HC Deb 13 June 2000 vol 351 cc809-17
Mr. Meacher

I beg to move amendment No. 195, in page 40, leave out line 6 and insert— '1. Land on which the soil is being, or has at any time within the previous twelve months been, disturbed by any ploughing or drilling undertaken for the purposes of planting or sowing crops or trees.'.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord)

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: Government amendment No. 196.

Amendment No. 1, in page 40, leave out lines 19 and 20.

Government amendments Nos. 197 to 199, 207 and 187.

Mr. Meacher

Amendments Nos. 195 and 198 give effect to my undertaking in Committee to introduce a clearer definition of the exception from the right of access to cultivated land set out in paragraph 1 of schedule 1.

The amendments provide that land will be excepted if the soil has been disturbed within the previous 12 months by ploughing, drilling or similar agricultural or forestry activities for the purposes of planting or sowing crops or trees. They will ensure reasonable certainty for farmers and walkers about whether land is excepted from the right of access, dependent on whether land has been recently cultivated for the purpose of growing annual crops.

Mr. Soames

I well remember our discussion on this matter in Committee. The right hon. Gentleman may recall that, at the time, I asked him about the reseeding of heather moorland. Enlightened landowners, of which there are many more than he would believe, do their best to try to get rid of rank heather by burning, and if they cannot do so, they try to reseed it, but it takes a long time to set. Will such land also be excluded?

Mr. Meacher

I undertook to examine that issue further, and I am still doing so. I promise that Ministers will respond to that by the time that the Bill reaches the upper House. During the Committee proceedings, which ended only a couple of weeks ago, I offered, perhaps unwisely, to examine many issues. I have worked through a great many of them, but I am taking further soundings on others.

I make it clear that the amendment should be seen as a long stop; it is not intended to provide a mechanism for excluding access to any land that has been improved or semi-improved, which, as I have indicated, is a function of the mapping process. The amendment simply recognises that in certain circumstances the use of open country or registered common land will be incompatible with continued access.

4.45 pm

We recognise that the amendment will not provide for every conceivable circumstance. There may be occasional cases where the agricultural use of the land is incompatible with freedom of access, but where the land does not fall into any of the exceptions in schedule 1. That would apply to multi-annual crops such as rhubarb or vines. We are considering whether a further amendment is necessary in another place for such cases. However, where necessary, it will always remain open to the landowner to apply to the countryside bodies or national park authorities for a direction to exclude or to restrict access under clause 22. That will ensure that, even where land is not excepted, farmers' interests are safeguarded.

Government amendment No. 197 amends the definition of "building" as used in paragraph 2 of schedule 1, so that the right of access would not extend to land covered by any structure or erection, including tents or caravans. That is a sensible amendment, which will meet a number of the objections raised by hon. Members in Committee.

Government amendment No. 199 responds to the concern expressed in Committee that land would not be excepted from the right of access if it had been developed without planning permission, but the time limits for enforcement action had passed. The amendment rectifies that anomaly.

Another issue was raised in Committee. I was asked to consider further the merits of excepting land used for animal pens from the new right of access. We have therefore tabled amendment No. 196 to introduce an exception for land covered by pens while they are used for the temporary confinement of livestock. Again, I am grateful for the discussion in Committee. That is a sensible amendment.

Amendments Nos. 207 and 187 are consequential to amendment No. 196 and simply move the definition of "livestock" to a new home in the general glossary at clause 41. As a result, the definition will apply to both schedule 1 and schedule 2. I hope that the amendments will be seen as reasonable and will be welcomed. I am aware that the exact definition of "livestock" for the purposes of restrictions on dogs has been the subject of continuing debate. Again, it is one that we will doubtless revisit as the Bill progresses through Parliament.

If I may, I shall leave any response to amendment No. 1 to a later stage.

Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire)

I welcome the Minister's response on a number of issues—particularly that on livestock pens and buildings—which, as he rightly said, were raised in Committee by me, my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Mr. Green) and hon. Members from other parties. I note what he says about the definition of "livestock", which I am sure will be revisited. I am glad that he is still considering it. As for dealing with developments that pre-dated planning legislation, I welcome the amendment that he has tabled. He seemed to resist the idea far too strongly in Committee, but I am glad that he has had second thoughts.

