HC Deb 23 February 1990 vol 167 cc1180-226

Order for Second Reading read.

9.59 am
Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough and Horncastle)

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

It is a great pleasure to be given the opportunity today to move the Second Reading of my Bill. When I heard that I had drawn number five in the ballot I got that sinking feeling that one gets at parliamentary selection conferences when one is asked what private Member's Bill one would introduce. I must admit that there was a gaping void in my mind.

In considering what Bill I should introduce, a number of factors occurred to me. First, it should not be a Government Bill. It is not that I have any objection to most Government Bills, but private Members' day is an opportunity for private Members' Bills. Secondly, it should be of some interest to my constituency, which is one of the most rural in the country, covering some 700 sq miles and more than 170 villages. Lastly, I was determined that, as the opportunity might not be repeated for many years, if at all, the Bill I introduced should be of interest to me personally. I have regretted many things in my life, but I have never regretted going for a walk, and if the Bill makes walking in the countryside easier it will have achieved something very important.

By way of a hobby I am an amateur landscape artist, so I shall give some idea of the structure of my speech and paint in the broad colours first. First, I shall try to outline the interest in walking in the countryside and the problems that have occurred; then I shall deal with the legal and common law history of the footpath network; then I shall examine the current legislation and its deficiencies; and lastly I shall explain the Bill and attempt to convince the House that it would improve matters.

There is a long history of parliamentary debate on footpath matters. In 1880 James Bryce was elected to the House on a campaign based on the freedom to walk the Scottish hills. He introduced a number of private Member's Bills to bring that worthy aim to the attention of the House, and he made such a bore of himself that eventually they put him in the Cabinet to shut him up. I am not sure whether my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment is prepared to give me similar consideration.

There were a number of such attempts until 1939 when Arthur Creech-Jones introduced a Bill that was so watered down in Committee that it was said to be a landlords' charter. My Bill is neither a landlords' charter nor a ramblers' charter. It is a compromise, but it is not a weak, milk and water compromise; it is an important piece of legislation which will have a practical effect.

The basis of the problem that my Bill attempts to address is outlined in various surveys carried out by the Countryside Commission. They show that walking is probably the most important leisure activity. On a typical summer Sunday no fewer than 18 million people visit the countryside, and two thirds of them visit the wider countryside and, therefore, are in contact with the farming industry. Apparently, no fewer than 17.5 million people are regular walkers and riders, so the House should seek to foster and encourage those important leisure activities.

In 1988 the Countryside Commission produced a survey that was carried out by 1,000 volunteers. They discovered that on a typical two-mile walk along the 140,000 mile footpath network there was a two in three chance of meeting an obstacle.

Mr. David Nicholson (Taunton)

A bull.

Mr. Leigh

Not necessarily a bull, although I shall return to bulls later.

Impenetrable vegetation or hedges or fences across a footpath can be dealt with by existing legislation. The most important problem, which occurs repeatedly in the surveys, is the ploughing up and cropping of footpaths. One quarter of all footpaths and 13 per cent. of bridleways are affected, and of those, half are poor and one quarter are unusable. The ploughing up and cropping of footpaths is the single greatest disincentive to people using the countryside.

The consistent comment of people who answered questions in the surveys was that they want to enjoy the countryside but cannot find the way in. The great majority—more than 80 per cent.—do not have the confidence to read maps and assert their rights when they meet a problem such as a ploughed field or a growing crop. As a result, people return to the few places that they know are safe to use, and those places become overused and eroded.

We are not talking about any great cost. I mentioned ploughing and cropping, but the Bill would not be allowed to introduce any increase in public spending. Even if we are talking of local authorities taking more action to deal with overgrown footpaths, way-making or building bridges, we are talking about 6p or 7p per walk, while every visit to a local swimming pool or leisure centre may involve a cost to local government of up to £1. If one sets the enormous popularity and importance of walking in the countryside against the relatively cheap cost to local authorities to enhance that enjoyment, it is clear that we are considering an important problem.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

Does the hon. Gentleman realise that the footpath officers of county councils and highway authorities frequently have hundreds of miles of footpaths to inspect to check whether complaints of obstruction are justified so that they can initiate action? Unless councils have a few more staff, they will be unable to make more than a small impact on the problem. However, if they take on more staff, they will be accused of overspending and putting up the poll tax.

Mr. Leigh

The number of staff in the recreation department of the average shire county shows that the resources spent on footpaths are an infinitesimal proportion of what is spent by county councils on education, for example. I admit that I may be calling for a modest increase in public spending, but the amount is so small compared with total public spending, and the potential gain is so great, that it is worth addressing. I take the hon. Gentleman's point that local authorities need more resources.

I have outlined the popularity of walking in the countryside and some of the problems that people encounter on an average walk. I shall now explain the basis of the Bill. I said earlier that when I was considering introducing the Bill a number of factors came into my mind. One of the most important is that a private Member's Bill is a very delicate flower. I did not want to invite the attentions of the Friday Whip to crush my Bill under his heel by encouraging overlong speeches. Therefore, I felt that it was essential to introduce a private Bill that could obtain the support of the Government. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will give it that support.

A number of people have questioned whether I was wise to take on the problem of footpaths which has engendered so much passion in the countryside and on which the barricades seem to have been raised higher than on any other issue. It is said that the farming community is on one side and the ramblers are on the other, and never the twain shall meet.

Thanks to the work of my hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden (Mr. Haselhurst)—I pay tribute to him and I hope that he catches your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, later in the debate—and the rights of way review committee that he chaired, and thanks to the work of the representatives on that committee from the National Farmers Union, the Country Landowners Association and the ramblers, we have worked out a compromise which everyone is prepared to accept. I urge the House to accept the Bill as a compromise.

I see that my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway) is present. He is a well-known horseman and he may be concerned about the width of bridleways. I ride in the countryside and some of us might like bridleways to be wider, but I urge my hon. Friend and others who may represent the ramblers or the farmers to remember that the Bill is a carefully crafted compromise, and I shall explain later just how we managed to achieve it.

I want to address the fears of farmers, not least because I represent a farming constituency and farming is the most important industry not just in my area, Lincolnshire, but in the nation. Farmers are going through a very difficult time, buffeted by difficulties over the green pound and Government attempts to deal with agricultural surpluses. I do not want farmers to think that this is another anti-farmer measure. On the contrary, it has been carefully drawn up in consultation with the farming community to meet farmers' fears.

Circumstances in the countryside are changing. Many years ago, one could say that the countryside was almost. part of the cities. The countryside was brought into even our great cities, such as Lincoln. With the industrial revolution and enclosures, there was a divide between country and city. The Countryside Commission surveys bear out the fact that an increasing proportion of people now live in the countryside—people who may live in villages but do not work on the land. The farming community must realise that this is an unstoppable process.

I hope that, in a modest way, the Bill will be the beginning of a process by which the farming community can be reconciled—if that is not too strong a word—with those who live in the country but do not work on the land. As surveys show, the advantages of living in the countryside are enormous. New patterns of employment in the countryside are emerging. More people are based in the home rather than in the office, with increasingly effective links by electronic communications, and others choose part-time work. High technology firms seek a pleasant, rural environment. I need not labour the point. More and more townspeople—if that is the right word—are living and working in the countryside.

We must try to improve attitudes. I was amused to hear of a case in Lincolnshire where the county council was asked to step in when ramblers protested about a sign on the edge of a field, which stated, "The next stile is 335 yd away. The bull can get there in 20 seconds. Can you?" The sign was eventually taken down.

Mr. David Nicholson

Was that a good thing?

Mr. Leigh

I do not know.

Surveys show that farmers are worried about the impact of the public on footpaths. Woodland Trust surveys show that some fears may be misplaced. I quote one example: Take the case of Great Bramingham Wood on the northern edge of Luton in south Bedfordshire. Hemmed in on three sides by housing estates and with 50,000 people living within a mile of its boundaries, this 40-acre mainly oak woodland was until two years ago out of bounds. It was just another fenced-off private wood. This did not mean, however, that nobody except its owner ever got into it. Fences were broken, rubbish dumped and small fires started, by irresponsible groups of vandals and perhaps also by people who, feeling they had no stake in the place and frustrated at being kept out, saw no reason why they should not abuse it. Then in 1985 the Woodland Trust bought the wood and immediately opened it up for general public access. It is the better for it. According to the Woodland Trust, the amount of damage has dropped markedly. For now that the responsible majority are allowed to visit the wood, they keep an eye on the irresponsible minority. Says Woodland Trust officer Andrew Thompson: 'The people who were causing damage don't want to be seen doing it, so the more people you get into a wood like this the less damage you get. A Woodland Trust volunteer said: We are finding that the variety of birds has actually increased over the last year. I am delighted to see in the Chamber my hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, North-West (Mr. Bellingham), who often walks the countryside and takes a particular interest in the local pheasants.

Mr. Tim Devlin (Stockton, South)

I was interested to hear what my hon. Friend said about the Woodland Trust. Has he heard of the "adopt a path" scheme, which operates in some parts of the country? There is a partnership between local ramblers and farmers, and individuals who are interested in walking are given a stretch of path to look after. That prevents the vandalism about which many farmers complain. The rambling community is drawn in and the maintenance of the countryside and footpaths does not fall entirely on the farming community.

Mr. Leigh

My hon. Friend makes his point well. He sums up what I am saying in this part of my speech. We must create trust. My Bill is based on trust and co-operation. We are addressing only one part of the problem of the footpath network. Farmers often say to me, "I am happy for people to walk across my land, but I have a path that has not been walked for years. Are you saying that I should face the cost of maintaining it?" There are opposing arguments. First, whether we like it or not, those paths are public highways and must be kept open by law. Secondly, if they are made usable, more people may use them.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish)

One interesting feature of most of our footpaths is that they are a historical record. We take a lot of trouble to preserve other historical things, but we should also retain the pattern of communications in our countryside as far as possible because it reminds people of old mills, chapels and other buildings which have perhaps almost disappeared.

Mr. Leigh

The hon. Gentleman makes his point well. Footpaths are part of the history of the countryside which help people to understand their history, and that is important.

Farmers ask, "Why are the ramblers so bloodyminded"—I hope that that is not an unparliamentary expression—"and why do they object to every simple diversification order?" If the Bill engenders an attitude of co-operation and progress and ramblers see that to deal with one part of the problem we have a law that ensures that the existing network is easy to use, I hope that it will give the Ramblers Association, the Open Spaces Society and people who take an interest in these matters confidence in the farming community. In turn, that will create more trust, and we might have more diversification and create a more modern footpath network, based on leisure. Of course, history has its part to play, but we must continually update the path network and make it more receptive to modern needs.

Between 1983 and 1987, about 80 per cent. of the 3,222 diversions of footpaths, were unopposed by ramblers and three quarters were in the sole interest of the landowner. If the Bill is not passed, I am afraid that both sides to the issue may retreat behind the barricades. If it is passed, I hope that it will be the basis for co-operation.

For the future, the countryside premium, which the Government have set up under their set-aside scheme, is the way to manage the countryside. Unfortunately, it applies only to certain parts of the country. Under that scheme, grants will be given to farmers to manage existing hedgerows, to create valuable habitats for wildlife, to create meadowlands and new areas of grassland for the quiet enjoyment of the local community and to provide, in selected areas, habitats attractive to curlew, lapwing and other ground-nesting birds.

In a sense, this is a modest Bill. It deals only with the existing path network. The Government should address the wider issues involved in managing the countryside in an age when more and more people want to use it, but in a way that also recognises the rights of farmers, who are business men. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will deal with that important point.

Let us examine existing legislation and the way in which the law has developed. As the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) said, footpaths are a part of our history, and that history goes back a long way. I have done some research. The hundred rolls show that as long ago as 1272, the Abbot of Sibton ploughed up a certain royal way in Thorington in the width 3 ft and 20 perches. The court roll of Hatfield of 1444 shows that William Atte Water senior ploughed the church way in a field called Warmelee to the grave nuisance of the public and was fined one penny. That was a lot of money in those days. In 1682, Griesly's case determined that ploughing a highway was a public nuisance. Despite that case, the common law grew up in local usage that people were allowed to plough.

A number of cases in the 19th century show that almost nothing has changed. In 1871, for example, Arnold ν. Blaker concerned a farmer who had ploughed up a path and failed to restore it. The parish restored it and made an awful mess for 20 ft on each side of the path. The farmer took umbrage and took the council to court. These problems have been addressed by the courts for centuries, but they have found it difficult to solve them.

The two world wars affected many aspects of life, even the remotest footpaths and bridleways of England. In the drive to grow more food, the wartime agricultural executive committees decided that it was necessary to allow the ploughing up of footpaths. The wartime regulations were eventually codified. The source material for what we are talking about today is the Highways Act 1980. In short, layman's terms, the Act gives farmers the right to plough up, but they must restore within a certain time.

The Act raises several problems. Under section 134, an occupier may plough a cross-field footpath in accordance with the rules of good husbandry". He should restore the surface to make it reasonably convenient for the exercise of the public right of way within 14 days, or as soon as reasonably practicable if prevented from doing so by exceptional weather conditions. Failure to comply is a criminal offence with a current maximum fine of level 3 on the standard scale. Section 135 enables an occupier to apply for temporary diversion orders. All that seems sensible, but it has resulted in problems such as those I described earlier. There are problems for the farmer who is attempting to comply with the law and for local authorities which are attempting to enforce the law.

The Act is concerned only with ploughing, which was perceived to be the problem in 1948 when the first of the series of Acts was put on the statute book. It is not concerned with disking, hoeing or harrowing, which are common preparations for the seed bed. How does the farmer know whether a particular operation is covered by statute and whether he has the right to plough? There are also problems for local authorities which try to enforce the law and with defining a route, with which the present law does not deal.

The Act has resulted in so many problems that the county solicitor of Lincolnshire wrote to me: The wording of section 134 of the Highways Act is, of course, particularly diffuse. We would welcome any measure which will help to crystallise and clarify the law relating to the restoration of public rights of way. We would welcome any measure which will help to provide clear standards for both the public and the land owners. That is what the Bill seeks to do.

