HC Deb 09 April 1968 vol 762 cc1314-20
Mr. Skeffington

I beg to move Amendment No. 84, in page 40, line 5, at end insert: Provided that the authority shall not take account of the evidence if satisfied that the person prejudiced by the public right of way, or his predecesor in title, could have produced the evidence before the relevant date mentioned in the said section 33(1) and had no reasonable excuse for failing to do so. The Amendment deals with a small but important point. My hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, South (Mr. Carol Johnson) and other hon. Members were concerned to see that with the provision in the Schedule for correcting errors we did not let in new evidence, so that matters which should have been raised in the normal procedure and be subject to inquiry got in by the back door, as it were. The Government were reasonably satisfied that that could not happen under the Schedule as drafted, but it was an important point, and to set at rest any fears we have tabled this Amendment, which further tightens up the provision.

Amendment agreed to.

Mr. Channon

I beg to move Amendment No. 85, in page 40, line 7, at end insert:

Section 37 (powers of Minister to expedite survey)

The power of the Minister in s. 37 to expedite the preparation of maps and statements shall include the power to direct a surveying authority to prepare a revised map and statement in draft form where the period referred to in s. 33(3) has expired and where, after consultation with the surveying authority, it seems to the Minister that because of changes since the relevant date the definitive map, or the last preceding map prepared in definitive form, as the case may be, is no longer a reasonably accurate record of public rights of way in the area of the authority.

The Amendment has the support of hon. Members on both sides. The present position is that the surveying authority should prepare a revised draft map within five years of the relevant date of the previous definitive map, that is, the date on which the original draft map was published. I understand that in nearly all cases this is a date in the early 1950s. I am told by the Commons, Open Spaces and Footpath Preservation Society, which is anxious to sponsor the Amendment, that the procedure in reaching the definitive stage has taken so long that the map is often out of date before it is published.

3.15 a.m.

A definitive map published today often reflects the footpath pattern of 10 to 15 years ago and the provision becomes more urgent. It is possible to do these reviews quickly—and while some counties have managed it frequently and quickly, other counties have not. It would be invidious to mention names, but one county council, for example, published a draft map in 1953 and nothing had happened since. The Minister directed the council to publish the provisional map in 1966 and the definitive map in 1967, and on this were only the agreed paths. The disputed paths were left to be shown at a later stage. Yet nothing can be done to make the Minister expedite this. Other councils reached the definitive stage some time ago and have made no step towards a review. This is a useful Amendment and I hope that the Minister may be prepared to take powers to expedite the preparation of maps and statements.

Mr. Carol Johnson

I support the Amendment. The hon. Member has shown, from the experience of recent years, that the obligations placed on certain authorities by the 1949 Act have been neglected to an extraordinary extent in some cases. It is surprising that the Minister has no power to intervene and expedite surveys as he should be able to do. I think the case is good and it might be that the Minister would welcome these powers. I hope he will find it possible to accept the Amendment.

Mr. Peter M. Jackson

I welcome this Amendment and draw attention to the case of the delinquent authority, which is the East Riding County Council. Following a question I put down, the council was required by the Minister to produce its definitive map. We have an absurd situation where the definitive map has not taken into account 2,500 disputed paths. The position has been outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, South (Mr. Carol Johnson). The Minister has no power to order the quinquennial review which is required by the Act and it need not be undertaken by the authority. It requires an Order for them to undertake this. If the Amendment is passed, he will have the powers. The East Riding example indicates that he needs them.

Mr. Skeffington

I can understand the frustration felt by many people waiting a long time in some areas for these maps. They are perhaps slow in coming, as in the case of the East Riding, which has now been named. This review has to be dealt with urgently. Many paths were left off, but for some reason there are more inquiries requiring long procedures in this area.

There has been long delay but, as the Gosling Committee pointed out in paragraph 12 of their Report, once the first definitive maps have been published the position should be better and the reviews consist essentially of picking up details of subsequent creations, diversions and closures". There are only two specific cases where the power might be used. Apart from these we have had no general pressure for the default powers suggested here. There may have been a case for a power of this kind some years ago, but at this stage, where definitive maps are on the point of finality, the Government are not prepared to accept the Amendment.

Mr. Channon

This is a disappointing reply. I hope that the relentless pressure from both sides of the House will continue to be exerted until we get a better answer. I am sure that those hon. Members concerned will not let up their efforts until the Government crumble beneath their combined pressure. Meantime, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Iremonger

I beg to move Amendment No. 86, in page 41, line 33, at end to insert:

Section 125 (Powers as to gates across highways)

A highway authority may itself erect a gate of the minimum width across so much of a highway, not being a classified road, as consists of a carriageway.

This would amend Section 125 of the Highways Act, 1959, which contains powers concerning gates across highways. It would allow a highway authority itself to erect a gate of the minimum width—ten feet—across a carriageway. It seeks to end the anomaly which allows a local authority to erect a cattle grid but not a gate across a carriageway. It is designed to deal with the situation which arises not infrequently when a farmer has two fields, one on either side of a carriageway.

When the farmer drives his cattle out of the gate of one field and they have to cross the carriageway to go into the other field through the gate on the opposite side of the carriageway, they are apt to strong along the carriageway. To prevent this, the farmer asks the local authority to erect a ten-foot gate across the carriageway or a pair of gates forming a passageway between the two fields.

But the local authority has not the power to erect a gate under Section 125 of the 1959 Act. It can put in a cattle grid or a pair of grids, but it does not like to do this because it is rather expensive. Therefore, the farmer erects a barbed wire barrier or double barbed wire barrier and then ramblers complain. He then appeals to the local authority under Sections 109 and 110 for an order to downgrade the carriageway to footpath, so that all he has to do is to leave the wire barrier and comply with the law by putting in a stile across what is now a footpath.

