HC Deb 25 April 1991 vol 189 cc1259-63

`(l) It shall be an offence for any person to construct a private road without first informing SNH of their intention to do so.

(2) Where SNH are of the opinion that the construction of a private road would result in serious damage to the natural heritage they shall serve notice of that fact on the person proposing the construction.

(3) Where such notice has been served, it shall be an offence to commence or to continue the construction of the road without the permission of the Secretary of State sought and obtained in writing.

(4) The Secretary of State shall not give such permission without first consulting SNH.

(5) Any person found guilty of an offence under this section shall be liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding level 5 on the standard scale.

(6) For the purposes of this section "private road" means a road or track not maintained by a roads authority and constructed to bear vehicular traffic, whether or not it is a public right of way, and above a length to be specified by the Secretary of State.".—[Mr. Galbraith.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Sam Galbraith (Strathkelvin and Bearsden)

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

New clause 4 deals with private tracks throughout Scotland and seeks to bring them under planning control.

Anyone who has tramped across the Scottish mountains or driven over them on local authority or other roads cannot help but be disturbed by the scars created on the landscape and to our natural heritage by those roads that clearly spread across the moorland and hills. Those tracks give access to a limited number of individuals but are offensive to a large number of people who see them. They are often unsightly because, being on private land, they come under no planning control.

The clause attempts to bring those roads within the authority of Scottish Natural Heritage. It is a problem that has been with us for many years and is growing rapidly. It has caused great concern to the Countryside Commission for Scotland. Indeed, its 22nd annual report in 1989 says: The proliferation of unsightly hill tracks in remote and scenically beautiful areas continues to cause concern". One of the worst cases mentioned by the Countryside Commission was the track bulldozed through Glen Feshie by Lord Dulverton, who owned that area. It was a particularly beautiful area which many of us, including the Minister—who often takes his holidays there in the winter—have often tramped. That beautiful glen has been scarred, probably irretrievably, by an unsightly track that was bulldozed through it without permission, despite the fact that the Countryside Commission recommended that Highland regional council continue to refuse planning permission and to seek reinstatement. That, however, has not been possible.

There was a further problem in 1986 when a track above 300 m, which is the limit imposed by the commission, was bulldozed through Glen Ey within the Deeside and Lochnagar national scenic area, again without planning permission. Another example is the hill track in Strath Dionard, which lies on the northern margin of the north-west Sutherland national scenic area. Unless action is taken to bring those tracks within planning controls, the problem can only worsen.

We are not attacking landowners, nor are we attempting to prevent tracks on private land within Scotland. Rather, we are trying to ensure that, if such tracks are necessary and a good case can be made for having them, they should at least be developed in a suitably scenic way as far as possible. Many of them lead to no significant place. For example, the track near Arduerike estate, which is three or four miles long, leads only to a small fishing loch. One finds when walking in that area that no one else uses the track. Therefore, those tracks are bulldozed for use by a limited number of individuals, and for most of the year they lie vacant, only to assault the eyes of those who see them.

Another problem is the track at Beinn a'Bhuird, in a particularly nice area. It is badly designed and offensive to the eye. It could easily be dealt with, because it now lies within the Mar Lodge estate.

What is the Government's current position on Mar Lodge estate? Will they make funds available for that estate or will it pass into public ownership? Mar Lodge estate stretches from the woods of Dee, up over Corrie Etchican down Ben McDuie across to Cairn Toul, across to the nature reserve at Glen Feshie. It forms part of an extremely beautiful landscape of great natural heritage significance. It is currently owned privately, and it is said that it could be sold to the public for £10 million to £15 million—a small price to pay for such an exquisite piece of land. If Scotland's natural heritage is to be protected, surely Scottish Natural Heritage should purchase that land on behalf of the nation.

Today's Scotsman said: Mar Lodge provides an opportunity for the state to protect and preserve an important part of Scotland's heritage, including three of Britain's highest mountains. Under the new agency it could become a model demonstrating how conservation, recreation and limited development could be practised without conflict. It is estimated that, at the most, such a venture would require £5 million from the Exchequer". Are the Government prepared to give not only tacit but practical support to Scottish Natural Heritage and purchase Mar Lodge estate for the nation? Were such land in public hands, we could prevent the despoilment of those areas by unsightly tracks. Everyone, whether they tramp across the mountains or merely travel through them, is offended by those roads which, in increasing numbers, are pushed through estates. The amendment seeks to bring them under planning controls to ensure that, if they must exist, they are built in the most aesthetic manner.