My real concern is with the lead amendment, No. 195, which links with amendment No. 198. It refers to the definition of cultivated land. The Minister has referred to not including semi-improved or improved grassland. Understandably, he said the same thing in Committee, but he agreed on a number of occasions to consider or to receive advice on various issues, not least—it is the crucial one—that, in many areas adjoining open country, there will be grassland. Although I welcome the Minister's point about rhubarb and vines, both of which are important niche crops, I suspect that neither of them is very often to be found adjacent to open country, whereas grass usually does occur adjacent to open country.

The problem is whether grass should be defined as a crop. Most farmers would argue—as does the National Farmers Union, which has circulated information to, I suspect, all hon. Members—that grass is a crop. We debated the issue extensively in Committee. For a farmer who is growing grass for grazing or—more important in this context—for hay or silage, a crop of grass is no different from a crop of wheat, barley or anything else.

Mr. Soames

Does my hon. Friend, who is extremely knowledgeable about these matters, agree that for a hill farmer or a farmer with a holding on inby land, grass is as critical as any crop that he will grow? Indeed, is not grass probably the only crop that such a farmer would grow?

Mr. Paice

My hon. Friend is absolutely right and makes my point for me.

Moreover, the point holds true in countless parts of the United Kingdom, including in Wales. We do not have the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) with us today, but, in Committee, he made some extremely important points on the matter. The only crop grown by most farmers in Snowdonia, for example, is grass—which is the means by which they feed their livestock, not only in the summer but through the winter. A grass crop being grown for silage will be harrowed, rolled and fertilised, and, occasionally, even weed killer may be applied to it. The crucial point, however, is that it will not necessarily be ploughed or drilled within a 12-month period.

Grass is just as much a crop as wheat or barley, and people walking across a grass field would damage that crop's potential yield just as much as they would damage the potential yield of a wheat or barley crop by walking across it. The Minister does not seem to have taken that point on board, despite his undertaking to consider all the comments made in Committee.

In many parts of the country, even non-permanent grassland is part of a rotation. However, grassland is rarely part of an annual rotation. As you will know from your own experience, Mr. Deputy Speaker, the most common practice is for grassland to be left for two or three years, to give the grass time to improve the land's nutrient value, thereby providing nutrients for subsequent arable crops.

Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion)

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the views he has just expressed are particularly relevant to organic farming, in which the need to fix nutrients in the soil is particularly important? Additionally, in Wales, there is ever more organic sheep farming.

Mr. Paice

The hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy has sent an admirable substitute. The hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Thomas) is entirely right to say that, in organic farming, grassland rotation is critical as an alternative to artificial fertilisers in providing nutrients for crops. As I know from my original agricultural training, grass crops grown for only one year will have a minimal effect on the soil's nutrient value.

The key point is that grass crops have to be in for two or three years to have any beneficial effect. Grass is sometimes included in a rotation with conventional crops such as wheat, barley, potatoes and other arable crops, but it is left in for two or three years. Although I welcome the Minister's attempt to define "cultivated land", I am worried that the definition in the amendment would exclude that type of country.

In Committee, the Minister said: It is also unlikely that land that has been recently cultivated would be mapped as open country.—[Official Report, Standing Committee B, 6 April 2000; c. 172.] If that is so, there is no need at all for the amendment. Either one has to define cultivation or one has to except land that has been cultivated recently. The Minister proposes a definition of what could best be described as soil disturbance within the previous 12 months, but I do not believe that it is enough. He may well say that the Opposition did not table an alternative amendment. Although that is perfectly true, we knew that the Minister had taken heed of the many points raised by me and other hon. Members on the subject and we had hoped that he would have produced a more substantial amendment.

Amendment No. 195 does not meet our desires or those of the National Farmers Union, which, although it welcomes the Government's recognition that "cultivated" requires further definition, is disappointed by the definition that the Government have used. It makes the following point: We also feel the tine period of 12 months is too narrow as land on rotational leys can often lay fallow without being ploughed or drilled for three years or more. That substantiates my argument.

My final point relates to other agricultural schemes such as set-aside and countryside stewardship schemes. Under the set-aside scheme, as it now operates, farmers can leave the same piece of land set-aside for more than a year. It used to be rotational; now it can be the same piece of land. It is self-explanatory that land that is set aside for more than one year will not have the surface of the soil disturbed within a 12-month period. Again, there is a problem that I hope the Minister will reconsider.

