HC Deb 29 February 1996 vol 272 cc991-3
10. Mr. Colvin

To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what steps he is taking to ensure access to the countryside through established public footpaths. [16106]

Mr. Boswell

The Government have adopted the target of bringing the current rights of way network into good order by 2000. That is primarily the responsibility of highway authorities, which are devoting additional resources to the task.

Mr. Colvin

I appreciate that the matter was covered in the White Paper on the rural economy. As the Department of the Environment was joint author of that White Paper, what discussions has my hon. Friend had with his opposite number at the Department of the Environment about the reform of the law and regulations relating to rights of way? Diversions should be easier to obtain because that would mean not only safer rights of way but better access to the countryside for the public than would be afforded by the Opposition's right to roam proposals. Would not the Opposition's proposals be difficult to manage and almost impossible to enforce?

Mr. Boswell

I assure my hon. Friend that we have close and continuing relations, and an element of joint working, with our colleagues at the Department of the Environment in pursuing the follow-up to the rural White Paper, including the important points that he made about a simpler regime for footpath diversion and, for that matter, the concerns expressed about four-wheel drive vehicles. I stand by the remarks in the White Paper about the right to roam proposals, which my hon. Friend highlighted, which were to the effect that they would elevate one interest above all others and create a pattern of rights without responsibilities. We regard that as very ill-founded.

Sir James Molyneaux

Is the Minister aware that access to the countryside has created problems for many farmers who face public liability claims, a great many of which are entirely bogus and, in some areas, so numerous that insurance companies are refusing to provide cover?

Mr. Boswell

I am grateful that the right hon. Gentleman has raised that point. That concern, which I am sure arises in his area as it does in many other parts of the United Kingdom, is one that will be part of our discussions.

Mr. David Nicholson

Does my hon. Friend recognise that useful progress was made on this matter as a result of the private Member's Bill in the previous Parliament initiated by my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle (Mr. Leigh), of which I was a co-sponsor? Will he contrast that with the Labour party's "right to roam" Bill, which has been condemned by the prominent Labour peeress Baroness Mallalieu for imposing burdens on farmers, encouraging rural crime and being effectively unenforceable?

Mr. Boswell

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for drawing the House's attention to the excellent work of my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle (Mr. Leigh) with his Bill. My hon. Friend is right to the bring our attention to the views of the noble and learned Baroness on the right to roam proposals. On the radio, she said: the reality is that no legislation in respect of access can truly succeed without the co-operation of those most directly concerned, the farmers and landowners.

Mrs. Golding

The Minister knows that the Labour party believes that the countryside should not be a battleground of blocked pathways and bad tempers. We believe that access to the countryside should be about consideration, conservation and consultation. He knows that access agreements have already been made in Scotland between landowners and ramblers under the right to roam proposals. Does he think that what has been achieved in Scotland could not be achieved in the rest of country?

Mr. Boswell

The hon. Lady misunderstands two points. No Conservative Member is against access to the countryside where it is by agreement and properly managed. We have no objection to farmers and landowners concluding agreements for public access, whether in Scotland, England or other parts of the United Kingdom. What we fear in the proposals for a right to roam is the imposition of a right, over the heads of farmers and landowners, without any corresponding obligations. It would amount, even if she means it well, as I am sure that she does, to a troublemakers charter, and it would not advance the cause of better access.

11. Mr. Simon Coombs

To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what steps he is taking to ensure that nationally recognised public footpaths and bridlepaths are formed with full consultation with local farmers. [16107]

Mr. Boswell

Legislation already requires that new public rights of way are created in full consultation with landowners. Responsibility for this is primarily a matter for highway authorities. We welcome constructive dialogue between interested parties.

Mr. Coombs

Does my hon. Friend agree that, in seeking to achieve the delicate balance between the rights of ramblers and walkers and those of farmers and landowners, it is inevitable that the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food should be on the side of the latter? In that context, will he bear in mind the need to seek secure diversion of footpaths around farm yards, where safety considerations should be paramount? In the past, it has not been easy to persuade local authorities to allow such diversions.

Mr. Boswell

I assure my hon. Friend that the attitudes of Government Departments on the matter are at one. We are interested in improving access by agreement and making the arrangements as flexible as possible. At the same time, he rightly flags up our departmental interest in ensuring that farmers are not messed about if that can be avoided. I am concerned that we should provide a better regime for diversion. I hope that local authorities will consider that under their existing powers, and we shall consider whether it is necessary to go further in conjunction with them.

Mr. Bennett

Does the Minister accept that, in the early part of the century, large numbers of people from the towns enjoyed walking in lowland parts of Britain, using country lanes and footpaths? Is he aware that it is now almost impossible to enjoy such rambles because of the traffic on country lanes? Does he accept that there is a strong case for creating new footpaths, especially on set-aside land, so that people can continue to enjoy long walks without having to compete with traffic on country lanes?

Mr. Boswell

I know from my experience as a farmer that there is plenty of use of the footpath and bridleway network. Currently, there is a provision of 120,000 miles. We have no objection to extending that. The issue between the parties is whether it should be by agreement or imposition.

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