The committee of my hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden set out with a number of objectives. I hope that he will forgive me if I summarise them, although, if he is fortunate enough to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, he will want to go into more detail. The committee's remit was that the law should be simple and straightforward, and should recognise the legitimate interests of farmers and users. It felt that the law should address the whole cycle of cultivation and that there should be provision for the other necessary operations involved in agriculture. The committee said that the responsibility should be put firmly on the occupier of the land and that there should be a reasonable time for each operation. At the end of that time, the path should be restored and be convenient to use. The committee recommended that there ought to be fines that are sufficient to encourage ready compliance, with clear powers for local authorities to act in default. As a result, we have the Bill.

When we were drafting the Bill, we originally proposed a stand-alone Bill, which the ordinary layman would have been able to understand. Unfortunately, we came up against a problem with the departmental lawyers who insisted on producing a Bill that no layman could understand. I accept that Parliamentary draftsmen must have their way, but if any layman were unfortunate enough to pay £2.80 to Her Majesty's Stationery Office for my modest Bill, he would find it extremely hard to understand. He would have to read it in conjunction with existing provisions in the 1980 Act. I understand that parliamentary draftsmen are always seeking to codify. The Bill must be read with the existing Act.

I want to summarise the provisions of the Bill briefly. The term "ploughing" is replaced by the word "disturbing". That will bring in all the necessary modern operations for cultivation. The period allowed for restoration is set at 24 hours except for the sequence of operations leading to sowing, where 14 days is allowed, under clause 1(4). The restoration requirement is extended to encompass indicating the line of the path or way on the ground, which is an important provision of the Bill.

A new duty is imposed on farmers to prevent crops encroaching on paths, either by growing up through the surface or growing on it, under clause 1(6). The widths are specified for paths affected by cultivation, where no width is otherwise defined, under clause 1(4). The minimum and maximum widths for footpaths are set at between 1 m and 1.8 m, and 2 m to 3 m. That is part of the compromise which we had to achieve in the Bill. Path users, especially horse riders, would have liked the paths to be wider, but that was the best compromise solution at which the committee could arrive.

Repetition of an offence attracts a higher penalty with the maximum fine increased by one level on the standard scale, under clause 1(3). Local authorities are given enhanced powers to act in default, including a power of entry on a line other than the line of the path concerned, under clause 1(2). That is an important point. The hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) made the fair point that local authorities do not always have the resources to maintain the path network, to police it, and to bring prosecutions which, because the existing law is diffuse and difficult to understand, can be expensive. It is important that local authorities should be given more opportunities to act in default. Local authorities are given the power to authorise other operations on agricultural land that would disturb the surface and to authorise associated temporary diversions for that purpose.

Mr. Hugo Summerson (Walthamstow)

If a farmer decided to spread muck at the rate of 20 tonnes an acre, he could hardly be said to be disturbing the surface, but the footpath would hardly be passable.

Mr. Leigh

My hon. Friend brings a particular expertise to these problems from his own profession. We should welcome his membership in Committee, if the Bill is fortunate enough to get a Second Reading.

I have tried to outline some of the problems and the importance of the path network for our future. I have tried to outline the problems with the present law and what I hope to achieve through the Bill. I hope that the Bill will play a modest part in opening up our wonderful countryside to more people. Our country poet in Lincolnshire is Tennyson. I live in the Lincolnshire wolds and I thought that it might be appropriate to conclude by quoting from his work. I found a little quote from "The Miller's Daughter": And oft in ramblings on the wold, When April nights began to blow, And April's crescent glimmered cold, I saw the village lights below; I knew your taper far away, And full at heart of trembling hope, From off the wold I came, and lay Upon the freshly-flowered slope. When I read that poem I recalled a Christmas card that I had been sent by my predecessor, Lord Kimball—the last Christmas card that he sent before he ceased to be a Member of the House. The picture was of these green Benches. At one corner a sad, grey-suited Treasury Minister sat reading his brief. Behind him, the picture gradually dissolved into a glorious scene of the hunt. The card contained a few words about how those hon. Members sitting on the Benches looked forward to leaving the Palace of Westminster on a Friday and going back to their rural constituencies—to enjoy the pleasures of the chase and of walking in the countryside. I hope that my Bill will enhance those pleasures. I am not trembling, as the poet trembled, about the Bill; I think that it will become law.

I shall sit down now in the hope that I shall give other hon. Members the opportunity—in speeches that are not overlong—to address the problems. We may then do a little bit towards improving access to our glorious countryside.

10.30 am
Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish)

Let me be the first hon. Member to congratulate the hon. Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle (Mr. Leigh). He is not an hon. Member with whom I often agree, so I was delighted when he was successful in the private Members' ballot and has introduced a Bill to which I can give my wholehearted support. I congratulate him on his choice of subject and on his speech, which I am sure we all enjoyed. I shall try not to take too much of the time of the House because I hope that not only the hon. Gentleman's Bill but the Access to Health Records Bill will be given a Second Reading today.

I am an honorary life member of the Ramblers Association and proud of it, and I am often able to speak on the ramblers' behalf. Before I speak on the leisure functions of footpaths, I want to make a point of which the hon. Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle did not remind us: a large number of paths are still used by people as part of their daily lives. Many people still use footpaths to go to church or chapel, to work or to school or to visit friends. One ought to be able to use footpaths as easily as one uses roads. It is a little unfortunate that some of those who live in in the countryside now find that the footpaths are no longer there. They have to wear wellington boots and take their shoes with them to go into church once they arrive.

I do most of my walking in the hill areas of Britain and the ploughing problem is not a major problem in most upland areas. Occasionally, coming back down off the mountain one finds the inbye land or the frith ploughed up in summer to be planted with rape or reseeded. But it is fairly rare. Usually the fields are small in any case and it does not cause too much inconvenience.

For the last couple of years I have managed to fit in a long weekend in the Cotswolds between party conferences and the return of the House. The daytime has been spent walking in the Cotswolds and the evenings at the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford. Those most pleasant weekends have been slightly spoilt by the fact that in the Cotswolds I have encountered substantial problems with ploughed-up footpaths, which are difficult to follow and unpleasant to walk on.

The farmers will say that there is no real problem in walking over ploughed land. They will claim that they still do that, although in my experience they tend to ride over it in tractors. As a youngster, I worked with a horse with both harrow and rollers. Farmers tended to work their land when it was dry as there was not much point in working the land in bad, wet conditions because that did not produce a good seed bed for cultivation. It is important to remind farmers that people have to walk footpaths in conditions that are not ideal, in which they themselves would not choose to cultivate. In or after bad weather, walking any distance across ploughed land is unpleasant: it clogs up boots and completely ruins shoes. Others will point out that it can also cause major problems for horses.

It is not just the physical unpleasantness, however, with which we must concern ourselves. The sight of ploughed land may intimidate people. They may not wish to start to walk across the land. If they come across a field that is ploughed or harrowed, they assume that they have gone astray—that they have got it wrong and that they have not been reading their map correctly or following the right path. Many people are reluctant to walk firmly across a field containing a growing crop even where they have a perfect right to do so. People may be put off.

Unfortunately, the problem of paths crossing fields has increased in recent years because of the grubbing up of hedges. One of the things that annoys me most is that whereas in the past footpaths perhaps went round the edge of the field, the taking out of hedges—sad in itself—has made it necessary to walk right across the middle of the new field rather than round the edge of the old one.

The hon. Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle referred to the rights of way conditions survey. It is good news that 67 per cent. of footpaths are passable, although it is worrying that 19 per cent. are in poor condition and worse still, that 13 per cent. are completely unusable. I note that the survey was made between April and December and I suspect that, if people had gone out in January and February, they might have found the conditions of the paths rather worse.

Take the Cotswolds area. About 60 per cent. are in good condition, 20 per cent. in poor condition and 12 per cent. are unusable. About a third of paths are not satisfactory and of that third, a quarter—8 per cent. of all footpaths—are ploughed up. I am delighted that the rights of way review committee, under the chairmanship of the hon. Member for Saffron Walden (Mr. Haselhurst) has been able to reach a compromise solution that has been agreed by the National Farmers Union, the Country Landowners Association, the British Horse Society, the ramblers, the Open Spaces Society and others. I hope that this Bill will be the first of a series of agreed measures.

It is true that bulls are only a minor problem—although if one meets a bull it is much more than a minor problem. In addition, we must address the whole question of access to moorland and other similar issues. One or two people are reluctant to get involved in negotiations and I would stress to them that there may be growing pressure to introduce a Bill that would impose restrictions on one group or other rather than provisions that are agreed by everyone. I hope that the interested parties will use the compromise procedure that has been developed for this Bill.

The most important aspect of the Bill is the duty to restore footpaths to a good condition for people to walk on. I hope that farmers will realise that in certain places one cannot plough up a path and restore it to a good condition. If the ground is heavy, it is difficult to restore it by any agricultural means to a good enough condition for walking. I hope that some farmers will decide that in certain circumstances it would be better not to plough in the first place, but to leave a strip of land unploughed. Marking the line is extremely important and will solve the problem of people being intimidated from walking over fields.

The Bill will also make it slightly easier to prosecute, but I am worried nevertheless. I receive many complaints from the Peak and Northern Footpaths society about the attitude of Cheshire county council and its reluctance to prosecute farmers who block off footpaths by ploughing. I have some sympathy with the county council, whose legal department tends to be stretched. It does not have a legal officer involved solely with prosecutions; they represent only a small part of his activity. I hope that it will be easier for county councils to prosecute under the Bill. I wonder whether it would have been better to give the right to prosecute to other individuals as well, but perhaps we can pursue that point in Committee.

I do not necessarily want there to be prosecutions. I want there to be certainty that if farmers break the law the law will be enforced. The vast majority of farmers want to obey the law and they will do so if there is the added spur of the likelihood of prosecution if they do not. I hope that it will be easier for prosecutions to be brought and, simply because it is easier, I hope that they will not be necessary.

I have a small quibble about the width of the paths. I understand that if people want to take horses on to bridleways they will need considerable width. In certain circumstances, particularly when a field has just been restored, a certain width is necessary. However, I would also argue that one of the nice things about walking through a cornfield is that, if there is a very narrow path, one is able to flick one's hands against the grains of the growing corm. That is very attractive. Therefore, the question of width is a matter for common sense. I am sure that the vast majority of walkers and farmers will ensure that that common sense is shown.

I welcome the Bill and I do not want to take up any more time. I hope that the Bill will make speedy progress today and that it has a short and successful Committee stage. I hope that it will them make its way through the other place quickly and that it receives its Royal Assent during the summer so that the Act can be in operation before next September. If that is the case, when I go walking in the Cotswolds in the autumn, I will not have to put up with ploughed footpaths which are a pest to walk over.

10.41 am
Mr. Alan Haselhurst (Saffron Walden)

I am grateful for the opportunity to support my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle (Mr. Leigh). He has set out the terms of his Bill admirably today, so I do not intend to go over them in detail. I believe that the Bill as a whole is a significant step towards resolving a problem which is frequently encountered by millions of people who enjoy our network of footpaths and bridleways: rights of way are often ploughed and are not restored, or are affected by growing crops.

My hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Summerson) referred to muck being spread on paths. The Bill does not extend to that because it is already covered by section 148 of the Highways Act 1980. That matter does not require further attention in this Bill. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow is relieved to hear that.

The Bill will benefit farmers and landowners because it will remove doubts over a farmer's right to cultivate land which is crossed by a right of way. It will also help local authorities which have a responsibility to ensure that the path network is maintained. They will be able to manage that responsibility better in future. I believe that the new measure can be enforced quickly and efficiently with the minimum of bureaucracy.

In short, I believe that the Bill is designed in such a way as to help everyone. I hope that it will be welcomed by hon. Members and that the House will agree that congratulations are due to my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle for taking this opportunity to introduce the Bill and for the admirable way in which he presented it to the House today. He made me feel that I should have had recourse to the dictionary of quotations to add a literary quality to my speech. No doubt my colleagues, if they catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, will be able to emulate the excellent style and manner in which my hon. Friend presented his Bill.

My hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle acknowledged that rights of way are an extremely tricky subject. Footpaths, bridleways and byways in England and Wales are seen by many to be the essence of the countryside. They obviously mean access to the countryside for millions of people. They also impart a sense of history, as the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) acknowledged. They are part of the heritage of country people and they provide a release from urban pressure for townsfolk. For many the paths network is something to be cherished and defended, often tenaciously. However, we must remember that rights of way are also public rights over private land and the seeds of so much conflict lie in that fact, not least when land is used intensively for agriculture.

Of course many farmers welcome the public on their land, and that welcome may be extended in future as we consider different ways to manage the countryside and if we consider that intensification is not necessarily the order of the day. Some people, however, believe that the paths network is an outmoded and unnecessary anachronism.

There is also sometimes conflict between different users of the paths network. The interests of the walker are not always those of the horse rider, and those who come to the countryside in search of a quieter or slower pace of life and to stroll down the byways do not always appreciate that the trail rider or the driver of a four-wheeled vehicle has rights as well. There are plenty of opportunities for disagreement. That underlines the case for strong practical legislation to protect rights of way. Such legislation must reflect technological changes in the farming industry and changes in the public's use of the countryside.

With all that potential for trouble, hon. Members may wonder how the terms of the Bill have received such widespread support outside the House. Perhaps I should try to explain how such harmony has been created and the role of the rights of way review committee of which I am chairman. I appreciate the kind remarks made by my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle about that.

Like many elements in the British constitution, the rights of way review committee is a peculiar creature. It was not set up by the Government, nor is it a Government agency. Its origins lie in discussions which took place between representatives of the National Farmers Union, the Country Landowners Association and the Ramblers Association. They first came together in 1980 under the chairmanship of my hon. Friend the Member for Worcestershire, South (Mr. Spicer). Like my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle, he was drawn to the subject as a result of constituents raising with him seemingly intractable problems involving a clash of interests in the paths network.