Mr. Bennett

Will the hon. Gentleman explain what the problem is in allowing people access to set-aside land?

Mr. Paice

There are plenty of problems in allowing people access to set-aside land. First, access to it may involve crossing other cultivated land. Secondly, the inclusion of all set-aside land would double or treble the 4 million acres that would be affected by the Bill. That would be a huge alteration in the general perception of the impact of the Bill. Thirdly, the various environmental bodies now recognise that land that is set aside for more than a year is having a beneficial effect, particularly on traditional farmland birds—ground-nesting birds such as skylarks and lapwings. Allowing access to set-aside land would have a damaging impact on that.

Mr. David Heath

Does the hon. Gentleman agree with me on another point that we discussed in Committee—namely, that there is at least a potential conflict with the European Union rules that apply to set-aside, in that the land has to be cultivatable but not cultivated? It is at least arguable that if land that was not cultivated was designated as access land, it would no longer be cultivatable.

Mr. Paice

That is certainly a strong possibility.

Although I welcome the fact that the Government have sought to define cultivated land, I believe that their definition is far too narrow. I do not seek to divide the House on the matter because I welcome the fact that the Government have taken a step in the right direction, but I hope that the Minister will take heed that there are still widespread concerns about the proposed definition, which I am sure will be examined carefully in another place, where I have no doubt that there will be attempts to amend the Bill.

In the meantime, I hope that the Minister will agree to look at the matter again. I hope that he understands the importance of grass as a crop for thousands of farmers who farm adjacent to open land. On that basis, I hope that he will at least agree that he might not have got it entirely right first time.

5 pm

Mr. Gordon Prentice

I shall speak briefly to amendment No. 1, tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett). It concerns military land.

Even under the Bill, vast expanses of land used by the military from time to time will remain out of bounds. My friends among the ramblers have given me a little list of the areas involved: Castlemartin in Pembrokeshire, the vast expanse of land at Otterburn in Northumberland, Catterick in north Yorkshire, Longmoor on the Surrey-Hampshire border, Salisbury plain, and Watton Brook in Norfolk.

The Bill automatically excludes from the definition of access land all land that is subject to military byelaws. Such byelaws cover all the areas that I listed, but I do not understand the reason for the exclusion. It is perfectly possible for military use and public access to coincide, as happens with Dartmoor, where separate legislative provisions apply. That example shows that there is no reason why the coexistence that I envisage cannot occur.

A powerful ally of the amendment is the Countryside Agency, whose briefing all hon. Members will have received. It states that lines 19 and 20 of schedule 1, covering the point about military land that I have just made, are too restrictive and are unnecessary, given the provisions of clause 26. That clause gives the Secretary of State powers to restrict access to access land if that land is needed for defence or national security purposes. Lines 19 and 20 of schedule 1 are therefore not necessary, and I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister will be able to give a little on that point.

Mr. David Heath

I shall be brief. I pay tribute to the Minister, who promised to give serious consideration to points raised by hon. Members in Committee, and has done so. Some definitions have been improved. The right hon. Gentleman undertook to consider the definitions of cultivated land, pens and unauthorised development, for example, and the amendments that he has tabled prove that he has considered them.

However, I fear that I am no more content with the definition of cultivated land than is the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice). I agree that huge difficulties remain with improved grassland and with different rotations that do not fall within the specified annual scheme. In Committee, we discussed under which definition, if any, certain kinds of land fell. Such land included coed cae and ffridd land in Wales, and inby land in northern England. The matter will have to be revisited in another place.

I also hope that more consideration will be given to the definition of livestock. Moving the definition has not improved it one bit—it remains incomplete, with obvious omissions. In Committee, we fastened on the absence of deer from the definition, but we also discussed ostriches, llamas and alpacas. I still prefer the definition that appears in the Agriculture Act 1947, as it can be extended to any domesticated animal. However, even that is deficient, as it does not include horses used purely for recreational purposes.

The hon. Members for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) and for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) are right about military land. I do not see why the Bill should have to define that term several times and make it ever more inclusive of land that probably should be given to access.

