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Mr. Robert Jackson: The audit is not before time, and I welcome it. The Minister is welcome to come and look at the Ridgeway in person. The four Members of Parliament who represent the Ridgeway—my hon. Friends the Members for Henley (Mr. Johnson) and for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington), the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel) and myself—would be happy to receive him and to show him the ruts for himself.

Alun Michael: I am grateful for that invitation, and I certainly do not rule it out. An appropriate time to visit would be once the audit has been completed and the local players—including local Members—have had an opportunity to consider the findings and the discussions that will take place with bodies such as the local authorities. I am certainly happy to take an interest and for it to form part of the response, but the hon. Gentleman will agree that I should not detract from the responsibility of local parties to work the matter out. That is the right place to start.

The hon. Gentleman also referred to fly tipping and joyriding. Of course they are illegal activities, so a traffic regulation order is unlikely to deter the perpetrators, who constitute a nuisance in any case. There is a need for a co-ordinated approach. If such law breaking is causing a problem, the right way to deal with it is through the local authority and the police. They have a joint responsibility for identifying the nature of crime and disorder in the locality, and for producing a strategy to deal with any problems that are identified and agreed on.

Mr. Jackson: It is true that anybody determined to overcome traffic regulation orders and physical barriers can do so. However, although physical barriers may not solve the problem of bicycles, they could be an effective deterrent to motor cars. They could form part of a strategy to deal with the wider problems.

Alun Michael: Again, I am trying to respond to specific elements in the hon. Gentleman's speech and suggesting that the audit should consider the size of each problem that he mentioned. Something that is already illegal must be treated as an illegal activity, and it is the responsibility of the police and the local authority to

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co-ordinate action where necessary, proportionate to the extent of the problem. That would be the place to start that discussion.

The hon. Gentleman also referred to concern about an iron age burial mound, but my information is that it is a bronze age bell barrow. However, he is right to raise the concerns felt about the monument. I understand that efforts have been made to protect it, but it has no statutory protection as a scheduled ancient monument. It has sustained some damage, although some was caused by bicycles as well as by motor vehicles. It would be appropriate to invite English Heritage to advise on that and to take part in the discussions that will follow the audit.

Mr. Jackson: I am happy to be corrected on the point that the monument is bronze age rather than iron age, which makes it even older. However, the issue is the code of respect. What kind of respect is being shown to those monuments, even by bicyclists? The code of respect is not working.

Alun Michael: As I have said, I am trying to respond to the specific points that the hon. Gentleman raised. If we ensure that all the authorities that have an interest in the matter are participating in the discussions of what should be done to combat the problems identified by the audit, we will arrive at a soundly based methodology.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that economic considerations are important. He mentioned people being put off the Ridgeway by the conditions, but we should question whether that is the case for the whole of the Ridgeway or for specific elements. The last survey by the National Trails Office in 1996 showed that 80 per cent. of those using the Ridgeway had used it before, so they had returned to use it again; 60 per cent. would not use the Ridgeway in certain conditions; and of the 60 per cent., only a small proportion said that a poor surface or motor vehicles had spoiled their enjoyment. That is why it is so important to establish the facts and then decide on the right solution.

There are powers available to restrict vehicle use where necessary by means of traffic regulation orders. The hon. Gentleman referred to a previous effort to apply such an order to the whole length of the Ridgeway. The purposes for which such orders can be made range widely, including avoiding danger to persons or other traffic using the way; preventing damage to the way or any building on or near the way; facilitating the passage of a certain class of user; preventing use by vehicular traffic of a kind or in a manner that is unsuitable, having regard to the character of the way; preserving the character of the way in cases in which it is especially suitable for use by persons on horseback or on foot; and preserving or improving the amenities of the area through which the way runs.