More than 20 bodies and organisations are today represented on the rights of way review committee. Uniquely the committee brings together the full range of interests in rights of way. It brings together the organisations whose members own or farm land. The different path users are represented by the Ramblers Association, the British Horse Society, the Open Spaces Society, the Trail Riders Fellowship and other vehicular users. The local authority associations, whose members are responsible for maintaining paths and asserting and protecting people's rights of passage, are also represented. Government agencies are represented on the committee in the form of the Countryside Commission and the Sports Council. Perhaps one of the strangest features of the committee, but also an important feature, is that we have officials from the Department of the Environment, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the Department of Transport.

However, it is important to stresss that the committee is completely independent of Government. It is a special and unusual committee in that all those members can meet discreetly and informally and achieve a great deal of progress behind the scenes. It is mainly concerned with legislative aspects of rights of way. The commitee's approach is informal. It meets in private and brings together people in a quiet and, I hope, non-histrionic way to take part in very technical discussions.

The people who form the organisations that I have mentioned represent a formidable body of practical knowledge and experience. The aim is to build mutual understanding and thereby develop practical, commonsense solutions. If the House is minded to believe that the Bill is common sense and should go forward, I hope that the committee will be able to consider other matters affecting rights of way and perhaps inspire other solutions to greater difficulties.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett

Has the hon. Gentleman thought about involving the Moorlands society in the committee's discussions, perhaps to try to solve problems of access to upland areas?

Mr. Haselhurst

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that suggestion. A little bird has whispered in my ear that the organisation might be seeking membership of the committee. Membership of the committee is not in my gift, but I am sure that an application would be seriously considered. It offers a prospect of being able to cope with some difficult problems.

One of the committee's early successes was its role, under its former chairman, during the passage of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. Its members' advice to Ministers on the many key aspects of the Bill enabled the legislation to proceed successfully to a conclusion on some complicated issues. The answers that were found in that legislation are now proving to be balanced, fair and workable. Great credit is due to my hon. Friend the Member for Worcestershire, South and his colleagues.

The progress that has been made by local authorities towards completing the formal legal record of rights of way on definitive maps and statements and bringing up to date other definitive maps, after many years of delay, within the revised framework of the Wildlife and Countryside Act is due in no small measure to the fact that the rights of way review committee was able to establish a consensus. That is the basis of its approach. Such was the committee's success at the time that it continued to meet. It has monitored the implementation of the 1981 Act, and, since 1985, under my chairmanship, it has considered a wide range of other issues.

Some of my hon. Friends might wonder how on earth, among all those highly qualified professional people whom I have mentioned, I could possibly fit in. It was once put to me by a member of the committee that my great virtue in being in the chair was that I appeared to have absolutely no knowledge of the subject. I like to think that it was probably meant that I at least approached the matter with neutrality and that I had no bias towards one interest or another. I hope that I have been able to maintan that approach in the time that I have had the honour to be chairman. The committee's low-key, non-partisan style reflects the way in which it works. That underlies the formulation of the proposals in the Bill.

On Several occasions in recent years the committee has considered the problem of ploughing and cropping on land that is crossed by rights of way. In 1984, at the suggestion of the rights of way review committee, the Countryside Commission made a study of the subject. It confirmed that farmers generally had a poor understanding of the state of the law. Case studies showed that 59 per cent. of rights of way over arable land—that is, 24 per cent. of all rights of way—were adversely affected by ploughing or cropping. Those results were broadly confirmed in a later national survey carried out by the Countryside Commission.

In the light of that study, a working party was set up by the rights of way review committee which comprised representatives of the National Farmers Union, the Ramblers Association and local authorities, under the direction of an officer of the Countryside Commission. A code of practice was developed, the purpose of which was to inform the farming community of its rights and responsibilities and to offer practical guidelines on how they should be exercised. The code was subsequently endorsed by all members of the rights of way review committee, and published in 1986 jointly by the Countryside Commission and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, together with the Agriculture Department of the Welsh Office. The code was bilingual and was distributed by the Ministry to all main farmholdings in England and Wales.

That was an important step forward, but it has not been enough. The code was produced in a form that could be adhered to the window of the cab of a tractor. The results were not altogether gratifying. Despite all the publicity, and despite continuing endorsement by successive Ministers of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, the code had but limited success. It was not for any lack of backing by the NFU and the Country Landowners Association. The code increased farmers' awareness of the law. A survey showed that, whereas in 1986 21 per cent. of farmers knew what the state of the law was, by 1988 the figure had risen to 47 per cent.

However, knowledge and practice do not always walk hand in hand. The sad fact remained that ploughing and cropping remained the single most important factor affecting the public's use and enjoyment of the paths network. Local authorities that have tried to enforce the law have found that it contained serious deficiencies. The present law can be enforced only with difficulty and with a high and disproportionate expenditure of manpower. Last year, in the light of those conclusions, the rights of way review committee returned to the subject.

The working party that had drafted the code was reconvened, again under the chairmanship of an official of the Countryside Commission, and we asked it to consider what legislative changes were needed to give effect to the code, and to make recommendations. The membership of the working party again represented the National Farmers Union, the Ramblers Association and local authorities. Later, a member of the British Horse Society was added. Throughout, officials of the Department of the Environment and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food were present.

It is a mark of the trust and understanding that exists between group members and is indicative of the general spirit that informs discussions in the rights of way review committee that it took only four meetings to produce the fully integrated package of proposals and draft clauses that are embodied in the Bill.

However, when the work was done, there was no immediate prospect that a legislative slot could be found. The most timely interest of my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle and his willingness to take the recommendations as the basis and inspiration of his Bill have been warmly welcomed by members of the working party and by all other members of the rights of way review committee. The underlying principles of the proposals and how it is envisaged that they will work in practice have already been explained by my hon. Friend.

I shall make three general points. First, formal prosecutions will inevitably remain expensive. They continue, therefore, to be a measure of last resort. The key to encouraging compliance will be the realistic prospect that a local authority can take direct action to restore, mark or clear a path, and also that a local authority will have unambiguous powers to recover its costs for so doing. That is provided for in clause 4, in the form of the insertion of new schedule 12A into the Highways Act 1980. The procedures are fair and workable. They are essential if the problems that the Bill would tackle are to be resolved speedily and without excessive bureaucracy.

Secondly, the Bill does nothing more than give clear, unambiguous legislative strength to the ploughing code. A farmer who already complies with the code need have no fear of the Bill. Its proposals should be welcomed by him because they clarify his position under the law and remove any doubts about his rights to carry out several essential operations. A farmer who has ignored the code until now and, perhaps, stolen an economic march on his more conscientious neighbours may regret the strengthening of the law, if that is what hon. Members decide to do, and it is right that he should.

Thirdly, I emphasise that the virtue of the Bill lies in its being a carefully balanced and comprehensive set of proposals favouring no one set of interests. I echo strongly what my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle said in that regard. It provides a means for dealing with a problem encountered every year by millions of path users in a way that also meets the legitimate interests of farming. It will help to ensure that people's right of passage is upheld and enforced quickly and easily by local authorities. All the parties represented in the discussions on the proposals stated that they would endorse that view.

The Bill is not a compendium for dealing with all matters of rights of way which are of legitimate concern to hon. Members and the people whom we represent. Therefore, I hope that it will not be seen as a convenient opportunity to tack on other issues. The rights of way review committee has proceeded by agreement, inching forward over the years, and sometimes managing to bring together disparate and conflicting interests. It takes a great deal of effort to do that. The committee has endorsed the proposals in the Bill. Therefore, I plead with hon. Members, now and in later stages of the Bill, not to upset the balance of the Bill. Of course, that does not preclude proper scrutiny and examination of the Bill and some of the detailed points in it.

There may be drafting amendments to be made to the Bill which my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment will urge upon us. I say with conviction and passion that the Bill has come about because of careful, extensive discussions based on an understanding of the practical considerations involved. I hope that the proposals in the Bill will not be too greatly disturbed by the alterations and experience which hon. Members can bring to them.

The Bill has wide and enthusiastic support among a whole range of interests outside the House. I hope that that wide and enthusiastic support will be reflected in the House and that the Bill will be allowed a swift passage.

11.1 am

Mr. Tim Devlin (Stockton, South)

I shall speak briefly, because I must return to my own shire county to walk some footpaths this afternoon with a Minister who is coming to see me. I support this excellent Bill, which represents a marvellous compromise between the interests of two communities—walkers and farmers—both of whom are strongly represented in my constituency. My constituency is on the edge of the North Yorkshire Moors national park and walking is one of the major interests of the local population.

I draw the attention of my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle (Mr. Leigh) to the adopt-a-path scheme which has been used in many parts of the country. I intervened on that matter in my hon. Friend's speech.

Millions of people expect that there will be a right of way for them in the countryside. Too frequently we forget that rights also carry responsibilities. For instance, responsibility for marking paths and rights of way should not fall exclusively on farmers. As my hon. Friend said, farmers are often in difficult financial circumstances and have a difficult time as it is. They resent the small minority of people who go into the countryside to vandalise it and cause damage. If the wider community could be encouraged to take on some of the responsibilities for looking after the countryside, the farmers would not feel as resentful of people walking over privately owned land.

There is great and growing interest in everything to do with the countryside, and the farming community will have to accept that. If we can move towards a system where the rambling community takes on some of the responsibility by adopting stretches of path, co-operating with farmers to keep paths in good condition, and making sure that obstructions are not put in the way, shrubs are kept back and marking is done where necessary, paths will be kept in good condition and any vandalism will be immediately reported. There will be a much more secure and better future for our countryside.

11.4 am

Sir David Mitchell (Hampshire, North-West)

I welcome the Bill and congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle (Mr. Leigh) on introducing it. Many of my hon. Friends found his speech a helpful explanation of the content of the Bill.

We live in an era of growing recognition that the environment is challenged. The Government have responded to that by doubling the budget of the Countryside Commission, doubling the allocation of land to green belts, increasing the emphasis on protecting areas of outstanding natural beauty, recognising the essential need to preserve areas of scenic beauty to pass on to future generations and, in one of the more recent initiatives, introducing environmentally sensitive areas where traditional farming methods are to be preserved. I am delighted that in my constituency the Test valley, or at least some part of it, has been declared an ESA. That will bring great benefit to many people.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it would be a small but imaginative measure by the Government to encourage greater access to such areas?

Sir David Mitchell

The hon. Gentleman takes the words out of my mouth. I was about to say that there is not much point in conserving and preserving the countryside if people cannot enjoy it. That is why I welcome the Bill and the increased opportunity that it represents to ensure that people who want to walk in the countryside enjoy the benefits of legislation passed by the House to ensure preservation of the countryside.

I welcome the Bill for three reasons. First, the preservation of ancients rights must be close to the heart of all of we parliamentarians. Secondly, the countryside provides a lung for town dwellers. They must have the opportunity to get out into the countryside and see it from defined footpaths where they are allowed to walk. I hope that at the same time a balance has been preserved and that people will not expect to wander all over the farmland and damage crops. Clearly, once right of access to footpaths is undisturbed it will discourage people from wandering across the land.

Thirdly, I am a southern Member but one who much enjoys walking and rambling in the north of the country. We have an overcrowded south-east. Therefore, it is doubly important that people in the south-east have the opportunity to go out in the country.

I have an unusually attractive constituency. In the north there are the north Hampshire downs. Various chalk streams flow from those downs, the Test being the most famous. The local ramblers association in the Andover area has recently conducted an intensive survey of 20 per cent. of my constituency. It found some 13 miles—21.4 km to be precise—of footpaths in that area. A detailed examination of those footpaths showed that about one third were properly preserved and impeccably treated by landowners and farmers. But some two thirds had various forms of obstruction including wire fences, lack of stiles and so on. That is one of the reasons why I welcome the Bill and my hon. Friend's initiative.

A footpath in my constituency leading to the Lone Barn area near Overton was closed by local landowners and farmers. It was reopened only after great efforts by one of the local residents who sought not only my assistance but, perhaps more effectively, that of Lord Denning, who was effective in ensuring that the path was reopened.

Per contra, I pay tribute to some landowners, and certainly to the John Lewis Partnership in my constituency. After vigorous representations that I made to the company it dedicated land and reopened a footpath that had been legitimately closed for an airfield during the war. It did not have rights to be reopened, but because of the public spiritedness of the John Lewis Partnership the Mark Way has been reopened and links two other groups of footpaths. We must recognise that many landowners play a notable part in ensuring that access to the countryside is maintained.

The Bill holds the balance between the farmer and the public. I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle (Mr. Leigh) has the support of the National Farmers Union and the Country Landowners Association for his proposals. He also has the support of the Ramblers Association and he and my hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden (Mr. Haselhurst) ought to be in the diplomatic corps for having done so much to draw together in the Bill what would otherwise be conflicting interests. The Bill removes much uncertainty about rights of way. I welcome it and hope that it will quickly reach the statute book.

11.11 am
Mr. Peter Viggers (Gosport)

This is a first-class private Member's Bill. I shall be brief, not because I am not an enthusiastic supporter of the Bill but because we have reached the stage at which the longer the speech the more harm could be caused to the Bill. I congratulate my hon. Friends the Members for Gainsborough and Horncastle (Mr. Leigh) and for Saffron Walden (Mr. Haselhurst) on the work that they have done in improving access to the countryside and rights of way.

I should like to make a point that has not been made before. My constituency does not have much open countryside although it is attractive on the sea coast. I am therefore keen to promote access to the countryside and it disturbs me that many landowners still put up signs saying "Trespassers will be prosecuted". That sign is incorrect because people cannot be prosecuted for trespass. If a trespasser is responsible for malicious damage he could be prosecuted, but trespass is not a crime; it is what lawyers call a tort. Anyone who wanders from the recognised country path cannot be prosecuted. My hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle mentioned that. I reassure those who lack confidence about finding their way into the countryside. They should not worry, because they cannot be prosecuted for wandering away from the paths.

I urge all those who want access to the countryside not to be shy and nervous, but to equip themselves with proper maps and to join the Ramblers' Association which does splendid work in opening up the countryside. I congratulate my hon. Friend on introducing the Bill and wish it every success.

