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Lord Whitty: I endorse the views expressed by my noble friend Lady Young of Old Scone. This clause is pre-eminently concerned with nature conservation. For that reason I believe that it should stand part of the Bill and other considerations are not relevant here. However, I can reassure the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, that--although his remarks are not directly related and he commented that he did want the clause to stand part of the Bill--I see no reason why the restrictions imposed under the Bill should cut across or be more onerous than any voluntary arrangements currently in place. Clause 24(2)(c) allows for restrictions to be imposed only when required, for example, when a rare bird is present.

So far as concerns the detail of the two amendments, dry stone walls are covered in part elsewhere, as was pointed out by my noble friend. As the clause mainly concerns conservation, the protection of the environment and wildlife, were a walker to cause damage to a wall or to pollute a water course, he or she would clearly be guilty of a criminal offence on the one hand and would lose the right of access on the other. That is already covered in the Bill.

Moreover, it is difficult to conceive of many cases where the presence of walkers on the land as such would threaten water quality or cause pollution to drinking water. Even in remote areas, it is rare for water from springs to be used directly as drinking water. Even in those cases, the Bill provides that the right of open-air recreation does not include a right to bathe. Being in the water is not covered by the right of access.

Similarly should any particular problems be encountered as regards water sources, we would consider introducing by-laws. That is an area where that course would be appropriate. Nevertheless, the Bill provides additional safeguards. Clause 24 already provides for the protection of structures of historic or traditional interest. Dry stone walls may well fall into that category. Clause 24(3)(b) also refers to heritage protection, which would include traditional features.

The protection of water supplies could fall within the existing nature conservation purposes set out in the clause. Any person with an interest in the land who believes that there is a risk of damage to dry stone walls or deterioration of water quality as a result of access because of special problems in the area, should be able to seek restrictions by means of directions under Clause 22. It would also be open to him to address any

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problems by appropriate management measures, such as the creation of new means of access which reduce the need for walkers to cross walls in order to gain access to the land.

For those reasons, I do not think that the amendments are necessary. It is best to keep Clause 24 related firmly to nature conservation and heritage preservation and not, as my noble friend said, to muddy the waters with additional factors that are adequately covered elsewhere. I hope that the noble Lord will not pursue his amendment.

Lord Glentoran: I thank the Minister for that explanation. I am quite comfortably reassured that, as the noble Baroness, Lady Young, commented, dry stone walls will fare well out in the sun and that water will be cared for. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 277 not moved.]

On Question, Whether Clause 24 shall stand part of the Bill?

The Earl of Selborne: On the question of whether the clause should stand part of the Bill, perhaps I may seek an assurance from the Minister. I heard the noble Baroness, Lady Young, extol the clause as an important one and I agree with her. However, I wanted to ensure that we all agree that it will achieve as much as we hope.

The kernel of the clause lies in subsection (3)(a) which spells out that,

    "the purpose of conserving flora and fauna or geological or physiographical features of the land in question".

The concern caused by unlimited access to sensitive areas is often due to the fear of erosion to the site. Over-use of tracks leads to erosion and to soil movement of landscape features, which are clearly undesirable.

This is not covered by conserving flora and fauna, that is for sure. I am not even sure it is covered by the word "geological". After all, it takes an awful lot to threaten the geology of anything if all one is doing is moving the particles. It may well be covered by the words "physiographical features of the land". That is what I seek the Minister's assurance about. I suspect that words like "topography" or even "geomorphology" may be more appropriate in order to deal with what is clearly by far the largest concern about access--that is, the effect of unbridled access channelled into sensitive areas, causing the erosion with which we are all familiar, particularly in the uplands. Perhaps the Minister can assure me that those areas suffering from erosion will be covered by subsection (3)(a).

Lord Whitty: Where erosion through excessive numbers causes damage to the land or to the access itself, it could fall within the clause, depending on the topography, under the reference to physiographical.

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If it is causing a problem for land management--shifting soil and so on--it could come under Clause 22, the land management clause. So it is covered either way.

Clause 24 agreed to.

Clause 25 [Directions by relevant authority: general]:

Lord Glentoran moved Amendment No. 278:

    Page 15, line 42, at end insert--

("(1A) In giving, revoking or varying any direction under section 22, 23 or 24, the relevant authority shall take reasonable steps to further the conservation and enhancement of the flora, fauna, or geological or physiographical features of the land thereby affected.").

