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7.59 pm

Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire): It is a great pleasure to be called in this debate, and to follow the hon. Member for South Ribble (Mr. Borrow). Coming as I do from a rural constituency, I do not want to fight about the urban-rural divide. However, on the hon. Gentleman's last point, the problem is that those in the Ramblers Association who fought that skilful campaign may be friendly and responsible, but many of the people who will take advantage of the legislation are not.

I am astonished that the Government have introduced the Bill when we have the worst rural crisis of this century. Pig farmers in my constituency are leaving for Saskatchewan after four generations of farming in north Shropshire. Ten to 12 quota holders a week apply to the main agent in Shrewsbury to get out of dairy farming. Welsh sheep farmers who come down from the hills to Oswestry are constantly talking about the crisis in the hills. The increase in the number of buzzards and ravens that I see is a manifestation of the fact that the countryside in the hills is going backwards.

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There is so much that the Government could do if they wanted to help the countryside that it is astonishing that they have produced this Bill. The Cabinet Office has stated in a report that Shropshire has been the hardest hit of the west midlands counties, and is one of the poorest in the country, with people there 22 per cent. less wealthy than the average Briton.

The countryside is not a playground. It looks as it does thanks to private landowners. Much of the Bill is a direct assault on the principle of private land ownership. Most landowners are extremely responsible, with a deep understanding and love of the countryside. The Bill legislates with prejudice against the many to catch a tiny few.

For a start, there are already 140,000 miles of footpaths and rights of way with a right to roam. There are 13,000 hectares under the country stewardship scheme; 48,000 hectares of national parks; and 58,000 hectares set aside by exemption on inheritance tax. In a free society, voluntary agreements must be right and compulsion must be wrong.

Landowners understand the countryside. My objection to the right to roam is that the first half of the Bill totally contradicts the second half, as 60 per cent. of heath moorland is SSSI land. Under the Bill, people with dogs, who will not always be well-meaning, will be let loose 24 hours a day. They may not understand where they are going and what they are about. Why do we need access to moorland 24 hours a day? That is a burglars and poachers charter. Labour Members may laugh, but I know a landowner who has had to put half-inch steel plates over the hasps that cover the padlocks to prevent deer poachers from getting down his farm tracks. I can tell the hon. Member for South Ribble that those are the people whom I am worried about, because they will take advantage of the Bill.

The 28-day exclusion is far too short. I have re-read clause 21. How on earth are lambing ewes, merlins and curlews to be told to watch out on public holidays, weekends, Christmas day and Easter day? It is ridiculous. Nature does not work like that.

Heather-burning is vital to keep moorland healthy. That cannot be planned months ahead: it has to be done at the right time according to the weather. Various other such provisions show that the Bill has been drafted by people who do not have practical knowledge of the countryside.

The one question that I would ask the Minister is how he would define "cultivated land". Many crops in the spring look like grass. I have already had reports of members of the public walking on to farms thinking that there is a much wider definition of the right to roam. Is a field of grass that is being grown for silage or hay cultivated land? I should be grateful if the Minister would reply to that question when he winds up the debate.

I am very worried about the liabilities. As I read the Bill, the landowner would be responsible if someone fell off a barbed wire fence or tumbled off a stone wall. In a reply to an intervention from the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd), we were told that the landowner would also be responsible if someone fell down a mine shaft. Land with a mine shaft is probably worthless, but now it will be a cost on the landowner as insurance premiums go up.

Further costs will be imposed on landowners for providing stiles and points of access at a time when most farmers are losing money. The only way in which the

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Bill could possibly work would be a massive increase in resources to provide wardens. It is not clear in the Bill who would be made to pay for that. Shropshire county council reckons that to establish the legal right to roam in places such as Prees Heath, and others, in my county, more than £200,000 will have to be found. According to the Countryside Agency, the money for the existing rights of way programme will be cut by £50,000.

As I see it, this measure is all cost and pain for the landowner, and the real problem is that there is no incentive--no carrot--to encourage the landowner to co-operate. That is what is so sad: co-operation has been lost as the voluntary approach has been thrown away. That applies particularly to SSSIs. The incentive is now for any landowner of an SSSI quickly to plough it up, because it will become a liability. The countryside is a living place, and cannot be set in aspic. A landowner whom I know had an open field which was ripped up for opencast mining. He has restored it, and now has a lake. A fishing club from the local village uses it, and there are otters and kingfishers. It is a totally admirable environmental programme coming from opencast mining. That site has not yet been spotted by those who designate SSSIs. The danger of this legislation is that the incentive for the landowner will be to fill in the lake, so it will achieve exactly the opposite of what is intended. There must be flexibility. Land use must be allowed to move on: there must be mobility in what people do with their land.

My other fear concerns the power that the Bill gives to those who decide the consequences arising from SSSIs. I am privileged to have a vast moss in my constituency. Whixall moss is part of a huge moss alongside Bettisfield and Fenn's moss, which is in Wales. It has been dedicated as a national nature reserve since 1990, and is a Ramsar site, which is about as high a designation as it can have. It is a site of international importance. It is astonishing. I went round it last spring. About 2,400 acres have been restored by English Nature and the Countryside Council for Wales. No one could fail to admire what has been achieved there: it has 130 species of birds, 1,700 species of invertebrates and numerous extremely rare bog plants. It is a very successful example of restoration of a rare and exceptional site.

