HC Deb 26 May 1993 vol 225 cc943-8 4.38 pm
Mr. Charles Hendry (High Peak)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to permit highway authorities to close footpaths during periods of severe fire risk. It is appropriate that I should present this Bill today, because it was over the Whitsun weekend a year ago that three fires destroyed several hundred acres of moorland in my constituency. How they started will never be known; perhaps it was arson, or possibly they were caused by a discarded piece of glass or a carelessly dropped cigarette end. What we do know for certain is that the heather on the moors was tinder-dry, after weeks of very hot dry weather, and that hikers still had open access to the moors despite the danger.

We also have no illusions about the consequences of those fires. The hundreds of acres of heather that were destroyed will take at least five years, perhaps 10 years or more, to grow back. Countless animals and birds were killed as the fires raced across the moors at dozens of feet per minute. For several days, more than 70 firefighters, many of them volunteers—to whom I pay tribute—put themselves in danger to bring the fires under control, in the wretched knowledge that they could spring to life again at any moment, having smouldered for days or even weeks before bursting back into life.

Since the fires, much has been done to improve the way in which closure of the moors can be agreed. We have had to recognise that the old system did not work effectively. Its only achievement was to unite everyone in their dissatisfaction and anger at the inadequacies of the system.

Certainly, before last year's fires, those who own and work on the moors had called for closure for several days, and closure was discussed endlessly by the Peak district national park authorities. Some of its members said yes, some said no; in the end they could not agree. Even after the fires, no ready agreement could be reached on whether the moors should be closed, because there was no set formula for deciding when the risk of fire outweighed the right of access.

Since then, and over the past year, there have been considerable strides towards an automatic formula for closing moors in times of high fire risk based on the dryness of the ground—the so-called soil moisture deficit. The formula is acceptable to all parties, including the owners and the national park, as well as the sporting and rambling interests. I understand that there may soon be full agreement that, when the soil moisture deficit and the so-called stress factor of the ground reach a certain point, closure will be automatic. That is greatly to be welcomed.

Even more welcome are the steps being taken by the Peak park and the owners of the moors to set up a joint fund to ensure that helicopter support is available to fight the fires when they occur. The House will appreciate that the often remote location of fires and their intensity mean that water bombing is the only effective way to put them out.

However, all that progress will be wasted if we do not clarify the law on the closure of footpaths. An automatic procedure can be found for closing general access to the moors, which removes people's right to wander at will, but the footpaths will remain open. It is nothing short of lunacy to decide that the moors are too dry to allow people to walk over them, but then to keep open the footpaths so that tens of thousands of walkers can tramp along them, across those self-same moors, on any hot bank holiday weekend.

The Peak park attracts some 22 million visitors a year—more than any other national park in the world outside of Mount Fuji. That will be distressing news to my colleagues from Blackpool and Scarborough, who argue endlessly about the merits of their resorts, which are minor in comparison. However, there comes a time when the long-term interests of the moors and the wildlife that they support, together with the immediate short-term safety of the visitors, are such that some of those visitors need to be disappointed and refused access.

The nub of the issue is the lack of clarity in the current law. If there is a fire, footpaths—as public highways—can be closed, but there must be actual danger. If there is a risk of fire—a perceived rather than an actual danger—the law on closure becomes much more vague, absurdly increasing the risk of a fire starting.

During recent weeks, I have learnt that people in Derbyshire and Cheshire still talk with some anguish and pain about the horrendous rollicking that they once received from the Government for closing footpaths because of the fire risk. That was 17 years ago in 1976, after 81 fires had destroyed 2,500 acres of moorland. Despite that threat, the local authorities were left in no doubt that the closure of footpaths in such circumstances was simply not acceptable. It is not surprising that they have never dared to take such action again.

Since that time, the Road Traffic Regulation Act 1984 has been introduced. It moves us forward, but still leaves us confused. It states that a footpath can be closed if there is a likelihood of danger to the public. When does a risk become a likelihood? In the words of one official at the Department of the Environment: Fire doesn't have to be licking at the path. Those words suggest that a fire needs to have started, rather than relying on the expert advice that there is a high and genuine risk of one starting.

Even my colleagues on the Front Bench, usually the epitome of clarity and sensible thinking, seem to be somewhat at odds on this matter. One letter that I received states that the use of footpaths may be restricted or even prohibited by permanent or temporary traffic regulation orders. These are used mainly to regulate vehicular traffic, but occasionally apply to footpaths and bridleways, for example to forbid horse riding or cycling at particular times, but their scope does not extend to fire risk in the surrounding area. A further letter states: these powers are very flexible and can be used to deal with a whole range of circumstances, including the risk of fire. The objective of my Bill is to remove that confusion and to make it clear that, by law, highway authorities have the power to close footpaths during times of high fire risk. It is a modest step that I hope the House will support.

A sensible further step would be to allow the national park authorities, once they had established closure procedures, to close the moors and the footpaths across them at the same time, rather than operating two separate decision-making processes. In particular, it would be sensible to allow the authorities to erect closure signs on behalf of the highway authorities.

