HC Deb 13 June 2000 vol 351 cc866-73
Mr. Bennett

I beg to move amendment No. 65, in page 10, line 23, at end insert— '(6A) The relevant confirming authority shall publish guidance to access authorities as to the matters which may be included in such byelaws and the purpose thereof with the intention that byelaws in the areas of each access authority shall be consistent with the byelaws in any other access authority.'.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: Amendment No. 112, in clause 18, page 10, line 30, at end insert—

'(1A) The access authority shall review under this section the adequacy of warden arrangements in respect of any access land in their area.

(1B) A review under this section must be undertaken—

  1. (a) in the case of the first review, not more than one year after that land became access land, and
  2. (b) in the case of subsequent reviews, not more than five years after the previous review.'.
Amendment No. 85, in clause 19, page 11, line 6, leave out "may" and insert— 'shall, where appropriate or expedient, at the request of the owner or occupier of any access land, or of land adjoining access land, or otherwise,'. Government amendments Nos. 148, 149 and 212.

Mr. Bennett

The amendments have been tabled to ascertain what will happen to the byelaws. Walkers can consider schedule 2 and work out their duties and responsibilities on access. They must then examine the byelaws. We should not have a large variety of byelaws throughout the country so that walkers are subject to one restriction in one area and a different restriction in another area. Most people who enjoy access will not examine byelaws carefully.

The Peak district national park used to be good at putting up notices stating that it was a national park. All the byelaws were printed on the back of the notices in small print, which was difficult to read. As far as I can see, no one ever read them.

By and large, we want byelaws to be consistent throughout the country, with differences applying only in exceptional circumstances. The amendment is very similar to an amendment tabled in Committee—I think the Government said that they would have another look at it—aimed at finding out exactly what would be in the byelaws, and whether we would be better off with a set of model byelaws presented by the Government. That might have the particular benefit of ensuring that, if people wanted to do the same thing in two areas, they did it in the same way.

8.30 pm
Mr. Grieve

The issue raised by the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) is certainly interesting. As I said earlier in an intervention, the whole question of the relationship between the byelaws and schedule 2 strikes me as important.

I should say at the outset that I do not favour legislation on rights of access. I believe I said on Second Reading that I did not consider such legislation necessary or desirable. Given that rights of access are to be provided, however, I do not think they should be used to fetter or restrict existing rights. In particular, I do not think that trespassers should be turned into criminals without very good reason. I think that the Minister agreed with that earlier.

There will clearly be a difficulty. The byelaws envisage the possibility that local authorities, national parks authorities or whatever other authorities may be involved will start to impose regulations that, on occasion, will turn mischiefs that might previously have been described as no more than trespasses into criminal offences. What happens to a trespasser who decides to sleep in a bivvy bag on access land? I must confess that I have done that many times in the past when the land in question has not been access land, and, technically, I have probably been trespassing. Nevertheless, I believe that my activity caused no problems to anyone, and that my presence was not noticed 10 minutes after I departed in the early hours to go off and climb some new mountain.

The hon. Gentleman's point is very pertinent, but I am not entirely persuaded that uniformity is the answer. I am always anxious when powers are delegated from the House to others for the purpose of creating criminal offences. There may, for instance, be unintended consequences, because the arrangements have not been thought through properly.

I shall be interested to hear from the Minister how it is envisaged to implement the proposals. Will guidelines be issued for the purpose of matters in schedule 2, in regard to which it would be appropriate to make byelaws, and for the purpose of those in regard to which that would not be appropriate? It is clear that byelaws might be suitable in some areas covered by the schedule, although some are probably covered by the existing criminal law. I am thinking of offences of interfering with plants or trees, for instance. In other respects, however, it is difficult to see what byelaws there should be. I hope that the Minister will be able to enlighten those of us who did not have the opportunity of participating in Committee about what is envisaged for such cases, and to reassure both the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish and me.

As I say, the hon. Gentleman may be right: perhaps we need uniformity. I am not persuaded of that—I see this as a open issue. What really concerns me is that the amendment is not used as a ratchet for interfering, busybody bureaucracy where none is required.

