Natural Environment and Rural Communities Bill

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Mr. Williams: My understanding is that in England the representatives from parish councils are appointed by the Secretary of State anyway, so they are just another form of appointment by the Secretary of State.

Jim Knight: Up to a point I cannot argue with that, but they are there by virtue of their election to parish councils first and foremost. The Secretary of State cannot appoint someone who is not on the parish council in the national park authority area. We can argue about the semantics and the details of how that works, but they are there by virtue of their election and the fact that they represent local people in the park.

We have different arrangements, but the real test of the current system is whether it works and it seems to me that it does. The authors of the 2002 review certainly seem to think that it works. They said that they

    “were not persuaded that directly elected members would bring clear benefits”.

The separate review of the Welsh national park authorities also found no consensus on this issue. The Welsh Assembly will consult later this year on possible changes to the existing appointment arrangements in Wales, where there are no parish councils.

I am sure that the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire would not want this Committee in Westminster to impose a solution and to pre-empt the outcome of the devolved Assembly’s consultation. We in London should not impose a solution on Wales, and there can be no greater champion of that in the Committee than the hon. Gentleman. I hope that he will make his case about direct elections as assertively to the review as he made it to the Committee today. I wish him all the best in what he has set out to achieve in this Parliament—direct election to national park authorities in Wales.

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In short, I see no need for a directly elected component. To introduce one could unbalance the approach that has proved successful since independent national park authorities were established. I invite the hon. Gentleman to withdraw his amendment.

Mr. Williams: Thank you, Mr. Forth, for your tolerance. It was essential to put the amendments in the context of the way national parks work in this country and other areas. No one would be concerned about appointing a body to look after a wilderness, but it is appropriate to have an element of democracy in organisations that look after the affairs of people who live in national parks. The Minister said that this was an old chestnut, but even old chestnuts sometimes germinate, grow, flower and flourish. It is about time this old chestnut did exactly that.

The Minister said that the matter was considered as part of the quinquennial review of national parks in England, and it was certainly considered in Wales. This is English-Welsh legislation. The Assembly Member for Brecon and Radnorshire, Kirsty Williams, and I made strong representations to the review in Wales on direct elections. Surprisingly, the organisation that was established to carry out that consultation said that although there was no consensus, they could see many good reasons for direct elections and that the objections did not carry much weight. When the Minister in the Welsh Assembly responded to that, the Assembly Committee rejected his response and said that he should go away and think about it again. It was not referring to direct elections in particular; it was talking about the response to the quinquennial review. There is concern in Wales, and where Wales leads, I am sure that everybody else will follow, as they always do.

The fact remains that the limitations of the devolution settlement mean that the only way we will achieve direct elections to national parks in Wales is by primary legislation in this place. That is part of the reason why I tabled the amendment, although direct elections would work in England as well. The Minister says, “Why should Westminster dictate to Wales?” He will realise that I am not seeking legislation that will direct the Assembly in Wales; I am seeking legislation that enables the Assembly to do something, although the wording of the amendment may not carry that meaning. In a way, the amendment puts down a maker, but it is also a bit more than that. The time has come for people who live in national parks to have the power to elect their own representatives. I had hoped to unite the Committee on this issue, but I am afraid that I will have to divide it.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 2, Noes 8.

[Division No. 3]


Breed, Mr. Colin
Williams, Mr. Roger


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Chaytor, Mr. David

Cunningham, Tony
Kidney, Mr. David
Knight, Jim
Mann, John
Palmer, Dr. Nick
Smith, Ms Angela C.
Tipping, Paddy

Question accordingly negatived.

Clause 57 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 58 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 59

Notification of agricultural operations on moor and heath in National Parks

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Mr. Paice: I want to take the opportunity to raise a point that has been raised with me, and, I suspect, other members of the Committee, by the National Farmers Union. It has asked what is the point of this clause. As far as I can see, there is no dissent from the principle of what is being addressed, but the NFU thinks that the whole clause is unnecessary. The original power was enacted as long ago as 1968 as far as Exmoor was concerned. The power was included in the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, which the clause is intended to amend. The power has rarely been used. According to the regulatory impact assessment, it has been used only three times since the 1980s. Basically, it provides a cooling-off period of up to three months for national park authorities to consider a proposal, which could be extended by another nine months if the authorities decide to decline. That is a sensible approach and we do not take issue with it.