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton

Two issues have arisen from the debate: private roads and Mar Lodge.

The Prime target of this amendment is the unsightly mountain track, over which there has been some controversy in recent years. The Government agree that there has been a case for extending control over the way in which such developments take place. Since 1987, we have required all proposals for hill tracks in national scenic areas to be subject to planning permission. This requirement for planning permission, which provides for consultation with the countryside Commission for Scotland, and, ultimately, referral to the Secretary of State, will not only be transferred to Scottish Natural Heritage but would also carry forward to apply similarly in natural heritage areas.

We are currently considering whether there is a case for a further extension of this or a similar requirement throughout other parts of Scotland. We intend to seek comments on proposals later this year.

The amendment would create an offence for the construction of a private road without the sanction of SNH. We do not believe that the introduction of a new offence is conducive to the consensual approach we seek for the operation of Scottish Natural Heritage. More particularly, given the existing role of planning authorities, the Countryside Commission for Scotland and, ultimately, the Secretary of State, and the possible extension of the procedures, the introduction of an offence for failing to consult SNH on every private road can scarcely be defined as administratively efficient.

Mr. Wilson

The Minister referred to the consensual approach, but some of the tracks are simply acts of vandalism. Other vandals are not treated in a consensual way, with people saying to them, "Would you mind not doing it?" They are rightly punished for acts of vandalism. Some of the tracks that have been made to pre-empt the controls suggest a level of irresponsibility on the part of those who make them. That irresponsibility will not be constrained by the consensual approach. Perhaps the Minister could give us a firmer proposal.

7 pm

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton

This is a matter of sufficient importance for me to state that we intend to consult on it, hopefully later this summer, when we shall put forward proposals and listen to various views.

The hon. Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden (Mr. Galbraith) asked about Mar Lodge, which has been in the press a great deal in recent days. The Government recognise the national and international conservation status of the Cairngorms. We have already taken a number of decisions in recognition of their importance. For example, the Secretary of State modified the Highlands regional structure plan to guard against the development of downhill ski developments in Lurcher's gully to protect the gully, surrounding quarries and the adjacent mountain plateau. In that connection, the evidence relating to the road was of particular interest.

We have established a working party under the chairmanship of Magnus Magnusson to develop a management plan for the district, which will form the basis for its protection and sustainable use in the longer term. We also submitted a case for the world heritage listing of the Cairngorms to UNESCO. I am sure that the House will agree that those steps clearly underline our intentions to ensure proper management of the district.

We recognise the important position of the Mar Lodge estate within the Cairngorms. It comprises a range of habitats from the flood plain terraces of the Dee to the high plateau of Ben Macdui. It has significant remnants of the Caledonian Scots pine forest, as well as habitat for a wide range of important bird species. It is also enjoyed for recreational purposes and managed for sporting purposes. The question of who is to own and manage the estate in future cannot be resolved at present, but, as the House will appreciate, for most of Scotland, conservation and recreation management of land is secured through private ownership.

I can assure the House that the Government would be prepared to look at any proposition that might be put to us—although without commitment. I understand that a series of complex discussions are under way at present between a number of organisations. I am afraid that I am not in a position to provide the House with any more detailed information now. I hope that that answers the inquiry of the hon. Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden.

Mr. Galbraith

In the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar), if I may say so, that was a rather vague statement about what is happening at Mar Lodge. I had hoped that the Minister would come up with a more definite statement and that he might even say that the Government were seriously considering purchasing it for the nation. It is in order to discuss that now, because the Mar Lodge estate includes Beinn a' Bhuird, which contains one of the tracks that has probably caused most controversy and offence over the years.

I was not particularly grateful to the Minister for saying that it would not be administratively efficient to bring all private tracks within the planning procedure. In the immortal words of my hon. Friend the Member for Garscadden, if I may say so, that seems a weak excuse. Anyone who can administer complex schemes, and who attempts to administer the poll tax, will surely find bringing a few private roads under administrative control as nothing in comparison. However, I am grateful to the Minister for saying that he intends to consult and make proposals, which I shall await with great interest, later in the year. Therefore, with the permission of the House, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

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