HC Deb 30 January 1996 vol 270 cc779-85 3.35 pm
Mr. Paddy Tipping (Sherwood)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the law of trespass and to enable members of the public to resort on foot to open country in England and Wales for their recreation; and for connected purposes. The Bill's principal aim is to amend the law of trespass to enable members of the public to resort on foot to open country in England and Wales for their recreation.

There is a long parliamentary history of such legislation. The reforming Liberal Member of Parliament, James Bryce, introduced the first access Bill in 1884. Unfortunately, that Bill and many successors have been blocked or emasculated by landowning interests in Parliament. Despite that fact, the demand and need to protect and extend the freedom of the public to wander on foot over uncultivated land is greater than ever.

Walking is today's most popular leisure activity. This is a time of pressure and stress. People need space in which to walk, unwind and reflect. The Bill will benefit walkers throughout England and Wales, from the chalk downlands of Sussex to the Cheviot hills of Northumberland, from the Cumbrian mountains in Wales to the Sussex coastline. In the forest of Bowland in Lancashire, the Arran hills of Wales, parts of the Pennines and the Chiltern escarpment, local people have been pressing for many years for a right to roam over uncultivated land.

There and in other parts of the country, there has been a tradition of open access—a de facto right to roam. Those rights have gradually been eroded. The piecemeal disposal of Forestry Commission woodland has meant that in recent years the public have lost the right to roam over an area about the size of the Isle of Wight.

Some months ago, my family and I were asked to leave woodland called Cotgrave forest in Nottinghamshire. Those woods have been walked by local people for years. The sale of the woods by the Forestry Commission to landowners has put an end to that access. The Bill will tackle that.

Against that background, it is important to stake out the rights and responsibilities of both walkers and landowners. The Bill gives a right to roam in the remote places—mountain and moorland, commonland, woodland and beside rivers. It is not an unrestricted right to roam. Exclusions are to be granted to take into account shooting and conservation interests. I fully recognise that there are a wide variety of stakeholders in the countryside. The Bill attempts to balance those needs.

Rights and responsibilities are linked under the Bill. It sets out responsibilities and a new standard of behaviour for the public while walking on open country. The first schedule describes in detail the prescriptions and restrictions put on walkers. It includes, for example, control of animals, litter and fires. Walkers will be regarded as trespassers if they break the restrictions.

The Bill is not set in tablets of stone. I see it as a vehicle for debate about the way forward, as it is a subject that can be riddled with prejudice. These are hard issues, which need careful thought and analysis.

Consultation on the Bill will be wide and has, indeed, already started. Conservation groups have an interest in the Bill. Walkers, like conservationists, want to lift the landscape and enhance the environment. We need to protect animal, bird and plant life.

I am grateful for the time and interest that landowning organisations have already given to the Bill. Meetings have taken place with the Country Landowners Association and the National Farmers Union. While there is a commonality of interest and both organisations accept that there is a need for even greater access to the countryside, there are differences of view about how that should be achieved. I understand that the Country Landowners Association will produce its proposals on access later this year. I look forward to seeing them and I know that they will receive careful consideration and close scrutiny.

Suffice it to say that negotiated access—the voluntary approach—has failed to deliver substantial new access. I am pleased to report that both farmers and landowners have shown a willingness to take such discussions forward. They have reservations about the Bill and I acknowledge that it may be possible to refine and improve it. At this stage, the Bill should be regarded as the first step on a route to allow greater public access to open countryside. I hope that when it crosses its first stile today, it will be viewed as offering a signpost to the future.

I look forward to the day, perhaps under a different Government, when the Bill will become law. I believe that it is practical, reasonable and follows English legal precedent. It is practical in the sense that it provides draft legislation, which can be implemented on the ground. It is reasonable in that is not a utopian demand for everything that the access lobby would wish for in an ideal world.

Opponents of the Bill should accept it at face value and in good faith. To characterise it, as some have, as allowing unrestricted access reveals prejudice and vested interest. It is an attempt to address all countryside interests without causing substantial harm to any. It is a balancing act. Consultation will reveal whether that balance is right.

The Bill offers nothing alien. There is already a long-standing tradition of freedom to roam in Britain. Unfortunately, in many places it is under threat or has already disappeared. The Bill follows legal precedent. I praise the Ramblers Association and its legal advisers for all the hard work that they have put into drafting it. Wherever possible, it draws on existing legislation, principally the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949.

