Previous SectionIndexHome Page

9.5 pm

Mrs. Eileen Gordon (Romford): Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to speak in this important debate. I am happy to give the Bill my total support.

Some 45 million people walk for pleasure at least once a month. I represent a London constituency so, as some Opposition Members might say, we are townie ramblers as opposed to extreme ramblers--but why not? It is vital that people who have to put up with the stresses and strains of urban life should be able to escape into the countryside to recharge their batteries and breathe some fresh air. Many of my constituents have written to me supporting the Bill. With greater access, people will have more choice and freedom to walk in our wonderful countryside, on our moors, downs and mountains.

I believe that a side effect of that greater freedom will be a boost to the rural economy--which I am sure that all MPs representing rural constituencies would welcome--bringing more people to small village shops, shops that sell outdoor gear, hotels, bed and breakfast places and, for some, the local pub at the end of a long walk. The British Mountaineering Council says that tourism is the largest industry in the English countryside, generating some £13.6 billion in spending annually. In 1996, a survey by Highlands and Islands Enterprise estimated that mountaineering activities brought income of £162 million into the HIE area alone--more than double that attracted by shooting and salmon fishing in the whole of Scotland. Tourism is a very important part of the rural economy, and I believe that it will grow with greater access to the countryside.

I should like to raise two points. First, my constituent, Neil Brindley, a keen rock climber and hill walker, is worried about access to coastal land. Part I states that the Secretary of State "may" extend access to coastal land. I heard what my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment said on that issue earlier. Climbers such as Neil have managed to arrange access by agreement with several bodies, including the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, to climb sea cliffs at Swanage, in Cornwall and on the Gower peninsula.

20 Mar 2000 : Column 803

Rock climbers are a responsible bunch of people--they have to be because they are very aware of their own safety--and have great respect for wildlife and the environment. It would be contrary to the spirit of the Bill if that present access was lost as a result of the Bill. I hope that my right hon. Friend will consider changing that "may" to "shall" in Committee. I am sure that the British Mountaineering Council would give the Government plenty of advice on the best way of doing so, and on current best practice.

My second point concerns the right of appeal. It appears from the Bill that if access is granted, the landowner will be able to appeal, yet if access to a certain area is withdrawn, the public will not have the same right. I hope that the Minister will confirm or deny that, because if access can be taken away without appeal, walkers may unwittingly find themselves being treated as trespassers.

I will not say much more, as I know that other hon. Members wish to speak. I very much welcome the Bill, including the right of way reform and extensions, although I am concerned, as are some of my fellow Members, about the already stretched resources of local authorities to implement the recommendations. I am worried that they will not see that as a priority when their budgets are stretched to breaking point. Therefore, I raise the issue of extra cost.

Bills have to be fairly complex to cover all eventualities, but I hope that the implementation of this Bill will be as streamlined, simple and transparent as possible. It would be wrong if too much regulation and restriction resulted in little more real access. However, I look forward to the Bill making speedy progress through the House.

Finally, on his performance today, the hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Mr. Norman) has definitely qualified to be added to my sad people list. In fact, I think that he has gone right to the top.

9.10 pm

Mrs. Diana Organ (Forest of Dean): Like many other Members, I wish to congratulate the individuals and organisations that have played their part in delivering this historic Bill. All three parts--on access to the open countryside, on the modernisation of rights of way and on the improvement of wildlife protection and sites of special scientific interest--are much welcomed.

SSSIs are the gems in our landscape, but many other areas of the countryside are equally as precious and need protection. I would like to press for an amendment which, as my hon. Friends the Members for Gower (Mr. Caton) and for Peterborough (Mrs. Brinton) have mentioned, would enhance the Bill and would provide protection and better management for some of our finest landscapes. Such an amendment would do something about the status of, and provision for, areas of outstanding natural beauty.

The Countryside Agency, the 37 AONBs, including the Wye valley in my constituency, and the Council for the Protection of Rural England all feel that a trick has been missed. They want to add to the Bill an AONB package to improve them and give them proper management arrangements and adequate resources. We very much welcome the doubling of the funding that the Government have put into AONBs, but such areas need much more.

Existing AONBs and other fine landscapes, such as the forest of Dean, that do not have any protection need better management and protection now. There is no legal

20 Mar 2000 : Column 804

responsibility for protection and insufficient funding for their full management needs. The Government suggested that they wanted to review AONB status and Ministers have given the impression that they were sympathetic to that. I understand that certain difficulties between the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, the Treasury and the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, which had caused problems in the past, have been sorted out, but there is no clause to cover it in the Bill.

The Countryside Agency wants to work for a new model for other landscapes. The Bill would be the best opportunity to take that aim forward in the near future. That is particularly important for the forest of Dean, which is an exceptional landscape. It missed out on the Hobhouse recommendations of 1949 and on being made an AONB in 1974. I have raised that point in an Adjournment debate and in other debates on AONBs.

Parts of the forest of Dean are a national forest. In the past, it was felt that the Forestry Commission and now Forest Enterprise, as the major landlord, would be the guardian of this wonderful landscape. That has been shown not to be so, because such a body is wholly inadequate for such an important task. The area is an important limestone escarpment covered in trees--mainly oaks--but with a wealth of distinct historical sites. It has rich cultural heritage; it is a rural area with a mining and industrial history and it needs rural regeneration.

Four years ago, the area was threatened with plans for large extensions of quarrying activity--mainly for the carboniferous limestone--that would ruin this wonderful landscape, threaten the tranquillity of the local community and distract from the tourist industry. Before the 1997 general election, Labour promised to consider protecting that landscape and offered plans for a special status for the forest of Dean that was much needed. Since then, the Government and the Countryside Agency have commissioned a full-scale land use consultants survey, which has resulted in the area being recognised as a landscape of national importance.

The Countryside Agency board then made a landmark decision that it was committed to that status, which was reflected in a commitment to social and economic issues as well as landscape and recreational matters. It would embark on a major project acknowledging the connections between landscape, culture and the industrial past, as well as present social and economic issues. It decided not to proceed with AONB designation, since it felt that it was correct to evolve a tailor-made approach for the Dean.

In the meantime, however, the agency asked for an undertaking that the Government and local planning authorities, such as the county council and the district council, would act as though it were an AONB and that the Minister would give a clear steer to Gloucestershire county council's minerals working party to recognise that the landscape is of national importance and needs protection. Has the Minister agreed to that, and has he made it clear to the minerals planning authority that the landscape must have protection?

The Countryside Agency wanted to create a large-scale, integrated rural regeneration and development project while offering landscape management and protection, particularly with regard to the local minerals plan. It was widely agreed that simply designating the area an AONB as those areas are constructed at present was not enough.

20 Mar 2000 : Column 805

It was hoped that the Bill would provide an opportunity to develop AONB mark II, which would offer a new integrated approach to solving local environmental, social and economic issues. There may be a chance to develop that idea in the forthcoming rural White Paper, and landscapes such as the forest of Dean could be the location to pilot that innovative approach.

In the meantime, I urge that the Bill is amended to give AONBs--the forest of Dean is nominally considered an AONB--a body with a statutory duty to protect their landscape and the resources for effective long-term planning and care so that their scenic and other environmental qualities are not damaged or lost. The Bill should also give AONBs the potential to deliver a wide range of linked environmental, social and economic benefits. The Bill is the only opportunity in the foreseeable future to give the forest of Dean and similar landscapes the protection that they urgently require. Before Labour was elected, it promised to give that protection, and we could achieve it by being innovative and delivering the new status of different, strengthened AONBs.

Next Section

IndexHome Page