The Bill contains provisions for public safety and national security purposes. The Minister assured me that he would look again at the possibility of a regular review being presented to Parliament of the extent of military exclusions from the right of access. I do not know whether he has had any further thoughts, but this seems unnecessary. I hope that if the right hon. Gentleman cannot consider that issue today, he will do so before the Bill goes to another place.

Mr. Simon Thomas

I shall speak to amendment No. 195, which has already received a lot of attention this afternoon. Before I do so, however, let me say that I am in two minds about amendment No. 1. Most upland land in Wales would be ruled out as it is used for low flying, so a military exception might find favour with some farmers in my constituency.

On amendment No. 195, I have not had the experience in Committee that many right hon. and hon. Members have had, including my hon. Friend the Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd). However, I welcome the fact that the Government have given a definition of cultivated land. What is not so welcome is the fact that the definition does not include some vital fanning practices in Wales, particularly those of sheep farmers. The Committee had a very esoteric debate on the ffridd and coed cae, the Welsh terms for particular types of land that border open access land. I am pleased that no amendment has been brought forward in that respect, as I must admit that I would hate to try to define what ffridd and coed cae might be.

Improved grassland borders on many of what will become access lands. We must address the question of access over that grassland and consider the farmers' interests. The amendment does not recognise that grassland is crop land. The Minister mentioned annual crops when he opened this short debate. I believe that the amendment is too heavily couched in terms of the needs of arable farmers and does not pay enough attention to the needs of sheep farmers. As for the declining but still vital dairy industry in Ceredigion, for example, the silage needs of the dairy farmer are taken from the cut on such fields. When the land is open to access, there may be an effect on hay and silage crops from large-scale access. The question must be looked at again—in another place, if necessary—and we must try to protect those interests.

The farming industry in Wales is in a deep depression. The income of sheep farmers is falling to as little as £4,500 a year. If we are to open access to cultivated land, the definition of "cultivation" must provide some real protection. I do not think that the amendment goes far enough. The Minister said that there would be a way to appeal through the mapping process, to apply for a direction and opt out, but that is not the answer for the several hundred sheep farmers in my constituency alone who may be affected. I do not think that the Countryside Council for Wales wants to deal with hundreds of appeals on what may be called, for the purposes of this debate, the semi-cultivated or semi-improved land. The definition needs to be far clearer.

Grassland is cultivated land in Wales. Grass that is grown on that land, cut two or three times a year, is a vital income stream for the farmer. It enables him to feed his cattle and sheep, and it enables us to get the good Welsh lamb from the first flush of spring growth. We must ensure that there is protection in the definition.

Mr. Gray

I wish to speak against amendment No. 1, in which I have an obvious constituency interest. It would be very damaging, and I suspect that when the Minister replies to the debate, he may well agree with me. It is none the less important to put my objections to the amendment on the record.

It would be wildly impractical to allow access to, for example, the Salisbury plain training area, which is near my constituency. It is not a question of its being land that might be included were it not for national security reasons, which is a broad, general and grand definition. It needs to be exempted because all sorts of military units can use it from time to time, unpredictably and at short notice. It would be wildly impractical to make it access land. Large areas of it are very dangerous—particularly the impact area, where unexploded bombs lie off the track.

Most important, there is an access regime on Ministry of Defence land that is a great deal more generous than most access regimes throughout England, under an Act passed by the last Conservative Government. We now give access to all suitable military land for recreational purposes on all sensible occasions. However, that is controlled by the military, who say when people may go on to the land and, more important, where they may go. By and large, it is linear access down tracks, and the military clearly and precisely control and restrict where people go on military land. That is eminently sensible. Simply allowing right of access across the whole of the Salisbury plain training area would be dangerous from the point of view of the walker and wholly impractical from the point of view of the military.

A large part of the Salisbury plain training area is privately owned land which is leased to the military. That land, which is not currently used for farming, would, under the provisions of amendment No. 1, not become access land as it is privately owned. At the moment, walkers have access to large acreages in Wiltshire—access that would suddenly be removed from them if amendment No. 1 were to be allowed. My contention would be that under current regulations—for example, as regards the Salisbury plain training area—more land is available to walkers than would be if amendment No. 1 were accepted. I hope that the Minister will not even consider allowing it.