11.13 am
Dr. Mike Woodcock (Ellesmere Port and Neston)

I join other hon. Members in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle (Mr. Leigh) on bringing the Bill before the House. It is necessary because of the widespread disregard by highway authorities of their statutory responsibilities, and because of the unco-operative attitudes of some farmers and landowners. It is also necessary because of the widespread disregard for the ploughing code that was produced some four years ago.

I declare two interests. First, I am a keen rambler and, secondly, I am a landowner. I live on a farm through the centre of which passes a fairly lengthy public bridleway. I can therefore speak to both sides of the problem. Walking is one of the most popular hobbies in Britain and also one of the most commendable. It is estimated that 17.5 million people are regular users of the footpath network, and that 200 million countryside walks are undertaken each year. Our network of footpaths and bridleways is one of the best parts of our heritage. It is an invaluable national asset and must be seen as such.

In many years of walking I have come across good and bad practices by landowners. The Peak District national park is an area that I know fairly well. In our most used national park the rights of walkers have not only been protected but considerably enhanced. The Peak Park planning board, the Countryside Commission, the Nature Conservancy Council, the National Trust and many private landowners have done an excellent job. Open access agreements have been negotiated, subject to withdrawal of access to protect sporting interests on certain days in the year, and a great deal of conservation work has been undertaken in that national park. It is an excellent example of what can and should be done.

I commend in particular the largest landowners in the area, the Chatsworth estate. The trustees of that estate and the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire have done a commendable job in fostering the interests of people who want to enjoy the countryside there. The major part of Chatsworth park has been open to unrestricted public access for many years. People are welcome to park free of charge, to wander at will and to picnic in the park. Concessionary paths have been opened in many parts of the estate. Those paths were never public rights of way, but people are welcome to wander and to enjoy the magnificent scenery on the estate. The Chatsworth estate is a walker's paradise and we have every reason to be grateful to the trustees of the estate and to the duke and duchess for their far-sighted attitudes in making so much of the area available to people. By contrast, the attitude on the Welbeck estate a few miles away is different. I have found there that walkers are discouraged.

The approach of landowners varies from area to area. However, my main criticism is of public sector landlords. They above all have a duty to afford access where possible. Some of them, such as the Forestry Commission, are to be commended for the open access policy that they have adopted. However, authorities such as the Ministry of Defence, the water authorities and the county councils could do a great deal more. The Ministry of Defence occupies large tracts of land throughout the country. Without compromising security or safety the Ministry could do more to provide limited access to that land. Even the National Trust, which does such a valuable job, could improve access to many of its estates. I have been astounded on visits to many National Trust estates to find a general lack of access. I recognise that the National Trust needs to use a great deal of land as farmland for generating income to maintain the great houses in its charge, but there is no underlying reason why access needs to be incompatible with farming interests in those areas.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett

The hon. Gentleman mentions the National Trust. Ramblers and others are concerned at the unfortunate attitude of the trust towards the Dove valley. There is an opportunity to open a short piece of footpath there which would make it possible for people to travel the full length of the valley without having to take a diversion. Will the hon. Gentleman use this opportunity to encourage the National Trust to open up that access?

Dr. Woodcock

I do not know that area well, but I agree that the National Trust could do a great deal more to open up more of its land to public access.

In my experience the worst offenders are the arable farmers who have failed for many years to respect the status of paths and bridleways. My experience may be completely untypical, but in 25 years of walking the footpaths of England, often in heavily ploughed areas, I have never come across a footpath that has been properly reinstated by a farmer after ploughing. I have never read or heard of a case of a highway authority taking action against a farmer who did not reinstate a footpath. I suspect that my experience is not untypical and that that is the general position around the country.

There must obviously be a balance between farming, sporting, walking and riding interests, but agricultural areas in these crowded islands must be much more than food production factories, and upland areas must be much more than playgrounds for the rich.

The countryside is a precious resource which must be shared by everyone who lives in these crowded islands. In the United Kingdom context, it is nonsense that farmland set-aside schemes take land out of agricultural production at the same time as farmers continue to remove hedgerows and plough paths to increase agricultural production. In the European context, it is nonsense that the common agricultural policy continues to encourage the overproduction and subsequent dumping of food on land that could be better used for access and recreation.

While the proper use of footpaths and bridleways must be protected and enhanced by law, it is also important that their improper use should be prevented by law.

Mr. David Nicholson

My hon. Friend has been a little critical of farmers, particularly in arable areas. Has he studied the Countryside Commission's report entitled "Managing rights of way: An agenda for action", which suggests that the ploughing of crops is a significant bar to pathways and bridleways?

It also refers to "Impenetrable natural vegetation." Does my hon. Friend recognise that the farmer has an important role to play in civilising impenetrable natural vegetation? We should therefore not be too tough on the farmer; afer all, the National Farmers Union is co-operating on and supporting the Bill.

Dr. Woodcock

I seek not to be tough on the farmer but merely to point out that a farmer must take account of the fact that a public highway runs through his land. Farmers have a duty not only to tame uncontrollable vegetation, but to reinstate footpaths that they have ploughed. Later in my speech, I shall suggest how such problems can be solved.

While it is important that the proper use of footpaths is safeguarded in law, it is also important that their improper use is prevented in law. I refer to some practices that have grown up in recent years, particularly the use of some private roads as footpaths and the use of bridleways by motorists, who have no business to use them. The law should be stronger in preventing that use.

The growing use of bridleways by motor cyclists is a particular problem because it is impossible to secure access for horses at the same time as preventing access for motorcyclists. I should like to see enhanced penalties for the unauthorised use of those paths by motor vehicles, particularly by motor cyclists, and I should certainly like to see police forces take much more interest in the problem.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (Norfolk, North-West)

Does my hon. Friend agree that a matter that is becoming of great concern is the use of some bridleways by not only scrambler bikes but four-wheel-drive vehicles? Many bridleways and tracks have been seriously damaged as a result of that.

Dr. Woodcock

I agree completely with my hon. Friend. Four-wheel-drive vehicles and motor cycles using bridleways, private roads and footpaths are a major problem. The House should enhance the penalties for that and make sure that enforcement of the law is more rigorous.

Mr. David Nicholson

Does my hon. Friend agree that the problem of four-wheel-drive vehicles using bridleways is exacerbated by the greater number of hunt supporters? I support the right of people to hunt, as I am sure do my hon. Friends, but the hunting fraternity has a major public relations job to do. One of the factors that it must take into account is the damage that its followers cause during the winter and wet months by driving along paths and bridleways.

Dr. Woodcock

That problem is made worse by the fact that more four-wheel-drive vehicles are now capable of crossing the countryside. That problem must be addressed, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for bringing it to the attention of the House.

We have heard that the Bill is modest and that we should not take the opportunity to tag more aims on to it. I do not wish to tag anything to the aims of the Bill, but there are other matters that I should like to see in legislation and which do not come within the province of the Bill

First, I should like to see a legal duty on all public landowners to facilitate reasonable access to walkers, where such access would not conflict with the primary use of the land. The assumption should be opposite to what it is at present. There should be a right of access to publicly owned land unless there are good reasons for preventing it. Land owned in the public interest should be available in the public interest, unless there is a good reason for preventing it.

Secondly, I should like to see a presumption in favour of the use of disused railway lines as bridleways. Many disused railway lines have been used as bridleways, but not all have, and British Rail could have done more to ensure that they were preserved for the enjoyment of everyone.

Thirdly, I should like to see a system that links national payments aimed at restricting agricultural production to access and conservation. It would not be easy to do that, but we should make the attempt. We should say that if land is to be taken out of agricultural production, and the nation is to pay for land to be left idle, there should be a presumption that it will increase access to land for recreational purposes.

Fourthly, I should like to see some financial encouragement for the National Trust to increase access. I have said that it needs to farm some of its land, but if, as a nation, we are to pay for land to be taken out of agricultural production and to lie idle, why not make some of that money available to the National Trust, which in turn could free land for access purposes and achieve two objectives with the same amount of money—to take land out of agricultural production and to encourage access?

Fifthly, I should like to see legislation to compel the many deviant highway authorities to take signposting seriously. In many parts of the country, it is almost impossible to find footpaths, even where they cross public roads. We should do more to ensure that highway authorities take their responsibilities seriously.

Finally, I should like to see access conditions applied to woodland sales by the Forestry Commission. The commission makes a valuable contribution to access in this country. I favour privatisation of some of our forestry interests, but those interests should be sold only to parties that are willing to give the same guarantees of public access as the Forestry Commission.

Those are subjects on which I hope we shall legislate. They are not, however, the aims of the Bill, and I do not seek to tag them on to the Bill. Its aims are extremely modest. If all landowners had behaved properly in the past, it would not be necessary, but it is necessary. The Bill is modest, but it is worthy of the support of the House and we should give it an unqualified welcome.

11.28 am
Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)

I am grateful for being called, and I am delighted to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Dr. Woodcock). I congratulate him on a comprehensive and important speech.

I particularly agreed with my hon. Friend when he raised the difficulties that riders and footpath users experience when motor cycles and fast cars use the bridleways. I have seen groups of riders stampeding along bridleways and fast cars being driven irresponsibily. Drivers rev up their cars and wreck the whole spirit of the countryside, and the people and animals within it. It should be stopped immediately.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle (Mr. Leigh), who is such a versatile gentleman. Not only is he a fine man of the country, but he is a fine hockey player and is a member of the House of Commons and Lords hockey team. He may play ice hockey, for all I know, but he is certainly very good at grass hockey.

My hon. Friend has introduced a Bill of great importance. I am proud to be a sponsor of it, and I speak in that capacity today. Also, I am a nationally elected member of the British Horse Society council, as I have been since 1973. I was consistently proposed by the late Dorian Williams, who was perhaps the foremost authority on horses and anything to do with them in this country until he died two years ago.

The British Horse Society strongly supports the Bill. However, I shall be raising some subjects later in my speech on my own behalf, which I think the BHS will consider sensible.

At least 3 million people are known to ride regularly, and the number may be as high as 5 million. That includes people who ride in a clever way—event riders, dressage riders and show jumpers. There are also many people who just ride about the countryside on horses, and take the greatest pleasure from doing so, and they are a substantial part of the community.

My urban constituents like to ride, as do those of my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle, who made a telling point when he said that many people from urban constituencies find it therapeutic to get out into the countryside as walkers, or riders, or to run about, and that it is important to remember that the countryside is greatly enjoyed by those who live in it and by urban dwellers.

I was for some time deputy headmaster of a comprehensive school for 1,100 boys at King's Cross. I introduced riding and show jumping to the curriculum there—one was allowed to do that in 1964. I had the greatest pleasure in twinning the school with one in the countryside, and I know that the boys enjoyed that, too. The boys from King's Cross who had an aptitude for riding went to the Fitzwilliam pony club in the countryside of Northamptonshire and the Fitzwilliam children used to come to King's Cross. We made a positive effort to bring town and country together, and it was to the greatest benefit of both. Many boys from King's Cross benefited from that scheme. They certainly never left gates open in the countryside, and did not abuse rights of way. When the boys and girls came to London from the countryside, they enjoyed the town—as most country dwellers do We do not think of the situation the other way round. An enormous number of country dwellers like to go round Westminster abbey and to shop in London. Similarly an enormous number of urban dwellers like to go to the countryside.

The executive officer of the British Horse Society who deals with access to rights of way is a great lady called Anne Lee. She has represented the BHS on the committee which has been mentioned so often this morning. The BHS is concerned about the large number of complaints it receives from riders that bridleways crossing fields used for growing crops are ploughed and are often not restored.

The introduction in July 1986 of a code of practice on the ploughing of rights of way does not seem to have made any perceptible difference to the numbers of complaints and they have, in any case, tended to increase because of the practice of using the plough more frequently in the same field to grow different crops, according to the season of the year. I remind my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle of that fact, although he is probably aware of it. Once the bridleway has been ploughed, it is then seeded or planted, with the rest of the field, and in the growing season the crop obstructs the path. On many occasions riders have been abused by farmers for ruining a crop which should not have been planted there. I have one farmer in my constituency, but there are many more outside it. I say with great respect that farmers have sown crops over bridleways too often, and it is wrong of them to have done so. Some farmers have tried surreptitiously to take the bridleway back into full farm use, and that is to be resisted.

With clay soils, the disturbance of the subsoil by the plough means that the soil cannot settle to provide a reasonable and firm surface on which to ride. When clay is disturbed, the particles of soil become rearranged to a much more open structure which allows more water to be absorbed, thus weakening the clay. It can take years to regain its original strength and it follows that with annual or more frequent ploughing a bridleway is constantly unstable or muddy, and that is not fair.

On chalk soil, in Dorset and many other areas, ploughing disturbs the soil so that the flints begin to move to the surface. That is a continuous process. The flints are very sharp and may injure the soft parts of a horse's foot, leading to lameness. Some 90 per cent. of lameness in horses occurs through damage to the foot, so the importance of what I am saying can easily be evaluated. The flints are too numerous to avoid, and lameness occurs too often as a result.

On chalky soils, it is not possible to restore the surface of the path satisfactorily, and the working party of the rights of way review committee says that legal advice shows that the Highways Act 1980 implies that the right to plough should be dependent on the occupier's ability satisfactorily to restore the surface of the path. That is forgotten too often. The review committee considers that the implication remains in the Bill, but it would be helpful if the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment mentioned it in his reply and if some assurances could be given about the acceptance of such an implication by the Under-Secretary of State.

Speed on bridleways is not covered in the Bill, and I think that that is a pity. As the case is over, I do not think that I will be out of order, Mr. Speaker, if I refer briefly to Miss Constance Scrafield, aged 42 years, who was found guilty yesterday of riding her horse, Patrick, at a gallop in Richmond park and was fined £50. She was thought to be riding at 30 mph and was shown in a picture in The Times today riding at a recorded speed of 23 mph. She said that it was a fast canter—well, it was pretty fast at 23 mph.

I think that the speed of riders on bridlepaths needs to be considered by all users. There have to be times when the horse can be given what is called a pipe opener. That is what bridleways are for. Horses need to go flat out to open their lungs and to use themselves so as to be good, sound and healthy. We need bridleways that will facilitate that. This may cause difficulties in the Bill, and I ask my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary to mention it in his reply. There could be accidents on bridleways, and we must remember that. Bridleways need to be constructed to ensure the minimum number of accidents.

