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Resolved in the negative, and amendment disagreed to accordingly.
Lord Whitty: My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Minister for the Environment. Documents referred to in the Statement as being available in the Vote Office are available in the Printed Paper Office. The Statement is as follows:
"Securing greater access to open countryside will bring new opportunities for improving people's health--physical and mental. It will enable everybody to experience the wonders of wildlife and beautiful landscapes.
"Over the past 50 years a voluntary approach has delivered relatively little and, despite some commendable initiatives, there is little prospect of much new access being provided voluntarily in future. Even if much more access could be secured by voluntary means, the access would not be permanent and the costs would be high. Only a new statutory right will deliver cost-effectively the extent and permanence of access we are seeking. There has been much ill-informed speculation that the Government would not introduce a statutory right of access. Today I can confirm that we have decided to bring forward legislation, as soon as parliamentary time allows, to provide for a general statutory right of area access, coupled with responsibilities for walkers to respect the rights of landowners and managers.
"The legislation will include improvements to the rights-of-way system. This comprehensive package will provide fresh opportunities for walking and other recreational pursuits, while taking the legitimate interests of land managers fully into account.
"The new statutory right of access will apply to mountain, moor, heath and down, subject to mapping by the new countryside agency and Countryside Council for Wales, and to registered common land. That amounts to about 4 million acres. The right may be extended to other types of open country, such as some woodland. It will apply to access on foot for open-air recreation.
"The Government studied over 2,000 responses to our consultation document; we talked to a wide range of organisations; we visited key sites; and we commissioned research into the costs and benefits of different approaches. We are now convinced that legislation is the only way to make sure people will be free in perpetuity to explore open countryside.
"But we accept that there are real concerns about the impact of a new statutory right. The statutory right will therefore be subject to proper and reasonable limitations and there will be codes of practice. It will not apply to developed land or to agricultural land, except that used for extensive grazing. There is no question of giving people a right to trample over crops or through other people's gardens. There will be strict restrictions on dogs. Land may be closed when necessary for health, safety or defence reasons. Further, the new countryside agency, the Countryside Council for Wales and national parks authorities will be able to authorise closures or restrictions to protect wildlife or historic interest or for land management reasons, as long as the landowner can demonstrate that restriction is necessary.
"We attach considerable importance to local agreement being reached whenever possible and will be promoting local access forums, with all the main interests represented, to advise on the details of any local limitations before the right comes into force. The aim of the forum will be to achieve consensus. But no member of the forum will have a final veto. The forums will be advisory; the decisions will be for the statutory agencies.
"In addition, land managers will be able to close land temporarily without prior consent for a number of days each year. We propose to set the annual limit initially at 28 days, primarily for land management purposes, though landowners will also be able to close land for other reasons for up to 12 of the 28 days. If necessary, provision will be made to ensure that access is not restricted unreasonably at peak times.
"I now turn to rights of way. We want to strengthen and develop the rights of way network to enable it to respond to the changing requirements of recreational use and the needs of land managers. Before concluding on the detail of new legislation, we will consider recommendations from the Countryside Commission and seek further views. There is no question of failing to secure the proper recording and maintenance of rights of way, or of reducing the overall value of the rights of way network.
"It will be clear from what I have said so far that the new countryside agency will play an important role in implementing the new statutory right, as well as promoting sustainable rural development and protecting our finest landscapes. I can today announce that Ewen Cameron has been appointed to chair the agency. He has made clear that he enthusiastically supports the Government's access proposals. We have also appointed Pamela Warhurst, currently leader of Calderdale Council, as deputy chair. She will be playing a leading role in the agency's implementation of the access package.
"Though there will be some extra costs for local authorities and statutory agencies, for which we will make provision, we do not expect our legislative proposals to have major financial consequences. Nevertheless, the benefits of the basic statutory right and of the rights of way network will be much enhanced by further expenditure on, for example, the provision of additional routes and readily available information. The lottery has already made a considerable contribution to improving access to the countryside. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport will be asking lottery distributors to look at how their funding might contribute further. We are also considering what part the New Opportunities Fund, through the proposed green spaces initiative, might be able to play. My right honourable friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food will make sure that the targeting of the access elements of agri-environment schemes contributes to the overall strategy. In Wales that will be a matter for the National Assembly for Wales.
"Almost exactly 50 years ago, a Labour government introduced legislation to safeguard our finest countryside and to open it to the nation. The largely voluntary approach to access of the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949 has proved inadequate. Glorious parts of our heritage are still the preserve of the few, not the delight of the many. As soon as parliamentary time permits, we will bring forward legislation to remedy that. We look forward to discussing widely the details of this package, but we are firm on the principles. This balanced package fully meets the commitment we gave in our manifesto and will be a lasting tribute to the memory of John Smith. I trust that Members on both sides of the House will support it".
