HC Deb 08 March 1999 vol 327 cc21-33 3.31 pm
The Minister for the Environment (Mr. Michael Meacher)

With permission, Madam Speaker, I should like to make a statement.

In our manifesto, we gave a commitment to give people greater freedom to explore our open countryside, balanced by the needs to protect the environment and to avoid any abuse of greater access. I am pleased to announce to the House today the Government's plan for England and Wales to honour our commitment. A number of documents, including "Framework for Action", will be available in the Vote Office when I have completed the statement.

Securing greater access to open countryside will bring tremendous benefits, and new opportunities for improving people's health—physical and mental. It will enable everybody to experience the wonders of wildlife and beautiful landscapes.

Over the past 50 years, a voluntary approach has delivered relatively little. Despite some commendable initiatives, there is little prospect of much new access being provided voluntarily in future. Even if much more access could be secured by voluntary means, it would not be permanent and the costs would be high. Only a new statutory right will deliver cost-effectively the extent and permanence of access that we seek.

There has been much ill-informed speculation that the Government would not introduce a statutory right of access. I can confirm that we have decided to introduce legislation as soon as parliamentary time allows to provide for a general statutory right of area access coupled with responsibilities for walkers to respect the rights of landowners and managers.

The legislation will include improvements to the rights of way system. The comprehensive package will provide fresh opportunities for walking and other recreational pursuits, while taking the legitimate interests of land managers fully into account.

The new statutory right of access will apply to mountain, moor, heath and down, subject to mapping by the new Countryside Agency and the Countryside Council for Wales, and to registered common land. That amounts to about 4 million acres. The right may be extended to other types of open country, such as some woodland. It will apply to access on foot for open-air recreation.

The Government studied more than 2,000 responses to our consultation document. We talked to a range of organisations, visited key sites and commissioned research into the costs and benefits of different approaches. We are convinced that legislation is the only way to make sure that people will be free in perpetuity to explore open countryside.

However, we accept that there are real concerns about the impact of a new statutory right. Therefore, the statutory right will be subject to proper and reasonable limitations, and there will be codes of practice. It will not apply to developed land, or to agricultural land, except that used for extensive grazing. There is no question of giving people a right to trample over crops, or through other people's gardens. There will be strict restrictions on dogs.

Land may be closed when necessary for health, safety or defence reasons. In addition, the new Countryside Agency, the Countryside Council for Wales and national park authorities will be able to authorise closures or restrictions to protect wildlife or historic interest, or for land management reasons, as long as the landowner can demonstrate that the restriction is necessary.

We attach considerable importance to local agreement being reached whenever possible, and we shall promote local access forums, with all the main interests represented, to advise on the details of any local limitations before the right comes into force. The aim of the forum will be to achieve consensus, but no member of the forum will have a final veto. The forums will be advisory; the decisions will be for the statutory agencies.

In addition, land managers will be able to close land temporarily without prior consent for a number of days each year. We propose to set the annual limit initially at 28 days, primarily for land management purposes, although landowners will also be able to close land for other reasons for up to 12 of the 28 days. If necessary, provision will be made to ensure that access is not restricted unreasonably at peak times.

Let me now deal with rights of way. We want to strengthen and develop the rights of way network to enable it to respond to the changing requirements of recreational use and the needs of land managers. Before concluding the detail of new legislation, we shall consider recommendations from the Countryside Commission and seek further views. There is no question of failing to secure the proper recording and maintenance of rights of way, or of reducing the overall value of the rights of way network.

Experience in Scotland and in Wales has shown that much consensus can also be achieved at national level. Therefore, we propose to ask the Countryside Agency to establish a national access forum in England. In Wales, the Countryside Council for Wales will be asked to consider how best to develop the existing informal arrangements.

It will be clear from my statement so far that the new Countryside Agency will play an important role in implementing the new statutory right, as well as in promoting sustainable rural development and protecting our finest landscapes. I can announce today that Ewen Cameron has been appointed to chair the agency: he has made it clear that he enthusiastically supports the Government's access proposals. We have also appointed Pamela Warhurst, who is currently leader of Calderdale council, as deputy chair. She will play a leading role in the agency's implementation of the access package.