Perhaps Miss Scrafield was carted. That can happen: it has happened to me, and must have happened to many other hon. Members. However bomb-proof the horse has been taught to be, something unexpected may upset it, causing it to take off at an uncontrollable speed and refuse to return to the rider for some time. If the law does not take account of that possibility on bridleways in the country, and also in such places as Richmond park—and even Hyde park, for that matter—the law is an ass.

Early this morning I rode, as I often do, in Rotten row, which celebrates its tercentenary this year—and a very fine ride it was. If the excellent horse that I was riding had been suddenly shocked or frightened, however, I could easily have been carted at an uncontrolled speed. I am not saying that the police, or the authorities in Richmond park and London's royal parks, do not take the possibility into account, but if they do not the law is not satisfactory. I should like to think that if Miss Scrafield was carted when riding her horse Patrick—although I hope that she was not—the officials who apprehended her did not prosecute. I hope that my hon. Friend shares my concern, for this is an important and human point—and an equine point, of course.

The Bill lays down bridleway widths—a minimum of 2 metres and a maximum of 3 metres. I have strong feelings about that, as I have told my hon. Friend in private. The Byways and Bridleways trust says that less than 2.5 metres is a dangerous width, and recommends at least 3 metres. I should like the Bill to be amended to specify a minimum of 3 metres and a maximum of 4 metres. I think that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, would agree on the basis of your own country observations that 2 metres is not wide enough to allow fat horses and riders to pass safely in opposite directions. They are likely to collide, and leg-bashing by riders—if not by horses—is also likely. If the bridleway is fenced on either side and horses try to pass one another at a hand canter—or, indeed, at a gallop, or even at a trot or walk—a serious accident may occur.

The average horse, in fact, is fat. "Fat" does not mean huge like the working horses that used to pull the plough, although they were often fat as well as muscular. Riders come in all shapes and sizes. A fenced 2 metre bridleway would cause problems to both horse and rider, and could be very dangerous. Low cast-iron fencing could also be dangerous if the bridleway was only 2 metres wide: riders have been impaled on such fencing in Rotten row after being suddenly unseated. In days gone by the fences were spiked, but fortunately the railings in Hyde park now have no spikes. Other railings still have them, however, and they can cause very nasty accidents to horses as well as riders.

Hyde park has a bridleway that is 3 or 4 metres wide, with low, round-topped cast-iron fencing. Nevertheless, if even that path were only 2 metres wide there could still be difficulties for both horse and rider. I think that that makes the case against allowing the fencing of bridleways of only 2 metres wide, whatever material is used. Hedges are easier, but, as my hon. Friend will know, being pitched into a hedge can be a very painful experience. I feel that the width should be 2.5 metres at the very least.

There has been considerable abuse of bridleways in both town and country in recent years. Bridleways have been taken away from riders, just as footpaths have been. The hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) also mentioned this. Once a footpath or bridleway has been surreptitiously removed, it is lost for ever to riders and walkers—and I like to walk myself. It disappears from the maps.

I have supported the arguments of Exmoor friends who want footpaths and bridleways to be reinstated. They were there during the war, when I lived in the area as a small boy, but now they have gone. The removers have got away with far too much, and it is often impossible to persuade the authorities that the footpaths and bridleways have really gone. Farmers, for instance, sometimes divert footpaths, which spoils the enjoyment of both riders and walkers. I believe that the Bill will deal with the problem and I welcome it for that reason in particular.

There has been no greater advocate of riding than the late Sir Winston Churchill, who rode until he was well over 80. The other day I saw a picture of a man who was still riding at the age of 101, and looking quite good. He could walk as well; he did not need to be lifted on to his horse. The late Reggie Paget, a great Labour Member of both Houses, rode until he had to be strapped on to his horse. Two or three days before he died he told me that he just had to stop riding; he could not even be strapped on to his horse. He also said that he would rather die than give up riding. Not long after he gave up riding, he died. What a fine fellow he was. He was much treasured by all hon. Members.

Riding can form character as no other sport can. The horse disciplines the rider. If riders lose their temper, they get nowhere. Self-control, which is so fundamental in our lives, can be instilled in that way.

I have referred to a man of 101 who still rides horses. Many of us know children who were put on horses as soon as their backs were strong enough to allow them to sit there. Therefore, it is a sport of life. It must be encouraged by good and sound bridleways everywhere.

In response to the poetry that was quoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle, I intend to quote from Sir Winston Churchill's book "My Early Life". It is an admirable book which I know that you have read, Mr. Deputy Speaker. He said: Parents, don't give your sons money; so far as you can afford it, give them horses. No one ever comes to grief, except honourable grief, through riding horses, though they may come to grief through backing them. If death should come to a man while he is riding a horse, then, taken at a gallop, it is a very good death.

11.51 am
Mr. Hugo Summerson (Walthamstow)

It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway). I enjoyed listening to him riding his hobby horse with such strength and vigour.

My constituency is almost entirely urban. It is very small and compact, with about 50,000 electors. I hasten to add that this is not a maiden speech. However, I am sketching in the background to reinforce what was said by my hon. Friends who pointed out how valuable it is for those who live in urban areas to have access to the countryside. There are very few open spaces in my constituency, although, surprisingly, it contains a small chunk of Epping forest. However, if all my constituents decided to take a walk there on a Sunday morning, there would be less than standing room only. Some of them would be climbing the trees.

My hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Mr. Viggers) referred to a sign that he had seen in the countryside, saying, "Trespassers will be prosecuted." He pointed out that that is incorrect. I wish that he would say that to an order of nuns who own a small piece of land and have put up a sign saying, "Trespassers will be prosecuted to the utmost extent of the law. Signed, Sisters of Mercy." That is not a very good example to set, and the sign is also incorrect.

To hark back to my days as a land agent, when I was responsible for estates in Oxfordshire and Hampshire I had a great deal to do with public rights of way and public access to the countryside. Fortunately, the owners of both estates were extremely public spirited. On one estate there was great difficulty over public access to the famous white horse hill. The Uffington white horse is the oldest and most famous of all the figures cut out of chalk. At one time there was a car park right beside the white horse, in full view of the Vale of the White Horse. If one stood in the vale and looked up at the white horse, one could see the sunlight twinkling on the windscreens and mirrors of cars parked on top of the hill. Even worse, the white horse was being damaged by people who had heard that it was good luck to stand in the horse's eye. More and more people were doing that, with the result that the horse's eye was being eroded.

A scheme was hatched to close the car park and provide a new one in an existing chalk pit 200 or 300 yards away from the white horse. Many people visit the countryside as a recreational end in itself, and we thought that people who wanted to do that could just sit in the chalk pit car park, which was out of sight when one looked at the white horse—one could still enjoy the view from the vale—while those who wanted to walk on the downland turf up to the white horse could do so without having their view of the white horse spoilt. After many years of bickering and upset, because local people did not like the idea, the new car park was provided. It has been a great success.

The story that I have to tell about the other estate is not so happy. We wanted to divert a public footpath, we arranged a meeting with local and official bodies so that the line of the existing footpath could be inspected and the proposed diversion considered. When I turned up for the meeting I was astonished to find about a dozen motor cars parked nearby and that officials of all sorts had come from miles around. They came from the Countryside Commission, the county council, the district council and the parish council. There were representatives from the Ramblers Association and the National Farmers Union. The village schoolmaster and the local vicar were there. About 20 people stood around and debated the matter solemnly. Eventually, they said "No, this is not a good idea." That was despite the fact that diversion of the footpath would have meant that people would have had a longer walk. I tell that story just to show that there have been conflicts and differences of opinion for many years about this difficult subject.

I plead with those who use public rights of way to take their litter home and to shut gates. It does not take long to put one's litter in a bag and take it home, and it does not take long to shut a gate. People should not throw down bags, or those wretched plastic rings around six-can lager packs. They can cause dreadful damage to farm stock and wildlife. People should not throw down cigarette ends in the countryside, particularly when it is very dry. There were appalling incidents all over the place during the hot summer of 1976, and we suffered from one. Apart from cigarette ends, people discard empty bottles. As soon as a little rainwater gets into an empty bottle and the sun shines on it, it acts like a magnifying glass. That can set the countryside on fire.

Clause 1 rewrites section 135 of the Highways Act 1980. Under the clause, the occupier could apply to the highways authority for an order to carry out works over a three-month period. I wonder whether that is long enough. For some works, such as field drainage, it will not be long enough. Would it be possible to ask for an additional three months? I know from experience that if one is draining a large field, the decision might be taken to put in drains at two-chain intervals. Three quarters of the way through doing that, it may become obvious that it should be done at one-chain intervals because two-chain intervals are not sufficient. Consequently, the field will be in a state of chaos for a considerable time.

We have to add breakdowns to the difficulties that might be experienced. Furthermore, in certain parts of the country there are sarsen-stones. The first one knows that they are there is when the draining machinery hits a sarsen-stone with a tremendous clang and there are showers of sparks. The machinery is ruined, perhaps for several days. In addition, there may be the effect of bad weather. The Bill is a compromise and if the NFU believes that three months is sufficient, that is fair enough.

The so-called rights of way network covers about 140,000 miles. What exactly do we mean when we talk about rights of way? There are footpaths for walkers only; there are bridlepaths for riders such as my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North—bridlepaths can also be used by cyclists, provided that they give way to walkers and those on horseback—there are byways currently or previously used by wheeled traffic and there are byways never so used. They all carry rights of way. Other categories are green lanes, ox droves and herapaths. Then there are the Roman roads—Ridge way, Port way, Icknield way and Ermine street—some are motorways now, but some are simply tracks. Of course there are humble footpaths which arose mainly from specific uses by people to visit the local shop, the church or school.

As the House is in the mood for verse, let me quote from Gray's famous "Elegy in a Country Churchyard". Part of it sounds slightly uncomfortable for my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle (Mr. Leigh), but I do not think that Gray had that in mind. He wrote: The curfew tolls the knell of parting day, The lowing herd wind slowly o'er the lea, The ploughman homeward plods his weary way, And leaves the world to darkness and to me. I shall concentrate on the words, "the ploughman homeward plods" because that is where many of our public footpaths have their origin. They were wayleaves granted by landowners over their land for local people to get from A to B for essential purposes. They never had it in mind that they would be used for the public access that we are discussing today.

I wish to enter a note of caution. Some of the things that have been said by my hon. Friends could be construed as being anti-farmers. I do not believe that everything that farmers do is correct, but we must remember that rights of way are an imposition on farmers. When my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North talks blithely about making a bridleway 3m minimum or, even better, 4m, he should remember that they cross land from which someone has to make a living. Quite frankly, it is a nuisance for the farmer to reinstate a right of way. He has to bear in mind when he is ploughing, sowing or cropping that he must reinstate a right of way; it is in the back of his mind that he has to do it within 24 hours and he is a busy man. Sometimes I feel that farmers' interests have not been taken sufficiently into account. Nevertheless, the NFU is happy with the Bill, so who am I to complain?

I had intended to speak at considerable length on a subject which has already been raised—the use of public rights of way by motorised traffic. It is an anomaly that because a footpath or a bridleway has at some time been used by wheeled traffic it can be used for wheeled traffic today. In the past wheeled traffic might have been a horse-drawn wagon, a medieval bullock cart or even Boadicaea's chariot, but now it means that yobs can drive their wretched jeeps and beach buggies up and down the tracks and churn them up, charging into the crops and shattering the peace and quiet of the countryside. They can ruin the soil structure of those paths all too easily. Especially with clay, once the soil structure gets deflocculated it is very difficult to restore it. I shall not go on at great length about this issue because my hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden (Mr. Haselhurst), the chairman of the footpaths review committee, has said that his committee will continue its work. The committee should look into this matter closely and bring forward proposals.

It causes tremendous resentment when the people who live in the countryside have to suffer invasions. I very much hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden will look into the problems, but I support the Bill and wish it a speedy passage through the House.

12.4 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle (Mr. Leigh) on bringing forward the Bill and on the way in which he introduced it. He said that he used to be unclear about what he would do if he had the chance to introduce a private Member's Bill. As he said, it is a standard question for selection committees when interviewing parliamentary candidates. He will remember that seven or eight years ago he and I were shortlisted for Gainsborough and Horncastle. We were probably asked that question and, although he may have given an unsatisfactory answer, I must have given a worse one, as he was selected for the seat.

I am happy to respond to my hon. Friend on behalf of the Government and to give his Bill a qualified welcome, certainly on Second Reading. I support the Bill because there is a need to clarify the law on rights of way. My hon. Friend introduces his Bill at an opportune moment because concern with green issues generally has never been greater and there is enormous interest in access to the countryside as part of that concern.

I read recently that the general household survey for 1987—the most recent one available—shows that during that year 38 per cent. of people took part in rambling, hiking or country walks. That is far more than the 13 per cent. who took part in the next most popular activity, swimming. By comparison, only about 5 per cent. of people played football, which is suposed to be our national sport.

Undoubtedly there is huge interest in access to the countryside, and I recognise the importance that people place on it and the benefits that can be derived for the very many people who enjoy a walk or a ride on horseback in pleasant surroundings. In England and Wales access to the countryside has traditionally been achieved through linear access across private land. There are about 140,000 miles of such paths, footpaths and bridleways. The rights of way network is particularly important in helping to avoid the conflicts that can arise, particularly on intensively farmed land, as in the area represented by my hon. Friend.

That network provides a wealth of access opportunities without disrupting or damaging the environment or inconveniencing those who live and work in the countryside. A central principle of our access legislation must be to continue to observe that balance of interests. Any change that overemphasises the rights of users or landowners carries the danger that it will create conflict and be potentially unworkable.

The Countryside Commission's recreation and access initiatives properly emphasise the central role of rights of way. We have endorsed the commission's objective that all rights of way should be accurately defined on maps, and readily available for use by the end of this century, and have provided it with additional resources to take forward its work and to continue its co-operation with local authorities to raise the profile of rights of way work.

