Access to the Countryside (Provisional and Conclusive Maps) (England) Regulations 2002

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Mr. Gray: I want to clarify a point made by the Minister. I understand that the Countryside Agency says that the maps will be made available free of charge to any hon. Member who requests them, irrespective of whether he was entering into the matter in a constructive way.

Alun Michael: Yes, but I urge the hon. Gentleman to join me in asking our colleagues not to add to the costs for no good reason. If hon. Members have concerns about their areas, wish to meet landowners and use maps as working documents, they should follow the course of action that the hon. Gentleman has suggested. However, it would be unhelpful and irresponsible to suggest that people should apply for maps, whether or not they would be used. All hon. Members face a similar situation. We could request a copy of every document that is published in the Vote Office, but most of us ask for those documents that we intend to use in our day-to-day work. I make that point in relation to his encouraging everyone—I hope

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that I have misinterpreted him slightly—to apply for maps, which the Countryside Agency would then make available to them.

Mr. Gray: I am sorry to pursue the matter a little further, but during the three-month consultation most hon. Members who represent rural areas may be approached by landowners who have concerns about a map. If a Member of Parliament has to say, ''I have to write to the Countryside Agency to get the maps, then look at them before I can answer your question'', that seems burdensome. It would not be unreasonable for the Countryside Agency to issue maps to any hon. Member who requested them on any occasion, free of charge—as the Vote Office would—even if they were not used. It seems that the maps are important.

Alun Michael: I make the point again: the Countryside Agency will, of course, treat all hon. Members in the same way in response to any request. It may surprise the hon. Gentleman to hear that some hon. Members in rural and urban seats represent their constituents diligently and vigorously and are proactive in dealing with similar issues and discussing them with those people but other hon. Members are less diligent. I urge the hon. Gentleman not to suggest that everyone should apply for all maps. People should consider the use to which they would put the maps.

Maps are available to representative organisations in libraries and local authority premises. I would have thought that anybody with concerns about effects on their land would ensure that they had seen the maps before discussing the situation with their Member of Parliament. Therefore, MPs will often be aware of issues in their constituencies. I know that MPs run their surgeries in different ways, but I suggest to the hon. Gentleman that we do not encourage the production of a large number of documents that will then sit on shelves gathering dust. If MPs are to be as diligent and proactive as the hon. Gentleman, it may be that they can help and inform the process. One can but hope.

The regulations allow people to see copies of provisional and conclusive maps, which are the next two stages after draft maps. Maps will be available electronically for those with access to the internet, but paper copies will be widely available through local authorities and representative organisations. As I have said, extra copies can be obtained from the agency on payment of a fee. The fee is not exorbitant; it merely covers costs.

The mapping appeals process is tailored to meet requirements in the Act and is based on procedures that have worked well in other systems. We have considered all the responses to our consultation paper and developed a streamlined system that is compatible with the principles of natural justice. We have kept the processes as straightforward as possible to make it easy for appellants to make a case. In line with commitments that were made during the passage of the Bill, we have enabled the public to participate. These regulations are a necessary stepping stone towards the implementation of the new right of

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access, but much remains to be done. It is important that we continue to make progress on implementing the Act. It has widespread public support and land managers have nothing to fear from it.

Hon. Members have made a number of points and I would like to deal with some of them. The hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire asked about the advertising of inquiries. The Countryside Agency will ensure that appropriate publicity is given. He also raised the issue of the border between England and Wales. Despite the location of my constituency, I shall stay well on this side of the border during this debate. The border always makes life more interesting; that is the nature of devolution.

The regulations for the publicity of an inquiry are the same as those for planning arrangements. The Secretary of State can require the agency to advertise inquiries in a newspaper. We have discussed the matter with the agency, which will ensure that wide publicity is given. Notices will be placed on the planning inspectorate's and the agency's websites. I agree about the value of newspaper advertising where that is appropriate, and I accept that there will be different circumstances in different parts of the country, as hon. Members have said. It is therefore sensible to give the agency flexibility, so that it can consider the circumstances and decide the best way of providing the widest possible information.

I understand that, in all the appeals that have been made so far, the appellants have asked to make a written representation rather than an oral representation at a hearing.

On decisions to add land on the map, I understand that the agency intends to provide information to all who comment at the draft map stage. I will discuss the issue further with the agency in light of comments that have been made. However, people's interest will be noted and they will be kept informed of further developments.

Chris Grayling: In planning matters, it is customary for the people who are immediately affected by a proposal to receive a letter from their local authority to alert them to the fact that an application has been made. It would be unfortunate if a landowner with land affected by the mapping exercise did not receive direct communication from the agency.

Alun Michael: We must ensure that we use common sense. I have given an undertaking to examine the matter with the agency to ensure that hon. Members' points are taken into account.

It is easy to make assumptions about the way in which these things work. It is easy to assume that the ownership of a specific plot of land is clear, or that it is clear where land ownership begins and ends. However, that is not always clear, as I am sure the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell is aware. We must not put all our eggs in one basket; it may turn out to be an inappropriate way in which to tell people that they are affected with the greatest possible certainty.

I am sorry that devolution seems to have passed the hon. Gentleman by, but I am happy to assure him that the statutory instrument does not permit the

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destruction of the planet. I accept the point about newspapers in many rural areas, and appropriate means of communicating must be considered in such circumstances. The key point is to advertise information in the most appropriate manner for each location. That is one reason why there is no blanket requirement for advertising in newspapers. I have discussed that with the agency, and I shall bring the hon. Gentleman's comments to its attention.