Although there will be some extra costs for local authorities and statutory agencies, for which we shall make provision, we do not expect our legislative proposals to have major financial consequences. Nevertheless, the benefits of the basic statutory right and of the rights of way network will be much enhanced by further expenditure on, for example, the provision of additional routes and readily available information.

The lottery has already made a considerable contribution to improving access to the countryside. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport will ask the lottery distributors to consider ways in which their funding might contribute further. We are also considering what part the new opportunities fund, through the proposed green spaces initiative, might be able to play. My right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food will ensure that targeting of the access elements of agri-environment schemes contributes to the overall strategy. In Wales, it will be a matter for the National Assembly for Wales.

Almost 50 years ago, a Labour Government introduced legislation to safeguard our finest countryside and to open it to the nation. The largely voluntary approach to access in the National Parks and Access to the Open Countryside Act 1949 has proved inadequate. Glorious parts of our heritage are still the preserve of the few, not the delight of the many. As soon as parliamentary time permits, we will introduce legislation to remedy that. We look forward to discussing widely the details of the package, but we are firm on the principles. This balanced package fully meets the commitment that we gave in our manifesto and will be a lasting tribute to the memory of John Smith. I trust that hon. Members on both sides of the House will support it.

Mrs. Gillian Shephard (South-West Norfolk)

I thank the Minister for the Environment for letting me have a copy of his statement half an hour in advance—although that obviously did not give me time to examine the accompanying documents.

The Opposition strongly support increased access to the countryside, based on voluntary co-operation set within a secure legal framework to define rights and responsibilities that would allow mutual respect to flourish. We believe that the work done by landowners and others has demonstrated that voluntary arrangements can deliver greatly increased access, and we deplore the fact that the right hon. Gentleman has sought to alienate the very people who have done so much to improve access in all parts of the country.

The right hon. Gentleman's tone this afternoon may have more to do with his Back-Bench problems than increasing access to the countryside. No doubt his hon. Friends will judge his proposals by the parliamentary timetable that he is able to achieve to put them into practice. However, it is regrettable—although perhaps only to be expected from someone who has described land owning as "exclusivity and inherited privilege"—that the right hon. Gentleman has this afternoon squandered the good will that those in the countryside have sought to bring to this issue.

When does the right hon. Gentleman propose to legislate? Given the importance that he attaches to these matters, will it be in the next Session? Given—as English Nature has pointed out—that the Government have at no stage during the consultation process defined either the need or demand for greater access to the countryside, how will the right hon. Gentleman measure the success or otherwise of the policy that he has announced today? He has explained that his statement applies to mountain, moor, heath, down and common land. Can he explain to the House when the mapping exercises will be completed and what work has already been done on definitions?

By what means does the right hon. Gentleman propose to assess the effects of increased access on biodiversity and fragile habitats, and thereby refute the claims of Friends of the Earth that he has focused almost exclusively on the social implications of increased access? How strongly does he believe in consensus as a way forward? Will the statutory agencies be encouraged to use compulsion as an early option? Will the Government issue guidelines? What will be the cost to local authorities and statutory agencies of negotiating and managing access? What new money will the Government make available, given that it is precisely rural local authorities that have suffered most in Labour's local government finance settlement?

The right hon. Gentleman's statement refers only to access on foot. How strongly will the Government encourage use of the countryside by the general public, such as horse riders, cyclists, families, bird watchers and the disabled? What is in the statement for them? If compulsion becomes necessary, what compensation will there be for landowners and farmers to meet the costs of access and the loss of land values? What arrangements is the right hon. Gentleman making to protect owner liability? Will there be a new legal code to ensure that those using the land and those owning it are clear about their rights and responsibilities in terms of both public behaviour and the control of dogs—which was a thorny issue during the consultation process?

Who will be responsible for appointing the local access forums? What balance will the right hon. Gentleman seek to achieve within and among the different groups to be represented?

The right hon. Gentleman has today produced a solution that has the potential to satisfy no one. It will be cumbersome and bureaucratic; it will further divide town and countryside; and it represents a squandered opportunity.

Mr. Meacher

Nothing reveals more starkly the fact that the Conservative party is stuck in an 18th century time warp than their approach to the statutory right of access. The right hon. Lady's problem is that she cannot make up her mind whether to accept that the Labour Government, with a full manifesto commitment behind today's proposals, should be supported, or whether, as she said towards the end of her remarks, the proposals will satisfy no one. The contrary is true—they will satisfy the overwhelming majority of the electorate.