I am conscious that I have concentrated on the restrictions and exemptions in the Bill. That reflects my desire to reassure the many differing interests involved. However, in essence the Bill is about lifting restrictions. Its principle is freedom. It offers the prospect of substantial new access to the general public.

I was born in an industrial community in the West Riding, a place where "dark satanic mills" really existed. I can still recall the joy and exhilaration of walking, as a boy, over the tops of the Yorkshire dales. I truly felt that I had discovered England's "green and pleasant land" and, to a small extent, I felt that I shared Blake's vision.

Thirty years ago I was ordered off the moors in Yorkshire by gamekeepers even though I was on a public footpath. Yesterday I was in the hills and snow in the south Pennines between Sheffield and Manchester. There was barely a building in sight, but we were not allowed to walk on open moorland. Large signs that said "Keep out" and "No public access" made progress impossible. I want those signs confined to the dustbin of history. They should be museum pieces.

People are looking forward to the year 2000 and the next millennium—a time of renewal, of hope and, perhaps, of increased spirituality. The Access to the Countryside Bill draws on the old, traditional rights to roam and puts them into a new legislative framework. Its passage would indeed be the way to celebrate the next millennium.

3.44 pm
Mr. Tim Yeo (South Suffolk)

I rise to oppose the Bill.

The hon. Member for Sherwood (Mr. Tipping) by his speech, and the Bill prepared by the Ramblers Association by its text, have demonstrated how little the hon. Gentleman and his party understand the countryside and the needs of those who live, work and seek to enjoy recreation there. In pursuit of an aim that is widely shared among Conservative Members and among those outside the House, of greater access to the countryside—an aim, incidentally, on which we are making substantial progress, although the hon. Gentleman did not acknowledge that in his speech—he has produced a legislative dinosaur, a monstrosity that is flawed in five serious respects.

The Bill would give local authorities massive and totally unnecessary new powers. It would create a vast new bureaucracy with almost unlimited scope for disputes between parties and for delays in decision making. It emphasises the rights of the public without mentioning corresponding responsibilities. It threatens to criminalise innocent citizens who seek only to protect their property. It also damages the cause of conservation.

Significantly, those are the proposals not just of the hon. Member for Sherwood; he has the express endorsement of the Opposition Front Bench in the form of the hon. Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor), who was quoted yesterday as saying that she fully supports the Bill and hopes that it may lead to the passage of legislation. As the Bill's approach is based on old Labour's attitudes, it is surprising that it has slipped past the notice of the right hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair), but perhaps his attention has been diverted elsewhere recently as he agonises whether to preach the education policy that he and the hon. Member for Peckham (Ms Harman) already practise.

The tragedy is that the Bill is totally unnecessary. The Government are already working towards greater public access. For example, in the past five years alone, land management schemes have produced agreement for managed access to more than 90,000 hectares of land. Under the countryside stewardship scheme, statutory bodies have made available another 13,000 hectares, and substantial progress has been made towards the target set in the 1990 environment White Paper to bring up to a good standard the 140,000 miles of rights of way and footpaths that already exist, much of which is under-utilised at present.

The target of improving access to the countryside was specifically re-endorsed in last October's White Paper, "Rural England". Against that background, I deeply regret that the hon. Gentleman has chosen to introduce the Bill now because, in so doing, he rejects the principle that better access to the countryside must be based on voluntary managed schemes. Overturning that principle, on which all recent advances have been made, is a recipe for dispute, delay, conflict and, ultimately, damage to the rural environment.

My first objection to the Bill is that it gives vast and completely unnecessary new powers to local authorities. Clause 6 places a duty on local authorities to secure access to any open country from the public highway if any person, regardless of whether he or she has local connections or not, considers that the existing access is somehow inadequate. Local authorities may require landowners to construct bridges, cut down ancient hedges or demolish stone walls, all at their own expense, to satisfy the whim of a council officer whose interest in the subject may have been aroused by a passing motorist or disgruntled neighbour. The mind boggles at the potential for local authorities hostile to local interests—as all too many, including the disgraceful Labour-Liberal Suffolk county council, now are—to intrude on private property and make mischief with valuable habitats and natural features.

My second objection to the Bill is that the extra bureaucracy involved and the inevitability of disputes about interpretation will cause countless problems. Clauses 2 and 3 purport to define what is and is not open country, but they raise more questions than they answer.

Years of argument will ensue before agreement is reached about specific areas of land. The onerous obligations placed on landowners—including, for that purpose, someone who may have only a quarter of an acre of rough grazing on the edge of a village—mean that there will be inevitable resistance to the designation of land as open country under the legislation.