We on this side of the House are disappointed in the Statement, which seems to confirm that the Government's intention is to ramrod through legislation which, if the Statement is a guide, will be ill-considered,
Our primary concern at this stage is that the co-operation between many private and public bodies to provide more access for the public to the countryside in recent years is put in jeopardy. One could ask many questions, and I must first ask how it was that the BBC radio seemed to be so singularly ill-informed this morning, though I know that the Government are not responsible for BBC radio?
Four million acres was mentioned by the Minister, and he suggested that the right might be extended to other types of land, such as woodland. That is conveniently open-ended. Will the Minister define how much other land and what sort of woodland is being considered? What is "extensive grazing"? How does the Minister define "extensive", and what are the classes of grazing? What about deer and other wild animals? Another problem has been raised by those who farm on downland. How will the public be expected to tell the difference between land on which they can roam and land on which grass is being grown for silage?
I am glad to read about the proposed strict restrictions on dogs. Are the Government aware that it must apply to dogs on short leads only--not long ones--as ground-nesting birds often make their nests close to the sides of paths? Who will finance the insurance required for personal and public liability? The Statement refers to access being available at peak times. What is considered a peak time? How will people get to these places? They are way out in the wilds. Will vast car parks be created? Who will be responsible for cleaning the sites and enforcing the regulations? There seems to be the opportunity for a lot of pollution to be created in places where there is little, if any, now.
The Statement refers to the need for land managers. Will the Minister expand on that? It is said that much consensus can be achieved at national level. To a great extent that has been done already in the past 10 years, in the present provision for access, but that is now at serious risk. The Statement also refers to "some extra costs". We believe that there will be many. Have the Government taken into consideration the possibility that they may be faced with court challenges and legal costs?
If the Government intend to use lottery money, as the Statement seems to say, I understand what they mean by the lack of major financial consequences. Is the Minister committing money to extra access provisions when such money may not be there? He referred to monies from agri-environment schemes but they may not yet be available and could be subject to the outcome of common agricultural policy reforms that have yet to be agreed. In a recent survey about access, a large majority stated that they wish to walk within a short distance of their homes and along well-marked linear routes. I fear the result will be no co-operation and no compensation. The message to farmers and landowners is clear. The
Baroness Hamwee: My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement, which is about the extent to which I agree with the noble Lord who spoke for the Official Opposition. The Liberal Democrats will support legislation provided--I emphasise that word--there is a fair deal for all stakeholders. I was pleased at the use of word "balanced" early in the Statement. It seems that the debate has suffered from the language. Talking about the right to roam suggests an extreme right. I am glad that in their proposals the Government are endeavouring to bring the pendulum back somewhere near the centre.
My first question follows from the Minister's comment that there will be legislation as soon as parliamentary time allows. The whole House would be glad if he could say more this afternoon. If the Government cannot state that they anticipate legislation within the lifetime of this Parliament, the Statement is less of a commitment than we would like.
The Statement makes reference to the need for the new countryside agency and the Countryside Council for Wales to undertake mapping. It would be interesting to know the extent of that exercise. It sounds ambitious and detailed and may delay the effects of the legislation once enacted.
The Statement also refers to codes of practice and we will undoubtedly spend time considering how the legislation can be policed and enforced. I anticipate that it may be easier to enforce the legislation against a landowner who blocks a right of way than against a walker who deliberately or carelessly defaces the countryside. I do not suggest that the problems created for landowners by careless or thoughtless walkers should be ignored or underestimated. In both cases, funding enforcement will be an important part of the legislation.
Increasing access will undoubtedly have an environmental impact and cost implications for the owners of land. We support local forums and agreements, although we are well aware that with difficult issues such as access, consensus is not necessarily achieved by legislation. We will need to consider the detail of land closure--how it will work, what indications will be given to the public and what alternative routes will be provided.
To return to that part of the Statement dealing with rights of way, I welcome that there is no question of failing to secure the proper recording and maintenance of rights of way, but the Government should be in no doubt that such will be a costly exercise for local authorities. I have seen that at local level and know how temperatures are apt to rise over small details.
Returning to the financial consequences, I was surprised that the Government confidently state that they do not expect major financial consequences. I was concerned to read of the role of lottery funding. The question of additionality is one in which the House will no doubt be most interested. The Government are right to observe in the Statement that,
Lord Whitty: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Luke, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, for their comments. I regret that the noble Lord was unable to give even a qualified welcome to our approach and that the official Opposition are stuck in an argument that the facts do not justify. I welcome the qualified support from the Liberal Democrat Benches, which more accurately reflects the feeling of the country--both the nation as a whole and the countryside itself.