The Country Landowners Association's Gallup poll last year showed that 80 per cent. of people are in favour of greater access to the countryside. The Ramblers Association NOP poll last year demonstrated that 85 per cent. of people wanted a legal right of access over mountain, moorland, heath and down and registered common land. Once again, the Tory party is allying itself with the tiny, exclusive minority of 15 per cent. I have not at any time accused landowners of being exclusive or committed to the retention of privilege. It is the Conservative party of which I have said that in the past.

I have made it clear that we shall introduce a Bill as soon as parliamentary time allows. The mapping exercise has to be carried out, and we shall tell the new Countryside Agency to get on with that as quickly as it can. On closure for wildlife, we shall fully protect wildlife, sites of special scientific interest and nature reserves. We have always made it clear that protection of wildlife and environmental crops is our priority, and that will not be overridden by public rights of access.

I have made it absolutely clear that we want minimum compulsion to be used. I favour the local access forums, which will be fully representative of all interests. The countryside agencies will issue guidelines. The policy is one not of compulsion but of maximising consensus.

The Government have made it perfectly clear that we shall make available new moneys to ensure that local authorities are able to meet the requirements of the legislation.

On horse riders and cyclists, the right hon. Lady needs to make up her mind whether she is in favour of people on foot having access before she decides whether people on a bicycle or a horse should have access.

On compensation, let me make it clear that the access provisions were devised to have regard to the needs of landowners as well as walkers, and independent research shows that landowners generally will not suffer costs significant enough to warrant compensation. The statutory right will allow agricultural activities, the development of land and the closure of land for good land management reasons to continue.

In answer to the right hon. Lady's final question about the local access forums, I can tell her that we shall certainly ask the Countryside Agency to advise us about the membership, geographical coverage and functions of those forums.

I hope that the right hon. Lady can find it in her heart at least to accept that the local access forums—on which her party will, perhaps, be significantly represented—can work towards resolving the question of access, which has poisoned relations between landowners and users during the past 50 years. We believe that our proposals can finally resolve that question.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Government coming down in favour of a statutory approach is great news for walkers and all those who love the countryside? Does he accept, however, that there will be a few fears that the Government have gone for a very bureaucratic approach? Will he therefore assure us that access to the 4 million extra acres of land will be achieved quickly? Will he make a plea for co-operation between walkers and landowners, to ensure that that is carried out speedily, and that townspeople especially have a better understanding of the countryside as a result?

Mr. Meacher

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who makes the important point that the provisions will engender greater knowledge and concern for the countryside among millions of people who have not previously had access to it. I am as keen as he is that this should not be a bureaucratic exercise. That is exactly why we are setting up local access forums. They will be able flexibly to take account of local circumstances, which vary dramatically. We have specifically not decided to resolve all these issues on the basis of a single statutory criterion. As to the time scale, I can only repeat that my wish and the Government's wish is to bring the provisions into operation as fast as we can. The main limitation will be the requirement for mapping because, especially for heathland and downland, some uncertainties must be resolved before the right can be exercised.

Mr.Matthew Taylor (Truro and St. Austell)

The Minister has taken a big step from national rights to local realities. On that basis, we welcome his statement and support the direction in which the Government are moving. However, there are some key difficulties, not least concerning how people will gain the information that allows them to make use of such access, given that there will be rights of closure and other restrictions.

Does the Minister expect to get the measure through at least before the next general election, a key date towards which perhaps he is working? Does he agree that safe and accessible land rights, as well as a legal right, are important, and that to achieve that will require funds? I hope that the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, who is negotiating reform of the common agricultural policy, is considering the release of extra funds to allow landowners and farmers to open up safe and accessible routes into the countryside, as well as simply burdening them with a legal right. Perhaps most important, given that the Minister is asking everybody else to open up their land, has he talked to his colleagues in the Ministry of Defence about the very large areas of land to which the Government restrict access?