However, the clause would transfer the power to oblige notification of operations on moors and heaths in national parks from Ministers to the national park authorities. Orders would no longer be subject to parliamentary approval. The rationale advanced is that that will simplify the process and reduce the burden on the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs following the efficiency scrutiny of local authority consent regimes that was conducted as long ago as 1997. So, in truly efficient style, it has taken us eight years to take action to enable orders to be processed more quickly.

9.45 am

But—this is a big “but” and the point of my speech—the NFU argues that the process has been superseded. I agree with the NFU. Section 42 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act is obsolete because of the obligations that now exist. Any plan to change the use of land by bringing uncultivated land or semi-natural areas into intensive agricultural use requires DEFRA’s consent under the environmental impact assessment regulations that came into force on 1 February 2002. The contention is that the 2002 regulations have effectively made the part of section 42 that we are amending obsolete. The regulations give
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the Secretary of State the power to serve stop orders on anyone who starts a project without the necessary consent. If convicted, the person faces unlimited fines.

Even more importantly, those regulations go much further than the narrow clause does. They cover a much wider range of types of land—including wetlands and unimproved grassland such as down-land and scrubland not just the moorland and heath referred to in clause 59. So I, and the NFU, contend that the environmental impact assessment regulations provide much broader protection for such land than section 42 or clause 59 orders could possibly do.

It seems to me that the noble attempt by the Government to simplify the process is actually making it more complicated, because the administrative and bureaucratic burden created by having two different types of orders—DEFRA processing one type and, if the clause goes through, the national parks authority processing the other—is potentially much broader. It would obviously lead to duplication and confusion. How would a farmer in a national park know which type of order to apply for or whether to apply for both?

There is an important point. Based on the information that the NFU has provided to the Committee, it seems to me that the clause is pointless because the Government have already enacted regulations that render the power that it grants obsolete. I would be grateful for the Minister’s observations.

Jim Knight: I am grateful that the hon. Gentleman raised the issue and has given me the opportunity to seek to clarify it.

The clause helps better protect long-standing moors and heaths in national parks from forestry operations, planning and other activities that would convert them into agricultural land and that is likely to affect the land’s character or appearance. The effect of the provision in the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 is to stop those potentially harmful activities for up to a year so as to allow the farmer and the national park authority to come to an agreement about how best to manage the land in question. Although the provision whereby the Secretary of State makes an order gives protection to threatened land, it relies, in practice, on someone else asking the Secretary of State to make the order.

In the few cases in which a request has been made to the Secretary of State, that request has always come from a national park authority. So, the Secretary of State has ended up doing something that the national park authority is perfectly capable of doing itself. Although the need for such orders is rare, when a request for an order is made, it must, by its nature, be made quickly, for example, to stop a farmer who has begun ploughing valuable unspoiled moorland or heath in a national park.

The last order in 2001 was made within 24 hours of a request being made by the Peak District national park authority. The Bill will give the power to make an order to national park authorities rather than the Secretary of State. That will save valuable time in that
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a park authority need not ask the Secretary of State to make an order but could make it without delay. Time is of the essence if potentially environmentally damaging activities are to be stopped and an acceptable solution found. The transfer of power from the Secretary of State to the national park authorities will simplify the administrative process and reduce the bureaucratic burden accordingly.

The hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) and, through him, the NFU have raised some questions, and I shall try briefly to answer them. There are two essential reasons for introducing the power. We are required to take action following the identification of this power in the 1997 efficiency scrutiny of local authority consent regimes. The provision will simplify that process, because at present an order is made by the Secretary of State following a request from a national park authority. Transferring the power straight to the authority clearly simplifies the process.

There are additional benefits. The potential for time saving could mean that ecologically valuable land that might have been lost will be saved. The provision will not place any additional burdens on farmers. The power to restrict ploughing and certain other farming activities on moor and heath already exists; only the body applying the power will change. The provision will not place any unwanted administrative burden on the national park authority, partly because the power is rarely used, and because it will save the authority the bureaucratic burden of applying to the Secretary of State.