The interminable delays already experienced when minor variations to existing footpaths are proposed, sometimes with universal local support, but objected to by some individual from a remote area, will be nothing compared with the delays that the Bill is likely to cause. The effect will be to halt, for a generation or longer, the steady current progress towards more access.

My third objection to the Bill concerns two new criminal offences that it creates; the first is obstructing access to open country, and the second is erecting notices that might deter the public from entering open country. Criminalising in that way landowners who may merely be innocently seeking to protect their property, or to keep people away from hazardous areas, may appeal to the hon. Member for Sherwood and his allies, but it is utterly irrelevant and deeply inimical to the needs of the countryside. Rural dwellers in Suffolk and other similar areas want help in protecting their property, not threats that may put them on the wrong side of the law.

My fourth objection to the Bill is that it imposes all those obligations on landowners, but—apart from references that the hon. Member for Sherwood made to not dropping litter or starting fires—it makes no mention of any corresponding duties on members of the public. That may well be what Labour means by a stakeholder society, and it reflects old Labour's tendency to emphasise rights while overlooking responsibilities, but the Bill even fails to acknowledge that the countryside is used for other recreations apart from walking. Activities such as riding or bird watching are legitimate uses of the countryside, but they may sometimes come into conflict with unrestricted walking.

To curtail the right to roam over a specific piece of land, an application to the local authority would be required under the Bill. The Bill would thus involve, for example, a Riding for the Disabled group going on bended knee to a council lackey for permission to use rough grazing land made available for that purpose free of charge by the landowner. Similarly, a small tenant farmer hoping to enjoy a day's shooting with a few neighbours would have to apply to the local authority each time he wished to do so.

My final objection to the Bill is that nothing in it promotes the cause of conservation. Indeed, the strong probability is that conflicts will arise as the unrestricted right to roam affects areas that have hitherto enjoyed considerable protection and undisturbed peace. Even English Nature, the statutory body entrusted with great responsibilities by the House, will have to apply to the local council for land to be accepted for the right to roam, and such applications can be granted only temporarily and may subsequently be overruled at the whim of the local council.

Time does not permit a fuller explanation of the many other reasons for resisting the Bill. In conclusion, I return to the central issue of principle.

Good progress is currently being made towards improving access for everyone so that they may enjoy more of our countryside. That progress is achieved voluntarily, by agreement between the parties concerned, and generally involves landowners and others in the continuing management roles.

The Bill would bring all that progress to an immediate halt. Its consequences for everyone interested in the future of the countryside would be disastrous, and I urge the House to reject it by a huge majority.

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 144, Noes 60.