Mr. Meacher

The hon. Gentleman asks whether we shall have a Bill before the next election. He knows that the Government—all Governments—make decisions about the next round of legislation year by year. My Department and I will certainly be bidding for such a Bill as quickly as possible. The hon. Gentleman knows that, as of this moment, I cannot guarantee it, but I certainly hope and expect that we shall have a Bill before the next election.

I take the hon. Gentleman's point on the question of safe and accessible rights as well as legal rights. I am very keen that, under Agenda 2000 proposals and the development of agri-environment schemes, especially countryside stewardship, which is the most important, and countryside access and environmentally sensitive area schemes, there will be voluntary expansion beyond the statutory rights that I have announced. There are already something like 500 km of extra footpaths and about 14,000 hectares of open-area access on that basis—a small but valuable addition.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle)

The statement is a lot better than many people expected. I feel kind of warm towards new Labour at the moment. We share a common objective a statutory right to roam—that is what the Minister has enunciated—over 4 million acres of open countryside. That is the shared objective. Where there are reservations, they must be about the means of delivery.

My hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) mentioned the bureaucratic solution of local access forums. How will the lines on the map be drawn? Who will be invited to the local access forums? How will disagreements be mediated within them?

What is the timetable? My support is conditional on this matter being resolved in the next year or two, not allowed to fester, as the Minister said, dragging on interminably. The people of this country want action, and they want it now.

My right hon. Friend talked about a suitable legislative opportunity. It may have escaped his notice that my Right to Roam Bill is coming up for Second Reading on 26 March, and it may well be that we should talk about it.

Mr. Meacher

We shall do more than talk about it; I am sure that we shall vigorously debate it on the date that my hon. Friend mentioned. The Government and my hon. Friend share a common objective—that there should be a statutory right of access. However, we believe that Government legislation is needed to achieve our objectives, which go wider than those of my hon. Friend's Bill. The Government's is a package measure; it also includes full protection of wildlife, effective management of land and livestock, local access forums, improved rights of way, changes to occupier's liability and reasonable and balanced rights to temporary closure. That is a very comprehensive package, but I still believe that my hon. Friend and I can meet, and I am sure that we can achieve a large measure of agreement.

My hon. Friend mentioned timing. I do not want this matter to fester. I do not want the arrangements to be bureaucratic or time wasting. The only factor that prevents early or immediate implementation is the requirement for mapping. My wish is that that should be done as fast as possible, but my hon. Friend must recognise that there are limits to the speed at which it can be done properly, bearing in mind that rights of appeal may well be exercised.

Local access forums are not a bureaucratic insertion into the process. We believe that they enable us to maximise local flexible resolution of the specific problems that exist, given the very different landscapes and very different types of land use in different parts of the country. If we tried to resolve those problems on a single centralised basis, we would run into far more problems. I therefore ask my hon. Friend to accept that local access forums are the best way to achieve a pragmatic consensus and early implementation of the right.

Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon)

Does the Minister accept that the countryside is not a commodity? Does he further accept that the countryside is extremely fragile and, in places like the Yorkshire dales and the Three Peaks in my constituency, under immense pressure? Will he ensure that his legislation respects that and seeks to maintain the countryside for enjoyment, not to destroy it by having too many people? That is a real problem for those who understand the countryside.

Does the Minister understand that the abuse of green lanes by four-wheel drive vehicles is a serious problem which must be addressed? Will he ensure that his local forums, on which much will hinge, are genuinely local, and that local agents of national organisations will not do the negotiating?

Finally, I assume that this will be an English Bill, as it will come in a long time after devolution.

Mr. Meacher

Of course I realise that the countryside is fragile in many ways and in many locations. Local access forums would be expected to take that fragility into account. If there is too much pressure on particular points, agreement will need to be reached to find alternatives, but it will have to be demonstrated that there is a real need for people to move away from one particular part because of excessive pressures. The extension of a statutory right and the spreading of the load is precisely the way to ensure that there is less pressure on areas which hitherto may have taken excessive pressures.

I do not agree with the right hon. Gentleman's reference to too many people. Once again, that is the exclusivity on which the Tory party so easily falls back. We live in crowded islands—there are 60 million of us in these islands, but it is not a matter of there being too many people. All of us have an entitlement. That is what the Labour party stands for and that is what we are implementing.

