|Back to Table of Contents
|Lords Hansard Home Page
The noble Lord is quite right to say that this is a conclusion in relation to the report of the Constitution Committee. We are very interested in this. All I can say at presentand I hope the noble Lord will take heart with thisis that consultations with government departments are nearing their conclusion. I hope to be able to respond positively in due course but I am not able to do so today, as I had hoped. On that basis, I hope that the noble Lord will withdraw the amendment.
Lord Blackwell: I thank the noble Baroness for her response to the debate, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Slynn, and the noble Lords, Lord Lester and Lord Thomas. We all learnt a great deal from their interpretation of EU law. It has been a very interesting and revealing debate. As I said earlier, I understand the supremacy of EU law in general, although the way it was described was very helpful.
My amendment deals in particular with the changes introduced by this treatybringing freedom, security and justice for the first time under the jurisdiction of the court and introducing the Charter of Fundamental Rights. I sought to draw attention in
14 May 2008 : Column 1077
Lord Greaves asked Her Majestys Government whether they will review the programme for updating the definitive maps of rights of way and in particular the 25-year time limit on making claims for changes.
The noble Lord said: My Lords, this Question is about the rights of way provisions of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act and Section 53 in particular. It introduces a 25-year cut-off date for historic claims which runs from 1 January 2001 and expires on 1 January 2026. It means that rights of way that existed before 1949 that are not recorded on the definitive map will be extinguished. This refers to footpaths and bridleways and it can also refer to higher rights on recorded footpaths. There are two broad areas of concern on this. One relates to the rural, mainly recreational rights of way and the other relates to the very different urban rights of way, and the two obviously run together.
I should declare an interest as a member of the British Mountaineering Council and of its access and conservation working group. I am also a member of the Open Spaces Society and, more generally, I am a walker and cyclist. I have also been known to sit on a horse but that does not happen very often. I particularly want to thank the Ramblers Association, Sue Hogg, chair of the National Federation of Bridleway Associations, Alan Ibbotson, president of the Institute of Public Rights of Way Management, or IPROW, and my colleague Trevor Jones, who is a councillor in Dorchester and a member of Dorset County Council. I also thank some of the Dorset County Council staff for helping to research this subject. It is an important matter and, in the three or four months since I first tabled this Question, it has become very much more topical.
Section 53 of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act was an attempt to bring certainty to the definitive map and, in many ways, it was a sop to landowners, who were up in arms about the provisions of the Act
14 May 2008 : Column 1078
Where are we now? Discovering Lost Ways has lost its way and is being closed down. Some £4.5 million spent in two countiesCheshire and Shropshirehave resulted in a grand total of no additions to the definitive map. Therefore, it has been a complete flop. It was based on library research, and local volunteers were not really involved. It was a case of looking at ancient maps and documents, inclosure awards, tithe maps and even the land surveys which Lloyd George instituted for his land tax in 1910. However, the promises of funding and support for volunteer groups never really came to fruition, including a promise of £2 million per annum. On 23 July 2001 the then Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, in a Written Answer to me said, among other things:
The agency invited consultants to advise on the most effective way of involving voluntary groups in research on unrecorded rights of way ... The contract was offered on 12 July and, if accepted, we expect work to begin in August with a view to having a scheme to support voluntary work in place by spring 2002.[Official Report, 23/7/01; col. WA 190-91.]
In the mean time, the existing system for claims grinds on. There are long backlogs and, in 2005, a Countryside Agency report said that the backlog was increasing. It is slow and cumbersome, very legalistic and lawyers earn lots of money. I quote from a May 2006 document from the South Pennine Packhorse Trails Trust on the Discovering Lost Ways project:
The main obstacle to reinstating the historical network is the definitive map process itself: it is long-winded, increasingly debased, increasingly partial, increasingly costly, and often leaves members of the public disillusioned, depressed, and feeling that their efforts have been wasted and that they themselves have been cheated. Today few sensible people are prepared to research and submit dmmo
The question is: is the present system broken? A lot of people say that it is. Organisations such as the Ramblers Association and IPROW say no; they say that funding is the key. It will be interesting to know the Governments view on this. Can the process of definitive map modification orders be simplified? Can the process, procedure and paperwork be reduced and simplified? Can common sense be introduced into the process? At the moment, it is extremely legalistic, and common sense often does not seem to prevail at all. One thing on which I think everyone agrees is that maintaining the definitive map is essential; it is at the core of the whole system.