The application that was made in 1992–93 would have banned vehicle use on all of the western section on Sundays and bank holidays. At public inquiry, the inspector considered the issues of surface damage, danger to other users, noise and pollution, which were presumably informed by the nature of the application. However, he concluded that insufficient evidence existed to justify the ban. He also concluded—this is an important point when considering use of traffic regulation orders—that much of the surface damage was from tractors and

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other farm vehicles, which would not be banned by such an order. That returns us to the need to identify the real mischief and to take account of issues of proportionality in the response to problems.

Mr. Rendel: I listened to the list of reasons why a traffic regulation order might be made for the Ridgeway, but I could not spot a single one that would not apply in this case. Perhaps the Minister would care to consider that.

Alun Michael: The list was considered by an inspector in relation to a large section of the Ridgeway to see whether the evidence justified an order at that time. The fact that the earlier application for an order was unsuccessful would not prevent local authorities from using traffic regulation orders in particular problem areas. That is a decision for them, based on local circumstances. It may be that the audit will pinpoint parts of the Ridgeway where an order is necessary, and the evidence of the audit would greatly strengthen the hand of the local authority making the application.

Mr. Boris Johnson (Henley): I speak as a vice-president of the Friends of the Ridgeway—as my hon. Friends probably also are—and I have just joined that body. The Minister mentioned the audit. Can he confirm my impression that if the audit finds that walkers and ramblers are being deterred from using the Ridgeway by the damage that has been done to it and by the presence of 4x4 vehicles, he will be minded to institute traffic restricting measures?

Alun Michael: If the audit brings up evidence of the sort that the hon. Gentleman clearly expects, the local authority would be able to proceed on that basis. It is for the local authorities to initiate such action. The intention is for the audit to be discussed by the partners locally and by a wider forum, which will involve organisations such as the one to which the hon. Gentleman belongs, to develop a local strategy on that basis. It should start with the facts, try to reach agreement with people and then move forward, and that would be a constructive approach. My point was that if there are parts of the Ridgeway for which a traffic regulation order would target specific circumstances that cause problems, the outcome of the audit would help to provide evidence to substantiate the need for such an order.

We certainly should not give in to a counsel of despair. Traffic regulation orders and other means should be used to try to protect the environment, but any response should be proportional to the evidence of the problem. It would be wrong to suggest that the imposition of a blanket ban on motor vehicles along the whole length of the Ridgeway would be the appropriate response, unless the evidence of the audit suggests strongly that that is the case. We should also not ignore the current initiative by the Ridgeway Management Group.

Mr. Robert Jackson: I welcome the Minister's comments about the audit, and possible proposals that might emerge from its conclusions. However, I remind him of the conclusions of my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key), who was the Minister in 1992. He said in his decision letter that he expected proposals for

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parts of the Ridgeway, but nothing was done. That is why we are in this situation 10 years later. I am very concerned that the message should be sent that we expect action to deal with the problems.

Alun Michael: I am not sure that I can comment on the situation between 1992 and the present, because—as I have indicated—the local authority had the power to apply for a traffic regulation order on a specific length of the Ridgeway, as opposed to one on the whole length or the western length. The current initiative was brought forward by the Ridgeway Management Group, composed of countryside service and rights of way managers from areas through which the Ridgeway passes. That work is being supported by the Countryside Agency, which has specific responsibility on behalf of my Department for engaging with such issues.

The current initiative involves the setting of standards for surface condition, which addresses some of the specific concerns raised by all four hon. Gentlemen who have contributed to the debate. The full audit of the condition is crucial and is due to be reported in June. The set of facts coming out of that audit will be discussed by the forum, with a view to the implementation of a management plan.

It is not for me to say whether that plan should include the making of orders. It is sensible that it should build on the evidence, especially as it is only a matter of weeks before the outcome of the audit will be available. I am sure that the report will be inspected, as soon it is available, with great interest by hon. Members representing constituencies along the Ridgeway.

When the audit is complete, we will have the facts before us. We will then have an opportunity for open debate and action that will be initiated at local level by those with direct responsibility and concern for the Ridgeway.

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