HC Deb 21 April 1982 vol 22 cc283-5

4.9 pm

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Stockport, North)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to provide for improved access for walkers and other persons to the countryside. Perhaps, in short, one could call the Bill a walkers' charter. I introduce it on behalf of the Ramblers Association, the Youth Hostels Association and many other groups and individuals who enjoy walking in the countryside.

The reason I believe the Bill to be necessary is that there was a great deal of dispute and frustration as a result of the passing into law last year of the Wildlife and Countryside Act. Walkers and others who use the countryside for recreation got a particularly raw deal from that measure. They were extremely disappointed at the attitude of the Government to such problems as the presence of bulls on footpaths, the ploughing-up and obstruction of footpaths and the difficulties of getting obstructions such as barbed wire removed from footpaths. That is one side of the difficulty.

The other side is that walkers face increasing problems in gaining access to the countryside. It is worth remembering that one in five people enjoy walking two or three miles at least as a recreation, and they go out for such walks fairly regularly. In other words, 20 per cent. of the population enjoy walking, and the numbers are growing steadily.

In some ways, it is almost a self-defeating occupation. Anyone going out into the countryside for peace and quiet on many occasions on the more popular routes finds so many other people that it is almost like walking down a high street. I have in mind such areas as the Snowdon Horseshoe where on any bank holiday weekend there are more people walking and climbing over the area than the numbers attending many league football matches. Taking account, in addition, of the numbers who go up Snowdon by the mountain railway, it is an extremely crowded area.

This is a problem that applies not just to Snowdonia but to many other areas. The peace and quiet that people go out to enjoy is destroyed by the very numbers of people who go there. For that reason it is important to extend the areas of access so that more people can be spread over more areas of land and not find themselves standing almost one on top of the other.

We also have to consider that over the past 30 or 40 years many areas of the countryside have been built over, so many of the walks that people enjoyed in previous years have disappeared under housing estates and industrial development.

We also have the growth in the use of the motor car. I can remember as a child being taken out into the lanes of Cheshire around Manchester for many attractive walks, most of which were along lanes linked by footpaths. Going out on to those same routes today one finds that they are very unattractive because of the numbers of motor cars. Certainly in lowland Britain many of the traditional areas where people walk along lanes have been developed to the extent that recreational opportunities of the sort that I have described no longer exist.

There are other problems. Not only are walkers using the countryside increasingly but many other groups go out into the countryside for recreation. Therefore there is a problem of competition from all those groups. I add the fact that the 1949 and 1968 legislation has turned out to be extremely disappointing. It has not given the access to many areas of open moorland that was hoped for. It is suggested that only 2 per cent. of open countryside is open to the public for access. Every so often we get the well publicised instances where access is proving a problem. Possibly the most recent is that of the Arans in Mid-Wales. There have also been reports of the difficulty of climbing on the Roaches in North Staffordshire. There have also been difficulties in the Brecon Beacons and the Fan Frynych area. These are just the tip of the iceberg of areas to which people have difficulty in getting access.

The main aim of the Bill is to improve access for walkers, and I seek to establish seven points. The first is to establish a public right of access on foot to all open country as defined in the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949. The second is to implement the recommendation that there should be a right of public access on foot to all common land. The third is to close the loopholes in the Commons Registration Act 1965 that have been opened up by the Box common and Clwyd cases and are resulting in the loss of much registered common land. The fourth is to give members of the public the right to apply for access orders to areas of woodland and areas adjacent to stretches of water and for path creation orders. The fifth is to extend section 56 of the Highways Act 1980 so that members of the public can bring to court highway authorities that refuse to deal with obstructed rights of way. The sixth is to reduce the problems of ploughed- up paths by requiring paths to be restored immediately alter ploughing, giving members of the public the right to prosecute offenders, and extending section 56 to highway authorities that refuse to deal with ploughed-up fields. The seventh is to require that bulls should not be kept in fields through which there are public footpaths.

These are very minimal proposals. It is quite clear that there is an increasing belief amongst walkers that they have not got a fair deal in legislation. They are beginning to become frustrated and possibly rather more militant. It is worth remembering, with the fiftieth anniversary of the Kinder mass trespass being celebrated at Hayfield this weekend, that we could return to the era between the wars and just after when there were regular confrontations between walkers, gamekeepers and others. That would be very sad. I believe that we should meet the legitimate requirements of walkers by legislation now rather than see increasing confrontation in the countryside.

We have to make this country one nation of country dwellers and townspeople and not see the two groups in conflict. We have a very beautiful countryside. It is a national asset. It is one that we should be concerned to preserve and protect. We should be doing all that we can to ensure that everyone can enjoy it and that it is not enjoyed merely by a privileged few who can say "Keep out" to the rest of the nation.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Andrew F. Bennett, Mr. Clive Soley, Mr. Alfred Dubs, Mr. Phillip Whitehead, Dr. David Clark, Miss Joan Maynard, Mrs. Ann Taylor, Mr. J. W. Rooker, Mr. Jim Callaghan and Mr. Kevin McNamara.