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Mr. Spring: I put it to the Minister, in a wholly non-partisan and dispassionate way, that if he thinks that planning protection is actually working on the ground he is entirely mistaken. I also put it to him, again in a wholly non-partisan way, that the Government have a responsibility to react to the incidences of ill health ascribed to the transmission masts. That is what the precautionary principle is all about. The voluntary code is being abused wholesale by the telecommunications companies. It is a mess. I understand his position and acknowledge that he has been open and professional, but the Government have a responsibility to the people of this country to tidy up that mess. I hope that as a result of this debate he goes away and reflects on how to do that.

Keith Hill: I understand and appreciate the spirit in which the hon. Gentleman raises those concerns. I also appreciate his acknowledgment that the Government are taking the issues seriously. We recognise the public's concerns about the health implications of masts. We have worked very hard to get the best scientific evidence on which to make a judgment about the health impacts
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of those masts. What is more, we are responding to research from abroad and in this country. Indeed, we are funding research in this country to continue studies into the public health implications of masts. Let me reassure the hon. Gentleman that we are also carefully monitoring developments in the localities where masts have been installed.

As the hon. Gentleman told the House, he has been the recipient of a huge volume of correspondence since he announced his intention to propose this measure. As the Minister for Housing and Planning, I, too, am in receipt of a considerable amount of correspondence, from members of the public and from Members of the House who are properly responding to the concerns of their constituents. Of course, that volume of correspondence encourages any reasonable Planning Minister, which I hope I can claim to be, constantly to ensure that official and other relevant parties test the performance of the operators in these matters. In addition, Ministers regularly meet the operators and make strenuous demands for the evidence on which they maintain their activities.

The Government are aware that this is an issue of great public sensitivity, and we are constantly on the alert with regard to it. The fact that we recognise those public concerns is exactly the reason that this country is a world leader not only in research and development in mobile phone technologies but in research on health concerns. I say again to the hon. Gentleman and to the House that we are keeping the whole area under the closest review in light of that further research.

Question put, That the Bill be now read a Second time:—

The House divided: Ayes 10, Noes 2.

Division No. 182
[1:17 pm


Dismore, Andrew
Flight, Howard
Hoey, Kate (Vauxhall)
Luff, Peter (M-Worcs)
Mates, Michael
Pugh, Dr. John
Robertson, Hugh (Faversham & M-Kent)
Skinner, Dennis
Spring, Richard
Williams, Roger (Brecon)

Tellers for the Ayes:

Mr. David Ruffley and
Mr. Eric Forth


Hill, Keith (Streatham)
King, Ms Oona (Bethnal Green & Bow)

Tellers for the Noes:

Ms Bridget Prentice and
Gillian Merron

21 May 2004 : Column 1261

It appearing on the report of the Division that 40 Members were not present, Madam Deputy Speaker declared that the Question was not decided, and the business under consideration stood over until the next sitting of the House.

21 May 2004 : Column 1262

Rights of Way (Amendment) Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

1.28 pm

Jim Dowd (Lewisham, West) (Lab): With the permission and consent and, indeed, at the request of my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Janet Anderson), I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

My hon. Friend is deeply sorry and sends her apologies to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and the House for the fact that she is not here today to move the motion. All hon. Members experience, from time to time, an unfortunate dilemma and a conflict between our duties in the House and those in our constituencies, and she is currently in her constituency on a very pressing personal engagement. Rather than lose the opportunity today at least to air the principles underlying the Bill, she has asked me to step into the breach. I apologise to the House and to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for the fact that you are getting the dustcart instead of the lord mayor's show today.

I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen has a particular concern about the matters covered by the Bill in relation to her constituency, with its large concentrations of urban dwellings and industry flanked by beautiful countryside. Open green spaces are increasingly important resources for constituents who seek respite through countryside recreation and the associated benefits of fresh air, peace and tranquillity. Even though my own constituency is urban and part of inner-London and we do not have similar issues pressing there, it is a pressing matter for my constituents. They, like the constituents of hon. Members throughout the House, use the countryside more and more for recreation, especially if they live in urban areas for the working week.

The tranquillity of our greener areas is threatened by the invasion of scrambler bikes, bikes incorrectly but almost universally known as quad bikes, and four-wheel drive vehicles known as off-roaders. Irrecoverable damage is being done to sensitive land and it is becoming increasingly commonplace to see such damage owing to the inappropriate and inconsiderate use of those vehicles. Other rights of way users feel intimidated by convoys of vehicles, and reckless motorised use continues even through the winter months, turning many fragile countryside routes into deeply rutted and impassable mud baths.

Early-day motion 380 in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) has been well supported by some 110 Members from all parts of the House. Although I know that some hon. Members would go as far as a complete ban on vehicles on rights of way, the Bill does not attempt to achieve that. It does not seek to prevent vehicles using the 4,500 km of recorded vehicular rights of way in England and Wales.

Use by vehicles of rights of way is not always in itself undesirable or damaging. There are already legislative provisions such as traffic regulation orders to regulate use where rights for mechanically propelled vehicles already exist.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con): The hon. Gentleman no doubt has an intimate knowledge of
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the explanatory notes—in fact, I would not be surprised if he helped to draft them. I was rather puzzled by the sentence in paragraph 4:

Can the hon. Gentleman explain to me how illegal use has been allowed to continue for that length of time?

Jim Dowd: There is a passage in my notes that deals with that in part, and I shall come to it later. The right hon. Gentleman is aware that part of the reason for introducing the Bill is precisely the lack of clear regulation in this area. I shall come to some of the antecedents of that and some of the conflicts that it is creating. I share his view that the matter is subject to considerable confusion and needs clarification. The Bill presents us with an opportunity to adopt a partial, though not a complete, solution to the problem.

It is evident that existing motor vehicular use of the rights of way network will increase to unsustainable levels over the next 20 years. The figure of 20 years is used because there is a deadline of 2026—which is actually 22 years away—under the terms of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 for claiming historic rights to use highways and byways.

Many claims are already being submitted to local highways authorities to upgrade existing footpaths and bridleways to motor vehicular ways. Most alarmingly, the claims are generally based on the production of evidence of use by horse-drawn vehicles many years, if not centuries, ago.

Mr. Forth: Will the Bill's provisions be retrospective? I am interested that the hon. Gentleman says that there is a process whereby claims are now being submitted. He will know, because he understands these matters better than most, that there is always an issue with legislation such as this that seeks to put right something that is claimed to be wrong. Were the Bill to become an Act, would it have any retrospective effect in nullifying the claims already submitted and established?

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