The hon. Gentleman rightly raised the question of the power’s relationship with environmental impact assessment regulations, and in that context he suggested, “Why bother at all?” There are conceivable circumstances in which the power would still be required if the environmental impact assessment regulations were modified, for example on plots of environmentally valuable land below any area threshold. Not having the power at all could lead to the loss of such environmentally important but small areas.

Finally the hon. Gentleman suggested that the power may cause confusion, which may lead to abuse by national park authorities. The power has existed for many years, and it has co-existed with the environmental impact assessment regulations. The section 42 power of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 can be used in some circumstances in which the regulations might not bite. All that we are changing is that the national park authorities will use the power rather than the Secretary of State. On the very few occasions that an order has been made by the Secretary of State, the national park authority has requested it.

I trust that that clarifies matters for the Committee. In essence, we are trying to simplify and streamline the process. It is rarely required, but still, it is required.

Mr. Paice: The Minister had obviously seen the same paperwork, and I am grateful to him for seeking to respond. Will he clarify an issue about the environmental impact assessment regulations? He said that they have all existed for a long while, but those
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regulations have existed for only three years. The last instance of using section 42 of the 1981 Act that he quoted predated those regulations, as it was in 2001 in the Peak District national park. I am therefore still unclear about his suggestion of a hypothetical instance in which an action to destroy land would fall through a hole in the environmental impact assessment regulations. He talks about an instance if the minimum areas were changed. Are the Government planning to change them? Where is the confusion that the Minister discusses?

Jim Knight: The environmental impact assessment regulations in section 42 of the 1981 Act have slightly different definitions of land. For example, the regulations require intensified agricultural operations, while section 42 simply refers to ploughing and other agricultural activities, such as forestry, that affect the character and the experience of land. The section 42 order can be made more quickly than the environmental impact assessment regulations can be implemented. There may be circumstances in which it is more appropriate in terms of speed to use that provision.

With regard to the size of the parcel of land that we are discussing, the regulations are being reviewed, and the threshold may be considered in that review. We want to keep open the option of the national park authority using the threshold in order to protect environmentally sensitive land.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 59 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 60

Functions of Broads Authority and others in relation to the Broads

Jim Knight: I beg to move amendment No. 142, in clause 60, page 24, line 13, leave out

    ‘by grants under section 15 of the 1988 Act’

and insert—

    ‘otherwise than by means of —

      (a)   charges of a kind mentioned in section 13(1) of the 1988 Act, or

      (b)   levies under section 14(1) of the 1988 Act.’.

The intention of subsection (4) was to prevent any increase in spending arising from the rewording of the first two purposes, which did not relate to navigation, from falling on either the local authorities and council tax payers or on the navigation toll payers. However, the original wording went a little too wide and might also have precluded a number of other sources of funding. The amendment will focus protection on the two specific groups to which the provision was always meant to apply: local authorities and the toll payers.

Amendment agreed to.

Clause 60, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

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Clause 61

Restriction on creation of new public rights of way

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

John Mann (Bassetlaw) (Lab): I have had a good look at the clause and I am a little concerned about whether the proposals will do exactly what the Government intend. I would like to tease out the Minister’s intentions on that. I have spent quite a lot of time considering the clause in the context of the whole of part 6, and looking at what the problem is. I fear that we may end up unremittingly with the current wording. It is not the specifics of that wording but the design of the whole clause that is too harsh. It does not deal with the big problem.

In my constituency, and all over the country, the big problem is that we have lots of automatic upgrades from roads used as public paths to byways open to all traffic—from RUPPs to BOATs—going on because of an anomaly in previous legislation. The anomaly is best illustrated by my constituency because dozens of upgrades are proposed there. Under the anomaly in current legislation, in order to upgrade from what I shall call bridle ways as a generic term—although it is not always technically accurate—to a byway open to all traffic, which can be used by motorbikes, quad bikes, 4x4s and anything else people drive, people make applications based on historic rights. If someone can prove the historic rights, that is the sole definition under which the upgrade has to be judged. Nothing else is taken into account: environmental issues, changes in the countryside and crime and disorder issues are all put to one side. If the historic rights for a vehicle—which really means a horse and cart—can be demonstrated, an automatic upgrade will go through.

