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Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton moved Amendment No. 414:

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 55, as amended, agreed to.

Clause 56 [Rights of way improvement plans]:

Baroness Byford moved Amendment No. 415:

    Page 34, line 42, at end insert--

("( ) the extent to which local rights of way meet the present and likely future needs of agriculture, forestry and the breeding and keeping of horses,").

The noble Baroness said: As the Committee will be aware, those involved in agriculture and the keeping of land continue to go through difficult times. One of the things the Government have been encouraging them to do is to diversify. Clause 56 requires local authorities to prepare rights of way improvement plans. In formulating those plans, local authorities are required to consider the extent to which local rights of way meet the present and likely future needs of the public. However, it is not clear whether that reference also includes the interests of land managers. They are indeed members of the public. I suggest that that point needs to be clarified.

Clause 56 also requires local authorities to consult various interests in preparing improvement plans, but there is no specific provision for consultation with individual land managers or with bodies representing their interests, such as the CLA, the NFU and FUW. There is merely a catch-all reference in Clause 57(1)(f) to "such other persons" as may be prescribed. There is a risk that the interests of land managers will not be effectively taken into account.

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There is no dispute about the need for improvements to the network; for example, the creation of new circular paths, to which we shall be coming shortly, or links with bridleways to take horses off busy country lanes. We are simply concerned that the authorities may not bother to consult land managers or their representative bodies over their plans because they are not specifically required to do so.

The risk is a real one. As the Bill stands, authorities keen to minimise the costs associated with rights of way improvement plans could simply consult only the interests listed in or prescribed under Clause 54. Furthermore, the draft guidance prepared by the Countryside Agency for local authorities in relation to rights of way improvement plans does little to suggest that land managers will in practice be involved. The guidance makes much of the need to assess how much the rights of way network meets the current and future needs of the public, its relevance to today's society and how best to meet the needs of horseriders, cyclists and the less mobile. While the reference in the guidance to the legal obligations of the authorities to their need to have regard for the interests of agriculture and forestry is helpful, it falls short of a cast-iron assurance that those interests will be properly considered.

This amendment would put beyond doubt the need for local authorities to pay due attention to the needs of land managers when preparing their rights of way improvement plans. I beg to move.

Lord Northbourne: I rise briefly to support the amendment because I hope that the Minister will take positive note of it. My objective in the debate has been to try to minimise any friction that may occur between landowners and operators on the one hand and the needs of walkers on the other. For that reason, I believe that this amendment is essential if we are to ensure that those who take the decisions on new rights of way shall at least understand the problems of landowners.

Perhaps I may take a minute of the Committee's time to give a practical example of which I have been extremely aware in my career. Around 20 years ago, my farming enterprise moved into the area of producing salad crops. The modern way of producing such crops is to plough rows of beds longitudinally across the field. Those beds then have to be irrigated by systems which walk, as it were, across the field down the lines. One can imagine how inconceivably complicated it would become if a path was drawn diagonally across such a field. Irrigation systems are extremely expensive to install, so it would be important, in a circumstance where a right of way was to be created over a piece of land where such an operation was being undertaken, to hold discussions on what the possible future implications might be in terms of the rotation of crops which might bring into row crop production pieces of land which were resting at the time or under another form of culture. I give this example as a practical illustration of the problems we face here.

Lord Hardy of Wath: I can see the point of consultation and the case which has been made to

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ensure that sources of friction are avoided. To that end, I certainly do not seek to create friction with the point that I wish to make.

The reference by the noble Baroness to horses has caused me a tinge of anxiety. In my time I have seen a good number of footpaths become scarcely passable, in particular following bad weather, because people have turned those footpaths into bridleways. It will not be possible for many footpaths to accommodate the increasing number of horses which may follow the Government's policy of urging farmers to diversify into this area. Nevertheless, I would prefer to see farmers diversifying into horses rather than establishing puppy farms, which some farmers did on the advice of the previous government.

If we are to take a favourable view of an expansion in horseriding--it is a healthy activity--I trust that we shall not see any move to encourage the conversion of footpaths into bridleways, especially where footpaths are not suitable for that purpose.

Lord Addington: I rise briefly to ask whether this amendment is in any way necessary. Consultation forms a part of the process. Furthermore, what kind of local authority would not take into account genuine economic uses of land? If the amendment is accepted, I believe that we would be creating even more of a lawyer's paradise than has already been done.

Baroness Strange: I should like to support this amendment. As the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, pointed out on Monday, rights of way historically came into being between points A and B because there was a need for them. In former times they served the need to go to church, to school or to the local shop by the shortest possible route. With the coming of railways, travel by foot, pony trap and horse and carriage was superseded by train travel. Rights of way were then created which approached the nearest railway station. With the arrival of the internal combustion engine, everything changed again. Nowadays people rarely go to church, but if they do they go by car. Children travel to school by bus or use the local taxi and people go to the supermarket or even to the local shop by car. As a result, local railway stations have closed down.

Such rights of way are rather like the three boxes of string bequeathed to us by my grandmother. One contained long bits of string, one contained short bits of string, while the third box contained bits of string too short for further use. I believe that these rights of way are like the third box of string.

5.45 p.m.

Lord Whitty: I shall have to consider the point made by the noble Baroness as regards the third box of string and work out what it means. However, I do not think that the provision sought by the amendment is necessary. We are not considering individual rights of way here but rather rights of way improvement plans.

We fully accept that the needs of agriculture and other economic activities in the countryside need to be recognised by local highway authorities when

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developing their plans. Perhaps I may offer the noble Baroness the assurance that she seeks by saying that it is certainly our intention to ensure that all the major bodies representing land managers, users and others with an interest in the land are consulted by highway authorities during the preparation of the improvement plans. Among other things, Clause 57 empowers the Secretary of State to prescribe consultees in regulations, if that is required.

At present, local authorities are under no obligation to take a strategic overview of the quantity and quality of rights of way in their areas. That is why we have proposed improvement plans--to fill a major lacuna in extant rights of way legislation. Clause 56 aims to fulfil that.

The purpose of the clause, therefore, is to require local authorities to do a little thinking about how they wish to develop, improve and modify rights of way for the benefit of the public as a whole. Furthermore, we recognise that this applies to all local authorities, not simply those highway authorities which deal with rural areas. Land managers are members of the public--they are significant members of the public in many of the relevant areas--and their needs will have to be taken into account by authorities when drawing up their plans according to the provisions already laid down in the Bill.

Authorities will also be required to have regard to the statutory guidance, in which attention will be drawn to the importance for the local economy of a comprehensive and well managed network of rights of way. That means that they must consider the needs of local businesses, local farmers and land managers who are diversifying into tourist related activities as well as the more traditional pursuits. I believe that all this will be covered both by the clause as it stands and by the regulations that will be made under it.

As regards individual rights of way, we have of course dealt with that matter previously. It will be necessary for local authorities to be more specific about land management in particular. To that end, earlier clauses stipulate the need to have regard to the needs of agriculture, forestry and--as a result of an amendment adopted during a previous Committee sitting--the keeping and breeding of horses. But the plans themselves will also be concerned with wider issues. For that reason, if we were to prescribe land managers, it would become necessary to prescribe various other groups.

Perhaps I may assure the Committee that land managers will be covered by the consultation process. It is also the case that under Clause 57(2), having published a draft plan, authorities will be required to consider any representations made as regards the draft. Thus, both on consultation and on the basis of the draft plan, land managers will have the means to influence those decisions. I hope that, with those reassurances, the noble Baroness will not pursue her amendment.

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