Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Rotherwick: I too support the amendment. As a land manager and user I have experience of exactly this problem. I give the example of a failing 50-metre dam which needed to be taken down, not just for its improvement but because it caused danger to the users of a footpath. It took considerably longer than five days to erect that dam. I also cite examples of water pipes which are laid the length of footpaths. That is not done to be unhelpful to users but to renovate pipes in poor condition which have always been there. The diversions and closures of footpaths which must be

11 Oct 2000 : Column 365

made are probably not those preferred by the land manager, and certainly not the user; both want the works to be completed in the minimum time. Therefore, I hope that the Government will reconsider the five-day period and produce something more appropriate.

Lord Northbourne: If the Minister believes that he must retain the five-day limit for the diversion of rights of way when necessary works take place, is he prepared to include highways for vehicular traffic as well? That would be a great service to all of us.

Earl Peel: With reference to Amendment No. 410, I ask the Minister who is to define the words "prescribed description". That apart, I support what my noble friends have said. Such diversions must be based on flexibility and local experience, to which we return again. Clearly, such closures will vary considerably from region to region where there are different land management regimes. I would have thought that the words of Amendment No. 410 in the name of my noble friend Lord Glentoran would well cover the point and introduce the necessary flexibility.

As to Amendment No. 411 to which I have put my name, a five-day period is unrealistically prescriptive. As my noble friend Lord Roberts said, in many cases one is talking about diversions to help the public avoid danger and for health reasons. I have listed one or two items that I believe appropriately describe why such diversions may take place. One of the matters that jumps to mind is bracken spraying. That is a highly toxic operation which sometimes takes a number of days to achieve depending on the prevailing weather conditions. My noble friend referred to the repair of pathways and the thinning and felling of woodland. I hope that the Government will look at this matter in a more flexible and sensible light. Even if they do not accept 28 days, perhaps they will consider an amendment which contains wording such as "for whatever time is deemed necessary to conduct the work in hand", or something like that, to introduce the essential degree of flexibility which is sorely lacking in a prescriptive five-day period.

Perhaps I may make a general observation. On a number of occasions during Committee stage, and quite recently when debating another amendment, the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, appeared to be obsessed that landowners--I believe that she referred to Conservative local authorities--took every opportunity to close or divert footpaths. That is a rather disingenuous attitude. I assure the noble Baroness that, in good faith, certainly all of the amendments to which I have spoken or put my name--I am sure that I speak for other noble Lords on this side of the Committee--have been tabled for very good reason: to protect land management or safeguard the public. I ask the noble Baroness to refrain from continually suggesting that this is being done simply to try to keep out the public. Most landowners whom I know welcome footpaths and the opportunity for people to enjoy the land. Many of us are proud of what we do which the public enjoy seeing. I make that point

11 Oct 2000 : Column 366

simply because I believe that some of the comments of the noble Baroness indicate an attitude that is contrary to what happens in practice.

5.15 p.m.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: Before the noble Earl began the last part of his contribution I was about to rise to support the Conservative amendment, which I still intend to do. I do not support it as a result of his small lecture to me but on the ground of consistency, because I believe that it is right. The noble Earl will recall that at the end of Part I the Liberal Democrat Benches moved amendments which for landowners were less prescriptive about means of access. The Government accepted that if different means of access were proposed that was reasonable. We also moved an amendment relating to the length of time, which was not accepted. Therefore, the noble Earl's remark that these Benches do not bear in mind the interests of landowners where appropriate is somewhat unfair. I refute any suggestion that we do not believe that most landowners make extremely good efforts. Perhaps we are wary of the minority who do not.

In this case we support the Conservative amendment. We believe that, from the point of view of the user, the quality of the diversion counts more than a very short period. It is more important to have a decent diversion for a longer period than to have a five-day period.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: Amendment No. 410 would remove from the Secretary of State and the National Assembly for Wales the power to prescribe the operations to be covered by the Bill's provisions for temporary diversions. Amendment No. 411 would significantly increase the number of days a year that paths could be diverted. I have listened carefully to the argument that, for example, it is hardly worth a farmer's effort to advertise and signpost a diversion if he can do it for only five days a year.

My starting point is that diversions must be kept to a minimum. After all, when people go for a walk or ride on a public highway they have the expectation that they will not be led off what may be a familiar and much enjoyed route and taken on a roundabout journey. Therefore, it is not in the public interest to allow diversions willy-nilly. I do not say that that is what is provided for in the amendment, but that must be my starting point.

Earl Peel: Perhaps the Minister fails to realise that when a diversion is called for on most occasions one is required to go only a short distance from the existing path. I do not believe that, on the whole, the walker will be seriously inconvenienced.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: I believe the noble Earl agrees that sometimes that is true and sometimes not. Most of the speeches have been made on the assumption that the only means to create diversions is by the temporary power provided in the Bill. That is not the case. Section 135 of the Highways Act allows

11 Oct 2000 : Column 367

for temporary diversion for engineering works for up to three months. The difference is that the Section 135 power requires prior approval by the highway authority, but even in that case for the first time in this Bill we have provided an appeal procedure. That situation has existed up until now, but the procedure has not been used to any great extent. We now make it easier for landowners by providing the appeal procedure.

The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has powers to deal with extreme situations like animal and plant disease. Those powers appear to be perfectly adequate for the purpose. When we come to highways, to which the noble Lord, Lord Roberts, referred, Section 14 of the Road Traffic Regulation Act 1984 empowers highway authorities temporarily to restrict or prohibit the use of any road because of works executed on or near it, or because of the likelihood of danger to the public. I sympathise with the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, in wishing that those responsible would not do it as much as they do. But the powers exist. These temporary diversion powers--I must make this point because it has not been made--are powers that exist without the approval of the authority. These are additional new powers to the existing powers of diversion. My answer to the noble Earl, Lord Peel, is that the regulations will be made by the Secretary of State. It is necessary that these new diversion powers are viewed in the context of existing powers and that the original proposals did not include a right of appeal for Section 135 procedures.

There is no right of appeal against temporary diversions because there is no approval required from the local authority. We think that these additional powers go a long way towards providing the flexibility which land managers have been seeking.

It is right, therefore, to be cautious about the extent of further provisions which impact on the public's use of rights of way. We do not consider that temporary diversions would be appropriate for prolonged operations such as crop growing. We shall consult on the operations to be included in the regulations. But I do not want to start negotiations on that now. However, these new provisions might be appropriate for some of the items listed by the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran; for example, crop spraying, thinning woodland, moor burning and repairing eroded paths.

In almost every respect noble Lords underestimate the way in which additional flexibility and additional powers to landowners are given in the Bill. The additional flexibility has to be tempered. There has to be a balance between the needs of the land manager and the rights of the public. The requirements in the Bill for publicity and signposting are as much in the interest of the occupier of the land as the public. It will be for land managers to decide in each case whether they need to divert a path or whether they can work around it, which at the moment many of them do.

Therefore, I must resist Amendment No. 410. On the issue of the five days, I believe that 28 days is too much for this additional provision. I am willing to consider whether a modest extension to the five days

11 Oct 2000 : Column 368

provided is appropriate. I do not think I can consider having it for "as long as the works take place", as a number of noble Lords have suggested. That would be a blank cheque.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page