HC Deb 09 April 1968 vol 762 cc1321-30

Amendments made: No. 89, in page 46, line 17, column 3, at end insert: Section 11(3).

No. 90, in page 46, line 49, at end insert:

5 & 6 Eliz. 2. c. 20. The House of Commons Disqualification Act 1957. In Part III of Schedule, 1 the words Chairman or Deputy Chairman of the National Parks Commission'.—[Mr. Skeffington.]

Order for Third Reading read.—[Queen's Consent, on behalf of the Crown, signified.]

3.35 a.m.

Mr. MacDermot

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

The House will not want a lengthy speech from me at this stage, and I have in mind particularly the fact that my hon. Friend the Member for Ilkeston (Mr. Raymond Fletcher) has the Adjournment debate to look forward to.

There are three matters on which I promised to give to the House such further information as could at this stage. The first is to indicate the Government's attitude on those parts of the Gosling Committee's recommendations which deal with the procedure for opening, closing and diverting footpaths.

In Part III of its Report, the Committee recommends that the pattern and administration of footpaths should be considered as part of environmental planning authorities, and it suggests that the responsibility for considering footpaths under the provisions of Section 153 of the Town and Country Planning Act, 1962, should be transferred from the Ministry of Transport to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government.

The Government accept that, now that rural footpaths are almost wholly a recreational matter, it is sensible that they should be considered as part of planning, and we will introduce an amendment to the Town and Country Planning Bill to transfer the footpaths functions of Section 153 accordingly.

The Government also accept in principle the Committee's fifth recommendation, that Planning authorities should have the power and duty to initiate changes in footpath patterns and to consider applications for changes both from users and landowners. We foresee difficulties in applying the suggested detailed procedures proposed in paragraph 27 of the Report, which do not form part of the Committee's recommendations. We think that this recommendation require further consideration to see how it can best be related to the new structure and local plan system. We propose to do this and consult those interested, but we do not contemplate immediate legislation.

In the meantime, the definitive maps state the footpaths position, and the reviews bring it up to date. Now we want local authorities to look forward to see what new paths are needed, what use is made of existing paths, and what alterations could be made to meet future requirements.

The Gosling Committee recommends that footpath order procedures should be simplified. We intend to introduce into the Countryside Bill in another place a new clause to give local authorities greater autonomy in dealing with unopposed orders. We are now entering into the necessary consultations.

The second matter on which I promised to give information to the House was on the application of the Bill and, in particular, Clause 25 to Crown land. Section 97 of the Road Traffic Regulation Act, 1967, applies Section 1 of that Act to vehicles and persons in the public service of the Crown, but, at present, Clause 25 does not apply to Crown land. We are currently engaged in consultation with the various authorities to see whether the Clause could be made to apply to Crown land, and I can tell the House that I am hopeful that it will be possible to reach agreement so that we can move an appropriate amendment to the Bill in another place.

The third matter on which I promised to give information was on the anticipated effect of the recent economy measures upon the implementation of the proposals in the Bill. The Explanatory Memorandum to the Bill, which was published before Christmas, forecast Exchequer expenditure in England and Wales in 1968–69 as £650,000, of which £500,000 was attributable to expenditure under the Act of 1949. It looked forward to an Exchequer expenditure of £2 million in a full year. As the now printed Estimates show, the total Exchequer expenditure in 1968–69 is expected to be £544,000, instead of £650,000. Grant in respect of local authority expenditure under the 1949 Act and in future under this Bill is paid to local authorities annually in arrears, so that there will not therefore be and would not in any event have been any additional Exchequer expenditure as a result of this Bill in respect of grant in the year 1968–69.

There is, however, likely still to be some additional expenditure direct by the Commission in the exercise of its new functions. The intention that Exchequer expenditure in a full year of operation should reach £2 million remains, but we now expect that it will not be reached as early as was formerly hoped. In fact, we now expect the total expenditure of the Commission and local authorities in the three years to be of the order of the following amounts: In 1968–69, £837,000; in 1969–70, £1,200,000; and in 1970–71, £1½ million.