Division No. 38] [3.53 pm
Ainger, Nick Cann, Jamie
Ainsworth, Robert (Cov'try NE) Chisholm, Malcolm
Alexander, Richard Clapham, Michael
Anderson, Ms Janet (Ros'dale) Clwyd, Mrs Ann
Armstrong, Hilary Coffey, Ann
Austin-Walker, John Cohen, Harry
Banks, Tony (Newham NW) Corbett, Robin
Barnes, Harry Corbyn, Jeremy
Battle, John Cousins, Jim
Bayley, Hugh Cox, Tom
Bennett, Andrew F Cummings, John
Benton, Joe Cunliffe, Lawrence
Blair, Rt Hon Tony Cunningham, Jim (Covy SE)
Bray, Dr Jeremy Dalyell, Tam
Brown, N (N'c'tle upon Tyne E) Davies, Chris (L'Boro & S'worth)
Burden, Richard Davies, Ron (Caerphilly)
Byers, Stephen Denham, John
Callaghan, Jim Dewar, Donald
Campbell, Mrs Anne (C'bridge) Dixon, Don
Campbell, Ronnie (Blyth V) Dobson, Frank
Campbell-Savours, D N Donohoe, Brian H
Canavan, Dennis Dowd, Jim
Eagle, Ms Angela Martlew, Eric
Eastham, Ken Michael, Alun
Etherington, Bill Michie, Bill (Sheffield Heeley)
Evans, John (St Helens N) Morley, Elliot
Faulds, Andrew Mullin, Chris
Foulkes, George Murphy, Paul
Fyfe, Maria Oakes, Rt Hon Gordon
Gapes, Mike O'Brien, William (Normanton)
Garrett, John O'Hara, Edward
Gerrard, Neil Olner, Bill
Godman, Dr Norman A Orme, Rt Hon Stanley
Golding, Mrs Llin Pickthall, Colin
Griffiths, Win (Bridgend) Pike, Peter L
Grocott, Bruce Pope, Greg
Gunnell, John Powell, Ray (Ogmore)
Hanson, David Prentice, Bridget (Lew'm E)
Hardy, Peter Prentice, Gordon (Pendle)
Heppell, John Quin, Ms Joyce
Hill, Keith (Streatham) Radice, Giles
Hinchliffe, David Raynsford, Nick
Hodge, Margaret Robertson, George (Hamilton)
Home Robertson, John Robinson, Geoffrey (Co'try NW)
Hood, Jimmy Roche, Mrs Barbara
Howarth, George (Knowsley North) Rogers, Allan
Howells, Dr Kim (Pontypridd) Rooker, Jeff
Hoyle Doug Rowlands, Ted
Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen N) Ruddock, Joan
Hughes, Roy (Newport E) Sheerman Barry
Illsley, Eric Sheldon, Rt Hon Robert
Ingram, Adam Simpson, Alan
Jackson, Glenda (H'stead) Skinner Dennis
Jackson, Helen (Shef'ld, H) Smith, Llew (Blaenau Gwent)
Janner, Greville Spearing, Nigel
Jones, Barry (Alyn and D'side) Spellar, John
Jones, Jon Owen (Cardiff C) Steinberg, Gerry
Jones, Lynne (B'ham S O) Strang, Dr. Gavin
Jowell, Tessa Straw, Jack
Kaufman, Rt Hon Gerald Taylor, Mrs Ann (Dewsbury)
Khabra, Piara S Thompson, Jack (Wansbeck)
Kilfoyle, Peter Timms, Stephen
Lloyd, Tony (Stretford) Tipping, Paddy
Lynne, Ms Liz Walley, Joan
McAllion, John Wareing, Robert N
McAvoy, Thomas Welsh, Andrew
Mackinlay, Andrew Wilson, Brian
MacShane, Denis Wise, Audrey
Mahon, Alice Wray, Jimmy
Marek, Dr John Wright, Dr Tony
Marshall, David (Shettleston) Tellers for the Ayes:
Marshall, Jim (Leicester, S) Ms Rachel Squire and
Martin, Michael J (Springburn) Mr. Mike Hall.
Aitken, Rt Hon Jonathan Hamilton, Rt Hon Sir Archibald
Allason, Rupert (Torbay) Hamilton, Neil (Tatton)
Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham) Harris, David
Atkins, Rt Hon Robert Hawksley, Warren
Banks, Robert (Harrogate) Hayes, Jerry
Beggs, Roy Howell, Sir Ralph (N Norfolk)
Bottomley, Peter (Eltham) Hughes, Robert G (Harrow W)
Brown, M (Brigg & Cl'thorpes) Jessel, Toby
Budgen, Nicholas Kellett-Bowman, Dame Elaine
Butterfill, John King, Rt Hon Tom
Carrington, Matthew Lawrence, Sir Ivan
Chapman, Sir Sydney McCrea, The Reverend William
Cope, Rt Hon Sir John Maginnis, Ken
Davies, Quentin (Stamford) Maitland, Lady Olga
Dover, Den Mills, Iain
Durant, Sir Anthony Moate, Sir Roger
Emery, Rt Hon Sir Peter Monro, Rt Hon Sir Hector
Fowler, Rt Hon Sir Norman Neubert, Sir Michael
Fox, Sir Marcus (Shipley) Nicholls, Patrick
Gill, Christopher Nicholson, David (Taunton)
Grant, Sir A (SW Cambs) Onslow, Rt Hon Sir Cranley
Greenway, Harry (Ealing N) Powell, William (Corby)
Shaw, David (Dover) Thompson, Patrick (Norwich N)
Shaw, Sir Giles (Pudsey) Townsend, Cyril D (Bexl'yh'th)
Shepherd, Sir Colin (Hereford) Wardle, Charles (Bexhill)
Sims, Roger Wiggin, Sir Jerry
Smyth, The Reverend Martin Winterton, Nicholas (Macc'f'ld)
Spicer, Sir Michael (S Worcs) Yeo, Tim
Spring, Richard
Stephen, Michael Tellers for the Noes:
Thomason, Roy Mr. John Greenway and
Thompson, Sir Donald (C'er V) Sir Kenneth Carlisle.

Question accordingly agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Paddy Tipping, Mr. John Battle, Mr. Andrew F. Bennett, Ms Ann Coffey, Mrs. Helen Jackson, Mrs. Jane Kennedy, Mr. Gordon Prentice, Mr. Stephen Timms and Ms Joan Walley.