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Mr. Hogg: Rather to my surprise, I find myself agreeing with much of what the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) has just said. Walkers are primarily responsible for their own welfare and it is wrong to impose on landowners or farmers too high a standard of care. I speak from experience. For the past 30 or 35 years, my chief pastime has been mountain walking and easy mountaineering. Most of my climbing has been done in the Alps rather than in the United Kingdom, but similar principles apply.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Mr. Green) suggested that we should remove the word "natural" from the clause 13. One must face the fact that many features of hills, mountains and the uplands are in a grey area when it comes to defining them as natural or not. For example, are the slabs of rock used to cross a stream or to bridge a gulf a natural feature? The material is natural, but it has been put in place by humans. Cairns on a mountain--or steinmen as they are variously called--mark the track, but they are made of natural material. They are piled up in heaps and they can, and do, fall on the people sitting below them. Are those features natural or not? Such points need to be clarified if the Bill is to have a sensible and not a deleterious effect.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ashford also suggested that the concept of a farmer's or landowner's liability is likely to have perverse consequences, and he is right. On mountains in the Alps and in the United Kingdom, safety can be improved by human introductions such as fixed ropes. People sometimes prefer to use steps or ladders as they go down steep scree slopes. In the Peak district, slabs of rock often go across boggy land so as to protect it. Bridges are used to cross streams and stiles are used to cross stone walls. If landowners have liability for those man-made facilities--which are provided as aids for those who visit the land--but not for the natural land, they will remove the aids. Why should they put up a fixed rope or bridge, or place slabs across boggy land, if they are liable for any defect in them? If they do absolutely nothing, they will not be liable. That is a perverse result and I hope that the Government do not intend it.
I am against the proposal, but we have to deal with it as it is. People like me visit the hills and they are basically responsible for their own safety and welfare. They should not look to anyone else to look after them save in a crisis, when they will be jolly pleased to receive assistance. However, when they approach a track or a bridge, they should exercise a bit of care and a certain amount of good sense. The Government's proposal is the nanny state writ large.
In June 1999, in an historic decision in the Lords, it was declared on behalf of Sunningwell parish council that a piece of land called the Glebe was deemed to be a village green and that legislation could apply to newly registered greens. That meant that if a local community had used a piece of land for sports and pastimes for not less than 20 years, the land would have a legitimate claim for village green status. That would protect the land from development.
I have such a village green in my constituency in the village of Castleton. I shall be guided by you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but I spoke to the Principal Clerk this morning about what I want to say. The land, which is called Cowm Top, is the subject of a High Court appeal by a developer. He is appealing against Rochdale metropolitan borough council and a constituent, Cindy Huxley, who is the secretary of Castleton residents association.
The land has been designated as a village green by the local authority and is being registered as such. The Castleton residents association is 1,100 strong and has rightly pursued this case. It has right on its side, because an independent panel has deemed the land to be a village green. The fact that the developer has refused to accept the council's decision has resulted in Cindy Huxley, who represents the residents association, being identified as personally responsible for any court costs. That would mean financial disaster for her personally, so the association finds itself unable to contest the appeal. It is a case of a large developer using its financial power to try to smash a group of local residents who were pursuing what they deemed to be a correctly taken decision. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will take account of the difficulties faced by local residents groups and other voluntary groups in the process.
Government amendment No. 141 should offer local communities some protection from big developers. My concern is that it may not do so. It would not offer my constituent, Cindy Huxley, any protection in her situation. I seek some assurance from my hon. Friend. For me, it is an issue of great public interest.
I suspect that the problems to which my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) drew attention--the question of what constitutes a natural or a man-made feature--will be tested to the extreme in the courts, to the great profit of his own profession.
Given that the public will now enjoy a new right of access to the property, they should have an obligation to insure themselves against any liabilities that may occur as a result of their exercise of that new right. That would be much the best way forward. The landlord should be prosecuted only if he lays traps for the walkers and others who occupy his land, for which the existing common law would be sufficient remedy.
Mr. Green: I am grateful for the support for the principles behind amendment No. 8 from the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) and others, including the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Thomas). I intend to press the amendment to a Division.
Mr. Mullin: Before I deal with amendment No. 8, I shall respond to my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) about the Countryside Agency's briefing on amendment No. 141. He will not be surprised to hear that after mature reflection, we do not consider amendment No. 141 to be poorly drafted. We accept that it could prevent a village green from being claimed, if less than 20 years' use could be shown before the right of access came into force; but once the right was in force, there would be a public right of access in any case.
My hon. Friend the Member for Heywood and Middleton (Mr. Dobbin) also touched on amendment No. 141. The Bill does not affect the law on village greens generally. It simply stops the right of access giving rise to new greens. Therefore, I am not sure that it helps the case that he raised. My hon. Friend will forgive me if I do not go into the details of the case, although he has put on the record an important issue.
On amendment No. 8, there is a slight air of unreality about the debate. It was remarked several times in Committee, not least by me, that one must pinch oneself from time to time to recall that there already exists access to millions of acres of land, without any of the dire consequences that some Opposition Members foresee. I shall return to that point.
The liability that occupiers will owe to those exercising the new right of access has attracted considerable interest and debate both inside and outside Parliament. It is also an issue on which there is some convergence of views.
Let me reiterate the Government's position, which endorses the position in law that those walking in open countryside should bear primary responsibility for their own safety. There is no disagreement among us on that. People must accept that walking in open countryside
I accept that some people want the Government to go further to remove all liability in relation to all features, whether natural or man-made. The Government have listened carefully to arguments put forward by the Country Landowners Association and by the Opposition for reducing occupiers' liability still further, but we were not and we still are not persuaded that occupiers should be absolved of all responsibility for man-made features of the landscape.
We heard reference--by the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Thomas), I think, but I apologise if it was another hon. Member--to barbed wire concealed in the ground. People who leave rolls of barbed wire in a concealed position should be responsible for the consequences. I make no apology for that.