HC Deb 27 February 1980 vol 979 cc1374-6

4.9 pm

Dr. David Clark (South Shields)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend sections 193 and 194 of the Law of Property Act 1925; to clarify the meaning of the Commons Registration Act 1965; to grant a right of public access to open country (as defined in the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949 as amended by the Countryside Act 1968); and for connected purposes. The aim of the Bill would, in essence, be threefold. First, it would allow legal access to all commons. Secondly, it would amend, in a minor fashion, the Commons Registration Act 1965. Thirdly, it would grant right of access for air and exercise to all open land.

In asking for leave to introduce this Bill I am aware that it is only one of many that have been introduced over the years. Indeed, if we go back to 1888, we find that James Bryce introduced a Bill of this nature into the House. Since then a number of similar Bills have been introduced. It is interesting to note that the majority of such moves were made by Members of Parliament who represented constituencies in the industrial North-East of England. Charles Trevelyan of Newcastle, Ellen Wilkinson of Jarrow, Hugh Dalton of Bishop Auckland, Chuter Ede and Arthur Blenkinsop both of my own constituency of South Shields, were among those who sponsored or introduced such Bills. There is a long tradition of introducing such Bills.

I am often asked why this is so, and I believe that the explanation is simple. After spending weeks down the mines, in the shipyards, in the workshops on Tyneside or in the towns of Durham, Manchester, Sheffield or Workington, in West Cumberland, men had only to lift their eyes and in the distance they could see the beckoning Pennines. Naturally, because of their limited freedom, they yearned to walk among those hills. But alas, it was not to be, and that is often so today.

Those workmen only wanted the same rights as their Lordships' grouse to wander on the moors, except that they did not want to be shot at. We should now consider freer access to such areas, especially as there is increasing demand for leisure activities and every Government report points in that direction.

My Bill would correct the anomaly that arises out of the case of the Central Electricity Generating Board v. Clwyd county council 1976, and also the Box parish council v. Lacey in 1978. I believe that it is a minor technicality, which the House should put right.

Secondly, I seek to allow the public access to all commons. The paradox is that by their definition the commons belong to people yet the traditional rights of many people have been limited over the past 100 years. There is a rhyme that is associated with the Commons, Open Spaces and Footpath Preservation Society, of which I am chairman. It is an 18th century rhyme, but is well worth remembering. It runs: The law doth punish man and woman, That steals a goose from off the common, But lets the greater felon loose, That steals a common off the goose. That is precisely what has happened. Over the centuries people have had their land stolen from them. This is not just the view of a rabid Socialist; it was also the view of the Royal Commission in 1958. I understand that it is the view of the Department of Environment working party.

It is time that the problem of access to commons was sorted out once and for all. We are lucky that under the Law of Property Act 1925 commons in urban areas are accessible to the public as of right. This means, especially in the Lake District, that there are large areas where we are free to wander and obtain great enjoyment.

The third part of my Bill would allow pedestrian access to all other non-cultivated open land. That would bring this country in line with the more advanced countries in Europe. The National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949 went some way towards this, but I believe that the time is now opportune for us to go all the way and to grant this concession and, indeed, this right.

I concede that there will sometimes be difficulties. I concede that there are often public footpaths in these areas. But public footpaths and legal rights of way are no guarantee. I have been told to get off moors even though I have been on a statutorily registered public footpath. That has been said to me at gunpoint on two occasions by people who have told me that they do not recognise the law as applied to the Queen's highways. Therefore, we must go a stage further when talking about open areas and make them available to everyone.

I fully accept that there would be problems with a minority who are vandals and there would have to be punitive measures involved in any legislation. I fully concede that, but what I am arguing has been put forward by responsible committees such as the Dower committee of 1945 and the Hobhouse committee of 1947.

All evidence—we must all welcome it—points to an increase in leisure time. On a Friday evening we have only to look at the exodus from industrial cities such as Newcastle, London, Birmingham, Sheffield and Manchester to realise the demands that are put upon the countryside.

The countryside is not a museum. I fully accept that. It is a workshop. But it is more than that. It is part of our natural and national heritage, just as much as Hadrian's Wall or Westminster Abbey. The time has come when we should give this right back—I emphasise the word "back "—to our people and allow them to wander freely over open moorland and other non-cultivated land.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Dr. David Clark, Mr. Andrew F. Bennett, Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours, Mr. Sydney Chapman, Mr. Patrick Cormack, Mr. Alfred Dubs, Mr. Frank Hooley, Mr. John Parker, Mr. Geoffrey Rippon, Mr. Leslie Spriggs, and Mr. Frederick Willey.