In 1976, Derbyshire county council, which was not too familiar with the task, managed to put closure signs at what they thought were the ends of footpaths, which in fact did not exist and had never existed. My colleagues will not be too surprised to learn that that council operated at that time with the customary competence and accuracy whichwe still expect of it and which makes it so beloved across the county.

While I have inevitably concentrated on the needs of my constituency, the issue is anything but local. It affects thousands of acres of national park, thousands of miles of coastal walks and popular tourist destinations across the country. It is a national issue, which is why the law should be amended.

Moreover, it is most definitely not an anti-rambler device. The moorland owners remain committed to the concept of open access, even though they run the risk of a careless minority leaving their gates open, breaking down their carefully built and maintained dry-stone walls, or cutting off their power by crashing into the overhead electricity cables in their hang gliders.

Perhaps I should declare an interest at this point as someone who has tried hang gliding. My centre of gravity made it more akin to a Flymo hovering above the ground than a bird soaring in the skies. It brought a new meaning to the idea of a Member of Parliament dropping in on his constituents.

Any closure of footpaths would be short-term—for just as long as the expert authorities considered that the risk of fire merited such closure. Fires do enormous damage to wildlife and flora, which take years to restore, if they ever can be restored. They destroy the very environment that visitors seek to enjoy. Those who own and work on the moors invest endless amounts of time and money in creating and conserving some of the most beautiful parts, not only of this country, but of our continent.

The House owes it to them and to the generations to come who want to enjoy that unique inheritance to make this small change in the law to reduce, as far as is possible, the risk of unnecessary fires and the untold damage that they bring.

4.47 pm
Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish)

I oppose the Bill—not because I do not appreciate the fire risks, but because the Bill is misguided. With the holiday weekend almost upon us, I congratulate the hon. Member for High Peak (Mr. Hendry) on drawing attention to the fire risks. Anyone going into the countryside should be careful.

The Bill will do nothing to improve the current position. It deals only with footpaths, yet two of the worst fires on the top of the Pennines during the past few years occurred very close to roads. It was almost certainly the carelessness of car drivers throwing cigarettes out of their windows that caused some of those big fires, which continued to burn for many months. They were extremely difficult to extinguish, that being achieved only with the arrival of the cold and wet of winter. Therefore, it is wrong solely to pick out footpaths for legislation.

There is a need for much more public awareness of the risks, and I have already commended the hon. Gentleman for drawing attention to that. There is also a need for Government action. The Peak district national park authority has submitted a set of new bylaws for control of the access land, but I understand that the Home Office is not being as speedy as it could be in dealing with them. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman should extend his efforts to speeding up those bylaws rather than trying to introduce a Bill that, at this stage of the parliamentary year, has no chance of progressing.

Many people already believe that there are sufficient powers to do what the hon. Gentleman is trying to achieve through his Bill. A highway authority has power, under section 14 of the Road Traffic Regulation Act 1984, as amended by schedule I of the Road Traffic (Temporary Restrictions) Act 1991, to prohibit the use of footpaths and bridleways temporarily because of the likelihood of danger to the public or serious damage to the footpath. In both those categories, if there is a fire, there is a risk to the individual crossing it and certainly danger to the footpath.

Probably my strongest reason for objecting to the Bill—certainly the reason why both the Ramblers Association and the Peak and Northern Footpaths Association object to it—is that, as a result of arguments across the Chamber about footpath measures over the years, the Rights of Way Review Committee was established in 1979. The committee has always been chaired by a Conservative Member, first by the hon. Member for Worcestershire, South (Mr. Spicer) and then by the hon. Member for Saffron Walden (Mr. Haselhurst). The chair is now held by the hon. Member for Tiverton (Mrs. Browning).

The committee represents the Ramblers Association, the National Farmers Union, the Country Landowners Association, the local authorities, Government Departments and the Countryside Commission, and has always been a forum for trying to achieve agreed measures. It is unfortunate that the hon. Gentleman chose to ignore it and not to present it with his proposals, because there could have been a rational discussion. I am sure, if there really is a problem, that a proposal that had everybody's acceptance could have been agreed on. Insisting on unilateral legislation will not solve the problem.

I do not accept that walking creates more of a fire hazard than any other use of the land. There is no evidence that walkers have caused dangers by crossing land. In fact, there is some evidence that, on occasions, walkers have reported a small fire—not caused by them—and that that speedy action by walkers has led to getting the fire put out. Excluding people is not necessarily the way to cut down the risk. What is most important is to stress to walkers, farm workers, water board workers, gamekeepers and others the high danger of smoking while they have access to land, and the danger of leaving glass behind, as that can cause fires.

I ask the hon. Gentleman to have second thoughts about his proposals. Instead of proceeding with the Bill, which will cause controversy, he should refer the matter to the Rights of Way Review Committee for proper discussions. He should try to persuade the Home Office to speed up byelaws concerning access to land in the peak district. He has reminded us all that we must look carefully at protecting the countryside.