There is no access and there are no rights for four-wheel drive or other motorised vehicles. We are talking about access on foot for open-air recreation—for example, picnicking, bird watching or photography. We are not talking about access or rights for four-wheel drives. Those chosen for the local access forums will be local people and not simply representatives of national organisations. They will be people who know and love their local area.

Mr. Paul Marsden (Shrewsbury and Atcham)

I welcome my right hon. Friend's statement. I am especially pleased that we can look forward, before the introduction and implementation of a statutory right, to local access forums having their say. That will be critical. The process should be about consensus, co-operation and negotiation. I have confidence that the local access forums will succeed. I implore my right hon. Friend not to forget other users of the countryside. For example, do not forget about horse riders and cyclists. There are millions of users. I am aware that eight accidents occur every day that involve horse riders, but we need greater access.

Several hon. Members


Madam Speaker

Order. This is the time to question the Minister, not to make comments. Some of us are more experienced than others, but let us have brisk questions.

Mr. Meacher

My hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Mr. Marsden), like my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice), has sought to make a positive contribution to this open debate. I hope that he will be pleased that the matters that he raised in his Bill on permanency of access, improved rights of way and changes to occupiers' liability have all been taken on board by the Government. We hope to secure these rights and changes in our legislation.

I repeat what my hon. Friend has said: this is a package for consensus and co-operation, within a statutory framework, which honours our manifesto commitment. That is why we are looking for co-operation. Of course we want to see improved access for horse riders and cyclists but I repeat that what I am announcing today is specifically for those who walk on foot and wish to enjoy open-air recreation. Horse riders and cyclists will have their day, but that will be separate from what I am announcing today.

Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire)

What benefit or enjoyment can be obtained from a right of access that cannot be obtained from a comprehensive network of footpaths?

Mr. Meacher

The problem with the comprehensive network of footpaths is that it is not as comprehensive as the hon. Gentleman makes it out to be. The latest survey, which was carried out in 1994, revealed that 74 per cent. of ways were free from obstruction, which means that 26 per cent., more than 25,000 miles, are still subject to obstruction. The key point that the hon. Gentleman is not taking on board is that we are not talking about linear access. I am talking not about confining people to paths or ways but about giving them free right to roam across open country. We believe that open-area access is extremely important. Unless there are justifications for confining people to linear access, we continue to press for open-area access.

Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax)

May I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his statement, and particularly on his good judgment in appointing Pamela Warhurst as deputy chair of the Countryside Agency? The appointment will bring balance, and Pamela Warhurst will bring with her a wealth of experience.

Will my right hon. Friend consider introducing stronger penalties for people who take four-wheel drive vehicles into the countryside and churn up valuable land, with no regard for people who want access by walking into the countryside?

Mr. Meacher

I am grateful for my hon. Friend's comments about Pamela Warhurst. There is no question but that she has a great deal of experience in countryside recreation and leisure, and I have no doubt that she will make a magnificent contribution to the implementation of the access provisions.

I take note of what my hon. Friend says about four-wheel drives. There are many areas of the country where they are causing substantial disturbance and where there is a need for tighter regulation and larger penalties. I am looking into such matters carefully, as the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) knows from his correspondence with me.

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough)

By granting a statutory right of access, the Minister's statement will necessarily produce damaging effects on the rights of property. Under the European convention on human rights, and under the Government's Human Rights Act 1998, that cannot happen without compensation. What assessment have the Government made of the levels of compensation that will be required under the convention and under the Act, and what further assessment have the Government made of the levels of additional insurance that landowners will have to take out to cover visitors on to their land?

Mr. Meacher

On the question of crime, may I make it clear to the hon. and learned Gentleman that the right of access will cease for anyone who breaches any of the range of restrictions under the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949 or who commits a criminal offence. Such a person will automatically lose any statutory right of access and ipso facto be subject to the civil law of trespass. [Interruption.] Let me add, as the hon. and learned Gentleman looks a little mystified, that robbers, thieves and other miscreants do not require a statutory right of access in order to target the scenes of their crime. It may have escaped the hon. and learned Gentleman's notice that they will go there anyway.

Mr. Garnier

The Minister is not answering the question.

Mr. Meacher

If I did not understand the question, I am quite prepared, with your permission, Madam Speaker, to allow the hon. and learned Gentleman to clarify it.

