HC Deb 20 October 1994 vol 248 cc412-4
6. Mr. Olner

To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what proportion of Forestry Commission land in England is accessible to the public.

Mrs. Browning

There is general access to Forestry Commission land subject only to legal constraints or considerations of safety.

Mr. Olner

Although I welcome that statement and although we are all grateful that the Government have been forced to do a U-turn on the privatisation of the Forestry Commission as a result of effective public pressure from all parts of the community, does the Minister agree that there is an awful lot of private forestry land that is inaccessible for public use, although all Forestry Commission land is open to public use? Will she therefore seek to prevent any further piecemeal sell-offs of Forestry Commission land and, indeed, ensure that public access is gained to the land which has been sold by the Forestry Commission?

Mrs. Browning

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that access to land—legitimate access to land—is very important. I hope that he will welcome the fact that, in their reforms, the Government have proposed a £0.9 million budget to enable the Forestry Commission to buy land to which, at the moment, it is difficult to gain public access. That will enable the commission to provide greater access so that people may legitimately use the land.

Mr. Marland

Is my hon. Friend aware that there is legitimate concern about access to woodland in many respects and that most people—I accept that there are a few exceptions on the Opposition Benches—would like that access to be arranged with co-operation rather than confrontation? My constituency contains the royal forest of Dean and other areas of woodland which could, in the fullness of time, be sold off. Will my hon. Friend ensure that, where Forestry Commission land is sold, there are discussions with the purchasers to ensure that, with their co-operation, access to those woods continues?

Mrs. Browning

I can assure my hon. Friend that that is part of the Government's proposal and we shall do all that we can to ensure that it is enforced. As a former chairman of the Rights of Way Review Committee, I can assure my hon. Friend that the way forward in relation to access to land is through co-operation and not just through opening the floodgates for people to roam wherever they wish.

Mr. Hardy

Does the Minister's answer mean that the Government admit that they made an historic blunder in privatising Forestry Commission land without providing for public access? In view of that concession, will the Government go further and restore access to many of the thousands of acres to which public access is no longer available?

Mrs. Browning

I have already identified the respects in which the Government are not only supporting the proposal to increase public access but putting money behind it. We shall continue to do that.

Mr. Matthew Banks

I welcome my hon. Friend the Minister to the Dispatch Box. Does she agree with the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith), who recently said that there should be a right to roam, or with the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Dr. Strang), who suggested that there were obviously some parts of the countryside where one could not wander?

Mrs. Browning

I thank my hon. Friend for his kind remarks. I would not wish to exacerbate the already widening gap on the Opposition Benches, but I certainly think that the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Dr. Strang) had it right.

Mr. Martyn Jones

Is not much of the land that has been sold by the Forestry Commission very accessible to local people in the sense that it comprises small woodlands which are near human habitation and useful for recreation? Is it not the case that most of those areas do not have access agreements? Access agreements can be drawn up with local authorities, but they need the money to do that. Authorities have many other things on which to spend their money. Will the Minister assure the House that the money will be available for those agreements?

Mrs. Browning

Access agreements are important. Giving local authorities the funds to co-operate in that regard and giving them the time to make the arrangements are part of the Government's plan.

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