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Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: My Lords, I want to raise one or two points but, first, I apologise to the noble Earl, Lord Peel, for missing the first 30 seconds of his speech. I was taken slightly unawares by the speed at which the previous business was taken.
I welcome the publication of the regulations as yet another progress step towards open access becoming a reality. The points that I want to raise cover an area that the noble Earl, Lord Peel, said we would be likely to have in common, and he is absolutely right.
One issue on which I am not clear and about which I should like to hear from the Minister is that of informing the public. We spent a long time on that subject in Committee and we stressed the importance of using websites. But I believe that we imagined that the use of websites would be in addition to use of the local press and leaflets and so on. However, in the regulations it seems that the website will rule and that use might be made of other means if, at its discretion, the access authority sees fit to do so. That will be all well and good where access authorities are conscientious, as I believe they will want to be, but I wish that the regulations had referred to all means.
Part I of the regulations is entitled "Preliminary" and refers to the use of electronic communications. It lays out some of the parameters of using only electronic communications. I ask the Minister whether that is now a tried and tested method or whether Regulation 3 is the first example of such communications being used.
I may be approaching this matter in a different way from the noble Earl, but I believe it is important that the regulations work well. The public will need to know what is open or closed. It will be hugely frustrating for them if they walk a long way to reach a spot only to find that the final part of the walk is closed. They might, for example, have walked to the crest of a hill or have trudged 10 or 12 miles to a spot and it will be very frustrating for them to find that the final part is closed. That would be unacceptable.
The second area that I want to highlight is that of closures for purposes of defence. I am sure the Secretary of State for Defence will be sensitive to that matter. However, the regulations make provision for areas of land to be closed in the long term for purposes of defence, and I believe that sometimes that can be done without any written explanation being given to the public.
It would be unacceptable if the Ministry of Defence chose to close without explanation, and chose to leave closed, large areas of open access land. I can understand that at present it is a matter of trust and I hope that the Government will get it right. But it is an issue on which I certainly intend to keep an eye, particularly in view of the attitude over footpath closures. That said, I wish the Countryside and Rights of Way Act good speed, and I look forward to hearing the Minister's reply.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Whitty): My Lords, it is a great delight to return to this subject with many veterans of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act. It was one of the most interesting and extensive pieces of legislation that I have taken through this House, and many exchanges took place, some of which have been recalled today. Although I would not say that we reached consensus on everything, I believe that, by the end, we agreed that we wanted a balanced operation between the great enjoyment and benefit brought to the walking public as a result of the Act and the needs of land management and the rights of landowners to enjoy their land. I hope that that has been the spirit in which we have pursued the regulations. They were developed after a full period of public consultation and after consideration of all the views expressed during that consultation.
The regulations before us today deal only with restrictions and exclusions. Some of the issues raised about more permanent arrangementsparticularly some of the questions from the noble Baroness, Lady Byfordare outside the remit of the regulations. The focus of our discussions today is how to deal with temporary closures. The details of much of the system on the ground will not appear in regulations; they will be in statutory guidance. They will be worked out locally between the access authority, landowners and ramblers' associations and the Countryside Agency at national level in consultation with all interested parties. Therefore, some other areas will be covered in regulations but the bulk of them may well come within understandings locally.
I shall focus on the subject of formal exclusions and restrictions. The Act was framed in such a way as to allow rather more flexibility than I believe has been acknowledged this evening. At the simplest level, Section 22 of the Act allows owners of land 28 days, which they can use at their own discretion, to exclude
In addition to that, under Section 24, which allows for longer closures of landthere is an interplay between the two situationsthe application must be made for a direction to the relevant authority. However, that application can be made by anyone with an interest in the land, including, for example, shooting tenants. In that case, the regulations set out a maximum period of six weeks within which decisions must be made. That has been regarded as too lengthy, but I stress that during the initial set-up period such time may be necessary on an ongoing basis. The guidance will make it clear that the relevant authority should aim to make decisions on straightforward cases well within the statutory time limits.
To address the issue of flexibility and a speedy response, the Act introduced the system of outline directions, which was not mentioned by the noble Earl. Under the directions, those with an interest in the landthis is under Section 24 so it could be a shooting tenantcan approach the relevant authority for an exclusion or a restriction, but the exact time that a restriction will be put in place on a particular piece of land, or indeed on the whole of the land, can be notified, by telephone, at a later date. Once one has the outline restriction, there is great flexibility up to the point when the restriction is activated.
In that case the regulations set the framework for how such notifications will be made and set a maximum of five days, but they allow for a different notice period to be specified in the outline direction. Again, the relevant authority would aim to agree a shorter period in the majority of cases. A provision to allow outline directions was specifically included in the Act and in the regulations to introduce maximum flexibility for the system and to allow the legitimate needs of landowners and of others with an interest in the land to be respected.
Under Sections 22 and 24 there are references to an "entitled person". Under Section 22 an entitled person is either the landowner or a farm tenant, where there is a farm tenant for a farm business tenancy. Clearly, the landowner or the agricultural tenantas mentioned by the noble Earlwould be able to seek the closure, although the actual triggering of it could be achieved by someone acting on behalf of the landowner or by someone designated by the landowner. It could be someone with shooting rights who specified the precise time in which the provisions of an outline restriction or exclusion could be notified.
Incidentally, that is the Welsh position in relation to Section 22. The difference between the Welsh and the English regulations is not as wide as was suggested, certainly in this respect. However, there is the problem of avoiding a situationparticularly with Section 22 exemptionswhere a number of different people could claim to have the authority to decide on a closure. Therefore, it is necessary to determine whether only a limited number of people are entitled to seek a short-term closure, although once they are entitled, they can trigger it.
The wider definition under Section 24 allows for people acting on behalf of individuals to be those with an interest in the land, other than the landowner or the farm business tenant. People with a sporting interest, together with anyone else with a legal interest, would be able to apply to the relevant authority under Section 24, either for the original outline permission or under that outline permission.
The noble Earl referred to informal management techniques as an alternative to closure. They are not quite as he implied. We expect that informal management techniques will often be the simplest way, but there is no requirement for them to be tried before applying for exclusions. There are many examples of other informal management techniques that do not involve total closure, but one does not have to experiment with and pilot them before one can acquire an exclusion order.
There was much concern about publicity and signage. I believe that there is some confusion between what the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, said about the commitments during the debate that relate to general responsibilities for signage and the signage during short-term closures. All the bodies involved in the roll-out of the new right of access, and certainly all the access authorities, will undertake the necessary publicity to ensure that people understand the new right and the responsibility that accompanies it. In particular, the Countryside Agency is developing a communications plan that will incorporate regional commencement, guidance on the new right of access to land managers and to the public and their policy on signage, including the new open access symbol.
A request was made during the course of the Bill to limit access to specific access points. The legislation does not provide for that, nor is that implied in the regulations in relation to temporary closures. We have issued guidance to access authorities on the use of their powers under the Act and further guidance will be issued. It will be the responsibility of those who apply for closuresrather than the responsibility of the access authorityto ensure that there is information about and enforcement of the closures.
There may be other means of communicating the closure regime, particularly through the website, but that is the limit of the statutory responsibility for the access authority. Thereafter there may be informal arrangements, through local access forums and through other means, to ensure that temporary closures can be more clearly signed, but the ultimate responsibility for that will be with the landowner.
We shall not rely on the website only; the guidance will provide for wider provision of information, but not on every individual short-term closure.
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