Madam Speaker

I shall not let these exchanges run much longer, so I want brief questions. If the Minister has not understood the question, of course I must take it again.

Mr. Garnier

I am grateful, Madam Speaker. The new policy will affect the rights of property, but under the European convention on human rights and under the Human Rights Act 1998, which this Government passed, that cannot happen without compensation in lieu. My first question was what assessment the Government have made of the levels of compensation that will be required. Secondly, what assessment have they made of the levels of insurance that will have to be taken out by landowners in order to protect visitors to their land?

Mr. Meacher

I did understand the hon. and learned Gentleman's question and I was coming to that point. I have already made it clear that a statutory right is entirely consistent with other activities, such as agriculture and development, continuing. Our view is that a fair balance has been drawn between the interests of landowners and the general interest. In our view, there is no right to general compensation under the Human Rights Act 1998.

Mr. Barry Jones (Alyn and Deeside)

I thank my right hon. Friend for his historic statement. I presume that besides a soft voice, he carries a big stick with which to deal with any remnants of 18th century oligarchy. What new access does my right hon. Friend envisage there will be in Wales? Will he say a little more about Wales with its unrivalled scenery, to which the people of Wales want more access?

Mr. Meacher

My hon. Friend is right to say that Wales probably has a higher proportion of beautiful landscape than any other part of the country. One third of the total open countryside in England and Wales, within the 4 million acres to which I referred, lies in Wales. The scope for the National Assembly for Wales to introduce arrangements that take account of particular Welsh circumstances will depend on provisions in the Bill. I have no doubt that the new Welsh Assembly will be interested in examining the application of the provisions. It will have the opportunity to do so, and we will take account of that when we draw up the Bill.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy)

I have two brief questions for the Minister. Why have the Government not ensured that local government in Wales, for example, has the funds to keep existing footpaths open? Does he not realise that exempting extensively grazed land from the agricultural sector will thereby make it open for such traipsing? That land is the delicate environment which needs to be protected and cannot stand an influx of people.

Mr. Meacher

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman was not listening, but I made it clear that my Department and the Welsh Office will ensure that resources are available to local authorities to cover the costs of the new legislation. That will include the building of stiles, gates and signs and possibly some rangering services. We have made it clear that extra resources will be provided for those purposes.

In respect of grazed land, I dissociate myself from the hon. Gentleman's pejorative use of the word "traipsing". We are talking about a pastime that is probably more popular with more people in this country than any other and it would be appropriate to use more respectful terms such as "rambling" or "walking". I do not accept that rough-grazed land is inappropriate for rambling and, if there are particular cases where rambling is producing damage, I would expect the issue to be raised with the local access forum. Evidence would have to be produced that damage had been caused.

Mr. Kevin McNamara (Hull, North)

I welcome the Government's proposals, and I am sure that my local branch of the Ramblers Association does so as well, but does my right hon. Friend accept that the devil will be in the detail? In anticipation of the legislation, will his Department establish local access forums at once to discuss the problems that will arise in particular areas and try to make ready for when the legislation is passed? Will my right hon. Friend ensure that mapping, which can be carried out after the legislation is passed, is not used as an excuse to prevent its introduction? In view of his undertaking to protect wildlife and his restrictions on the use of dogs, will we see the end of deer hunting, hare coursing and fox hunting?

Mr. Meacher

I am concerned that local access forums should be set in place as quickly as possible. I have asked the Countryside Commission, which is soon to be replaced by the Countryside Agency, to draw up proposals in respect of the precise functions, membership and coverage of those forums and I shall certainly want to proceed with that as quickly as I can. I agree that mapping should not be used as an excuse for delay and I shall be keeping a careful eye on that to ensure that mapping is achieved as quickly as possible, although access provisions for different categories of land may come into effect at different times.

In respect of dogs, my hon. Friend was making a rather wider point. There are general problems relating to dogs and we will be drawing up guidelines, which will provide for an outright ban in local circumstances where that is appropriate.

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde)

The Minister said in his statement that, at some point in the future, he may seek to extend the power of access to woodland. Does he propose to seek primary legislative power to give him a general right to designate access—not only to woodland, but to any other form of land—at his discretion?