Mr. Green

Amendments Nos. 112 and 85 deal with two separate issues—the provision of wardens and the provision of notices indicating boundaries and so forth on access land.

A consistent theme of our attempts to improve the Bill has been the need for successful management of access, in the interests of walkers particularly but also in those of owners and occupiers of land and, of course, those of the wider environment. It seems to us that the experience of parts of the country containing large amounts of access land—hon. Members on both sides of the House have referred to it—suggests that an effective warden system provides one of the keys to successful land management. Amendment No. 112 aims to ensure that if such a system does not arise organically—as it were—a scheme is in place to push the access authorities into establishing it in the first few years of the availability of the access land in question.

I am sure that many hon. Members have seen the briefing from the National Farmers Union. The NFU supports the amendment, because of its—in my view—legitimate fear that there may not be enough wardens to manage the new right of access. My hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) said that he did not wish to set up unnecessary bureaucracies. Amendment No. 112 avoids that by simply suggesting that The access authority shall review … the adequacy of warden arrangements in respect of … access land in their area … not more than one year after that land became access land, and at five-yearly intervals thereafter.

That is clearly no great imposition on anyone. It would cause no great increase in spending, or diversion of resources. It strikes us as a fairly small-scale practical measure to ensure that the warden arrangements operated at a suitable level. Apart from anything else, there will be differences in different areas: the same level of warden arrangements will not be necessary in every area where access has been granted.

If we are to enact realistic legislation benefiting all who wish to use land for leisure purposes or who own land, a decent and sensible warden system is vital. It will be particularly important during the early stages of the introduction of access land, if the Government succeed in their aim of extending the delights of walking in the countryside to a wider proportion of the population than have enjoyed them so far. Many relatively inexperienced walkers will then appear in the countryside. Clearly, it will continue to be critical as new generations use access land. To some extent, especially on safety matters, owners will need decent advice on how to manage access locally. I hope that the Government will welcome our low-key, low-cost but important proposal, which would ensure that wardens were provided for such areas.

Amendment No. 85 deals with the need for access authorities to erect and maintain notices indicating the boundaries of access land and excepted land under clause 19. That clause is permissive; it states that authorities may erect such notices. We want to harden the provision by replacing the word "may" with the word "shall" and introducing some caveats. I shall quote the words of the Minister for the Environment back at him. He complained that the similar amendment that we moved in Committee would have replaced the word "may" with the word "shall", but did not state, "shall, where appropriate or expedient" …—[Official Report, Standing Committee B, 2 May 2000; c. 444.] I am happy to report that, just as he and his hon. Friends claim to be a listening Government, we are a listening Opposition and have included the phrase shall, where appropriate or expedient in amendment No. 85. We understand that the access authorities must have the power to take their own sensible decisions and that an obligation that would be the same always and everywhere throughout the country must not be imposed on them.

Having taken the Minister's advice, we tabled amendment No. 85 because we believe that, as well as wardens, decent notices are key to the practical success of the widespread increase in access land. There was consensus when we discussed that matter in Committee in that both sides accepted that a lot of information must be transmitted to those embarking on a walk in open country. It is perhaps surprising but we all agreed about that, which is why we tabled amendment No. 85.

An access authority might decide that providing decent notices is not at the top of its list of priorities in any year for 101 reasons, the most obvious of which is the availability of the necessary resources. Many access authorities will not have enough money to do so. It would be easy to cut such a budget because if the money has never been there, people are less likely to notice if it never arrives.

The Government have said throughout that they expect no extra financial imposition to be placed on landowners under the Bill, so clearly the erection of such signs and notices will fall to the access authority. As in amendment No. 112, that relatively small change that we propose would ensure that access authorities give walkers and owners what they think they require—a decent service that allows the new regime to be introduced as smoothly as possible. Therefore, the new regime of access to the countryside would be much more likely to be a long-term success. In that spirit of helpfulness and to ensure that the Bill is introduced more successfully than would otherwise be the case, I commend amendments Nos. 112 and 85 to the House.

