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7.40 pm

Mr. Richard Livsey (Brecon and Radnorshire): It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms Walley). Whatever our perspective, a great love of the countryside enlightens all the participants in the debate. We are all trying to do our best to ensure that the Bill is appropriate in that context.

In his opening speech, the Minister for the Environment referred to Lloyd George's words that no one should be a trespasser in the land of his birth. No one is in Wales; Lloyd George saw to that by fiscal measures. There are not many big landowners left.

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk): Then Lloyd George lived in Surrey.

Mr. Livsey: He did for part of the time.

We build stone walls, plant and go hedging to maintain our hedges, not to pull them out. I have been an instructor in those skills. In my constituency, there are three separate styles of hedging: south Breconshire, north Breconshire and Radnorshire. We protect our hedges.

However, the Bill does not deal with enclosed land but with open countryside, mountain, moorland and common land. We must concentrate on that. There is a cultural difference in people's attitude to access to land in Wales. It is replicated to some extent in Scotland.

The Government's proposals have not gone down well in Wales, and not only in rural Wales. As the Minister for the Environment and the Under-Secretary know, Wales

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has three national parks and much of the rest of upland Wales is owned or managed by public bodies such as the National Trust, the Ministry of Defence and Crown Estates. Mynydd Eppynt in my constituency comprises 32,000 acres, which are owned by the Ministry of Defence. The families who lived there were uprooted in 1940 and given six weeks to quit. They have never been allowed back.

The Forestry Commission owns a great deal of land in Wales. It is badly managed. It is almost impossible to get on to it because trees are blown down all over the place. My constituency includes such land.

In theory, rural Wales qualifies for inclusion in the Tir Gofal agri-environment scheme. It would qualify in practice if the Welsh Assembly were given sufficient funds to finance it properly. Tir Gofal covers a public form of conservation and environmental designation. More than two thirds of Wales is covered by such designation. The Bill would have a disproportionate impact on Wales because one third of the new statutory access areas that the Bill creates are in Wales. The cost of implementation will therefore fall disproportionately on Welsh people and Welsh public bodies and councils.

As a native of Wales, I have travelled to almost every square kilometre of the country, and I have a good understanding of the people. My constituency is in the county of Powys where 86 per cent. of the land is designated as severely disadvantaged. Indeed, 96 per cent. of the county is in the less-favoured area category. From that statistic, the Minister can visualise the sort of place that Brecon and Radnorshire is, and the huge expanse of open countryside that dominates it. He will also understand that the Bill could have a major impact on my constituency, which consists of 382,000 hectares or 750,000 acres. It is the third biggest constituency in Great Britain.

The Brecon Beacons national park is in part of my constituency. It is the jewel in the crown. It is an outstanding area of countryside, but my constituency is among the most beautiful places in Britain.

I cannot think of another measure whose application to Wales is so suspect. Landowners in Wales have traditionally taken a far more relaxed attitude to the public's use of open land than their counterparts in some areas of England. Other than the large areas owned by the Ministry of Defence or the Forestry Commission, I cannot think of a hill or mountain in the country to which the public does not have access. I have received only one complaint in approximately 15 years about denial of access. That is why we favour a policy of voluntary access. It is a slight on Welsh people to assume that they will deny access to anyone. I have experienced no trouble, nor have my friends--or, indeed, my acquaintances--in open countryside in Wales.

We do not have statutory access to those vast open tracts but we have de facto access. The Bill puts that pragmatic arrangement at risk. I am in favour of access, but if we are not careful, we could walk into a legal minefield. In some cases, landowners have allowed the local and visiting population to walk over their land without hindrance for centuries. The behaviour of those Welsh landowners has traditionally been in stark contrast to that of some of their more confrontational English counterparts, whose unreasonable actions have precipitated some aspects of the Bill.

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It is essential that the Welsh Assembly deals with the Bill. I shall explain the reasons for that. In parts of Wales, there is land between open hills and enclosed land. It is known as coed cae in south Wales and ffrydd land in north Wales. Ewes and lambs are put there in spring before going up the hill. There are problems with access to that land, and the Countryside Council for Wales has been reasonable about it. I held a recent meeting of 85 commoners in the upper Swansea valley. The commoners were heard and the designation of the map, which is in a pilot area, was changed to exclude the land that I described. The Bill has to tackle such matters of detail.

We must consider the Bill's impact on family farms, which are economic units only because of their common grazing. What will happen to common land legislation? What will happen to graziers associations, which are based on democratic principles, and have elected chairs and often include as many as 100 graziers on various commons? Those problems must be sorted out.

I support the protection of SSSIs and the exclusion of four-wheel-drive vehicles, which are an utter menace in many upland areas. We should consider the 600-m rules carefully. Plynlimon is 3,000 ft high and has fences on the summit. The Bill must deal with that. Much land of that height is farmed well.

In my constituency, there are a million sheep. They constitute the livelihood of many farmers. The impact of the Bill has to be carefully framed so that farmers can continue to make a living. They are not currently making a living for other reasons such as the great pressure of global markets.

The Bill should be amended to take account of the fact that Wales is different from England. It should provide for the Welsh Assembly to make sense of the issues for Wales. The Assembly should decide whether it wants such a measure. If the Government insist on applying the Bill to Wales as well as England, they must amend it to allow the Assembly to make major changes. The Liberal Democrats will table amendments to that effect. The Minister must show that he is prepared to listen to the many representations that urged such a course of action. The Bill should contain a clause that specifically covers Wales.

