HC Deb 20 July 1973 vol 860 cc1120-8

4.11 p.m.

Mr. Carol Johnson (Lewisham, South)

I think the Under-Secretary of State will agree that we can begin this short debate with at least one point of agreement—that it is particularly timely, first, because the Countryside Commission, which is mainly concerned with long-distance paths, has just announced a new study of them, and, secondly, because of the rather ambiguous reference to grants for these routes mentioned in the consultative paper on local government finance recently issued by his Department and the Welsh Office, a reference which requires early explanation and elucidation. If I hurry along, it will be because I understand that the hon. Gentleman has an important train to catch.

It was as long ago as September 1947, more than a quarter of a century ago, that the report of the Special Committee on Footpaths and Access to the Countryside put forward the imaginative proposal for the creation of long-distance paths and bridle ways. This was no new idea because routes such as the Pennine Way had already been mooted.

But its proposal to provide continuous rights of way for walkers and riders over long distances was of very great importance at that time because it was a necessary lead-in to legislation on the matter. Indeed, the proposal was soon embodied in the legislation which created the national parks—the National Parks Act 1949—which also created the National Parks Commission, the predecessor of the Countryside Commission, which was made responsible for drawing up general proposals for long-distance paths.

All this led to high hopes that, at long last, the long-felt need for long-distance paths, with unrestricted public rights the whole way, would be met and that they would quickly become available for all those who love and enjoy the countryside.

But we must now ask ourselves what are the results of all this after a quarter of a century. There are now, it is boasted, 12 long-distance paths, but, alas, only five are complete and there are even queries over some of the so-called completed ones. Of the completed ones, undoubtedly the best known is the Pennine Way which runs from Edale in Derbyshire to the Scottish border, a length of 250 miles, and which will always be associated with its true begetter, Tom Stephenson, that grand and indestructible figure of the open-air movement. But it took 30 years to achieve from the time it was mooted. A whole generation had to wait to enjoy it.

I shall not refer in detail to the other approved and popular paths, such as the Cleveland Way, the Pembrokeshire coast path of 167 miles, or the South Downs Way, which is particularly important as it forms the first long-distance bridle way, although, as the hon. Gentleman probably knows, it follows a route which has been open in practice for many years. The latest path—the Cornish coastal path —opened this year, 20 years after being mooted, is only a part of the proposed South-West peninsula coast path. All this is a very welcome achievement. But progress has been very slow and seems to be coming to a halt. Before pursuing that, however, I want to discuss the Offa's Dyke Path which runs for 168 miles from the Severn to Prestatyn through the borders of England and Wales. This was opened formally two years ago but parts of the path are still not open to the public and it seems to have had a premature opening.

The trouble is that the landowner concerned with some of the route has insisted that, if created, the right of way must he fenced on a certain scale with which the local authority do not agree. So the rural district council—the local authority concerned—made a creation order in lieu of an agreement. After a public inquiry the Secretary of State refused to confirm the order because the rural district council was not willing to pay for the fencing required although the landowner would have been entitled to compensation for the land.

I should like the Under-Secretary to explain and justify the Department's attitude. It is indisputable that the proposed path would have fine views and, if not created, the long-distance route would have to follow a metalled road which would be unattractive to walkers. The rural district council, which would be familiar with all relevant conditions, considered that fencing on the scale suggested was unreasonable.

The original route had already been approved by the Secretary of State and l and many others had understood that in negotiating the creation of the necessary rights of way the local authority was acting as agent for the Department. It this is so, it seems wrong that it should be expected to pay or that the public should suffer by being denied the path if it will not. It is an abdication of the Secretary of State's responsibilities and I shall be glad to see how the Under-Secretary explains and justifies it.

After such a great delay in completing paths, what hope can there be for the provision of additional paths and bridle ways? There is evidence to suggest that the Countryside Commission is unable to cope with the demand for new paths. It may be for perfectly good reasons that it is unable to cope but it is certainly an unfortunate situation at a time when long-distance paths are becoming so popular, so much so that more of them are needed and indeed many are in the offing which ought to receive early consideration.