The problem is that relations with surrounding farmers will become more fraught. There are already SSSIs in the near boundary, and there is also a 2 km consultation zone around the whole moss. One of my constituents wanted to put up a free-range poultry unit, and had great trouble. There were costly, lengthy negotiations, and the matter was finally resolved when it was agreed that the muck would be carted away at his cost. Dairy farmers nearby are worried that they will be prevented from putting cow muck on the land. There is a delicate balance to be achieved between English Nature carrying out its extremely important work on the moss, which is admired locally, and dairy farmers who are struggling to make a living.

Another danger is that other benefits may be ignored when a site is designated as an SSSI. The Montgomery canal is well worth restoring. It would bring substantial investment to the area, and a possible 570 jobs in trades alongside the canal. The bed of the canal is a dedicated SSSI, so the restoration of the canal could be held up. The biggest restoration project so far has been to build a new SSSI alongside the canal. When designating such areas, we should also consider employment, architecture and historical assets.

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On that note, I hope that I shall be called to make further comments in Committee.

8.9 pm

Mr. Gareth R. Thomas (Harrow, West): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson), although the only part of his speech that had any substance was his description of the Ramblers Association as skilful, which was somewhat understated praise.

Like my hon. Friends, I warmly welcome the Bill, not least because it locks into law the principle that everyone should have the opportunity to enjoy the countryside at its best. The natural majesty of Britain's mountains and moors should be available to everyone, not off limits to all but an exclusive few. Wealth should not be a bar to people's ability to gain access to some of the most beautiful scenery that our country offers.

James Bryce, who led the first parliamentary effort to protect access rights, said in a debate in 1892:

More than a hundred years on, the debate remains essentially the same, and similarly simple. Do we believe that the citizens of this country should have the ability to enjoy--I accept that responsibility is needed--the scenery and beauty of their own country? There are undoubtedly genuine issues to be resolved, once that principle has been conceded and accepted, regarding the protection of wildlife and the safeguarding of the environment, but those are not, and never have been, reasons for denying legislation on the right to roam.

A remarkable feature of the debate on this subject over the past hundred years is the extent to which a range of issues have been used to create a smokescreen for those opposed to access to hide behind. To be fair to the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Livsey), he came up with a new one today: the idea that the right to roam is an insult to the Welsh is a new one on me. The hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Mr. Norman) repeated the claim in the amendment that wildlife and nature conservation would somehow be threatened by access. Where is the evidence to back up that claim? The hon. Gentleman could cite no evidence from countries that already provide the access that the Bill will deliver.

I do not rule out the idea that increased access could have an impact on wildlife and the environment. Clearly some restrictions and safeguards are needed, and they are included in the Bill. In general, however, I believe that access will have a positive impact on wildlife. The Wildlife and Countryside Link commented:

The issue of cost to the landowner has long been touted as a reason for denying access. Indeed, the hon. Member for North Shropshire peddled the point. The Country Landowners Association's estimates of the costs of access last year were, to be generous, highly inflated, and were debunked to a considerable extent by the Ramblers Association's investigation. We heard echoes of such claims in the speech of the hon. Member for Tunbridge

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Wells. Last year, the Government's own independent consultants' cost benefit analysis found that landowners would not suffer significant losses or costs for reasons of access, and I know of no research from Germany, Austria, Norway, Sweden or Switzerland, where access on this scale already exists, that suggests that landowners' costs are higher as a result.

The Bill rightly deals with occupiers' liability. It holds out the possibility of direct and indirect financial assistance for the provision of means of access and warden services.

The right to roam has long been described as a future cause of crime. Speaking at the Tory party conference last October, the hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) described it as a trespassers' charter, and I think that the hon. Member for North Shropshire spoke in the same terms. There is no evidence linking footpaths with a higher incidence of crime. The Dartmoor Commons Act 1985 delivered, effectively, a right to roam over 40 per cent. of land within Dartmoor national park. Voluntary agreements already exist for some 50 per cent. of that land. There is no evidence that the passing of the 1985 Act resulted in a greater increase in crime. One would think that, if anything, the additional eyes and ears of members of the public using their rights of access would be beneficial in preventing crime.

Another argument used to justify opposition to access is that it is not needed--that there is no need for legislation. That claim has passed through several stages. Back in 1892, it was argued that exclusion from mountains or moorlands was exaggerated; in 1938, it was said that landowners would nearly always give permission, and that walkers were seldom stopped. Those obvious fictions have been brought up to date by the argument that we have heard from Opposition Members that voluntary access agreements would somehow deliver high-quality permanent access to our mountains and moors.

Last year, the Country Landowners Association's voluntary access efforts failed spectacularly. Just 18 per cent. of the sites on its register provided proper access. That came nowhere near delivering the permanent right of access to 4 million or so acres of open countryside for which people have been campaigning.

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