HC Deb 21 March 1991 vol 188 cc384-6
2. Mr. Andrew F. Bennett

To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if he will make a statement about access to the countryside in set-aside areas and environmentally sensitive areas.

Mr. Gummer

Existing rights of public access are preserved over land which is entered under the set-aside and environmentally sensitive areas schemes. Neither scheme imposes additional obligations as regards access, but the meadowland option of the related countryside premium scheme provides areas set aside for walking and quiet enjoyment by the public.

Mr. Bennett

Does the Minister agree that, as more than 10 million people enjoy walking as a pastime, at Easter and on other public holidays many honey spots in the countryside will be overused and peace and quiet will be denied to people going out to enjoy them? Is not there a good argument for increasing the number of parts of Britain to which people can gain access and spreading the money that people spend when they go out into the countryside? Will the Government try to incorporate in the set-aside and environmentally sensitive schemes some encouragement to farmers to improve access?

Mr. Gummer

I think that access is best improved by improving footpaths, bridleways and the like. We must also recognise that in all these areas a balance must be maintained. In our environmentally sensitive areas it is sometimes access that causes much of the problem. I cite for instance, the difficulties in the South Downs where access for people with dogs makes it extremely difficult to graze those areas in the way that would be desirable. I also remind the hon. Gentleman that problems in the Pennine Way now mean that in some cases and circumstances we are spending more there than on similar lengths of the M1.

Mr. Jopling

Is my right hon. Friend aware that, with the exception of the small areas that he mentioned, there is no particularly good reason why environmentally sensitive areas should have special access to the public, bearing in mind that huge areas of equally sensitive land often adjoin them? My right hon. Friend should concentrate on trying to expand the environmentally sensitive areas, which have been so successful.

Mr. Gummer

I am sure that my right hon. Friend will not mind my saying that such areas are his creation. The fact that the whole of Europe is copying Britain in creating such areas owes much to his perseverance in the Council of Ministers. I should like to see how best we can extend the scheme as time goes on. I emphasise my right hon. Friend's argument that access must often compete with other aspects of the countryside to achieve a balance. To conserve the countryside, we must sometimes restrict rather than extend access. Environmentally sensitive areas will work only if farmers can farm them properly, so we must ensure that the demands and needs of farming play their part in the balance between them.

Mr. Geraint Howells

Has the Minister any plans to introduce compulsory set-aside if the current scheme does not work out to his satisfaction?

Mr. Gummer

The hon. Gentleman will know that I am deeply opposed to the concept of compulsory set-aside, which is damaging both to the countryside and to the farmer. I seek a system in the European Community in which each country will take a fair share of the amount of set-aside necessary. A voluntary scheme should set a target to be achieved within each country. A voluntary scheme means that farmers must be paid enough to make it possible for them to look after the land, which is in their interests and the wider interests of the country as a whole.

Mr. Boscawen

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that we must get the balance right in environmentally sensitive areas. In the Somerset levels, which I represent, there is a genuine need for a limited amount of access to see the birds and fauna there. However, if too many people want to come at once, as they often do, they will destroy the areas that we wish to protect.

Mr. Gummer

My hon. Friend is right. We have spent a lot of money and employed much manpower, especially in the Somerset levels, to try to achieve a balance between the needs of farming and those of wildlife. We have discovered that, by bringing both sides together, the level of water necessary turns out to be very different from that which many conservationists had thought. When one is trying to bring two groups together in such a way, it must be realised that total access to the general public cannot always be afforded if wildlife is to be protected. It is important to achieve a balance. The hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) is among the first to say that he wants not access which destroys the countryside but access which opens it up.

Mr. David Clark

Has the Minister seen the report published today by the national parks review panel, in which he is urged to introduce incentives and payments systems for environmentally friendly farming and public access in all our national parks? Will he do so?

Mr. Gummer

I am not someone who, having read part of a report, immediately jumps to the Dispatch Box to say what he intends to do about it. First, I want to see what the Countryside Commission thinks about the report, as it was received only today. Secondly, the Secretary of State for the Environment and I will want to work out how best to react to the Countryside Commission's proposals. I am not someone who believes that the future of the countryside can be decided by immediate party-political reactions.

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