I shall briefly repeat the arguments against a purely voluntary approach. We have not only made our manifesto pledge clear but promised action because of the unsatisfactory nature of the voluntary approach over the past 50 years. It is also true that since the Government's approach and intent have been known, the voluntary alternative has not delivered significantly further progress. Research confirms that a voluntary approach, even with high incentive payments, is likely to produce less than one quarter of the additional area of access that would be obtained by a general statutory right. To achieve more would require such a dramatic change of behaviour on past trends that, we believe, the voluntary approach would not work or would work slowly.
The quality of access available under existing voluntary agreements varies enormously. Hours of access can be limited, access can be confined to linear routes or allowed only to certain groups of people. Under a general statutory right, everyone will be clear that is their right to roam on the open part of our countryside. It will also give greater clarity to the confusing plethora of voluntary arrangements, which are difficult to map or otherwise record. A statutory right will make mapping nationally easier and cover all open countryside. People need to know that they have the right to walk over certain types of countryside in most types of circumstances. The limitations of that must be clearly set out; for example, for limited periods they will be required to have consent from the statutory authorities.
The noble Lord, Lord Luke, asked a number of questions in that respect. It may well be important for me to repeat that this right of access does not cover agricultural, cultivated land; it covers mountain, moor, heath and down and registered common land. The reference to extensive grazing means essentially that--
The noble Lord appeared to believe that the latter would lead to vast numbers of charabancs turning up in the remotest part of our countryside. A large proportion of this land is, as other speakers have said, not particularly accessible. It will require a serious dedication to walking and rambling to gain access to most of it. We expect the level of usage to be low in most areas. The impact will be limited in terms of damage to the land, or whatever.
The noble Lord and the noble Baroness both asked whether facilities would be provided. The noble Baroness also referred to the role of lottery money. We shall be looking at those areas where there might be some pressure of demand for lottery money to be used for non-statutory facilities, in order to ease any pressure that might arise. However, as I said, that will arise in very limited areas.
We were attempting to achieve a fair deal on the proposals. Therefore, we are looking to local fora--or, "forums" as set out in the Statement--to consider mapping the totality of England and Wales so as to make it clear which areas are covered by the definitions in the statute. We are asking the countryside agency and the Ordnance Survey to look at this area in order to produce a comprehensive mapping system so that everyone will be clear in that respect.
Reference was also made to dogs. It is clear that these rights relate to walkers. They do not relate to motorcyclists, bikers, cyclists, horses or anyone letting a dog off the leash. If there are problems in relation to access and the detailed application of it, we believe that the local forums that we propose to establish will help meet them. They are all stakeholders there; they will be local and the local authority will have a major role in the process. I agree with the noble Baroness that offences created under the legislation and those which are already on the statute book can apply to the ramblers themselves, as well as to landowners prohibiting access. There is a responsibility on everyone to ensure that these rights are not abused. However, they should be genuinely open.
The noble Lord referred to assessment as regards where people wanted to walk. It is true to say that the desire to walk is not universal among the majority of our citizenry--indeed, if they perambulate at all. I have in mind my experience in my other capacity of trying to get people off the roads. However, there is now a growing and important element who want to walk in our countryside and enjoy its facilities. In fact, surveys carried out by both landowners and the Ramblers' Association show over-80 per cent. support for a right to roam in open countryside. Therefore we are doing the nation's will in this respect. We believe that the
As far as concerns rights of way, there are indeed some problems about the present network. We do not envisage a massive extension in costs to local authorities in mapping properly the rights of way, but some degree of flexibility may be needed on all sides. It is not true that the Government have taken no notice of the views of landowners in that respect; indeed, we have taken them on board. As the noble Baroness said, we wish to reflect the interests of landowners as we do in regard to the countryside agency. In the machinery that we are setting up for this, we believe that the views of everyone need to be taken into account. However, we cannot compromise on what we promised in the election; and, indeed, what the statute will provide is a right to roam for the majority of our citizenry, albeit that only a relatively small minority will take advantage of it. The benefit to them and to the well-being of the nation as a whole, together with a feeling that the countryside does not just belong to a few people, represents an important democratic step and one that I hope will receive at least some support from all sides of the House.
I turn now to the query of the noble Baroness regarding the legislation. Of course, I cannot pre-empt any future declarations in the Queen's Speech, or anywhere else. No doubt my colleague Michael Meacher, and other colleagues, will be considering when best we can introduce it. In terms of implementation, there will be a slight delay in that the requirement for mapping will provide some technical problems. They will no doubt be dealt with as rapidly as possible, but it will not be instantaneous. I trust that I have answered most of the questions raised by both Front Benches.
Lord Denham: My Lords, the Minister set out to answer a question about the legislation put by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, but did not give a very thorough answer. However, did not the manifesto commitment refer to this Parliament?
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