In so doing, he has deprived the public of the carriageway and also of the bridle-way. Under the Amendment, he would only have to ask the local authority for a ten-foot gate or a pair of gates, and he would be more likely to get this, or at least the vehicle interests would have much more prospect of success in pressing the authority to give him a gate or a pair of gates. The request would be less easy to resist because it is less expensive than providing cattle grids. This useful Amendment would prevent the loss of a carriageway which otherwise does occur from time to time when farmers are in this situation.

Mr. Skeffington

I admire the hon. Gentleman's tenacity in endeavouring to reform the transport legislation by means of the Countryside Bill. As this Amendment involves Section 125 of the 1959 Act, we consulted the Ministry of Transport. It cannot understand—and I share the doubt—what benefit it would be to the highway user or the local authority to put gates across carriageways. If someone wants a gate, it surely must be the owner concerned. I am trying to relate the hon. Gentleman's strategy to this matter.

I can see that there may be a case in respect of roads used as public footpaths. If these become defined in some way by the surveying authority, then there might be a case for gates. The advice of the Ministry of Transport is that if gates are required, which would not be the normal event, it is not for the highway authority to provide them. For those reasons I could not advise the House to accept the Amendment modifying transport legislation in the Countryside Bill.

Mr. Iremonger

I know that it is late and that there is a piercing blast of chill air, which comes from I know not where, into this Chamber, making us anxious to go home, but I do not think that the Minister has followed the argument. It was my fault. This happens. It means the carriageways are downgraded to pathways because of the influence of the local authority not wanting to put up a gateway, which would meet a perfectly reasonable request by a farmer. It is not suitable to pursue this now, and I do not want the Government to be defeated. I do not wish to leave it there and I do not propose to withdraw the Amendment in order to register my dissatisfaction. I hope that this may be followed through the proper channels on another occasion.

Amendment negatived.

Mr. Peter M. Jackson

I beg to move Amendment 112, in page 42, line 29, leave out '28 days' and insert 'two months'.

The terms of a similar Amendment were discussed in Committee and this Amendment is in the nature of a compromise, which I hope will be acceptable. It deals with the amount of time available to objectors who wish to object to the draft map. The existing law is that objectors have a period of four months in which to lodge objections. The proposal in the Bill is that this is reduced to 28 days.

The reduction is a very serious one. As I said in Committee, it will cause considerable difficulties to anyone who does not have professional staff working for them, to scrutinise proposals made by local authorities. I have had some correspondence with the Minister of State for Wales on this, and I would like to take issue with her. She seems to think, perhaps I do her an injustice, but I hope not, that we are dealing with odd objections which it is not unreasonable to expect interested bodies to take up within a matter of 28 days. I have to tell her that we are dealing with the draft map. In one instance we are dealing with something like 2,600 objections in the East Riding. I was told by the late secretary of the East Riding Rambers' Association that it would have taken him a month, working full time, to examine and transcribe the Council's decisions on such work.

We are not dealing with the odd disputes, but often with large numbers. It is not enough to say that one can put in a holding objection. A great deal of work has to be done and this presents problems for voluntary bodies. It is not just the East Riding, either. I am told that the Hereford draft map was not satisfactory to many people. A great number of objections were lodged. A case has been made out for more time for these exclusions. The provisions of the Bill allow for delays on grounds of error or mistake. We shall possibly find that there will be various footpaths at issue because of this part of the Bill. The number of footpaths to examine will be in excess of what my hon. Friend thinks.

3.30 a.m.

My fourth point—and I am sorry that the right hon. Member for Harrogate (Mr. Ramsden) is not here, because I think that he would support me on this—is that there is a growing interest in equestrian sports and there is a desire on the part of horse riders to upgrade footpaths to bridleways. This will come up on revision, but various interested bodies will need time to prepare their cases and 28 days is not enough. I suggested three months in Committee and my hon. Friend suggested a compromise, which I would be happy to accept, of two months. This is the Amendment which has been tabled and I hope that my hon. Friend will see fit to accept it.

Mrs. White

This Amendment may appear on the Order Paper due to my warm and responsive nature, but at 3.30 a.m. I am not feeling so warm and responsive.

When my hon. Friend the Member for the High Peak (Mr. Peter M. Jackson) first put forward his case it seemed to me that perhaps there was something in it, and I was especially concerned with what he said about parish councils. Since then I have looked into the matter further and it appears to me that in the circumstances that would apply concerning this Amendment, where we would be dealing with a revised draft map, not a definitive map, the difficulties which he has enumerated should not be as substantial as he suggests.

As I explained in Committee, one can put in a holding objection. Objectors do not have to prepare their full cases in the 28 days. The organisations concerned, including parish councils, should be in a position to put in holding objections within the period. Long periods are given at the earlier stages in the preparation of these maps, but when we reach this stage in general we should keep to the 28 days, which is a standard period for this kind of operation.

I wrote to my hon. Friend following our discussions in Committee and explained the position as it appeared to me. I do not feel that he has adduced any further evidence tonight which would make us change our minds. I appreciate that he is anxious, as we all are, that these draft revision maps should be properly prepared, but we feel that we are making reasonable provision for this in the Bill as it now stands. I am sorry, but I do not feel that we can recommend the House to accept the Amendment.

Mr. Ramsden

I understand that the hon. Member for the High Peak (Mr. Peter M. Jackson), in moving the Amendment, indicated to the House that had I been here I would have supported him. I merely wish to say that I do not think he had any grounds for saying that.

Amendment negatived.

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