It is right that I should add that any estimates of expenditure in this field must of necessity be uncertain because they will depend on the decisions made by individual local authorities on the extent to which they are prepared to embark on expenditures of this kind in a period of economic stringency. Having said that, however, I hope the House will agree that the figures which I have given show that in spite of our present economic difficulties the Commission will have a real job of work to do in the coming years, and that it can help local authorities to lay their plans for future expenditure when greater resources can be made available.

I conclude by expressing my gratitude to all who have helped to improve the Bill, as I believe it has been improved, during its passage through the House. I have found it very stimulating to find so many hon. Members on both sides who have a great interest in the subject and who speak from considerable knowledge. I have found it a somewhat exhausting experience. I do not think that there is anything quite so exhausting for a Minister as trying to pilot a non-controversial Bill through the House. Give me a Finance Bill every time. I am grateful in particular to the Opposi- tion Front Bench. They have been most helpful throughout in what has been a complicated matter.

I pay a tribute, too, to my colleagues who have relieved me of a considerable part of the burden, particularly when I became preoccupied with the Town and Country Planning Bill. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Minister of State at the Welsh Office, and to my hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary. I think that in Standing Committee we all came to realise that my hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary knew more about this subject than the rest of us put together.

3.43 a.m.

Mr. Channon

I, too, am grateful to my colleagues for the vast amount of work they have put in in an attempt to improve the Bill. We have had a very good relationship with the Minister of State and other Ministers.

I do not wish to delay the House at this time of the night on a Bill which was so generally welcomed by so many people both inside and outside the House, but I must say to the Minister of State—and I am sorry to disagree with him at the end of our proceedings—that it was disappointing to hear this evening that paragraph 27 of the Gosling Report was not to be translated into legislation at the moment. One of our complaints was that there would have to be separate legislation for footpaths. The Government said that that would not be necessary because they would be able to deal with the whole question either in this Bill or in the Town and Country Planning Bill. I hope that the Government will reconsider this to see whether the proposals in paragraph 27 of the Gosling Report, or an amended version of them—they do not have to be in the form suggested in the report—can be included in the Town and Country Planning Bill, if necessary in another place.

There is keen interest in the House in this subject, but it is not one to which the House will again willingly devote itself in the near future. I am sure that it will be a long time before we discuss another Bill dealing with these problems. I think that it will be a tremendous waste of everybody's time if we cannot finally settle this problem for a long time. I would have thought that whatever opinion one took of the Countryside Bill or the Town and Country Planning Bill, there must be a general wish on all sides of the House that we should implement Gosling and not just hang about and hope that one day there will be time for further legislation.

I beg the Government to reconsider this decision and to see if it is not possible to get legislation into the Town and Country Planning Bill to implement the system that is referred to in paragraph 27 of the Gosling Committee's Report. I hope it is not too late for a decision to be taken to include these matters in the Bill. This Bill, if it is to be implemented properly, is going to cost a great deal of money. We ought not to be under any illusion that it will not cost local authorities a great deal. I have been handed figures to show how much it will cost a medium-sized county council to implement the sign-posting regulations.

The county council has eleven rural district councils, and they estimate that there are about 500 footpaths leaving public metalled roads in each of the rural district councils. They estimate that the total cost will be not far short of £33,000. That is one county council, and it shows the measure of the cost involved. I am not at all sanguine about the speed with which all these proposals are going to be implemented.

We are grateful to the Government for telling us how their economic measures will affect the Bill. We were told originally that the Bill was not going to be one of sacrifices of the Government's economy measures, but there is some partial element of sacrifice involved. I would like the Minister of State, or one of his colleagues, to tell us, since the expenditure is going to be much smaller in the opening years, whether there are going to be priorities laid down. What sort of categories of expenditure does he expect the money to be spent on? There are certain portions of the Bill which it is more urgent to implement, while others could wait without any great loss.