I assure hon. Members that we are not assuming that people have access to electronic communication, although that makes these processes easier for land managers and farmers with regard not only to mapping, but to several other things that affect them. That is a reason for promoting the availability of electronic communications in the countryside and for examining the way in which to improve standards of electronic communication, such as maximum availability of broadband.

The hon. Member for Ludlow (Matthew Green) raised the theoretical possibility that widely different conclusions could be drawn on the side of the border that we are not mentioning in this debate. I understand that the National Assembly for Wales is using the planning inspectorate to deal with appeals, as we are in England, so it is likely that the methodology will be consistent. There is great co-operation between us at both ministerial and official levels to ensure that we avoid surprises across the divide. That is especially relevant if there is no natural boundary, such as a river, which means that there are legitimate worries.

The hon. Member for North Wiltshire referred to the land added to maps. Only the landowner has the right of appeal at the final stage. If people are affected and, especially, if their interest has been noted and they are aware of developments, a second trip to the library is not unreasonable to find out how their land would be affected.

When the hon. Gentleman said that 60 per cent. of landowners' representations were agreed to, he assumed that that meant that the landlords, landowners or land managers had been the more reasonable party. I think that it is good evidence that the Countryside Agency is addressing the worries of land managers and responding to them reasonably. The balance of the legislation has caused a complex situation. When opening up access, which has long been the desire of those who enjoy walking in the countryside, we have leaned on the side of trying to ensure that the interests of landowners and land managers are properly recognised.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the regulations on restrictions. We have completed the consultation on those regulations, and expect the regulations to come into force early in the new year. He also referred to costs. It would be possible to over-egg the pudding and go to great lengths, which would increase the administrative costs of the process. I reinforce the point about the difficulty that is sometimes had in identifying precise ownership and interest in a particular piece of land. It may not be possible to find all the people with an interest in it.

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The Country Landowners Association and other organisations will be sent free maps, and the maps will, as I have already said, be widely available at libraries and local authority offices. The planning inspectorate is already receiving appeals. I hope that, with the good offices of the Countryside Agency, we can ensure that everyone with an interest is made aware of how they may be affected, and of their opportunities to object if they are not happy with what is proposed.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the mapping of limestone downland in Wiltshire. I do not think that it is appropriate to discuss individual cases, although I am happy to clarify what is happening with hon. Members who raise such cases to make sure that they get information about them. The 2000 Act requires the agency to map all land that it believes to be open country and registered common land. Those are difficult definitions, but the agency has gone to great lengths to consult and discuss matters with representative bodies such as the CLA and the NFU and to get things right. If the matter were simple, it would have been simple to get right in the original legislation. We are attempting to deal with complex issues.

The hon. Gentleman and other members of the Committee will be aware that complexities arise when we deal with overlaps of ownership, common land, land that has an extremely complicated history and that has, in some circumstances, not been precisely mapped in the past. The situation is not necessarily as simple as we would like to imagine when we deal with it in Committee.

The hon. Member for North Wiltshire raised some points of detail regarding the contribution to costs of closure. It is worth pointing out that the legislation is quite clear in relation to closure. Such provisions are intended to enable land managers to manage their land. They are a concession that is extremely useful to land managers. The hon. Gentleman referred to English Nature's suggestions about protecting particular types of land and recommending linear access. Those are management issues, and it would perhaps be more helpful if I wrote to the hon. Gentleman to deal with them.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that getting the mapping process right is a sensitive balance. I think that that has to do not with the statutory instrument but with the legislation, which was designed to achieve a careful balance between the interests of land managers and those who want to walk in the countryside. On the issue of land managers being notified when land is shown as open country, much land remains unregistered, as there is no complete list of people with an interest in the land.

The agency has an extensive programme of publicity for the provision of maps, which is underwritten by the requirements in the regulations for public notices, internet mapping, and the sending of reduced scale maps to representative organisations and parish councils. Parish councils are often the most local contact point for people. There are some 7,000 or 8,000 parish councils around the country, and that demonstrates the local nature of most of those organisations. The publicity programme is intended

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to ensure that the overwhelming majority of land managers will be aware of their opportunity to appeal.

The hon. Gentleman asked about free maps. We do not think that it is necessary to supply free maps to land managers because they will be able to inspect maps free of charge according to the arrangements that I have already described and through the representative organisations. In Wales, it is a matter for the Welsh Assembly Government, although there is not as much land to be mapped in Wales, so the costs involved are relatively small compared with those involved should we choose that option in England.

I am happy to respond to hon. Members if they have individual cases of concern or if problems arise during the mapping process. However, from the regular meetings that I have with the Countryside Agency, I am satisfied that it is seeking to deal methodically and responsibly with the issue and to communicate with everybody who has an interest to ensure that people are aware of what they have to do in what is a complex process. It is complex precisely because efforts have been made to balance the interests of walkers and land managers.

There is still much to do and it is important that we continue to make progress in implementing the Act. It has widespread public support and land managers have nothing to fear from it. At an earlier stage, hon. Members were circulated with concerns from the CLA, some of which were seriously misplaced. I am pleased to say that I met the president of the CLA, Sir Edward Greenwell, and members of his team. We were able to thrash out some of the issues and ended up with the type of constructive exchanges in which the hon. Gentleman and I hope to continue to indulge in relation to the Bill.

I am pleased to acknowledge that at no stage did the Opposition vote against the principle of the new right of access that the Act provides, so I hope that we will have all-party support for this necessary step towards full implementation of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act. As I said earlier, I am happy to continue to engage with individual hon. Members and representatives of Opposition parties in relation to any issues that arise that give cause for concern.

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