7.49 pm

Mr. David Borrow (South Ribble): I was born in the west riding of Yorkshire and have lived for the past 25 years in Lancashire. I have become acutely aware of the extent to which working-class communities in industrial towns and cities in Lancashire and Yorkshire were the early pioneers of greater access to the countryside, particularly the uplands, in the first half of the last century. The tribute to them came with the establishment of the national parks in the dales, the peak district, the lake district, Snowdonia and the north Yorkshire moors. As this century begins, the Bill represents another major step forward. The people of Lancashire will welcome the opportunity for greater access, not least to the forest of Bowland area of outstanding natural beauty--and I support a number of my hon. Friends who have urged the Government to examine whether it is possible further to strengthen those areas through the Bill. If that is not possible, we would welcome Ministers' comments--if not tonight, in the next few weeks--as to what proposals they have on that.

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However, in my few minutes I want to discuss a number of unrelated matters. I welcome the provisions for improving the possibility of closing or changing footpaths in urban areas to reduce crime. I spent 10 years as a local councillor in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Preston (Audrey Wise), working with residents in an estate that was built in the early 1980s with five footpaths on to it and one road off it. As a result of several petitions, I spent most of those years pursuing the convoluted process, which still exists, of seeking closure. Under the existing system, one person's objection will virtually stop a closure, and the mechanism does not allow for any objective judgment of the balance of merits between the rights of those who want the footpaths to remain open and those of residents seeking greater security from crime and vandalism.

Many estates of the 1970s and 1980s, and even of the 1990s, were built open-plan and with footpath access--thought at the time to be modern and attractive. Such designs would not be used these days, as we are crime-conscious and seeking to design out of modern developments a lot of the opportunities for crime and vandalism that were built into many of the estates of the 1970s and 1980s. I welcome the provisions on that issue.

I also want to touch on disputes. Before being elected to the House, I spent many years dealing with property taxation appeals, so I have a bit of experience of disputes. Many provisions, whether on access or footpaths, will give rise to disputes, as the decisions will be made by various public bodies--local authorities or whatever--as the process goes ahead. It is crucial that we build into the system a robust appeal mechanism, which must be local, efficient and quick. It must not get bogged down with lengthy consideration of local disputes by civil servants or processes based in Whitehall. It is also important that, as far as possible, hearings should be public, and that there should be a presumption that dispute appeals should be heard in private only in exceptional circumstances. Although there is provision for that to happen, I would like Ministers to consider the dangers of allowing disputes to be considered in private as a matter of course.

There is also an assumption in the appeals process that the only people with the right to appeal against a public body's decision are landowners or the occupiers of land. I see nothing in the Bill that allows those who do not own or occupy land and who disagree with a public body's decision to become involved, make an appeal and challenge that decision. It is important to examine that mechanism to see whether we can ensure that those who want access to land, who dispute provisions to close or amend footpath routes, or who want to open new footpaths have some right in the appeal process and the disputes mechanism.

I note that there is little to do with mediation in the Bill. As there is so much scope for disputes, we need to consider a mediation system and the method by which disputes could be resolved before coming to a formal appeal process. I am also concerned that we should be careful not to restrict the right to appeal against decisions by making it too narrow. I am aware that there is an administrative assumption in the Whitehall machine that the right to appeal against a public body's decision should be narrowed down as much as possible because appeals lead to bureaucracy, more work and more expense. We should be wary of narrowing appeal rights down too much on the basis of saving money or administrative expenses.

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It is important that the appeal process is properly funded and that those public bodies with a role to play in it are able to do so properly. Sufficient finance must be made available for that to happen.

My final point concerns what I consider to be the worrying aspect of tonight's debate--the extent to which some people want to portray the Bill as an issue between urban and rural England. I represent a constituency that is a mix of urban, suburban and rural areas. The rural areas depend on agriculture. I am aware that, if we are not careful and if we try to polarise rural and urban Britain, rural Britain will lose out. The vast majority of the population live and work in urban Britain and there needs to be a partnership between the two. The extent to which rural Britain depends on support from urban Britain was mentioned earlier: £3.5 billion goes in subsidy to agriculture; there is considerable rate relief in rural areas, as farm buildings and farmland are not rated; and a range of supportive measures has been put in place.

The Bill can bring urban and rural Britain together by dividing rights and responsibilities between the two. If we are to ensure that urban Britain continues to recognise the importance of the countryside, we must allow access to the countryside and emphasise the partnership arrangement that is at the heart of the Bill, which does not provide an unrestricted right to roam across the countryside. It has been carefully drafted to achieve restricted access to certain parts of the countryside. Those with that access must behave responsibly, and there is a clear method of arriving at many of the difficult decisions concerning when people can and cannot have access. That is crucial.

Some Conservative Members go over the top by saying that access to the countryside for people from urban areas is wrong. They speak strongly about the right of landowners to refuse anybody access to their land. They must remember the extent to which we as a nation support the countryside in many ways. That partnership means urban Britain accepting its responsibilities to rural Britain, but it also means rural Britain accepting its responsibilities to urban Britain.

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