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Lord McIntosh of Haringey: The association is not objecting, as I understand it, to circular walks. Everyone is in favour of circular walks. The association was worried about the particular provisions for omnibus schemes.

Lord Glentoran: I understand that. The group wants more freedom; it does not want any restrictions.

We also understand from our briefing that a large number of people--I do not know what the percentage is, but it is quite high--want to be able to walk within five miles of their starting point and to return to it. So there is a great deal to be said for the omnibus system. We have no objections to it.

My amendments were, again, an attempt to make it easier to structure new creations and to negotiate with landowners and land managers as regards changing the directions of footpaths, streamlining them and bringing them up to modern day requirements.

Now that I have listened to the debate, I wonder about the amendment that I moved and clearly withdrew, and which was spoken about strongly by the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, regarding the need for a strategy on the part of local authorities. If we are to move the footpath network forward--which I believe we all want to do--someone needs to get behind it, plan it and develop a strategy in respective areas so that these proposals can begin to be made to work.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: I should like to clarify this point. I do not think that I have ever spoken against the rights of way improvement plans. The point I made related to open access management plans. I said that local authorities did not need another statutory plan in order to manage open land properly. I certainly have no objections to rights of way improvement plans as they are written into the Bill. I believe that it is the other plans to which the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, refers.

Lord Glentoran: I thank the noble Baroness for that intervention. I understand that she supports the local authorities' role in footpath planning. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 368B to 370 not moved.]

9 Oct 2000 : Column 143

Baroness Byford moved Amendment No. 370ZA:

    Page 61, line 48, leave out ("four months") and insert ("eight weeks").

The noble Baroness said: In moving this amendment, I shall speak also to Amendments Nos. 381B and 382A. Amendments Nos. 370ZA and 382A relate to the Secretary of State requiring a council to get a move on and decide on an application made by an applicant for the extinguishment or diversion of a public path. Under the Bill as it stands, the council will already have had four months in which to reach a conclusion. Under planning law councils have to respond within eight weeks to an application. This amendment is intended to reduce the confusion and/or to shorten the time taken.

Amendment No. 381B deals with the extinguishment or diversion of footpaths. Under the Bill, the new Section 118ZA(1) to the 1980 Act will allow application for a public path extinguishment order without condition. However, new Section 119ZA(1) states that an application for a diversion order must comply with the condition that,

    "in his interests it is expedient",

for the council to make the order. Not only is this arrangement untidy, but it also implies that the council could refuse a diversion order because an officer considered that it would be more expedient in the interests of the applicant. This is a probing amendment for the purpose of clarification. I beg to move.

Baroness Scott of Needham Market: I do not wish to go over too much old ground in this respect, because we covered much of this argument earlier. I should just like to add to the comments made by my noble friend Lady Miller. If one is to suggest that local authorities should get a move on and put a date on the process, it seems to us to be wrong that one set of dates and parameters apply to those applying to divert or extinguish rights of way, whereas another set applies to those who seek to modify the map in terms of higher rights or for implementing a new right. That is what we cannot understand.

We could have tabled amendments to reduce both periods to four months, but we chose to go up to 12 because of the consultations and the arguments that have already been rehearsed by my noble friend Lady Miller. From our point of view, we still have trouble understanding the inequity of the two provisions despite the Minister's earlier reply.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: I do not have very much more to say about Amendments Nos. 370ZA and 382A. I am sorry that my response to the attempt to lengthen the period was not entirely satisfactory. However, I hope that my resistance to the attempt to shorten the period will be less controversial. Of course, eight weeks is the time set within which to determine applications for planning permission. But there is no exact parallel with public path orders because local authorities have been encouraged to undertake consultations in order to save time in the long run.

9 Oct 2000 : Column 144

The point was made about parish councils and, where appropriate, about district councils, which we have to take into account.

We believe that four months is a reasonable period to allow for consultations and for an informed decision to be made. As to planning applications, I am afraid--at least in my authority--the eight weeks' period is more honoured in the breach than in the observance. Indeed, on many occasions when planning applications come forward, you make your response and the next thing that you hear is that those concerned have asked for extra time.

Amendment No. 381B is a different matter. Section 119 of the Highways Act 1980 enables a local authority to make an order diverting a footpath or bridleway when it is in the interests of people whose land the path crosses. Local authorities can also divert a path in the public interest. This amendment would allow a land manager to apply for a path to be diverted where he considered that it was in the public interest.

There is nothing to prevent land managers or anyone else simply requesting a local authority to divert a path when they think that this will be in the public interest. Indeed, local authorities must consider these requests. However, the Government see no reason why the formal procedures for applications and appeal should apply to such cases. We have debated the provisions in the Bill which give land managers the right to make applications and I have explained the Government's reasoning for departing in these circumstances from the general rule that changes to rights of way should be for the responsible public authorities to initiate. The application provisions are designed to ensure that where changing a right of way would facilitate the efficient use of the land for agriculture and the other purposes set out in the Bill, and do so without an adverse effect on the wider public interest, the case is thoroughly considered.

Amendment No. 381B would significantly widen the scope of the provisions beyond that which we are persuaded is necessary.

Baroness Byford: I thank the Minister for his response which I shall read carefully. In the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

The Principal Deputy Chairman of Committees (Lord Tordoff): In calling Amendment No. 370A, I advise the Committee that if it is agreed to, I shall not be able to call Amendments Nos. 371 and 372 due to pre-emption.

Baroness Scott of Needham Market moved Amendment No. 370A:

    Page 62, leave out lines 25 to 32.

The noble Baroness said: In moving Amendment No. 370A, I wish to speak also to the amendments with which it is grouped. This set of amendments concerns the introduction of the special extinguishment orders for the purposes of crime prevention.

9 Oct 2000 : Column 145

The objective of reducing crime is one which I am sure we all support. However, I have never seen or heard any real evidence to show a direct link between levels of crime and the existence of public rights of way. In rural areas it is widely accepted that rising crime levels are due at least in part to the existence of an improved road network and faster cars. They facilitate a mobility among the criminal fraternity which was undreamed of 50 years ago. No one is suggesting that we should start to close roads. In fact, in some quarters the cry is for the opposite course of action. Therefore, to suggest that public rights--many of which have been enjoyed for centuries--should be extinguished to counter a perception that they somehow abet criminals is a strange concept which I am sad to see in the Bill.

As regards urban areas, and particularly urban fringes, public rights of way often form an important part of the off road transport infrastructure. At present we are trying to encourage the use of that infrastructure and the use of sustainable modes of travel. It seems to me that all too often where public rights of way have been developed around or sometimes even over other land, little regard has been paid to preserving their character. They have been surrounded by high walls and fences. As they are narrow and have no lighting, it is perhaps not surprising that people think that they are dangerous, even if they have no evidence to prove that. I hope that the provision of better lighting, CCTV and other such measures can be explored before paths are extinguished as once they are lost it is virtually impossible to get them back.

I repeat that I am concerned that these provisions could be used further to erode the rights of way network and yet have no effect on crime levels. I have tabled the amendments to probe the Government's thinking on the issue. I hope that the Minister can allay the fears of those of us who think that, perhaps for spurious reasons, rights of way will be lost with no benefit to the community in terms of a reduction in crime. I beg to move.

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