Mr. David Heath

Again, I thank Ministers for Government amendment No. 149, which deals with a proposal that I pressed the Government hard to adopt in Committee because I feared that the matter would not be covered. I am grateful to them for listening and tabling amendment No. 149.

Having said that, one reason that I wanted adequate signage was that my fear throughout has been that people will be ignorant of what they are expected to do under the Bill, not through any intent but simply because new arrangements will be in place. They will have read reports in the newspapers about their supposed new right, but, as we know, it is heavily qualified in the Bill. I do not want people to be treated as trespassers simply because they do not know the local information. That ties in with the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) on the degree of conformity of byelaws.

8.45 pm

I would be the last person in the world to argue that there should be absolute conformity—that is not sensible; the purpose of byelaws is to ensure adequate provision for local circumstances—but, having said that, unnecessary variation in the form of those byelaws is equally unhelpful. If the same difficulty is encountered in more than one place, it makes sense to have the same provision. That is why guidance from the Government is so important and why it is so important to have in the appropriate places signs that people can read. Even if 99 per cent. of people ignored a sign stating local byelaws, at least it would be there for them to read—they could not claim total ignorance. There is a lot to commend the hon. Gentleman's amendment and I shall be interested in what the Minister has to say.

I am glad that the hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Green) addressed the issue of wardens, which could be difficult. If access to open countryside is to work effectively, it has to be accompanied by the infrastructure that will make it work. Wardens are part of that infrastructure. It has been proven time and again in our national parks and in some areas of outstanding natural beauty that an effective wardening system is of great assistance to people who want to take advantage of access to the countryside and to the landowners and other users of the land.

Concern has been expressed on many occasions that wardening will, sadly, be a low priority for many local authorities—perhaps not because of any intent on their part, but simply because of competing budgetary pressures. Unless the situation is monitored, at best we are likely to achieve patchy provision, and probably none at all in large parts of the country. That would be detrimental to the Bill's purposes and the Government's intention. We must send a clear signal to local access authorities that they should properly consider the adequacy of the wardening and other services that they will provide, such as supplying information and policing the Bill's operation. The amendments raise important issues and I look forward to the Minister's reply.

Mr. Simon Thomas

I shall speak briefly to amendment No. 112. I am grateful to Opposition Front Benchers for tabling it as that has allowed remarks on the warden service to be made on the Floor of the House.

I concur with the remarks of the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) because the warden service in local government is under extreme pressure; it certainly is in my constituency. We have an excellent warden service for the Ceredigion heritage coast, which looks after the footpaths and links up with private landowners and the National Trust to put together a good countryside service for the constituency and the county. However, the wardens are already complaining to me about the lack of statutory funding.

The Minister will know that when statutory funding is absent from legislation, discretionary local government funding is not a good defence when budget time comes along. There are already pressures on the service, which are highlighted in the summer months by the number of people who visit Ceredigion and other areas that will be opened up by the Bill. The warden service will be key to the Bill's success as wardens will provide safety advice, look after fire problems that might arise and perhaps advise landowners on man-made obstructions such as barbed wire. I am sure that a warden will tell a landowner of such an obstacle when he or she finds one, and that will encourage safe access for everyone.

The public have expectations. When "may" appears in a Bill, they take it to mean "shall". Therefore, they will expect the local authority or the access authority to provide proper funding for wardens. However, that will be extremely difficult to achieve within current funding strictures, certainly in Wales. I hope that the Government will examine how funding for a warden service may be achieved and will look at the ideas behind amendment No. 112 on the need to review the service on a regular basis so that landowners and those who wish to access land get a good-quality service from access authorities, local authorities and their warden services.

Mr. Mullin

Amendment No. 65 would require the Secretary of State and the National Assembly for Wales to publish guidance about model byelaws with the aim of achieving consistency between the byelaws made by different authorities, which seems to be an entirely admirable objective. As I have already said, we are introducing a new duty on the countryside bodies to make recommendations to access authorities on the use of their powers to make byelaws under clause 17. As my Department already advises local authorities on byelaws under existing countryside legislation, no statutory powers are needed to do that. We appreciate the good intent behind the amendment, but it is not necessary.

The hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) asked when some of those byelaws would be used. We do not want to see byelaws everywhere and I suspect that the hon. Gentleman does not either. Far from it—byelaws are appropriate only in special circumstances in which a particular problem needs to be addressed with criminal sanctions. There is a safeguard, as byelaws made by access authorities must be confirmed by the Secretary of State.

On amendment No. 112 and the issue of wardens, we have provided that, in relation to access land, access authorities and district councils may appoint the number of wardens which, to them, appears to be necessary. That provision gives authorities flexibility in making appointments. As I have said before, we do not consider that wardens will be needed on all access land. Only in the so-called honeypot areas will the number of walkers possibly justify the provision of wardens. In those areas, wardens have already been appointed under other powers and we expect that access will operate quite satisfactorily on much, if not most, land without the need for wardens.

Access authorities will no doubt wish periodically to review their arrangements for wardens. That will be prudent only in assessing whether they are appointing enough wardens for the appropriate purposes and to cover the necessary areas. However, we do not agree that they should be under a statutory duty to do so, as that would be unnecessarily burdensome and would impose yet more regulation on local authorities. The Government believe in reducing regulation, not increasing it. We would encourage authorities wishing to consult others, such as local access forums, on whether the wardening arrangements are adequate. That is precisely the sort of issue which the forums should consider, and we would expect their views on it to be taken seriously by the relevant authorities.

Mr. Bennett

Is there any extra money?

Mr. Mullin

We certainly intend to provide the money that will be necessary to carry out the Bill's statutory requirements. We believe that access authorities will, in conjunction with advice from others such as the forums, provide reasonable and sufficient wardening. A duty to review would therefore be unnecessarily bureaucratic.

Likewise, amendment No. 85 would introduce unnecessary bureaucracy. It seeks to give access authorities a duty to erect and maintain notices indicating the boundaries of access land or giving information about restrictions at the request of the landowner. Clause 19 already gives authorities the power to use their discretion in deciding where notices might usefully be displayed. That provision has been designed to allow access authorities to take a sensible and balanced view of the provision of notices. The Bill also allows access authorities to contribute towards the cost of signs erected by landowners if they think fit.

If we accepted such an amendment, the duty imposed on authorities would, in any event, be difficult to enforce as it would still be dependent on the view taken by the authority. However, more fundamentally, we should not impose a new duty on access authorities. We do not want to encourage the erection of official notices in inappropriate places, including more remote and less-well-used areas. I therefore ask my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) to withdraw his amendment, and I hope that amendments Nos. 112 and 85 will not be pressed.

In Committee we undertook further to consider byelaw-making powers and notices, and Government amendments Nos. 212, 148 and 149 address those issues. Amendment No. 212 amends section 2(6) of the Countryside Act 1968 so that the duties of the countryside bodies, which already include giving advice to authorities about their byelaw-making powers under the National Parks and. Access to the Countryside Act 1949 and the 1968 Act, extend equally to advising authorities about the use of the byelaw-making powers in clause 17.

The amendment is essentially a logical extension of the countryside bodies' duties so that they take account of the new legislation, but we shall look to them to provide sensible guidance about the special circumstances in which byelaws might be appropriate in some places. We shall also expect them to work closely with my Department to ensure that access authorities receive consistent advice about the content of byelaws.

Amendments Nos. 148 and 149 will allow access authorities to erect signs to inform the public of anything that may assist their access to the land or to inform them about the management of access. That might include suggested paths and means of access, and although the public would not be required to use them, the information would help walkers to find the most enjoyable and practical route across land that, by its nature, is often wild and difficult to navigate.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), who tabled a similar amendment in Committee. I said in response to that amendment that we were keen to take the appropriate steps to promote positive management of access and to give confidence to those exercising the new right. Clearly, none of us wants our countryside to become littered with unnecessary signs, but the careful and targeted use of signs by access authorities will help walkers, particularly those who are less confident about walking in open countryside.

Mr. Bennett

In view of the Minister's undertaking, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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