Mr. Meacher

With permission, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I shall respond to the points made in the debate, including those on grasslands. The hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) wondered why, if mapping addresses the exclusion of cultivated land, we have the exception in the Bill at all. There are two good reasons. One concerns land that has been improved after the maps have been issued so that access is incompatible with continued access. The other is registered common land, where land is already improved but the right of access would apply any way were it not for the exception.

The hon. Gentleman asked if grass was to be considered a crop for these purposes. The answer is yes. Grass is a crop for the purposes of the amendment, provided it meets the terms of the amended exception—namely, that the land has been ploughed or otherwise disturbed for the purpose of sowing or planting grass or other crops within the past 12 months. We would not expect improved grassland to be mapped in the first place. However, I hope that that gives the hon. Gentleman the positive answer that he seeks.

Mr. Paice

I have to say that it does not. The point I was trying to get across was that grass is not necessarily an annual crop and may be down for two or three years. Therefore, although it fits all the other aspects of the criteria used by the Minister, it does not fit the 12-month criterion and therefore will not be included. If it is included as part of an arable rotation and is down for two years, it is immediately excluded from the definition.

Mr. Meacher

The hon. Gentleman raises a matter that the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) raised in Committee—namely, that we give consideration to the exception of rotational leys. Again I would not expect land cultivated in this way to be mapped as open countryside in the first place. In the unlikely event of open country being converted to a rotational ley, it will be excepted from access in any year in which the soil has been disturbed. That goes further towards what the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire wants, although it does not entirely meet the point that he has just made. I am not prepared to give a commitment at this moment, but I will deliberate further on the matter and see whether it might be appropriate to table an amendment in another place.

5.15 pm

The hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soarnes), who is not in the Chamber at present, asked whether heather should be included as a crop for the purposes of the definition of cultivated land. I apologise to the hon. Gentleman, because it had escaped my memory that we had considered that matter in Committee. I am happy to reassure the House and the hon. Gentleman that it would be considered a crop for the purposes of the definition.

The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) referred to military land. He tabled an amendment in Committee that would require the Secretary of State for Defence to report to Parliament the findings of the five-yearly reviews of long-term directions to restrict or exclude access for reasons of defence. In Committee, the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin), indicated that, although the Government could not give any undertakings, we would consider the amendment. I have been most conscientious about that. Officials in my Department and in the Ministry of Defence have certainly held discussions on the issue. The Government wholly agree that there should be effective scrutiny of directions for long-term closures or restrictions on defence grounds, provided, of course, that defence interests are properly safeguarded. That is understandable.

We are considering the most appropriate way to meet the hon. Gentleman's concerns. If we conclude that a change to the Bill is indeed the right approach, we shall table a suitable amendment in another place. I hope that meets his needs.

My hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) mentioned military land. The amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) would ensure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence was compelled to undertake a fresh assessment of the need for restrictions on access to military training lands. I am happy to tell my hon. Friend, however, that that objective will be achieved without the amendment.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has already announced, in "In Trust and on Trust: The Strategy for the Defence Estate"—it is amazing how catchy these titles are—which was published on 7 June, that he will review all byelaws imposed under section 14 of the Military Lands Act 1892 and section 2 of the Military Lands Act 1900. Thus the imposition of a separate requirement to consider the need for restrictions under clause 26, which the amendment would perhaps achieve, would merely serve to duplicate that process.

I hope that my explanation has convinced my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish that his amendment is unnecessary and that he will not press it.

Amendment agreed to.

Amendments made: No. 196, in page 40, line 18, at end insert— '.Land covered by pens in use for the temporary reception or detention of livestock.'. No. 197, in page 40, line 24, leave out ""buildings"" and insert— '"building" includes any structure or erection and any part of a building as so defined, but does not include any fence or wall, or anything which is a means of access as defined by section 32; and for this purpose "structure" includes any tent, caravan or other temporary or moveable structure;'. No. 198, in page 40, line 25, at end insert— ' "ploughing" and "drilling" include respectively agricultural or forestry operations similar to ploughing and agricultural or forestry operations similar to drilling;'. No. 199, in page 41, line 2, at end insert— '(2) Sub-paragraph (1) does not apply where the development is treated by section 191(2) of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 as being lawful for the purposes of that Act.'.—[Mr. Meacher.]

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