A couple of proposals were recently submitted to the Countryside Commission and they received a dusty answer. In October last the Rambler Association submitted detailed plans for an entirely riverside route running from the Ribble Estuary up into the Yorkshire Dales National Park, which would make a junction with the existing Pennine Way and the proposed Dales Way. The commission replied that the suggestion had been added to the office list of proposals, which suggests that there are already some awaiting consideration and that it will be "some time" before the pressure of work on the "small staff available" would allow detailed consideration.

There is the proposed Thames footpath, an obvious route and one likely to have great attraction to foreign tourists as well as walkers in this country. It is not a new idea, being proposed as long ago as 1947, but the proposal is consistently rejected by the Countryside Commission, the latest being as recently as October last having been presented by the River Thames Society.

It is ironic that the commission agrees that such a route is desirable but because of the heavy expenditure likely to be involved it cannot consider its possibility.

These examples spotlight what I think are the main stumbling blocks against the creation of further paths and bridle ways, emphasising the inadequate finances of the commission and its small staff, matters which can be dealt with only by the Government.

This brings me to my final point—consideration of the Government's general attitude, which does not always appear to be as helpful as instanced by the case of Offa's Dyke. Over and above that there is a new fear arising from the consultative documents. I understand that that document which has recently been issued by hon. Gentleman's Department and by the Welsh Office refers to local government finance for the future. I have not seen the report itself, but the Municipal Journal of 22nd June last says: .…the specific grants it is proposed to discontinue include … those for long distance routes under the Act of 1949. Perhaps the Under-Secretary will tell us exactly what that implies. If it means that the cost of maintaining the long-distance paths is being transferred to local authorities instead of their receiving 100 per cent. as at present, not only will the limited progress not be made, but the whole future of the paths will be seriously affected. The statement needs elucidation and I hope that we shall get a satisfactory explanation from the hon. Gentleman.

But something more is required. All I have said shows the necessity for the Secretary of State to strengthen the commission's resources so as to enable it to process the surveying of new routes more rapidly and to prevent a log jam of stillborn schemes from building up. Unless this is done, and done soon, a quite intolerable situation will arise. What I should like to hear from the hon. Gentleman today is a recognition of this situation and a clear assurance of the Government's concern for and interest in these paths and bridle ways which give so much worth while pleasure to thousands of citizens at so little cost. To build a few hundred miles of long-distance paths costs about the same as a few yards of motorway.

In a week in which the Prime Minister has endorsed Maplin, the Channel Tunnel and the continuance of Concorde, with the hundreds of millions of pounds of expenditure involved it is a very modest request to make that the same Government should seriously get to work to speed up progress in a sphere in respect of which we so often pay lip service, which is the opening up of the countryside to all our citizens.

4.22 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Eldon Griffiths)

I am very glad that the hon. Member for Lewisham, South (Mr. Carol Johnson) has chosen to raise this matter. I give him right away an assurance that the Government do take most seriously the need to make available to the public more countryside routes so that people can enjoy their increasing leisure. I have the warmest admiration for all those walkers, riders and, I think since 1968, cyclists, on whose behalf these long-distance routes were primarily devised.

In our urbanised and pre-packaged society these days, when the motor car is so often said to rule our lives and more and more people apparently prefer to spend their holidays lying on sun-soaked and crowded beaches, I find it both stimulating and reassuring that the numbers of our fellow citizens who want to walk, for example, the whole 250-mile length of the Pennine Way are also increasing very rapidly.

For these reasons I must say at once that, contrary to suggestions I have seen in the Press and elsewhere, no one in the Government, either this Government or their predecessors, has ever sought to delay or limit the provision of these long-distance routes, and there has been no attempt to held up the provision of footpaths by denying to the Countryside Commission the necessary staff, or in any other way.

I must say that having examined the matter in some detail I think that the past has not been good enough. There have been very long delays. I believe that the arrangements that I shall indicate in a moment will be better. The future is bright, and I hope that the hon. Member will accept that as my broad reply to his comments.

There is not at the moment any difficulty in the staffing requirements of the Countryside Commission. These have quite recently been fully agreed. Nor, for once, is shortage of funds a problem. Local authorities are reimbursed in full for their expenditure on compensation and maintenance, and there has been no year in which the repayments demanded have approached the total sum that is available.

Perhaps I can now deal with the hon. Member's anxiety about the "consultative document", as he described it. The Government have recently announced proposals—no more than proposals—which would involve the cessation of a number of specific grants including those associated with long-distance routes.

