|Local Access Forums (England) Regulations 2002
Mr. Gray: Can the Minister assure us that no definitive map will be printed until such time as a local access forum has been set up, has met and has discussed the matter? It would be wrong to print a map showing local access patterns before a local access forum has been set up.
Alun Michael: I do not intend to create an extra hurdle for us to leap over. However, we shall not have such maps before August 2003, by which time all the forums have to be established. If an authority were to be so lax as to be in breach of that requirement, and therefore not to have got the interested parties in its area together, up and running and ready to take part in discussing implementation, we would know where the fault lay. It certainly would not lay with us,
Column Number: 14because the timescale for implementation gives those authorities that have not already undertaken it voluntarily plenty of opportunity to catch up.
Mr. Gray: I am sorry to keep interrupting the Minister; I shall try not to do so again. I misunderstood him. I thought that he was announcing this afternoon that he would implement access regionally once discussion on the maps had been concluded—I know that that has been considered—rather than implementing it all in August 2003 as laid down in the Bill. That is the point on which we need clarification. Is the Minister planning a regional roll-out of access or will it all be done at the same time?
Alun Michael: I am beginning to understand why the hon. Gentleman spent the whole weekend on regulation 6(6). What I said was perfectly clear. Many people have suggested that regional roll-out makes sense because some definitive regional maps will be ready before others. It makes sense also because starting with one or two regions means that problems can be dealt with as we go. However, there are organisational and financial implications in taking that common-sense approach, as well as the issue of communications referred to by the hon. Member for North Wiltshire. That is why I shall not make an announcement today.
I am responding in a common-sense way to the hon. Gentleman's concern, and to the mirror and opposite concern of my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, West (Valerie Davey), both of whom want a decision, but want it to be slightly different. I am explaining to the hon. Member for North Wiltshire that I am approaching it in a common-sense way by seeking out the precise implications of the various options. The common-sense option is clear to me, but we need to address the communications and organisational issues before I can confidently come to a conclusion—which I hope to do quickly.
Reference has been made to the annual report in regulation 12. I hope that local authorities will treat the access forum as a friendly ally. After last year, many people appreciate that access is important to the local economy, to tourism and to many rural businesses. It is not of peripheral interest only to a small number of people who like walking; it is an economic issue, as well as a matter of access. I would expect local authorities to respond positively to the findings and recommendations of the access forums. They should reach their recommendations in the spirit of partnership and balance, which is what all three parties want to happen.
Some important issues remain to be dealt with, such as improved access for disabled people, development plans for providing access and engaging voluntary organisations and even parish councils in the development of access. Incidentally, in Wiltshire some parish councils have been engaged in innovative approaches, which is welcome. I think that people are starting to think laterally about those issues.
I hope that the Secretary of State will need to intervene only rarely, and that it will be at the helpful
Column Number: 15and encouraging end of the spectrum. He should not have to deal with issues that would more appropriately be dealt with by the secretary to the forum or by the local authority, the body that established the forum—or, indeed, by the local government ombudsman, should there be other failures.
Andrew George: I am reassured by the Minister's comments. He states clearly that the local authority is not required to take a blind bit of notice of what the local access forum says in its annual report, but he hopes that it will be reasonable. Will he consider sending out guidance to local access forums, to ensure that his hopes are properly expressed to those forums and local authorities?
Alun Michael: I have already promised to send members of the Committee a copy of the guidance letter, which I hope will satisfy the hon. Gentleman. We expect authorities to say what action they have taken on the advice of forums, but the matter need not be dealt with in regulations.
The hon. Gentleman's other point relates more to monitoring the work of the forums. Although they will be independent bodies, the appointing authorities should ensure that they conduct their business in accordance with their statutory remits and statutory guidance. There will be a means of dealing with complaints about forums that are not up to the mark. Complaints should initially be dealt with by the forum's secretary, who will be responsible for its administration. If they cannot be resolved, they should be dealt with through the internal complaints procedures of the local authority or the national park authority. Ultimately, they could be taken to the local government ombudsman and to judicial review. We do not need to get heavy or to introduce extra regulations, but simply to make it clear that the legislation has introduced certain provisions. We are offering encouragement and seeking balance; we are not trying to get heavy, although far more pieces of paper seem to be required than I would wish. Many local authorities are responding positively to these developments, and with good will on all sides, there is no reason why the system should not work.
Mr. Roger Williams: I thank the Minister for that clarification and I look forward to his guidance note. However, the Government are expected to introduce second-stage legislation to set up management agreements for each piece of common land. Will not there be a considerable overlap between the resulting management committees and local access forums?
Alun Michael: I would be unwise to go far down that road. The hon. Gentleman cleverly worked his point into our discussion, but the regulations have nothing to do with the complicated issue of common land. I assure him, however, that there will be no such overlap.
I think that I have responded to most of the points made. The statutory instrument expressly includes advice on the implementation of the access and rights of way provisions in the Act. It contains detailed provisions on the membership of local
Column Number: 16access forums and on their establishment and administration by local authorities and national park authorities.
Forums must be in place by 8 August 2003, although that does not mean that people must wait until then; indeed, it would be slightly absurd if they did. I hope that hon. Members will find that their local authorities are already well ahead with preparations to establish forums—if they have not already done so—and to bring them into line with the regulations.
It is worth mentioning that the regulations follow extensive public consultation. We consulted more than 2,000 people and organisations and we received 300 responses, some of which were quite detailed. The vast majority supported the general thrust of the proposals, but we accepted several suggestions from practitioners who wanted the provisions to succeed. In particular, we accepted that the regulations should prescribe the minimum number of members for each forum, as well as the maximum number. We have also allowed for a slight increase in the number of members from county, district and national park authorities who can be appointed to a forum. That should aid communication and the forums' ability to listen. We have therefore listened to the views expressed in the consultation.
The regulations provide appointing authorities with a clear, easily understandable framework for establishing local access forums, but it will take time and effort to do so properly. We shall shortly issue further guidance to the forums, which will cover their roles, responsibilities and working arrangements. We have ensured that each local access forum will include a reasonable balance between the number of members representing the interests of users of the new right of access and the local rights of way and those who represent owners and occupiers of access land. That was the most major concern aired at the beginning of the debate.
I have no doubt about the vital role and importance of local access forums. Forums should form a key part of local government's long-term arrangements for liaison and consultation with local people, protecting the interests of local people and ensuring that they are taken into account in the provision and management of recreation and access.
In the past, there has been a tendency for people to be either for or against access to the countryside. I hope that those days are gone. When we saw that it was safe to reopen the countryside last year, following the impact of foot and mouth disease, one of the first meetings was held in the National Farmers' Union offices. I mentioned the involvement of the Country Land and Business Association in opening up the countryside. On the other hand, strong appreciation was shown by walkers, ramblers and mountaineers of the need to respect the difficult situation that land managers and farmers were in last year. Perhaps this is the right time to build on that mutual respect, because mutual respect and co-operation is in the best interests of everyone who cares for our countryside.
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Mr. Gray: We prayed against the statutory instrument not because we objected to it in principle but because we felt that there were a number of important issues that the Government needed to address. I thank the Minister for his careful and thoughtful response to it. He has answered most of our questions.
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Question put and agreed to.
Committee rose at twenty-seven minutes past Five o'clock.
The following Members attended the Committee:
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