HC Deb 14 December 1995 vol 268 cc1089-90
8. Mr. Bellingham

To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what plans he has to introduce a right to roam; and if he will make a statement. [4135]

The Minister for Rural Affairs (Mr. Tim Boswell)

As emphasised in the recent White Paper on rural England, we believe that a general right to roam is not acceptable.

Mr. Bellingham

Is my hon. Friend aware that there is already an excellent network of footpaths? Farmers have made much more effort to maintain those footpaths properly and consequently they have an excellent relationship with ramblers. Does my hon. Friend agree that a general right to roam would put at risk the present good relationship, break down trust and lead to quite of lot of environmental damage? Will he educate the Opposition? If they want to win votes in the countryside, they should drop the policy of a general right to roam.

Mr. Boswell

My hon. Friend puts the matter in a nutshell. There is already a wide and satisfactory network of footpaths. We would not condone any failures to keep footpaths open. We believe that any imposed general right to roam beyond the present network of footpaths would elevate one interest above all others, institutionalise rights without obligations, upset rural communities and cause a great deal of damage.

Mr. Morley

Is the Minister aware that the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) advocated introducing wolves into Scotland? It now appears that he wants to train them to attack people in cagoules walking across land. Surely there is a need to be reasonable. There are large areas of land that traditionally have been open. That was the position in the past. There has been access to them for generations. It is possible to have a right to roam that will not compromise crops or livestock. It would be balanced with the needs of the people generally and those of farmers. Let us have fewer smears in Government documents and more realism in understanding that a balance could be achieved.

Mr. Boswell

The hon. Gentleman is right to the extent that freedom to roam in open country may be appropriate in certain circumstances. The vital ingredient that he omits is that of agreement. I know that it may come difficult given the Labour party's philosophy, but we think that agreement is the most important element. These issues are most appropriately decided by agreement between landowners and local people, as they conspicuously have been in many good examples.

Mr. Garnier

Does my hon. Friend have any plans in the near future to meet representatives of the Ramblers Association? If he does, will he tell them that it is not necessarily sensible for them to appeal against every order made by a county council extinguishing or amending the route of a public footpath? Does my hon. Friend understand that many farmers are prepared to deal with the Ramblers Association and to maintain rights of way as long as they do not interfere with their farming practices?

Mr. Boswell

I strongly agree with my hon. and learned Friend that megaphone diplomacy is most inappropriate in these instances. Last summer, we invited the ramblers to discuss with officials any specific cases under our access schemes where they considered that provision was unsatisfactory. I regret that to date the ramblers have not responded to our invitation. They would be welcome if they came forward. We would like to hear their views in detail on that basis.