I was interested in what the Minister of State said about Crown land, and my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dame Joan Vickers) will, I know, want to make some comment on that, possibly at great length.

I conclude by returning to the point I made at the beginning. I hope very much that the Government, who have been very helpful in suggesting that the Town and Country Planning Bill is to be the vehicle for a great many of the things in Part III of Gosling, will not at the last moment say they cannot do the whole job. I want to ask them if they will have another look at this to see if it is not possible to complete the job and put in the whole of the system in paragraph 27 of the Gosling Committee's Report.

If they cannot do it in exactly the way Gosling suggests, I am sure that with goodwill an acceptable solution can be found. But to leave this bit out now is, I think, going to be the worst of all possible solutions. One might not be able to do it for a very long time indeed, and I hope that as a final gesture, the Minister will say that they will look at this problem again and try to include this in the Town and Country Planning Bill. If they can do that, we shall be able to say that this problem has been thoroughly looked at and dealt with by the House, and that we would not have to return to it again for a considerable period.

Finally, I should like to thank my colleagues for all the work they have done on the Bill—I think we have improved it—and also to thank the Government for the courtesy with which we have been treated at all stages of the proceedings.

3.50 a.m.

Mr. Ramsden

I would not detain the House but for the depressing statement by the Minister of State about the Government's intention over the latest Gosling recommendations. I understand that they do not propose to implement Recommendation No. 5, which is amplified in paragraph 27. This bears out my fears ever since the early stages, when I have argued for comprehensive treatment of the footpath law. The relationship between the timing of Gosling and the timing of the Bill has made this difficult.

Halfway through our proceedings, the Government indicated a timetable which would have enabled the recommendations to be put into effect had they been agreed and arrived in time. Although that happened, the Government apparently do not intend to give legislative effect to those recommendations, and I regard this as a breach of faith with the Committee. It was in the spirit, if not the letter, of the undertaking which we were given on 1st February that something would be done to tackle this long-standing problem. I am disappointed at the Government's attitude: they have hotted this side of the House. I hope that the hon. and learned Gentleman can assure me that this does not mean what it appeared to mean. If he cannot, I will see the Bill on its way with some disappointment and an unpleasant taste in the mouth.

3.53 a.m.

Dame Joan Vickers

This important Bill will please many people, and I was glad to serve on the Committee. I thank the Minister of State, Welsh Office, for her promise in our discussions on Clause 6 to circulate local authorities about provisions for old people. She has notified me that she has done this, and I think that it will be greatly appreciated.

On Clause 5, the Parliamentary Secretary has been in correspondence with people about Dartmoor and is willing to deal with this matter urgently, so I suppose that some provision introduced in another place will put this on a better footing. The Crown agencies have been very helpful and there is no complaint against them, but the whole system, especially on Dartmoor, will be much easier if there is some agreement. I agree that the question of signposts is a particularly difficult matter because it will be enormously expensive in many counties, particularly Devon. The signposts in Devon seem to be pixilated, since they are often turned around the wrong way or pushed down—whether by animals or people, I do not know. But we have had considerable difficulties, so I know that it will not be easy to get the signposts in order.

I am disappointed that the river authorities are to play such a small part. I gather that it is intended that they will be one of the classes of authorities consulted under Clause 6 (3). They would then have the right, under Schedule 1, to object to proposals with which they do not agree.

This is not satisfactory, however, and it is contrary to the principle of one river, one authority, the principle on which the river autho- rities have relied in their evolution. That the river authorities are not consulted seems contrary to the Government's original intention. River authorities and the Water Resources Board have been pressing the Minister of Housing and Local Government to give the river authorities a more positive rôle. The White Paper "Leisure in the Countryside" stated in paragraph 37: The Department will seek to involve, in conjunction with the river authorities, public bodies and others concerned with the appropriate advice and comprehensive plans for developing the use of recreation of the country's waterways, natural and artificial. This matter was raised on several occasions in Committee, and while I will not detain the House at this hour, I refer hon. Members to columns 389, 406, 937 and 940 of the OFFICIAL REPORT of the Committee proceedings. It is a pity that this matter has not been settled on a better basis.