Then there are rights of way improvement plans, most of which have now been completed, the deadline having been, I think, last November. Alan Ibbotson, president of IPROW, suggested that they are hanging there. The improvement plans may be there but in very many cases the resources are not there to implement them or to do very much about them.
I now want to talk about urban rights of way. I was originally provoked into tabling this Question for Short Debate by my colleague Trevor Jones in Dorchester, Dorset. He is a member of the town council and I shall quote from a letter that he wrote to me last July:
About two years ago, Dorchester Town Council learned that unless they were formally recorded as Rights of Way by 2026, all our innumerable walkways and back alleys would cease to be protected for public use after that date.
How many urban rights of way exist? Very often they are unrecorded but they are used, not lost. No one knows how many there are but they total many thousands, and there may well be hundreds of thousands in the country. There are a vast number of active paths which are often well used but rarely on the map. There is a proliferation of local names for them, which shows how local but important they are. They include alleys, ginnels, snickets, drongs, vennels, twittens, twitchels or lonnies, and no doubt there are many more. I was brought up in the land of the snicket and I now live in the land of the ginnel. My noble friend Lord Shutt would, if noble Lords wished, produce a map that he has researched showing the boundary in the Pennines between the land of snickets and the land of ginnels. They are all important and are all used, but if they are no longer rights of way, there is a real chance that the people who own the land will block them.
It has been suggested that the exception provisions in Section 54 of the CROW Act could be used to define urban paths in this way as an exception to Section 53 and so avoid ending their status as rights of way in 2026. Do the Government intend to make regulations under Section 54? Do they think that this is a way forward or is more fundamental legislative change needed?
People see a major crisis looming. That crisis is 17 years away but the process is slow. What is happening now? Natural England has decided not to go ahead with the Discovering Lost Ways project because it is not working. It made a report to its board in February, which suggested that there should be a fundamental review. At a meeting in March, it produced a very interesting report called Discovering Lost Ways, covering
14 May 2008 : Column 1080
I understand that it has been proposed that a stakeholder working group should be set up. I thought that perhaps it was intended to create some more fences but apparently that is not the case; it is a working group of all the people involved in this matter. Have the Government decided what the terms of reference should be? Will the process be transparent? Will they get an agreed agenda with all the different groups from landowners through to ramblers and so on? Do they agree that the review needs to encompass all aspects of the rights of way system or will it simply replace Discovering Lost Ways? Do they agree that the membership of the stakeholder working group must reflect all the main user groups? Finally, do they believe that the answer is to repeal and abolish Section 53 and not have this sword of Damocles hanging over the whole process? If not, what is the answer?
When we werea long time ago it seemsin your Lordships House discussing the Rights of Way Bill going through the House, there were concerns that Section 53 would be a problem when it came up and that has proved to be the case. The answer that the Government came up withDiscovering Lost Ways and the funding of voluntary groupshas not happened or has not worked and we need something else. I very much look forward to the Ministers response.
Lord Addington: My Lords, the House owes my noble friend a certain debt of gratitude for bringing this subject forward, despite the fact that, this late at night and after having enjoyed so much of the European Union debate, some of us may not think so. It is a very important issue that touches on many areas of government policy, including obesity, the state of the nations health, and so on. There is a sort of mantra that goes round: let us encourage more sport, more recreation. Then you go down and realise which groups are which and which ones are more appropriate.
There is no more appropriate form of mass exercise than pleasant or useful walking. If you can make it a pleasant walk to the shops, people will walk to the shops, provided that the distance is reasonable and they are not going for a huge weekly shop. If you have to clamber into a car and drive to the shops, people are not going to take the exercise. They will increase the number of journeys and make it more unpleasant for people who are walking round the streets. As my noble friend pointed out, if you encourage those urban walkways, many of which are unofficial, you will help many other government directives and areas of activity that we want to encourage.