Mr. Meacher

No, that is not the intention. I have asked what will be the Countryside Agency to draw up proposals about the desirability and appropriateness of extending these access provisions to areas that were included in the 1949 Act—to cliff and foreshore, to river and canalside and to woodland. Depending, of course, on what the agency recommends, we would seek to go further, but not on the basis of secondary legislation.

Ms Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North)

I acknowledge the enormous amount of work done by my right hon. Friend, and warmly welcome the proposal for legislation on statutory rights of access. What extra funds, however, will be required in respect of footpaths and the wider aspects of the legislation? When he speaks to the new Countryside Agency and to local authorities, will my right hon. Friend bear in mind the fact that in Staffordshire, 189 applications regarding disputed rights of way are outstanding? At this rate, it will take 15 years to see them through. Will my right hon. Friend assure us that funds will be available?

Mr. Meacher

I have already tried to reassure the House that my Department and the Welsh Office will make resources available to cover the cost of the new legislation. I have said the same to local authorities. When that is still not sufficient, we think it reasonable to charge—where car parks, hides or guided trails are provided, for instance—but we do not think it reasonable to charge for the right of access in principle.

My hon. Friend mentioned the large number of disputed rights of way in her area. That is precisely what a statutory right of access is designed to prevent. It is because there is so much uncertainty, because there are no formal agreements and because so many of the alleged agreements are insecure that it is now necessary to introduce a statutory right, which I believe will clear up most of the difficulties.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex)

Does the Minister accept that all who love and know about the hills, the uplands and the wild places in this country will deeply regret and resent his statement? It would have been so much better if he had decided on a system of voluntary access.

For how long will the right hon. Gentleman allow, for example, the moors to be closed during the nesting season of ground-nesting birds, and for shooting at a later date?

Mr. Meacher

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman chooses to ally himself with the tiny minority who oppose a statutory right of access. As I have said, some 85 per cent. of those who responded to the statutory-voluntary question in our consultation exercise said that a voluntary approach was inadequate for the securing of access, and both the NOP and the Gallup polls showed similar figures.

I am as fascinated and mesmerised as the hon. Gentleman by the beauty, tranquillity and amazing attractiveness of our wonderful open spaces. That is exactly why it is so important to make them accessible to all our people, not just to the tiny number who happen to own thousands of acres of rolling hillside.

Of course I am concerned about ground-nesting birds. That is precisely the sort of issue that will lead to temporary and, if need be, permanent restrictions. I will not allow the rights of wildlife—living creatures that inhabit our country along with human beings—to be overridden simply for purposes of access, but that is no reason for us not to have a general-strategy right of access.

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

As the only London Member who is trying to question my right hon. Friend, and also the Member representing the most densely populated urban constituency in the country, I congratulate my right hon. Friend, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, on today's statement and on their aspirations for a right of access. People in urban areas want such access desperately. They love the countryside just as much as Conservative Members, who pretend that loving it means hunting and killing animals in it.

My right hon. Friend said that there might be restricted access on account of defence purposes and defence needs. What discussions has he had with the Ministry of Defence, and what hopes has he that the vast acres of MOD-held land will be thrown open for the public to enjoy, just as we hope other land will be?

Mr. Meacher

My hon. Friend is undoubtedly right about the desire of many urban dwellers, not only in London, but in many large cities, to have access to open countryside, probably near to where they live but further out if necessary. As I have said, that will bring tremendous benefits.

I am glad that the Ministry of Defence has already begun to open significant portions of its estate for rambling. We have begun discussions with the Ministry on how much further that can be taken. My belief is that it is possible to take it considerably further, so long as we can absolutely guarantee the safety of people who ramble or wander over MOD land.

Mr. Peter Atkinson (Hexham)

Will hill farmers be able to close upland commons and hills during the lambing season? Will gamekeepers be able to close moors during the bird-rearing season? If so, who will advise the public that access is to be denied to them? Who will police the provisions? Will the countryside be covered with a forest of notices as a result?

Mr. Meacher

I would expect temporary and limited closures, probably in a wide area of open countryside, during the lambing season and the breeding season, particularly between April and June. We have to work further on the information. I accept that the question of ensuring that information gets to people who wish to use the countryside is important. It will certainly include public notices, newspapers, local radio and, perhaps in the modern age, the website.