The assurances that were given in Committee were not considered satisfactory at that time and, in the event, it seems that the Government do not want to meet the issue by giving to river authorities the right to participate in the provision of recreational facilities. This is a pity and I hope that further consideration will be given to the matter. In the same way, I trust that the title of the Bill will receive more attention, since the present one is not satisfactory.

3.57 a.m.

Mr. Gibson-Watt

While I had not intended to speak on the Third Reading, I must express my disappointment at the failure of the Government to deal with paragraph 27 of the Gosling Report. We were led to believe that this would be dealt with. We gathered, from the original Clauses, that it was regarded as a separate matter and that the whole problem of footpaths would be covered comprehensively. We have ended up with an incomplete answer to this problem of footpaths and, despite the argument of the lack of time, this could have been covered in a small Bill designed for the purpose. The result is messy legislation and nobody can be certain about the future of footpaths. There will be occasions when individuals, local authorities and others will wish to create, divert and close footpaths, but after 30 sittings in Committee on the Bill we do not have the answer.

The Government could still put this matter in the Town and Country Planing Bill, as we originally expected. After all, we were not responsible for setting up the Gosling Committee. Although I do not want to upset the peaceful atmosphere in which we have discussed the Bill tonight, the Government must be held responsible for setting up the Gosling Committee too late to enable this matter to be properly tackled. The Minister still has time, if he so wishes, to place this issue in the Town and Country Planning Bill, which is on its way through Committee.

4.0 a.m.

Mr. MacDermot

By leave of the House, I seek to reply to one or two points made in the Third Reading debate. The hon. Member for Hereford (Mr. Gibson-Watt) complained that the Gosling Committee was set up late. It is better late than never, which was the record of hon. Members opposite in dealing with these problems.

Paragraph 27 of the Report is not a recommendation. I do not think that hon. Members opposite who speak of it as if it were have quite taken that on board. Paragraph 27 says: we suggest that the law should provide for the following steps to be taken". When the Report makes recommendations, it does not in fact make a positive recommendation based on paragraph 27. It was a suggestion only, and I have no doubt that the Committee realised the difficulties involved in the suggestion. It would be out of order, even if the House had the patience to listen, for me to try to explain why those suggestions would produce a quite unworkable position, but I would gladly meet hon. Members to explain my reasons for saying that. I cannot undertake, and it would be irresponsible of me to suggest, that we should bring forward legislative proposals in the Town and Country Planning Bill based on recommendations which we believe would produce a wholly unworkable position and an anarchaic state of the law on this subject. All we can do, and what I have done, is to say that we shall at once enter into consultations with the parties concerned to see what procedure we can devise to implement the recommendations which we have accepted.

We have accepted recommendations 4, 5 and 6 of the Report. Recommendation 6 is a clear legislative recommendation which we accept and will implement. We accept that these matters should become a planning function. We are in the middle of devising a new planning system and we have to fit this into that new system. It is not that we are not doing anything about it, but it would be misleading for me to suggest that we could give some undertaking that out of the hat we could produce an answer in a few weeks, when in my view and the view of the Government the Committee has not succeeded in producing detailed proposals which would enable the suggestions to be implemented in a satisfactory way. It is right that I should tell the House that it is likely to require a longer period than that. We are not going to back down on this. We are anxious to see it implemented and we shall do all we can to bring legislation to the House as quickly as we can, or help it to be brought before the House.

It would not be right for us to try to lay down priorities on expendtiure, particularly as we have set up the Commission one of whose main functions will be to advise my right hon. Friend on this question. In the light of the proposals which may come forward from local authorities, the Commission will be in the best position to advise how the relatively scarce resources that will be available in the early period can best be used.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.