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Mr. Gareth R. Thomas: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Lepper: No, I regret that time is too short.

Finally, I return to the subject of Nicholas von Hoogstraten and his company, Rarebargain Ltd., which was, thanks to the Ramblers Association, recently fined £1,600 and required to pay costs because of the obstruction of a footpath on his estate near Uckfield, where the building of his mausoleum is in progress. I am

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concerned that the Bill might not prevent obstruction such as that perpetrated by Mr. van Hoogstraten because it does not provide a right to require the removal of buildings that obstruct rights of way. It is a building that obstructs part of the right of way on the van Hoogstraten estate.

That is a point of detail, but it is of local concern to me, to my constituents and, I am sure, to Mr. van Hoogstraten. I believe that he was once one of my constituents, but thankfully he is one no longer.

Mr. David Taylor: Where has he gone then?

Mr. Lepper: I hope, as I am sure my constituents do, that he is incarcerated in his mausoleum.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will address those two points of detail in his wind-up speech. I end as I began, by congratulating all those who have brought the Bill before us and by welcoming it.

7.3 pm

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy): When the Minister for the Environment announced these proposals on 8 March last year, I questioned the wisdom of allowing a general right to roam over extensively grazed land because that is the very environment that is under the greatest ecological threat. Typically, the areas that we are referring to are moorland, heath and heather uplands. They are delicately balanced areas, and I warned against putting them under ever-greater pressure with the inevitable further decline in upland ground-laying species of birds. I was greeted with howls of derision and even anger from Labour Members. I repeat that warning.

I was born and brought up in a rural environment, and I would welcome more access to it, but access that is managed and does not destroy the very environment that we all seek to enjoy. I am not rowing a boat for any landowner or sectional interest, but we must ensure that the environment is not destroyed as a direct result of ill-thought-out measures.

I hope that the debate will not descend to howls of derision. There are basic truths that need to be repeated. I do not object to increased access at all. The hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) mentioned the Berwyn and the Aran mountains. As a lawyer, I was directly responsible for opening up the Aran mountains and negotiating voluntary agreements between ramblers and local landowners. Those agreements stood the test of time and still operate 20 years later. No one should say that the voluntary approach has utterly failed; in some areas it has succeeded rather well. The Berwyn mountains is another example, and there are others in England and Wales.

It has been said that some 12,000 miles of footpaths have fallen into disrepair because local authorities are not taking their responsibilities seriously or, more likely, do not have the money to maintain them. Reintroducing those paths to the UK network would make a considerable difference. I note that the Countryside Commission has said that £30 million would be required annually for five years to reinstate those paths. That would be money well spent.

Mr. Gordon Prentice rose--

Mr. Llwyd: The hon. Gentleman, who I will not allow to intervene--I do not insult him, but time is short--

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rightly said that most land in the UK is within a short distance of the footpath network. That is fine, if it is true, and I want there to be more footpaths in the network, but it begs the question whether we need the Bill at all. Should we not have started on the footpath network first? The Government may be ducking that issue so that they can provide access on the cheap.

I may be wrong about that, but I am sure that we need a careful balance in the Bill between the expectations of ramblers and walkers and those of the occupiers of land. We need a balance between the needs of walkers and the need to nurture the birds and wildlife on the uplands. There must also be a balance between the legitimate right to use the land for animal husbandry and the right of access. I do not see that balance in the Bill. On the one hand, the occupier who damages a site of special scientific interest will be fined £20,000, but a person who trespasses and does the same damage will be told to go away for a day. That is not the balance that I seek, and any sensible, right-thinking person would agree with me.

In any event, as other hon. Members have said, the law of trespass is in complete disarray and has been for centuries. As any law student will know, the old wooden lie is that "Trespassers will be prosecuted." They cannot be prosecuted, apart from under limited provisions on criminal trespass. It is no use saying that the law exists to back up the occupier--it is of no use at all.