Parliament has delegated the duty and responsibility for day-to-day management of rights of way to those local authorities responsible for the highway network as a whole. It is perhaps not surprising that some of them have seen rights of way as less significant than their many other priorities, but that is changing. The costs of maintaining and managing footpaths and byways compared with the costs of roads programme are small, yet the benefits for many millions of users are substantial.

Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley)

I have tried to get Lancashire county council to reopen a bridleway in my constituency in Shay lane in Briercliffe. That area has been overgrown for a considerable time. The council is committed to returning that path to use as speedily as possible, but it does not have sufficient resources. The Minister referred to resources, and he should bear that important aspect in mind.

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory

It is often a matter of priorities. The Countryside Commission has indentified the sums spent by highway authorities, including Lancashire county council, on their statutory duties over rights of way at about £14 million per annum. That is a small sum compared with the total recreation and leisure budget of £1 billion. Therefore, only a small reallocation of resources within existing budgets would be needed to release resources for such tasks as the hon. Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike) highlighted. There are great differences in the performance of county councils and highway authorities. For example, my Department recently carried out a survey of signposting. It found that some highway authorities had virtually completed their duty of signposting all rights of way in their areas, but less than one third was done in others. As often happens, we try to get the general performance up to that of the best. It is often just a matter of a small adjustment in a budget or of better and more concerted management, which is not necessarily more expensive.

It is not just a matter of resources. Access issues are contentious. As I have said, there may be conflicts of interest and often money alone cannot resolve them. Rights of way officers need to be skilled negotiators. They need to encourage co-operation by landowners and users. I commend their work. We are anxious that their worth is properly recognised within their county councils. In particular, I support their work with local liaison groups, getting together representatives of users and landowners to investigate conflicts. It is not possible for central Government to lay down a formula that will solve all local disputes. We support the Bill because it is a good example of how disparate and conflicting interests can reach agreement, where previously none existed, by addressing an issue round the table. Conciliation can often be more effective than legal enforcement in securing long-term protection of rights of way. The liaison groups often put in a lot of time and effort, but they often avoid the need to go to court, which is expensive.

We live on a small island which is fairly overpopulated in some areas and there are inevitable pressures on our comparatively limited countryside. We must take into account the needs of those who live and work in the countryside as well as of those who, rightly, want to visit it for leisure and enjoyment. There is little genuine wilderness in this country. Most of our countryside has to be managed and looked after. The traditional English countryside has been shaped by generations of farmers and landowners. We need to respect their rights and their work when we look ahead to the more general conservation interests which are at the heart of the efforts made by my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle.

I should like to put the Bill in context. The Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 provides a framework for this legislation. The purpose of the Act was to clarify the question of ploughing rights of way, including the illegal ploughing of headland paths and byways. The founding Act in this respect was the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949, the first legislation to define our modern rights of way network.

In 1981, we used the Wildlife and Countryside act to clarify the law on ploughing, incorporating some of the proposals of the rights of way review committee, which at that time was under the chairmanship of my hon. Friend the Member for Worcestershire, South (Mr. Spicer), who is now a fellow Minister in my Department. It soon became clear that, despite this legal clarification, further efforts were needed to secure compliance with the law. Productive discussion by members of the committee led to the issuing of a code of practice on ploughing by the Countryside Commission and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. In 1986 this was distributed to all farmers.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden (Mr. Haselhurst) has told us, even that was not enough. I pay tribute to the work of my hon. Friend, who is now chairman of the rights of way review committee, in solving many issues and bringing together disparate interests—very much as my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle did in bringing forward the Bill.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden said, his committee has identified the need for something more specific and legal. The committee demonstrated that, in arable areas in particular, ploughing and cropping on public rights of way is the single most significant factor interfering with or preventing the use and enjoyment of the countryside. In the Countryside Commission's eastern region, for example, walkers undertaking a two-mile country walk have only a one in 10 chance of completing it. More than a quarter of footpath links in the regional survey were classified as completely unusable, with ploughing or growing crops the most significant factors.

Ploughing over rights of way remains one of the major causes of dispute between path users and landowners. Only a limited number of authorities have taken people to court. This is mostly because of uncertainties about interpretation of the existing law. There are doubts about whether rights of way are ploughed, hoed or harrowed; about whether to prosecute the landowner, the ploughman or the contractor; about the ability to enter land and carry out works necessary to reinstate rights of way; and about the necessary width of these paths for restoration; and there are more general questions about access to land.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett

Will the Minister describe what he expects a farmer to do to restore land that has been ploughed over? Obviously this is a matter of persuasion. I am sure that it would be helpful if the hon. Gentleman would describe how easy it is for a farmer to restore a path across a ploughed area.

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory

It is possible to restore a path quickly, and most farmers do that. As always, we are dealing with a minority who will not do it, who overlook their responsibility or who, in some cases, are deliberately obstructive. The NFU has taken a positive line on this. It recognises that it is very much in the interests of farmers generally to have an unobstructed network of rights of way because it often avoids trespass, which can result from rights of way that simply peter out in a ploughed field and do not clearly sign the way forward for those seeking to cross the fields.

When the issue was approached, there were differences of interest. It is a tribute to the working party set up under the rights of way review committee that it sought and achieved the necessary consensus.

Dr. Woodcock

I listened carefully to my hon. Friend's response to the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr Bennett). I heard my hon. Friend say that most farmers reinstate footpaths and that we are dealing only with a minority who cause problems. My hon. Friend may recall that in my speech, I said that in 25 years of walking in the countryside, I had never seen a footpath restored properly by a farmer. Although I want to encourage the restoration of footpaths by farmers—and I applaud any farmer who does so—will my hon. Friend tell us from where he is obtaining his information? Are there any national figures or surveys? What is the basis of his contention that most farmers reinstate footpaths?

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory

My hon. Friend may be able easily to identify paths that have not been restored, but how can he tell whether a path has been restored at some time in the past? Many agricultural operations cause the temporary disruption or blocking of a footpath, but the footpath is restored and reopened. My source of information is my Department, the Countryside Commission and the rights of way review committee. I do not want to minimise the problem. In giving way and through the Government's support for the Bill on Second Reading, I am acknowledging that problems exist, but I do not seek to suggest that most or all farmers are blocking footpaths by ploughing.

Dr. Woodcock

It may be a fairly minor point, but the Minister asked how I or any walker knew that footpaths had not been reinstated. I collect my evidence simply from coming across arable fields that have been farmed, where the clear lines of the plough can be seen and where the footpath has not been reinstated. In the fairly extensive growing season, one can clearly see crops growing across paths.

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory

I shall not repeat the point at length. However, I seek to suggest to my hon. Friend that when he finds a path that has not been restored, it is a problem, which he has drawn to the attention of the House. I agree that it is too frequent. However, when he is going along a path unobstructed, he cannot know whether that path had been ploughed over or otherwise disturbed and later reinstated. Almost by definition, one finds the problems, whereas paths that have been properly managed in the past and may have been reinstated by responsible farmers are not a problem. I suggest that my hon. Friend should not overlook the many farmers and agricultural interests who take their responsibilities seriously.

No single group that comes together to address the issue can get everything that it wants. What is impressive, even in our debate today, is that hon. Members of all parties have given general assent to the Bill. That arises out of the fact that my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle has achieved the explicit support of the NFU, the Country Landowners Association, the Ramblers Association, the British Horse Society and local authority representatives. We have heard from the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) and from my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Dr. Woodcock) that they would like the Bill to do additional things. I ask them earnestly to bear in mind that a private Member's Bill is a fragile vessel. It is vulnerable to storms and squalls—if not in this House certainly in another place. I ask them not to upset the vessel in which my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle has launched himself.

The provisions of the Bill have been explained by my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle in some detail. There may be disappointment that the Bill does not go further or that it does not do everything. It is essentially a measure which clarifies and builds on existing provisions. It will allow local authorities to get tough with those who flout the law. It will penalise persistent offenders and effective enforcement action will demonstrate that it is no longer possible for landowners and farmers to ignore their responsibilities. It will ensure that compliance rests squarely with the occupier, who will not be able to excuse himself because of the inaction of contractors. Rights of way across arable land will be clearly delineated on the ground. The farmer who has always followed the law has nothing to fear.

I echo what my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle said; the Bill is not an excuse for farmer bashing. For centuries, farmers have shaped the countryside, as I have already made clear. My hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden has made the point that many footpaths, byways and bridleways were laid down by the forefathers of the people who presently farm in the countryside. Generally, farmers welcome the making of paths. It clarifies where people have the right to go and prevents trespass.

Naturally, farmers are bothered by irresponsible walkers. There are people who leave gates open, who leave litter, who light fires, who allow stock to get out and who fail to control dogs. It is true that rights entail obligations. I cannot wave a magic wand to make people behave properly in the countryside. However, I urge all who deal with countryside matters and who belong to access organisations to stress that access to the countryside entails an obligation to respect the rural environment and those who seek to make a living there.

My hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle has presented a Bill that is a helpful clarification of the rights of way.

Mr. Harry Greenway

Before my hon. Friend sits down, will he refer to the important question of the width of bridleways?

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory

I must emphasise that I am not answering the debate, but contributing to it. I listened carefully to my hon. Friend's points. We shall come back in Committee to the question of the minimum and maximum widths of rights of way. I listened with particular interest to a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway) about the problem of restoring paths over heavy or flinty soils. Separate from this legislation, I shall draw the attention of the working party to my hon. Friend's remarks. In consultation with the working party, we might be able to cover in circular advice or in a revised code of practice the need to restore paths as my hon. Friend suggests.

The Bill represents a welcome clarification of rights of way. It has been drafted competently but, inevitably, very quickly. In all cases, laws must be simple and straightforward and beyond argument. Therefore, while the Government back the Bill in principle, we shall wish to examine its provisions closely to ensure that they are all workable and clear in law. The question of minimum and maximum widths must apply solely for the purpose of the Bill. We shall want to look at its scope as it affects highways in general and examine the proposed penalties to ensure that they are consistent.

All those matters can be resolved in Committee. We shall hope to keep Government-sponsored amendments to a minimum. We shall seek to emulate the work of the working party and to secure improvements by compromise. We shall also be looking to the review committee, under the chairmanship of my hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden to advise us whether, when the Bill is passed, we need additional advice to cover practical details that are inappropriate for primary legislation.

The committee's resolution of disagreements can have a fundamental influence on policy and practice in future. One of the good things to come out of the Bill is that it will show that we can see the way forward on these difficult questions of access. There are several others that have attracted the attention of the House. We can see a way forward by agreement and compromise. I have no hesitation in commending the Bill to the House; the Government support its Second Reading.

12.30 pm
Ms. Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North)

The Minister prefaced his comments with a reference to the general housing survey. He told us that the most popular leisure pursuit was walking while the next most popular was swimming. I am a keen walker and a keen swimmer and I therefore feel particularly well qualified to take part in the debate. The Minister is clearly not as aware as some Members of just how many paths have been ploughed up and how it affects the paths network, or of how difficult it is to walk from one place to another where there is ploughing up. It poses a real problem for keen walkers.

Perhaps the Department of the Environment does not have figures, but surveys have been conducted by the Countryside Commission and voluntary surveys made by Ramblers Association groups throughout the country. In 1982–83, the association's Cambridge group carried out a survey of paths in south Cambridgeshire. Of 1,276 paths, 405 were ploughed up and few have been reinstated. A survey of most paths in the borough of Maidstone, in Kent, carried out by the association's Maidstone group in 1988 said: Following massive publicity on this subject"— the reinstatement of paths after ploughing— from the Countryside Commission, National Farmers Union, Kent County Council and district councils to landowners the resultant activity by the latter was hardly noticeable. The result was that during the maximum period of growth a considerable number of rights of way became obstructed by crops—oilseed rape being the biggest offender. That is why the Bill has our support—not our qualified but our unqualified support. I congratulate the hon. Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle (Mr. Leigh) on his choice of subject: it really is a worthy Bill.

Membership of organisations such as Ramblers Association, the Youth Hostels Association, the National Trust and the Open Spaces Society, which promote access to the countryside, has never been higher. That reflects the extent to which people want access to the countryside. It is certain that the Bill will be welcomed by all members of those organisations and by everyone from town and country including hon. Members on both sides of the House who enjoys walking. The single most important recreational facility in the countryside is the right of way network. Unfortunately, as we have heard this morning, legislation has never fully protected or maintained it.

The Opposition welcome the Bill and believe that it takes us one or two small but important steps in the right direction. We recognise that a tremendous amount of background work preceded the Bill. A very unlikely accord has broken out among the key associations with an interest in rights of way, including the National Farmers Union, the Country Landowners Association and the Ramblers Association. It is rare to see such constructive co-operation among bodies whose interests are usually contradictory. The Bill is an opportunity to include the Moorlands Society which perhaps has not been so keen to debate the issues. There should be co-operation before we resort to compulsion to get access to the rights of way that we all want.

We welcome the proposals and will do all that we can to handle the Bill with care and assist its overdue passage on to the statute book. We firmly believe in the public's right to enjoy the countryside. We believe that the legal right to access should be extended to common land, mountains, moors and heaths. We are critical of farmers and landowners who, intentionally or otherwise, prevent the general public from enjoying their legal right to walk along public footpaths or bridleways.

The network of public footpaths and bridleways which by tradition has allowed the landless to get out into the countryside has been eroded in recent years. We need to ensure that we have comprehensive legislation to redress all the deficiencies in access to the countryside. We need legislation that will give local authorities the resources and powers to restore our footpaths network. We could have had such legislation in the Environmental Protection Bill which is currently in Committee. I wish that the Minister had told us why that Bill was not used as a vehicle to iron out some of the many deficiencies, loopholes and anomalies in current legislation.

Why was not the Government's professed concern about the environment matched by a commitment to deal with rights of way, access, perhaps even freedom to wander and to common land? Why could not the Government provide time for those issues in their parliamentary programme? The Conservative party manifesto commitment on those issues is clear and it is a pity that we have not had comprehensive legislation to cover those problems. None the less, this private Members' Bill will be an important step forward.