The last thing that anyone going out walking should want to do is cause damage. I hope that the House will leave the Bill where it stands and not give it permission to be introduced.

Question put, pursuant to Standing Order No. 19 (Motions for leave to bring in Bills and nomination of Select Committees at commencement of public business):—

The House divided: Ayes 44, Noes 82.

Division No. 285] [4.52 pm
Alexander, Richard Kennedy, Charles (Ross, C&S)
Ashdown, Rt Hon Paddy Kilfedder, Sir James
Banks, Matthew (Southport) Lait, Mrs Jacqui
Beggs, Roy Lang, Rt Hon Ian
Blackburn, Dr John G. Lidington, David
Bottomley, Peter (Eltham) Maginnis, Ken
Budgen, Nicholas Michie, Mrs Ray (Argyll Bute)
Campbell, Menzies (Fife NE) Montgomery, Sir Fergus
Carlile, Alexander (Montgomry) Neubert, Sir Michael
Carlisle, John (Luton North) Nicholson, David (Taunton)
Clifton-Brown, Geoffrey Powell, William (Corby)
Coe, Sebastian Robathan, Andrew
Currie, Mrs Edwina (S D'by'ire) Roe, Mrs Marion (Broxbourne)
Davies, Quentin (Stamford) Smyth, Rev Martin (Belfast S)
Duncan, Alan Spink, Dr Robert
Emery, Rt Hon Sir Peter Spring, Richard
Evans, Nigel (Ribble Valley) Sproat, Iain
Evans, Roger (Monmouth) Sweeney, Walter
Foster, Don (Bath) Thompson, Sir Donald (C'er V)
Gillan, Cheryl Whittingdale, John
Greenway, Harry (Ealing N)
Hannam, Sir John Tellers for the Ayes:
Harris, David Mr. Michael Fabricant and Mr. David Faber.
Hendry, Charles
Ainger, Nick Dalyell, Tam
Allen, Graham Davies, Bryan (Oldham C'tral)
Alton, David Davis, Terry (B'ham, H'dge H'l)
Anderson, Donald (Swansea E) Denham, John
Anderson, Ms Janet (Ros'dale) Dixon, Don
Austin-Walker, John Eastham, Ken
Barnes, Harry Evans, John (St Helens N)
Battle, John Garrett, John
Bayley, Hugh Gordon, Mildred
Berth, Rt Hon A. J. Grant, Bernie (Tottenham)
Bermingham, Gerald Griffiths, Nigel (Edinburgh S)
Boyce, Jimmy Hall, Mike
Bradley, Keith Hanson, David
Burden, Richard Hardy, Peter
Campbell, Mrs Anne (C'bridge) Hood, Jimmy
Campbell-Savours, D. N. Howells, Dr. Kim (Pontypridd)
Canavan, Dennis Hoyle, Doug
Chisholm, Malcolm Hughes, Kevin (Doncaster N)
Coffey, Ann Jackson, Glenda (H'stead)
Cousins, Jim Jackson, Helen (Shef'ld, H)
Cox, Tom Jones, Ieuan Wyn (Ynys Môn)
Dafis, Cynog Jones, Lynne (B'ham S O)
Jowell, Tessa Ross, Ernie (Dundee W)
Khabra, Piara S. Salmond, Alex
Leighton, Ron Sheldon, Rt Hon Robert
Lewis, Terry Simpson, Alan
Livingstone, Ken Smith, Llew (Blaenau Gwent)
Llwyd, Elfyn Spearing, Nigel
Macdonald, Calum Spellar, John
Mackinlay, Andrew Stern, Michael
McMaster, Gordon Strang, Dr. Gavin
Mahon, Alice Straw, Jack
Marshall, Jim (Leicester, S) Watson, Mike
Maxton, John Wicks, Malcolm
Morley, Elliot Wigley, Dafydd
Morris, Rt Hon A. (Wy'nshawe) Williams, Alan W (Carmarthen)
Pendry, Tom Winnick, David
Pike, Peter L. Wise, Audrey
Prescott, John Young, David (Bolton SE)
Radice, Giles
Raynsford, Nick Tellers for the Noes:
Roche, Mrs. Barbara Mr. Bob Cryer and Mr. Paul Flynn.
Rooker, Jeff

Question accordingly negatived.

Mrs. Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. My point of order concerns the way in which the Secretary of State for National Heritage has chosen to make a statement on the adequacy of fire protection measures for the royal palaces. It has taken several months for the report on that matter to appear. It appeared surreptitiously on the Letter Board and has been in the Press Gallery for the past five hours, yet the official Opposition have neither been notified of it nor told that there was a copy on the Letter Board.

We should have a statement on the matter, which is causing considerable concern to British taxpayers because the lack of adequate fire protection measures at Windsor castle has meant that the taxpayer is having to fork out tens of millions of pounds. We have a right to a statement in the House from the Secretary of State for National Heritage on this important matter.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Morris)

The hon. Lady will be aware that it is not for the Chair to decide on an application for a statement, but her views will have been heard by those on the Treasury Bench.