We need to consider fragile habitats and to ensure that there are sufficient conservation safeguards. Again, the Bill appears to be deficient. Commentators far more informed than I am will tell the House that the merlin, golden plover and others would be at great risk from unrestricted access during the breeding season. The Bill does not allow only for linear access; people will be able to walk side by side across a heath and cause destruction. Again, I say let us have access but we should be careful about how we allow that access. Clause 1(1)(d) says that "access land" includes any land which

Does that make sense? That environment is very delicate.

I appreciate that this is a Second Reading debate, but I ask the Minister whether the definition of "cultivated land" refers only to land used for crops or whether it covers grassland that is cultivated regularly. That is an important point. The devaluation of land with no compensation may well breach human rights legislation, and that will be a live issue. I hope that the Government will think again about that, despite the section 19 statement at the start of the Bill.

Common land is vital to the smaller farmer because he or she will graze animals on that land. That is especially true in Wales. Even at this late stage, I echo the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) in asking for that matter to be left to the National Assembly for Wales because it is a local matter for Wales and Wales only. It is only right that we should do so. There are particular strains on the Welsh uplands. The lambing season is extended owing to inclement weather and the need to try to vary it in order to capture the market. Twenty-eight days is of no use whatever.

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I shall hurriedly refer to one or two comments from my constituents. Mrs. Rogers, a keen horse rider, asked me to raise the following points:

    Section 56 needs to be amended to allow diversionary routes to be arranged.

A sitting Justice of the Peace refers to the climbing of Cader Idris by about 80,000 visitors a year. That leads to erosion but, as he says,

He continues:

    I do believe that if we are not careful in a National Park the visitors will destroy the uniqueness and the charm of what they have come to see. Also in livestock areas like Meirionnydd it would ignore the public's need for way-marked routes because most of them are fortunately sensible to the dangers to livestock that their rambling can bring.
He says finally:

    there . . . seem to be double standards . . . here. On the one hand Landowners face criminal prosecution"
and on the other, trespassers will be subject to the archaic law of trespass. I agree with him.

The steward of the internationally renowned Aberdovey golf club refers to many people in the area walking their dogs on the common. He asks that we ensure that dogs will be on leads, as the Bill stipulates, and that there will be some financial support to assist landowners with the erection of notices to inform the public of their duties.

I heard the Minister's comments on liability for injury with regard to clause 13, but we need to consider the matter further. I agree with what has been said about the doctrine of volenti non fit injuria--one enters at one's own risk. That would be entirely reasonable in the circumstances. I know that farmers are concerned about the matter.

I am speaking not on behalf of large farmers, but those who are struggling to make a living in the present economic climate. They are desperately worried about the cost of insurance and of compliance. Thus I return to my original premise--I am not against access per se, quite the reverse, but the Bill has many grey and potentially problematic areas which must be clarified and amended. Above all, such matters should be left to the National Assembly for Wales.

I warmly welcome the excellent provisions in parts II and III on public rights of way and road traffic and nature conservation and wildlife protection. It is very good to see them; I am pleased that they are in the Bill. However, for the reasons that I gave earlier, I and my party cannot support Second Reading and will reserve our opinion on Third Reading.

7.13 pm

Mr. Martin Caton (Gower): It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd). I did not agree with many of his reservations about access, but until this evening, I was not aware of the part that he played in opening up the Aran mountains to the public. As someone who has benefited from that, I take this opportunity to thank him.

Like all my hon. Friends, I celebrate the introduction of the Bill. I join my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) in rejoicing at it. It is a major piece of legislation that moves us forward considerably in

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the right direction. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment and his Front-Bench team. Their understanding that the future of our countryside--the way in which we use it, value it and protect it--is all about balance shines through the Bill.

The Bill balances the legitimate claims of landowners and land managers and their need and right to produce food and other goods from that land, with, first, the equally valid claim of the public to enjoy the freedom of the countryside and its precious and varied qualities, especially those of our least tamed areas, and secondly, the claim of the countryside itself--the flora, fauna, landscape and high-quality natural and man-made environments. The Bill is about striking the right balance for this first century of the new millennium. I am sure that that was the Government's objective, and that is how we should measure the Bill's success.