I take this opportunity to put on record the bad drafting of the Environmental Protection Bill. Schedule 5(7) to the Bill amends the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949 which set up the National Parks Commission, while the Countryside Act 1968 set up the Countryside Commission to promote access to the countryside through the use of footpaths.

The Welsh element is ignored in the Environmental Protection Bill and the Ramblers Association is concerned about the commitment to Welsh rights of way. The proposals are a contentious part of the Environmental Protection Bill and we hope that they will not reach the statute book in their present form. Does not the Minister recognise that there are fears that the separate Welsh body, as currently proposed, will abandon the Countryside Commission's rights of way targets by the year 2000?

The Bill deals with one aspect of the many issues relating to rights of way—the extent to which ploughing and other activities prevent proper access to our footpath network. That is very important. The National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949 did not resolve the matter; it produced grey areas with which we have had to live ever since. It is impossible for local authorities to deal effectively with obstructions to footpaths and rights of way. The Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 tinkered with the legislation, but failed to help.

As we heard from the hon. Member for Saffron Walden (Mr. Haselhurst) the next attempt to put things right was the voluntary code of practice drawn up in 1986 between the Countryside Commission and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. The code was sent to smallholders and farmers in England and Wales. It would have been nice to think that that voluntary code of practice could work, but clearly it has not. That is why there is an urgent need for new legislation to put the matter right. Some farmers may have tried to put things right, but many, and perhaps the majority, have not. There was no prospect of getting the entire footpath circuit clear of obstructions.

The further failure to put things right in the Environmental Protection Bill as currently drafted means that this is our only reasonable chance in the lifetime of this Government clearly to determine the duties of farmers and local authorities to restore land for public access. Farmers will know that they are under an obligation to keep paths free, and local authorities will have clearly defined duties to enforce the law, using default powers where necessary so that the process can be self-financing.

I wish that the Minister had spent a little time dealing with resources, whose importance was stressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett). All hon. Members recognise that a private Member's Bill is not a vehicle for increased public spending, but we must recognise also that there are resource implications.

The Countryside Commission's survey shows the extent to which we are paying the price of years of neglect of our footpath network. Farmers have taken advantage of the fact that local authorities do not have clear duties and resources to keep footpaths clear. Even though local councils have a statutory duty under the Highways Act 1980 to protect and assert the public's rights and to maintain rights of way, they have rarely been able to do that work properly. Will the Minister tell us, now or in the future, what discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Transport? Why does the transport supplementary grant to highways authorities invariably give money to named traffic schemes but not give sufficient money to the highways committee to carry out its duties under the Highways Act?

Will the Minister make it clear to the Secretary of State for the Environment that the poll tax and the amount of money available to local councils will make it less likely that they can increase spending on the footpath network? Why cannot the Government tell us how many highway authorities are unable to carry out their statutory duties? How many highway authorities must be supplemented by the discretionary powers of the Countryside Commission, stretching money that could be spent on circular walks and leaflets to basic rights of way work?

Hon. Members should be aware that walkers belong to all age groups and social classes. As a nation whose perception of environmental issues is growing, our deep desire to get out into the countryside and away from pollution is also growing. It is a national scandal that our rights of way network is in such a poor state. It is a national scandal that someone setting out on a random two-mile walk shown on an Ordnance Survey map has only a one in three chance of getting through. There is a two in three chance of obstruction.

The Minister must tell us how he proposes to finance the work that needs to be done by local authorities, voluntary groups and the Countryside Commission. Much of the work to the basic infrastructure was done by the Manpower Services Commission. It is all very well for the Minister for the Environment and Countryside to tell local authorities to ignore access at their peril, and say that they should look closely at their leisure budgets with a view to spending more on countryside access and recreation. Will he make available the resources? Will the expenditure be recognised in the standard spending assessments? Will the money granted to the Countryside Commission be increased by the necessary amount? There has been an increase in grant to the Countryside Commission, but the increase in its duties must be taken into account.

When will the Government take the initiative and give local authorities the resources they need to take the action that the Minister recommends? One clear problem lies not simply in the work that can be recovered by default payments but in the expense of appointing rights of way officers and ensuring that there are sufficient officers in the legal departments to allow court cases to be completed rather than left in suspense. What extra resources will the Countryside Commission have to meet its target of opening all rights of way by the year 2000?

I received a letter from David Fowler, the chairman of the Staffordshire ramblers association, asking me to support this private Member's Bill. In Staffordshire walking and rambling is now the most popular outdoor activity, but obstruction of rights of way due to ploughing continues to be a major problem in preserving access to countryside.

Paths in the national park are relatively accessible, as are the paths which Staffordshire county council tends. The problem is elsewhere on paths which are off the beaten track and which farmers and landowners feel that they can get away with not reinstating.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett

Does my hon. Friend accept that it is unfortunate that Staffordshire county council seems to have a policy of dealing only with a network of paths which it considers to be important, rather than fulfilling its legal responsibility to ensure that all footpaths are clear of obstructions?

Ms. Walley

That issue has concerned the ramblers association in Staffordshire. I can reliably inform my hon. Friend that Staffordshire county council, in addition to its tremendous work in respect of reserves and footpaths which have been signposted, such as the Staffordshire way, to which it is committed, is ensuring, in close conjunction with the Countryside Commission, similar scrutiny of all paths. The Bill will assist greatly in that.

It is no use having some clearly defined paths if other paths are obstructed. All that happens is that the well-defined paths become over-used while the others are avoided. That creates too much congestion on one part of the network of paths, rather than enabling the whole network to he properly used. In Staffordshire we are keen that the latter should happen. We should see the fruits of our policy soon.

A point which has not been made is the importance of footpaths to the rural economy. Footpaths have never really been regarded as an asset, but surveys have established that every visitor to the countryside who goes out with the intention of walking spends between £5 and £6. It must be acknowledged that that could be a great boost to tourism and the local economy, particularly in areas that are taking a battering from Government economic policies. Farmers and landowners must realise that by opening up the network of footpaths they are contributing to the local economy.

In the absence of proper safeguards of access to our footpath network, it has been left to individual campaigners everywhere and the organisations that they have championed, such as the Ramblers Association and the National Trust, to fight for access to footpaths. We owe a great deal to their continuing vigilance and to the programme of protest walks which such organisations have sustained over the years. We owe a great deal to local authorities which produced the adopt-a-footpath scheme. The scheme was introduced by one of the abolished metropolitan councils. We have also encouraged local authorities to take action against farmers and landowners who defy legislation, knowing that the chances of action against them succeeding are remote.

Public anxiety about footpaths has never been greater. It is time for the Government to take a lead and defend the countryside, and the least that they can do is not to hinder the Bill. They should say what resources they will give to local authorities and they should increase the resources of the Countryside Commission. They should set out how they will effectively ensure that the Countryside Commission's target of a legally defined rights of way network, properly maintained and well publicised, will be met by the year 2000. The Government must ensure that everybody who wishes to explore the countryside is aware of his basic rights and responsibilities.

The Bill will assist that process and it has our full support. We look forward to working closely with the hon. Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle in Committee to ensure that the legislation is enacted by the summer so that walkers can enjoy their holidays.

12.51 pm
Mr. David Nicholson (Taunton)

I congratulate my hon. Friends the Members for Gainsborough and Horncastle (Mr. Leigh) and for Saffron Walden (Mr. Haselhurst) on the part that they have played in bringing the Bill before the House. Both my hon. Friends worked hard on this matter and have brought together a remarkable array of disparate bodies such as the Department of the Environment, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, the two sides of agriculture—the National Farmers Union and the Country Landowners' Association—the Association of County Councils, ramblers and the British Horse Society, all of which have been mentioned.

My hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle might consider the skill of the late Prince Bismarck the Chancellor of the German empire. It was said about his great power of diplomacy that he managed to keep together a collection of greased balls throughout his time as Chancellor. I assure my hon. Friend that that will be my last reference to globular objects.

My hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle will recall that the last time that I spoke in the Chamber on 7 February he made a rather unkind intervention, and outrageously suggested that he and I should not believe the statistics issued by the Department of the Environment. I am sorry that the Minister has just left the Chamber. Perhaps he had some divine expectation that I would mention this subject.

I listened with interest to the speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway). Unfortunately he is not present. He will be interested to know that I served on the Committee that examined the City of London (Various Powers) Bill. That private Member's Bill did not really deal with the normal activities of the City but with bridleways in Epping forest, the varying rights and responsibilities of horse riders, and the requirements of the environment, the countryside and walkers. I am happy to say that last week that Bill proceeded through the House. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North will also be happy about that.

I cannot speak with great experience about horse riding. I have only once been seriously astride a four-footed beast. That was in the Kingdom of Jordan some 15 years ago when we were trekking across extremely rough country. I am sure that the beast that I was astride had formerly been used by the Abbasid Caliphs. It was extremely ancient and broke into life only when somebody took a pot shot at some birds, at which point there was almost a disaster.

Despite my expanded girth I am a walker. At one time I had a sylph-like shape that was maintained by walking. I have walked in Lancashire and Cheshire where I was brought up. The hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) may be interested to know that I have walked along the banks of the Goyt which is near his constituency. My mother was brought up in that area. I have walked in Anglesey in north Wales and more recently in Devon and Somerset.

I wish to narrate an experience that I had about two years ago. One sunny summer afternoon, I was persuaded by my wife to take my children, who are fairly tiny, for a long walk while she did something useful; she was either painting a room or doing some gardening, but she wanted the children out of the way. I followed the instructions on the Ordnance Survey map, on which a footpath was printed between two roads quite near my home and across quite a lot of scrub country. I decided to explore the footpath. We went down a track past a farm, where there was a fierce dog—I do not know whether it was a Rottweiler, but it certainly was fierce—and at the bottom of the hill the path disappeared and we got into considerable difficulty. We had to cross a barbed wire fence—the House can imagine the difficulties and dangers of crossing a barbed wire fence—and then we got into a bog. I do not know whether hon. Members have experience of navigating a marsh, but inevitably one's foot gets stuck. When one pulls one's foot out of one's wellington boots, the boot stays stuck and one's foot get all muddy. My children became a little perturbed because I gave voice to a few Anglo-Saxon epithets.

That was all because in practice the pathway marked on the map did not exist. It had not been ploughed over, but it had been covered by natural vegetation. That is why I have a particular interest in the Bill progressing.

I am pleased that the Minister mentioned the positive and constructive attitude of the farming community. I was glad to receive a letter from the parliamentary adviser to the National Farmers Union. It says that the NFU has contributed throughout all the negotiations of the working party of the rights of way review committee. It was a member of that committee and it supports the Bill because: we believe that farmers and landowners will benefit from many of the Bill's provisions. Although, at first appearance, the Bill places extra requirements on farmers in the restoration of cultivated parts, and maintenance of paths and ways free from growing crops, we do not believe that those farmers who presently uphold their responsibilities of keeping such paths open and convenient to public use have anything to fear from this Bill. Indeed, in respect of the cultivation of rights of way all farmers will benefit from the clarification of the present law which this Bill will make. How often does legislation, particularly private Member's legislation, clarify the law when it is unclear? That is a welcome feature of the Bill. The letter states that the NFU believes that the application of the provisions of the Bill will reduce the conflicts between walkers, other path users, highway authorities, and farmers which have arisen because of inadequate restoration and difficulties of identifying the route of paths through growing crops. Such conflict often arises because all parties are uncertain about the extent of their responsibilities and the methods of adequately restoring and identifying the paths or ways across arable land. I welcome the fact that the NFU recognises that the Bill, supported by a negotiated and flexible system of applying its provisions—my hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden referred to that aspect—will benefit all parties. That is excellent.

I pay tribute to the work of other organisations, particularly the Countryside Commission. Hon. Members may have seen a document that it has produced entitled "Snakes and Ladders". It points out all the difficulties that can arise when one is walking, such as the absence or otherwise, of signposts, trying to cross not just the ordinary single strand of wire but the coiled bands of electrified wire, the disappearance of paths, the presence of gates that are falling down, so that one can neither open them nor get across them, as well as ordinary maintained gates. Horse riders are particularly affected by gates that are padlocked.

I pay tribute to the work of the Countryside Commission, and the survey that its volunteers did when they attempted to walk all the footpaths, or to ride and cycle all the bridleways in a number of randomly selected squares throughout the length and breadth of England and Wales—a total of almost 3,000 rights of way. They completed a report for each path, and gathered information. The leaflet that the Countryside Commission produced is based on that work. There were nearly 13,573 completed survey forms, and that was a great achievement.

I referred earlier to the various factors that posed difficulties in the NCC's analysis—ploughing, crops, natural vegetation, fences, hedges and walls, areas that are muddy, boggy or flooded and difficult gates. The report is very welcome.

This morning I was pleased to receive a letter from the Central Council of Physical Recreation. Let us not underestimate the health aspect, as we hear a lot about that subject at the moment. The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms. Walley) mentioned the Environmental Protection Bill, and I have been serving in the Committee on the National Health Service and Community Care Bill for the past few weeks. If we can facilitate more exercise in the countryside, how much will that do to minimise the ill-health and heart disease which plague so many people who have to pursue sedentary occupations in their professional lives?

The council gives wholehearted support to the Bill. It thinks that its measures will greatly benefit riders and walkers and says that no restrictions beyond those currently set out in the code of practice will be placed on farmers. In certain ways landowners and the natural landscape will benefit.

The council emphasises that the guidance in the Bill is particularly important in areas where the grubbing-up of hedges has removed the natural marker and a sharp turn in the path becomes almost impossible to spot. If there had been time—I am sorry that there is not—I would have referred to the last report of the Nature Conservancy Council, the work it has done on sites of special scientific interest and elsewhere, and the reference it makes in that report to the Water Act 1989 and the various discussions that took place to ensure that the consumer—the walker or the person seeking leisure—was able to get access to water authority land.

Mr. Eddie Loyden (Liverpool, Garston)

Is the hon. Gentleman satisfied that those rights will be maintained when the privatisation of the land takes place under the new water authorities?

Mr. Nicholson

I confess that I did not serve on the Committee that considered the Bill. My hon. Friend the Member for Torridge and Devon, West (Miss Nicholson) did, and if she catches your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker, she may like to comment on that. We need to monitor that, and I see from the NCC's report that it has certain reservations about that aspect of water privatisation, although there has been progress.