The much more important other side of the coin is that the powers of the Countryside Commission will be extended so as to allow it to pay grants to local authorities, not only for the restricted purposes previously available, but for any work conducive to the purposes of the 1949 Act. This might well enable the Commission to support new, different and, indeed, more ambitious types of footpath proposals and might well make the future of the long-distance route more rosy than it has ever been. I hope that that reassures the hon. Gentleman.

Twelve proposed long-distance routes have been approved by the Government. Seven of them are now open to the public and the Ridgeway is due to be opened in September. The remainder will be opened in 1974 and 1975 and will add materially to the routes available. Apart from these approved routes, the commission has five further proposals totalling an additional 618 miles in its current programme. The future, as can be seen, is a good deal better.

I have, as the hon. Gentleman properly requested, looked very carefully into the chain of decision making which links the original recommendation for a new path to its final opening. First, the commission decides that there is a good case for such a route to be designated in accordance with the terms of the Act. Secondly, it consults the relevant local authorities about access, rights of way, costs of preparation and maintenance. In this process maps are produced and a report prepared for the Secretary of State.

Thirdly, on receipt of the report, the Secretary of State considers all the relevant factors and decides to reject, modify or approve the recommendation. Fourthly, the local authorities start work on getting access, laying out and signing the route. In this process they are advised as need be by the Countryside Commission.

So much for the chain of decisions. What about the time that it takes? I divide this broadly into the period before the Secretary of State's final approval of the route and the period between that decision and an opening date. I call the first period the time of insemination and the second the period of gestation. The period of insemination can be up to five years. The period of gestation can be a good deal longer. The Pennine Way was approved in 1951 but was opened only 14 years later. The Cleveland Way was approved in 1965 and was opened four years later. The Pembroke Coast Path was approved in 1953 but was not opened until 17 years later. The Cornwall North Coast Path, of which the hon. Gentleman is well aware, was approved in 1952 but was not opened until 21 years later. I do not think that anyone looking at the record could deny that the procedures are far too long, but it is perhaps because my Department, along with the Countryside Commission has recognised this problem that we are taking steps to improve matters.

I wish to deal with the two specific points which the hon. Gentleman raised. There has been some misunderstanding about Offa's Dyke. A footpath order was made and the matter went to public inquiry. The inspector recommended that the order should be confirmed only if the full cost of the landowner's requirements for fencing and other precautions could bet met from public funds. When these requirements were announced they had to be examined by the local authority and by my Department. They proved to be very expensive. The local authority and my Department took the view that it would not be a prudent expenditure of so large a quantity of public money on securing this short stretch of footpath when an alternative, though admittedly less attractive, was already in existence. That is why the order was not confirmed.

I am not briefed on the footpath for the Ribble Estuary to the Pennine Way, but I will write to the hon. Gentleman about it.

The Thames towpath is an imaginative suggestion. The commission has looked closely at it but has concluded that problems of erosion, which I know the hon. Gentleman will not under-estimate, the need for a number of footbridges, and the difficult negotiation of new rights of way where none exists, such as through the whole of Windsor, would make the cost of the route disproportionately high in relation to its scenic quality.

Looking to the future, the commission is paying increasing attention to long-distance footpaths and the Government support the commission in so doing. Discussions between the commission and my Department have led to agreement on guidelines, staff and other resources.

One new footpath will open in September and I hope that two more will open next year. New types of footpath are being considered, and only three days ago a consultant, Mr. Yapp, was appointed to undertake a comprehensive review of long-distance footpaths and the financial arrangements for them.

With the advent of the new and larger local authorities, the reorganisation in the approach of the commission and the improved financial proposals, I believe that we can look forward to substantial progress in the years to come.

I am well aware of the many proposals put forward by the Ramblers' Association, the Council for the Preservation of Rural England, local authorities and others. Not all proposals are well conceived, not all can be accepted, but I assure the hon. Gentleman—and he is entitled to this assurance in view of the fair way in which he has raised this matter—that the Government certainly want a wider spread of footpaths of all kinds, provided only that we can make sure that the proper procedures are gone through to obtain access and rights of way. I hope that we shall be able to speed up these procedures in the future and that he and I, together or separately, will have the pleasure of enjoying some of these splendid footpaths traversing magnificent scenery.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-eight minutes to Five o'clock.