced with chain-link fencing. His letter stated:

    Over the last few years, people have broken down my fencing, allowed dogs to foul my land, and dumped their cans and rubbish. The last straw was when some men dumped an old three piece suite of furniture.

    To protect my property I have had part of my boundary fence replaced with a four strand barbed wire fence.
Mr. Hunter asks what risk he runs of being taken to court for any injury that ramblers might do themselves on his barbed-wire fence. He rightly points out:

    Surely, if people are allowed to roam over other people's land, they should do so at their own risk.
That is also my view.

As the hon. Member for West Lancashire (Mr. Pickthall) said, the footpath network is a national asset. I agree. However, it is important to understand how and why that national asset came into being. As most Members will be aware, footpaths were established because in previous centuries, families living on farms used those routes to go to church, to the pub, to their neighbours, to the mill to get their corn milled, and so on. I am keen that the legislation should offer a suitable and simple means whereby those historical paths are rationalised sensibly for both landowners and walkers.

I caution against the law of unintended consequences--

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order.

6.35 pm

Ms Chris McCafferty (Calder Valley): It is always a great privilege for hon. Members to speak in the Chamber on an issue of major importance--locally and nationally--to their own constituents. This is just such an occasion.

I wholeheartedly support my constituents' demand for a right of access to local moorland and heath from which they have been banned for centuries. Furthermore, I wholly support the national campaign for access to the 4 million acres of mountain, moor, heath, down and registered common land, denied by so few to so many.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment on introducing the Bill. I also acknowledge the inspiration of lifelong campaigners whom it is a privilege to know and to call friends. Benny Rothman, now 88 years old, is one of the six campaigners who were sent to jail for leading the mass trespass on Kinder Scout in 1932. He did so much to raise awareness and interest in access issues. Local campaigners, Alan and Elsie Gaskell, have been involved in the struggle for the past 50 years. Alan is now retired, but his mere presence at the local authority rights of way committee is still enough to give any ill-informed councillor pause for thought.

In my constituency of Calder Valley, much of the upland has been designated an area of outstanding natural beauty. Significant areas have been designated sites of special scientific interest. Always wild, always beautiful and sometimes unforgiving, there are secret places that calm the brain, expand the mind and make the spirits soar.

Regrettably, the wildest and most beautiful places are often the most inaccessible; not because of the selfishness and perversity of nature, but--sadly--because of our

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fellow man. One such place is known locally as Boulsworth moor. Lad Law is its summit; at 1700 ft, it is the highest point in the south Pennines. That is the very landscape that inspired the Bronte sisters, who lived nearby.

As long ago as the 1950s, a public inquiry found in favour of access to Boulsworth, but nothing was done to achieve it. Attempts to negotiate access have been continuous since the 1970s, but with no success at all. The land on the Yorkshire side still cannot be walked on without the prior consent of the landowner.

In 1977, a three-mile concessionary path was allowed by the North West water authority on the Lancashire side of Boulsworth. At present, North West Water does not object--to its credit--to walkers on its land. Unfortunately, most of the area is in Yorkshire.

There are five landowners on Boulsworth. Four are opposed to access for walkers, although they encourage numerous groups with shooting rights; only one does not object to walkers. When Tom Stephenson, who was responsible for establishing the Pennine way, wanted the route to cross Boulsworth, he was stopped by a local landowner--Lord Savile--and was forced to devise a route that passed over lower ground. Why?

Of course, it is true that SSSI land in an area of outstanding natural beauty deserves and needs special protection. I look forward to the Minister's statement on that aspect of the Bill. It is right that access to open country is linked to care and respect for farming, landowning, shooting and nature conservation interests. It is important that the Bill provides a duty of care on all who use the countryside to respect the country code and the needs of a working landscape. For the majority, walking is an innocent and harmless activity, but we must protect the countryside against the destructive minority, whoever and wherever they are.

Ironically, when it comes to harming the countryside, it is not walkers who are the main culprits. It is not walkers who have rooted up 100,000 miles of hedgerows in the past decade, and it is certainly not walkers who have polluted our rivers and aquifers with pesticides and chemical fertilisers.

No farmer, landowner or conservationist has anything to fear from the Bill, which provides the proper protection that their crops and livestock and the natural habitats on their land require. It would be wrong, and indeed foolish, to offer anything less.

We have heard many prophets of doom today, especially from the Opposition Benches, claiming that the countryside will be irrevocably changed for the worse if the Government grant access to the countryside. We have heard the same arguments used in connection with the banning of hunting with dogs. Yes, the countryside would be irrevocably changed, but I believe for the better--and not just for visitors to the countryside.

My constituents live in a semi-rural community, often working in the countryside, yet they are powerful advocates for change. How can that be? Well, we might say that it is because they are bloody-minded, proud, pernickety and independent, as they have been recently described in a book about the area, and perhaps our character is formed by the landscape and the weather, but I would add that it is because they are also canny Yorkshire men and women, with a generosity of spirit, who are proud of their heritage and happy to share it with

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others. They acknowledge a common interest in the natural beauty and special qualities of the uplands, and the need to work together for their protection and enhancement. They recognise that improved access will require better local public transport, so that everyone can access the countryside without using their cars. That would be good for visitors, and even better for the local community. They would welcome the increased revenue that sensitively managed tourism will bring to the area, and they recognise that the interests of walkers and of people who work and live in the country can, and do, coincide.

The Bill is the most significant piece of legislation in 50 years, and it marks the pinnacle of a 116-year campaign by countryside lovers everywhere. It fulfils Labour's manifesto commitment to give people greater freedom to explore our countryside. It dramatically increases access to open space and it modernises our rights of way for the first time in 100 years. It provides for a balance between the rights and the responsibilities of people enjoying the countryside, and will give a major boost to everyone who wants greater access.

I believe that the new rights and responsibilities in the Bill will produce a countryside partnership that benefits everyone. We shall all be better off. That is why we need to change the law. That is why I am supporting the Bill, and that is why all Members of the House should support it.

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