One aspect of this subject links it to tourism. We increasingly find that people who live in the United Kingdom, instead of jetting-off to extremely hot and crowded Mediterranean resorts to take holidays, or going to the seaside, as was traditional, go to the British countryside.

I have here "The Caravanners Guide to South-West England", published by the Caravan Club, which was presented to me a few days ago at a reception in the House. It is a marvellous guide to people—particularly those with young children—whose idea of a holiday is to park the caravan on a plot where the planning arrangements permit and to walk in the surrounding area. On page 5 is an article by Keith Bungay, the national park officer for Exmoor. I was pleased to see that, because the plateau of Exmoor—perhaps the most attractive part—is in my constituency. The article describes the prehistoric remains, barrows, cairns and circules that can be seen there—items which should be preserved, because they are of interest to walkers. Iron age forts of more recent vintage can also be seen, and the author adds that Exmoor is the land of the wild red deer. The guide contains some splendid descriptions of Exmoor walks, such as the Lorna Doone walk.

I have reservations about the Bill, although I do not share the ideological resistance expressed by Opposition Members. Like the hon. Members for Stoke-on-Trent, North and for Denton and Reddish—and, in a brief intervention at the beginning of the debate, the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith)—I am a bit worried about resources. Although I appreciate that each highway authority will be asked to provide a fairly modest sum, I am afraid that the community charge will pose a problem. In many areas it will be much higher than the Department of the Environment predicted, often because of overspending by Labour authorities, but partly because of next year's grant settlement. I am glad that the Minister is present to hear me make that point; I made a similar point in a debate two weeks ago. I fear that valuable aspects of the work of local authority highways departments will be sacrificed.

Ms. Walley

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Nicholson

No, there is not enough time.

This problem will be the "delenda est Carthago" theme of my speeches this year, for it is a source of great concern to many of my constituents. In the meantime, I have the greatest pleasure in congratulating my hon. Friend and supporting his Bill.

1.7 pm

Mr. Henry Bellingham (Norfolk, North-West)

It is a great pleasure for me to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton (Mr. Nicholson), who illustrated very clearly some of the pitfalls for ramblers and walkers, and also some of the advantages that the Bill will bring to farmers and landowners. Clearly defined rights of way would prevent people from getting lost and trespassing.

I am privileged to be a sponsor of the Bill, which was admirably introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle (Mr. Leigh). He is certain to win golden opinions, both in his constituency and elsewhere. He is also a brave man, for during the next few weeks he will probably meet his predecessor, who was a very fine Member of Parliament. I was trying to decide this morning what kind of Bill he would have introduced had he come fifth or sixth in the ballot. He might have introduced a Bill to prevent such people as the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) from visiting the countryside, or a Bill to make foxhunting compulsory; he might even have introduced a Bill to close all rights of way. The question is probably academic, however, for he would not have been here on a Friday in any case: he would be doing something more constructive.

As the owner of land in Norfolk with rights of way going through it, I must declare not only a personal but a major constituency interest. Pressure on the countryside is on the increase in Norfolk. Norfolk's population is increasing. The roads are being improved. More and more people want to come to one of the most beautiful parts of the countryside and enjoy it.

My hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle referred to the growth in leisure activities. Walking in the countryside is one of the most popular pastimes. It is important that leisure activities should be reconciled with the interests of the farming and land owning community. The land-owning community is beginning to feel isolated. Farming is having a difficult time. Farmers' incomes have fallen sharply. Nothing will do more to encourage that sense of isolation than antagonism building up between the farming corn murky and those who want to exercise their right to enjoy the countryside.

My hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle eruditely documented the network of rights of way. The majority of farmers respect right of way and behave properly, but a minority do not; they abuse and neglect their duties. They have given the rest of the farming community a very bad name.

Above all, the law needs to be clarified. In counties such as Norfolk, 60 per cent. of the rights of way network could be open; the other 40 per cent. might not be. If 5 per cent. of the network is not open, that may be enough to ruin a walk. That point was made very well by the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish. If one small link in a walk is unavailable, it can completely ruin one's enjoyment of it. It may be just one farmer who is causing the trouble. I was prepared to be a sponsor of the Bill because it was the result of a great deal of discussion, negotiation and debate and represents a compromise. Above all, it has been endorsed by all the key interests, parties and organisations. I join my hon. Friends in paying tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden (Mr. Haselhurst), who has done so much work on the subject.

If the Bill is passed, as I hope it will be, the law relating to ploughing will be clarified. Until now the statute law has been uncertain. We relied in most cases on common law. That was most unsatisfactory. Farmers will know exactly where they stand. If I am fortunate enough to serve on the Committee, I shall refer to various rights of way that are little used. Certainly farmers may object to the Bill. There are certain rights of way in my constituency that have not been used for 15 or 20 years. However, there may be a right of way nearby that is used. A diversion of the existing right of way may represent a far better route across that section of the countryside.

If the Bill is passed, it will create a far greater sense of trust and co-operation. When the closure of some rights Of way that are never or are rarely used is proposed, the climate for negotiation will be much better. The Bill represents a move in the right direction. I referred earlier to the fact that farmers and landowners will benefit from the Bill. They will have to give up certain rights, but in return they will know exactly where they stand. Their rights and duties will be laid down in black and white.

Apart from a better climate of co-operation, we should also avoid the instances that were documented by my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton. He referred to people going on a walk where the route peters out because of an impenetrable jungle of undergrowth, or fields of growing corn. Then they wander off in all directions. That may well lead to gates being left open, damage to stock and disturbance of nesting birds. Such activities can lead to antagonism between farmers and the rambling public. On the other hand, if rights of way are properly marked and maintained, people will know where they stand. We will then move into a new era and a climate of trust and co-operation.

Clause 4(5) provides great advantage to farmers who wish to carry out major draining or engineering works. Until now that matter has been unclear, but now they will know their rights, will carry out the work and will restore the right of way.

Action must be taken about the minority of scrambler bike riders and four-wheel-drive vehicle users who abuse tracks across the countryside. I have heard about a number of examples of tracks being badly damaged by people who consistently drive up and down them in four-wheel-drive vehicles. In a number of cases in Norfolk and Hampshire, councils have opened up tracks, which presumably were previously bridleways, for the use of such vehicles. Action should be taken to prevent that from happening. We do not want more vehicles using tracks. Obviously vehicles are allowed to use some tracks, but those activities could lead to antagonism between the public and farmers and between people who engage in such activities and ramblers and horse riders who enjoy the countryside in a civilised way.

I must make it clear to my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle that I entirely support the right of a local authority to bring prosecutions, but if there is any attempt in Committee to extend that right of prosecution to members of the general public, I shall go flat out to resist it. Although the vast majority of people who walk in and enjoy the countryside will not store up trouble or do anything that is likely to lead to conflict, there will always be a minority who may do that. A general right of prosecution for the public would be dangerous, and if there are any attempts to introduce such a right I shall forcefully resist them.

Given that the Environmental Protection Bill is going through the House at the moment, we ought to consider the situation regarding landfill sites. I should declare an interest as an occasional adviser to the National Association of Waste Disposal Contractors, which represents the waste disposal industry. Many people in the industry are concerned about rights of way across landfill sites. We have had some ridiculous examples recently of local bodies and organisations pressing hard for rights of way through landfill sites to be maintained and kept open. Obviously there are problems of scavengers and people coming into close contact with heavy working machinery on landfill sites. Anyone who wants to walk on a landfill site must need his brains tested, but there have been attempts to keep open rights of way over landfill sites in some parts of the country. The obvious solution is to apply for a diversion.

Ms. Walley

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Bellingham

I shall not give way as I want to be brief. We can discuss the matter afterwards, perhaps in Committee.

If the Bill results in a better climate and more trust and confidence between the rambling organisations and the farmers and others with interests in the countryside, diversions will be agreed more readily because there has been ludicrous opposition to diversions of rights of way across landfill sites. We cannot tolerate that, and I hope that a much more constructive attitude will develop among a very small minority.

I support the Bill. It is a historic step forward from the days when there was antagonism, conflict and lack of trust to an era when there is greater use of the countryside, with people coming from the towns, living in the villages and making use of their right to walk in the countryside. We shall move forward if their rights can be reconciled with those of landowners and farmers. It is important that the people who walk or ride in or otherwise enjoy the countryside understand what makes it tick and exactly why farmers want to enjoy their land in particular ways—for field sports and other sports and amenities. If people who go into the countryside understand why farmers enjoy those pursuits, there will be less antagonism in some circles towards them. We are certainly moving in the right direction.

I hope that the Bill will leave the Committee stage a far better Bill, perhaps with one or two minor improvements. My hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle quoted Tennyson. I should like to conclude by quoting Blake, who, in his "Auguries of Innocence", said: To see a world in a grain of sand And a heaven in a wild flower, Hold infinity in the palm of your hand And eternity in an hour. A robin redbreast in a cage Puts all Heaven in a rage, A dove-house filled with doves and pigeons Shudders Hell through all its regions. A dog starved at his master's gate Predicts the ruin of the state. I am sure that my hon. Friend's predecessor would approve of the last verse: A horse misused upon the road Calls to Heaven for human blood.

1.21 pm
Miss Emma Nicholson (Torridge and Devon, West)

I am delighted to support the Bill. In my constituency, the primary industry is farming—food production, processing and distribution—and a secondary industry, about which everyone knows when they come to the area, is tourism. Therefore, rights of way are important.

There is the potential for a large conflict between the farmers and the tourists. It is to the credit of farmers that the conflict has been kept to a low, almost infinitesimal, level in my constituency. None the less, adoption of a track as a right of way is a crucial matter. I am sad that the Bill does not contain a proposal by the Countryside Commission—which I know was not supported by the National Farmers Union and other bodies and, therefore, did not see the light of day in the Bill—whereby farmers would be allowed to alter the route of a right of way if it went across the middle of a field and was merely a nuisance to everyone because the hedge or boundary had shifted.

Rights of way are ancient tracks. Sometimes these prehistoric routes were used for the transfer of goods from one part of the United Kingdom to another. In another age, we did not need the Channel tunnel as we were physically joined to Europe. In the past, goods travelled from the centre of the continent of Europe to places in the United Kingdom along the Berkshire Downs prehistoric ways.

In my constituency, a good example of a historic right of way used today as a trade route is the one at Bucks Mill, where there is a right of way down to the beach. It has been used for many hundreds of years by fishermen to bring their fish ashore and today it is readily used by tourists. In the second last great debacle by mother nature—as a result of the greenhouse effect, or merely a local Devon storm—that right of way was demolished. The knock-on effect in today's world is that people letting cottages in that beautiful part of the world have not been able to say whether the tourists will ever be able to get down to the beach. Those lettings are a major source of summer income. These routes are an important part of our tourist industry.

As for other routes, unhappiness is caused when modern routes are ploughed up not by farmers but by motor cyclists. One sees Suzukis on the loop road on Dartmoor. We know of other tracks where motor cyclists are wrecking ancient and beautiful rights of way. There are vast problems which will not evaporate easily and are not addressed by the Bill. There are modern despoilers who wreck the rights of way and do not enhance them.

However, the Bill addresses one small part of the problem. It cannot have been an easy task even to reach agreement on these few modest proposals. For me, a Bill that has the unqualified support of the National Farmers Union, the Country Landowners Association and the Countryside Commission, all of which are key players for my constituents in farming and in tourism, and for our visitors, must be right. I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle (Mr. Leigh) for his excellent initiative in presenting the Bill. I hope that it will have a swift and easy passage through Committee. The Bill deserves unqualified support.

1.25 pm
Mr. Leigh

By leave of the House, Madam Deputy Speaker, may I say that this has been an interesting debate and it is a great pleasure to sum up for three or four minutes. I want especially to commend the speeches of my hon. Friend the Minister, and of my hon. Friends the Members for Norfolk, North-West (Mr. Bellingham), for Hampshire North-West (Sir D. Mitchell) and for Taunton (Mr. Nicholson).

One point must be made again and again as the Bill proceeds through Parliament. Farmers have absolutely nothing to fear from the Bill. They will benefit from the Bill, as the NFU said in its brief. On one or two occasions in the debate, there have been some harsh words about farmers. I do not echo them. In any industry, of course, there is always a small minority who give a bad name to the rest. However, the overwhelming majority of farmers who want to obey the NFU code of practice have nothing to fear from the Bill. It will benefit farmers because it will clarify the law and make it easier to understand. It will meet the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, North-West and others in that it will stop people roaming where they should not and it will mark the line of the path clearly on the land. Farmers have nothing to fear in any of that.

The point has been made to me in the debate that the most popular part of the countryside premium under the set-aside scheme has been that farmers have been increasing access to the countryside for recreational purposes. Many farmers realise the way that things are going and want to co-operate with the public. The Bill will make it easier for them to do so.

I want to respond briefly to the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway) about bridleways. I am not sure whether he is aware that there has been a further concession by the NFU. Where a path runs along the headland of a field and a rider could be in danger of coming too close to a fence, the minimum width will be 3 m. My hon. Friend made the point about paths running through the centre of a field. In that case, it is extremely unlikely that there would be a fence on either side. we are talking about the restoration of paths and I think that my hon. Friend will find that the points he made in his excellent contribution—he spoke with great knowledge about equine subjects—have been answered by the drafters of the Bill.

My hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Summerson) made a point which has been answered, about muck deposited on fields. That can already be dealt with by section 148 of the Highways Act 1980.

The hon. Members for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms. Walley) and for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) mentioned resources. The point that we have to make again and again is that by clarifying the law, the Bill will release resources that are often tied up at present in time-consuming prosecution mechanism. The Bill will release resources and improve the footpath network.

I have answered the main points about the Bill. I am anxious that it should proceed and I am grateful to all who spoke today. Everyone who has spoken has supported the Bill. How pleasant it is that on one day in this House, all hon. Members agree.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time, and committed to a Standing Committee, pursuant to Standing Order No. 61 (Committal of Bills.)