On the whole, the Government have been remarkably successful. In the value of its separate measures, I believe that the Bill will work. It also provides a new framework for considering that balance between agricultural production, freedom of access and environmental protection--a framework in which we may stop regarding such claims as competing or even conflicting, and instead recognise that, in future, we must, for the benefit of all three interests, make them increasingly complementary.

In these few minutes, I want to say something about the countryside and wildlife protection parts of the Bill. Before doing so, I put on record my full support for the creation of the new rights of access to mountain, moor, heath, down and common land. That should not be underestimated or downplayed. It is a significant extension to the freedom of the people of this country. It is motivated not by envy but by a desire to improve quality of life. The extension is made without in any way endangering the livelihood of the farming community, contrary to what some of the scaremongers on the Opposition Benches have suggested.

I welcome the modernisation of our rights of way laws, although I hear some of my hon. Friends' reservations. I look forward to hearing those arguments developed in Committee. I also welcome the requirement on councils to improve the network and to take into account the needs of disabled people and others with mobility problems in considering applications for new stiles and gates.

The target for completion of the historic record of rights of way--25 years--sounds a long time, but I know from my council that to deliver on that will probably require a doubling of the activity rate in the department responsible--and I do not think that my council is the furthest behind in England and Wales by any means.

On the countryside protection arm of the Bill, one need only look at what has happened to so many of our sites of special scientific interest over the years to realise that the way we treat them must change and that the penalties for damaging them must increase to constitute a real deterrent. The Bill deals with current deficiencies and I am sure will result in much better protection for those special sites, but new legislation is also required for another group of special countryside areas: our areas of outstanding natural beauty.

I declare my enthusiastic interest: I represent the first designated AONB in the country. Gower, like all the 40 other AONBs in England and Wales, was designated under the National Parks and Access to the Countryside

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Act 1949, which in many ways the Bill succeeds. The 1949 Act was flawed in its provisions on AONBs. It granted power to designate, but did not make anyone responsible for the areas' management. That was in marked contrast to provisions on national parks.

Over the decades, Ministers of various Governments, including this one, have assured us that AONBs, in terms of landscape quality and wildlife conservation, are equal in their value to the nation to our national parks. Yet over that same time, we have seen very different approaches, failures of approach and enormous variation of approach to individual AONBs.

The lack of any requirement for anyone to take responsibility for managing AONBs has resulted in a loss of some quality landscape features and valuable natural habitats. We can put that right by a straightforward and simple amendment that would give local authorities statutory responsibility for the management of AONBs, including a requirement to draw up management plans. That would be building on best practice. We should grab the opportunity to provide better protection. It would be totally in line with the approach in other parts of the Bill and with the philosophy underlying it.

I hope that, during the passage of this important piece of legislation, Ministers will be prepared to look again at the subject of AONBs. I heard what my right hon. Friend the Minister said about resourcing, and those changes are welcome, but we must reconsider the way in which we look after such areas and not just think about the amount of money involved. The Bill is excellent, but it would be better if it also tackled the management of AONBs.

The Bill would also be improved by amendments to provide better protection for hedgerows, other field boundaries and landscape features. Ministers have acknowledged the damaging consequences of the loss of many of our hedgerows in the past half century--indeed, they set up the hedgerows review, which made several recommendations in 1998. As my right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) says, the Bill provides no opportunity to implement some of those recommendations, especially the provision whereby local authorities identify important local hedgerows in consultation with the communities they serve.

It might also be useful to investigate whether the protection we provide for hedgerows could be extended to cover features that are often regarded locally as hedges, but are not defined as such in legislation. I have in mind the cloddiau found in Wales: they are often valuable in terms of their antiquity, the wildlife habitat they provide and their landscape quality, but they are really banks covered with grass, ground-cover plants and gorse or bracken.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice), I suspect that it will be some time before another major countryside Bill is introduced. It is vital that we use the vehicle now available to us to improve the prospects for our rural areas, the people who live and work in those areas, visitors and the quality of the countryside itself.

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