I am sure that the Minister, like his predecessor, will confirm that there have been debates on the matter on the Floor of the House. We have a group of people scouring historic maps to find where those rights are; I believe the legislation gives them a period of 25 years in which to do so. Large numbers of upgrades are taking place. I shall explain why my constituency is as good an example of the absurdity of this anomaly as is found anywhere in the country.

Mr. Paice: I am, I suspect, in sympathy with the hon. Gentleman’s point but I am slightly puzzled as to why he is making it now. Clause 61 is about the future, and it precisely addresses his concerns. Clause 62—to which I have tabled amendments about commencement, which we shall debate at a later stage—deals with the point that he is making about the scouring of maps that is being done before the Bill is enacted.

10 am

John Mann: If I were happy with the hon. Gentleman’s amendments, I would have restricted my remarks to them and to the discussion on clause 62, but
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I am not, as they miss the point. Hence, it is appropriate for me to make my comments on clause 61 because I am unhappy with it.

I am unhappy not with the Government’s intent, but with the consequences of the clause. The danger with the debate about the future date of commencement that the hon. Gentleman was attempting not to entice me into but to defer me to—of course, there is an issue there—is that its context is all or nothing. I am not and never have been interested in all or nothing. My constituents and I are interested in removing an anomaly. Therefore, I wish to tease out from the Minister whether the Government propose to remove the anomaly and do nothing else, because if the anomaly in the law is removed, my constituents and I will be happy. We will be happy because we know that if we could use all the factors to challenge anyone’s desire to upgrade, the applications in my area would be unlikely to succeed. The phrase “all the factors” includes environmental issues, other uses, current uses, changes in the countryside, the spread of urbanisation, crime and disorder issues and the opinion of the local population and of parish, district and county councils—they could all be brought into the equation.

I am not bothered whether someone can propose to upgrade a route, but I am bothered that such a proposal is judged solely on historic rights. If someone can put a coherent case for saying that there should be a route in my area for trail riders—to take one of the categories of would-be users—and the objections against it are spurious, I would be quite happy with it, but I am not happy about the fact that such routes are being determined on one anomalous issue.

With your knowledge of history, Mr. Forth, I am sure that you know very well why my constituency is a good example. Where did the King’s armies camp on their way to the battle of Culloden? They camped on Clarborough hill in my constituency, which just happens to be where many of the upgrade applications have been proposed. Why did the armies camp there on their way to glory at Culloden? Because the River Trent is forded in my constituency.

There are earlier precedents. Why did the Romans build a settlement at Littleborough in my constituency? Because in Roman times the River Trent was forded there. If one wished to go from Italy to Scotland, at some stage they had to get across the River Trent. The fact that Romans’ chariots used the route—it is called the great north road, and their presence can be proven—is sufficient to create an automatic upgrade for motorised vehicles today. Mr. Forth, I know that you are fascinated by my historic examples. I could give more, but I think that I have done enough to illustrate the absurdity of the current anomaly.

Strangely, on Clarborough hill and in Sturton, the village that has grown up alongside the route to the Trent at Littleborough, lots of applications have been made for upgrades. We are not talking about trail rides that cut across the country; when people go down these routes, they end up at the River Trent. Unless
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somebody creates some kind of river-crossing vehicle to transport the bikes, they will be going there and then coming back. I have looked at many examples from across the country and I have received much correspondence, not all of it very polite, but this example illustrates probably better than any other the fact that I have seen the absurdity of the current anomaly. That anomaly needs rectifying, but the clause might not do that.

The issue is whether people will have the right to make other proposals. In that context, there is the issue of any delay in commencement. The words “after commencement” are included in the clause. The amendment tabled by the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire should also have related to clause 61, because the issue of commencement means that the problem is that, as the applications are being made, timing becomes important.

The county council in my constituency says that current applications will take three or four years. There are many applications in my constituency—far more than the Department reports in its survey. It reports that there are nine in my constituency. Well, there are nine on Clarborough hill; there are many more in my constituency. The facts that the Government are using to make decisions are not accurate. There is already a whole series of applications in just that one small area of my constituency.