I always feel slightly sorry for Ministers in this House, because they are answering for the whole of the Government. Thus, they always have a slight pressure on them to have a better idea of what other parts of the Government are doing. Has the noble
14 May 2008 : Column 1081
You should encourage people to find out what is there and the cutways through it. Whenever I go for a walk, I try to stay on the paths, but occasionally I will go off them on to the short tracksoften a farm trackthat link up two paths. I think everybody does it. Are we going to encourage their usage? Are we going to try to get some feel of what is going on? What is seen to be the right amount of support in identifying pathways, historic or otherwise? It is fair enough to extend this downeven to the creation of one or two new onesto make sure older paths are used. What is being done here?
We can go round this a thousand times, but unless the Government take on some real commitment here to encourage this usage, much of what was done on the CROW BillI remember the very late night sittings as if it were yesterday
When we were trying to establish what the limitations were, the Government put in things like the Discovering Lost Ways project and, at that time, they effectively said it was important, that something should be done and that there should be some area of activity. What are we going to do to enhance this? Are we trying to drive on? Are we trying to find out what goes on? I do not think there has been any dispute about the fact that we should be encouraging recreational walking and walking as a form of local transport at dozens of different levels. The Government can probably help themselves in many other fields if they at least say what they are going to do here; what other departments are encouraging them is the correct thing. We are at least entitled to know that. If the Government have decided it is all too difficult, at least we should know. If we do not, we are going to carry on doing this again and again.
Lord Taylor of Holbeach: My Lords, I too thank the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, for tabling this question and bringing about an interesting debate,
14 May 2008 : Column 1082
My wife is a Lincolnshire county councillor and I have used her as a researcher. I have had the opportunity to talk to Chris Miller who is the principal rights of way and access officer on Lincolnshire County Council. He gave me some interesting information on how a typical county council is dealing with these things. Lincolnshire has a total of 159 cases, of which 138 are from direct applications from the public. Others were initiated by the county council following the discovery of evidence by the authority. The oldest of these cases date back to 1983. In 2007-08, the authority completed just 23 cases but received 10 new claims. The backlog is clearing only slowly. The process is slow and not working particularly well.
Timescales for resolution vary depending on whether objections are received. As a rough estimate, it takes about a year for a case to be resolved. However, the authority has some old cases that have not significantly progressed for a number of years. It receives approximately 50 requests a year. Many people who make a request are put off by the fee or their request does not meet the statutory or local criteria for acceptance.
The briefing, for which I am grateful to Chris Miller, paints a picture of a process that is not working well. That is not because the department is badly funded. Obviously, all local authority departments are finding things tight when they want to be generous with funds, but this department is relatively well funded. Lincolnshire is a rural county and has probably more than its fair share of rural footpaths.
The picture that the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, has presented to us shows that the task is complex and burdensome. That is not likely to be resolved in the absence of primary legislation to simplify the process. However, knowing the Governments position on legislative timetables, I think that it is unlikely that we will see any such legislation. I would be interested to know what the Minister proposes to do in the interim to make the project much less bureaucratic. Amanda Earnshaw, a project manager for the Discovering Lost Ways scheme, which was set up by Natural England, said:
The project found that even a systematic research approach could not remove the requirement for further detailed research into cases by the highway authority and for a public inquiry to be held whenever the recording of such a right was opposed. The costs of advertising are a factor, too. Local newspapers are not cheap places in which to advertise. The Government may need to find other ways of making details available to the public. As we know, Natural England has decided, given the budget pressures that
14 May 2008 : Column 1083
The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, referred to the stakeholder working group. The Government have said that they will not bring Section 53 into effect until they hear the outcome of the working group, so it would be useful to know from the Minister when he expects the group to report back to him.
It was interesting to hear the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, talk about urban paths, because in many ways these are more used than rural paths. Rural paths are used largely, although not exclusively, for recreation purposes, but urban paths, too, are important in local communities. Often, what started with people nipping through a gap in the hedge has become a well tracked alleyway through to the shops and people have become used to it. The establishment of rights of way by precedent means that new paths are being created all the time in urban environments.
I hope that the Minister will present us with some positive solutions to what I see as a difficult problem. No one can deny the delight of walking in the British countryside, which, at present, looks absolutely magnificent. Whether it is the Cumbrian hills or the Lincolnshire fens, we are all privileged to be able to enjoy it. I hope that the Minister will say that he supports the continuing development and maintenance of the definitive map. As the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, said, we must approach that in a practical way.
|Back to Table of Contents
|Lords Hansard Home Page