HC Deb 26 February 1991 vol 186 cc877-9

'Before section 35 of the Road Traffic Act 1988 there shall be inserted— "Prohibition of motor vehicles on byways

34a(1) Subject to the provisions of this section, if without lawful authority a person drives a motor vehicle on any byway he is guilty of an offence.

(2) A person shall not be convicted of an offence under this section if he proves to the satisfaction of the court that the motor vehicle was driven in contravention of subsection (1) above for the purpose of saving life or extinguishing fire or meeting any other like emergency.

(3) In this section 'lawful authority' does not include the exercise of a public right of way over a byway except where—

  1. (a) the right of way is being exercised in connection with agricultural or forestry operations; or
  2. (b) the exercise of the right of way has been authorised by an order under subsection (4) below.

(4) A local authority may, by order, grant authorisation for the use of motor vehicles on a byway in its area, and such authorisation may provide for use to be restricted to named persons, to a class of vehicle or to specified times.

(5) In this section— 'byways' means a highway over which the public have a right of way for vehicular and all other kinds of traffic; but which is used by the public mainly for the purpose for which footpaths and bridleways are so used; 'local authority' has the same meaning as in section 33 above.".'.

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Chris Smith (Islington, South and Finsbury)

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

The clause arises from the concern expressed by many people—the Ramblers Association in particular—about the damage that can be done to footpaths by driving of motor vehicles upon them. The problem is becoming increasingly serious. Our byways—the green lanes in the Pennines, the ridgeways in the downlands and public footpaths throughout the country—are being seriously damaged and churned up, often by joy riders.

The problem needs to be tackled. The new clause makes it clear that we would not in any way want to inhibit access for emergency vehicles or for genuine and legitimate farming and forestry purposes, but we must do everything we can to protect our byways, many of which are in glorious parts of our landscape and offer unparalled opportunities for recreation to many thousands of people. It is incumbent on us to do what we can to ensure that they are protected. The new clause seeks to do precisely that, and I hope that the Government will respond positively to it.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey)

I hope that the Government will be sympathetic to this well-motivated and necessary new clause.

Mr. Chope

I am sorry to have to disappoint the hon. Members for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith) and for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes).

The law already makes adequate provision for the matters to which the hon. Gentlemen referred. Highway authorities are obliged under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 to hold "definitive maps". These are open to inspection by the public and they record the status of routes in the locality. Routes presently shown as "road used as public paths" may be reclassified as footpaths or bridleways where there is no evidence of established vehicular rights. Where there are established vehicular rights, the routes must be shown as "byways open to all traffic". The definition is found in section 127 of the Road Traffic Regulation Act 1984 and is one used in the new clause. Such a byway conveys a public right of way for vehicles, as the definition itself expressly states. That is how the law stands at present, and we believe that the procedures are satisfactory.

The new clause seeks to extinguish vehicular rights on byways open to all traffic, with exceptions only for emergencies and in respect of rights of way exercised in connection with agricultural or forestry operations and so on. "Procedure" is probably a misnomer for what is provided by the new clause, which simply gives a summary power to the local authority to grant "authorisations". The new clause is silent about the criteria against which these would be given, and the procedures to be followed. It represents an extraordinary withdrawal of long-established rights of way and would be extremely controversial were the House to accept it and incorporate it in law.

Mr. Fearn

Does the Minister agree that most local authorities do not have definitive maps? Many give the excuse that they do not have the time or the staff to produce them. Apparently, the Minister requires such maps to be produced. How long will authorities have to produce them? I am thinking in particular of my own authority, Sefton. With my support, the ramblers have been asking for a definitive map for the past five or six years, and it has still not been done. Is there a time limit?

Mr. Chope

I am not aware that there is a time limit. We are talking about an Act of Parliament passed in 1981. I should certainly hope that local authorities are making some progress towards the establishment of definitive maps, as they are under an obligation to do just that. I shall look into the matter and ascertain whether authorities have until the millennium—or until the next millennium—to produce the maps, or whether they are under an obligation to do so sooner. Obviously, they should be brought under some local political pressure, particularly in the light of concern about the unsuitable vehicular use of ancient byways.

In many cases, it should be possible to establish voluntary management arrangements, which would limit use by, for example, trail bikes or off-road vehicles. Representative bodies have sought to promote responsible use by bikers and four-wheel-drive users. That is a reasonable way in which to deal with the problem.

Mr. Chris Smith

I fear that the Minister's response is, indeed, disappointing. He places too much reliance on the possibility of voluntary management agreements, which do not always work and which are not always possible. He has failed to recognise the problem identified by the hon. Member for Southport (Mr. Fearn)—the absence in a number of local authority areas of the definitive maps to which he devoted so much attention. He has also ignored the fact that there is undoubtedly a failure of enforcement even where definitive maps exist and the fact that, in some places—the green lanes are a classic case in point—where the supposed long-standing rights of vehicular access apply, there is none the less a serious problem with the destruction of our countryside heritage. The issue requires more attention and less complacency from the Government.

Of course I accept that the new clause, in setting out its objectives, is far from perfect. For example, it does not lay down criteria for the local authority concerned. That being the case, it probably would not be sensible to press it to a vote. However, I hope that the Government have noted that among hon. Members there is considerable concern about this matter. We shall certainly wish to return to it in due course.

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

Forward to