The noble Lord said: This is a small amendment which seeks to spread the protection mantel. New Section 28E of the 1981 Act, inserted by Schedule 8 at page 95 of the Bill, provides that the Countryside Agency, the Countryside Council for Wales, the national park authorities and local authorities have a new duty in exercising any of their functions to "take reasonable steps" to further the conservation and enhancement of SSSIs. The Countryside Agency, the Countryside Council for Wales and national park authorities will need to apply this duty in giving, revoking or varying any directions regarding closure or restrictions made in relation to access land which is also notified as an SSSI.

While welcome, this provision should be extended to all access land, much of which, although not notified as an SSSI, may also be of considerable ecological quality. The amendment would accordingly extend this duty to all access land. I am sure that we can all think of many small areas of land which are particularly special, whether it be for various lichens on the rocks, rare wild orchids growing in remote places or other precious things which need protection. I beg to move.

Earl Peel: My noble friend's amendment raises an interesting question which I should like to put to the Minister. Before I do so, it would probably help the Committee if I now make a few points in relation to Amendment No. 304, which stands in my name, and not speak to that amendment later.

The question I put to the Minister is this. As my noble friend said, when the access authority gives, revokes or varies any direction under Clauses 22, 23 and 24 in relation to a site of special scientific interest, will the authority be bound by the duty under Part III of the Bill in relation specifically to new Section 28E, which is an amendment to the 1981 Act; and will that require the access authority to take reasonable steps consistent with its functions to further the enhancement of SSSIs? I do not know whether the Minister has had an opportunity to consider that relationship, but it poses an interesting question. It would go some way towards appeasing the difficulties that I have with the Bill in regard to what I have referred to previously as the precautionary principle.

What has constantly concerned me is the question of precedent, and whether access will take precedence over conservation. On a number of occasions I have asked the Minister whether he is satisfied that

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sufficient research has been done on the correlation between access and ground-nesting birds. To date, the noble Lord has not given me a satisfactory answer.

That leads to another basic question. I am glad that the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, is in her place. I shall be extremely interested to hear her opinion on this. Are the Government satisfied that the Countryside Agency has a sufficient conservation brief in relation to the many aspects of the Bill with which it will ultimately be dealing?

I recall a conference that I attended some time ago, at which the noble Baroness, Lady Young, was present (not president!). There was indeed a representative there from the Countryside Agency. The question was put to him whether it was felt that the agency had a conservation brief. The response that we received was a rather surprising one. He implied that the answer was no. That set alarm bells ringing. When I thought of the enormous responsibilities that have been given to the agency under the Bill, and given the enormous impact that so much of the Bill is likely to have on conservation, I began to wonder.

My question is twofold. First, will the Minister comment on the relationship between new Section 28E relating to Part III and the access provisions in Part I? Again, I return to the question: is the precautionary principle, or even the Sandford principle, which goes back to 1974, to prevail in conditions where a conflict is likely to exist?

10.45 p.m.

Baroness Young of Old Scone: I wonder if I can help the Committee on this point. In these circumstances it is not only a question of belt-and-braces; we also have our trousers held up by a piece of string!

Clause 25, in terms of revocations, requires the relevant authorities to ask the advice of the people of whom they asked advice originally when they put in place the restriction or exclusion. So I believe that there is protection from any change in the provisions in terms of not taking advice from nature conservation organisations.

The second point--the "braces" element of the safeguards--is the one made by the noble Earl in relation to Part III of the Bill and Section 28E authorities. The relevant authorities are indeed Section 28E authorities, and they will have responsibilities under Part III to ensure that nature conservation is taken account of. That is the belt-and-braces part.

But there is also, as I said, a piece of string. I am delighted to announce for about the 14th time that both English Nature and the Countryside Agency have made a formal agreement, which we signed on 10th July--in rather bizarre circumstances. It was supposed to be signed with much resplendent photography and press attention on the top of a hill somewhere in Hampshire. Unfortunately, I got stuck for four hours on a train that broke down, so we signed it by mobile phone! Nevertheless, it is now a formal document between English Nature and the

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Countryside Agency. They have agreed to adopt what is called the "Sandford principle", which says that where nature conservation and access are compatible, provisions will exist to support both concepts. But where there is conflict and nature conservation and access cannot be reconciled, English Nature and the Countryside Agency have jointly agreed that nature conservation will prevail. That is now enshrined in our compact, which was signed by way of the wonders of modern technology. I hope that all three of those provisions will mean that we are unlikely to to go too far astray in this area.

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