It is not trail riders who are using the routes; it is what might euphemistically be called youths on bikes, and the activity is sometimes organised. That is to say, a white van appears, a lot of youths get out and on to their bikes or quad bikes and charge round these routes, some of which are circular and make rather good race tracks. They, and not the trail riders who are trying to go from one part of the country to another while viewing wonderful scenery, use the tracks. We are talking about an organised business, with youths in particular going at tremendous speeds, scaring horses, causing great danger and damage, and terrifying walkers, dog walkers and people living in those communities. All hon. Members present can rehearse those arguments at great length.

I want the Bill to ensure that that anomaly is removed immediately and that current applications that have not been determined are not determined solely on historic rights. Will part 6 rectify that? Does it do more than that? Will it fully and comprehensively rectify that problem?

Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): Like the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann), who has made an excellent speech, I am unhappy. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire and the Minister can explain either in relation to this clause or the next one how they could make me happy. I am not the only person who is unhappy: there are also my hon. Friends the Members for Wantage (Mr. Vaizey), for Henley (Mr. Johnson) and for Witney (Mr. Cameron), the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) and the right hon.
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Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith). Indeed, all Oxfordshire Members of Parliament are unhappy about the way in which the Ridgeway is being treated.

The Ridgeway stretches about 85 miles from Overton hill in Wiltshire to Ivinghoe beacon in Buckinghamshire. It is England’s oldest green road and it dates back to the earliest days of agriculture and inter-regional trade in this country 6,000 years ago. Probably when the Romans were not heading up to the River Trent, they were going along the Ridgeway. It is an historic feature of European importance and, because of its upland location, it ought to be a site of great natural beauty.

The present state of the Ridgeway is unhappy. That is the result of a combination of factors, the most fundamental of which is the growth in the number and variety of motor vehicles that use the Ridgeway. That has exposed the ancient highway to a host of new pressures. In recent years, there has been a phenomenal increase in the number of off-road motor bikes and 4x4 motor cars. Those vehicles destroy the surface of the Ridgeway. In wet weather, huge sections of the Ridgeway become a sea of mud and deep puddles. In dry weather, the surface sets into a series of ankle-twisting, knee-wrenching ruts.

The Ridgeway is a species of common land; it is an important part of our national heritage. It is important in giving access to the countryside to walkers and others. It is a common asset, and one would hope that new Labour recognises the need to protect public assets as much as private property. I want to know how we are going to prevent motor vehicles from having access to the Ridgeway. I can see no justification for 4x4 vehicles trundling along the Ridgeway and it being churned up in that way.

Even as a lawyer and even with an interpretation clause, I find clauses 61 and 62 difficult to interpret. My concern is that we have been here before and we received promises in the consultation document, “The Use of Mechanically Propelled Vehicles on Rights of Way”. In that document, Ministers said:

    “We propose to introduce legislation, which will make it no longer possible to establish the existence of a byway open to all traffic by reference to historic (pre-commencement) use by, or other evidence relating to, non-mechanically propelled vehicles”.

I, like the hon. Member for Bassetlaw, assume that that means the horse and cart. The consultation document went on to say:

    “We propose to do this by introducing a cut-off date after which (subject to certain exceptions) any unrecorded rights of way for vehicles shall be recorded as restricted byways in the definitive map and statement

    We propose that the cut-off date should be one year from the commencement of the new legislation.”

I tell the Minister that if that is what the Bill does, people in Oxfordshire will feel betrayed. People will be desperately unhappy because they want there to be no vehicular access along the Ridgeway. They can see no justification for the Ridgeway being churned up by 4x4 vehicles, trail bikes and so forth.

If the best the Government can do is say, “In certain other areas, if it isn’t already a byway open to all traffic, we can do something about it. But we’re terribly
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sorry that if the Ridgeway has been used by vehicular traffic in the past, you’re stuck with such traffic for ever”, that is a real betrayal of the countryside.

If I am wrong and the Minister can tell me that he will ban traffic on the Ridgeway, there will be much rejoicing in Oxfordshire. Bells will be ringing in the village churches. If he is not, people will be deeply unhappy. This is an issue of real resonance in Oxfordshire. People, families and others want to go out to walk there. If one is taking one’s children or family out for a walk, it is disastrous if one is beleaguered by people racing up and down a natural feature of our countryside that was never intended for that purpose.

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