HC Deb 13 June 2000 vol 351 cc794-808 3.43 pm
Mr. Damian Green (Ashford)

I beg to move amendment No. 101, in page 1, line 12, at end insert— ', and is at least 10 hectares in size'.

Madam Speaker

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 102, in page 2, line 17, leave out "wholly or predominantly" and insert— 'of at least 60 per cent.'. No. 306, in page 2, line 21, at end add ', and to which the public has a general right of access'.

Mr. Green

In Committee, the Minister described the Bill as "messy". He was right then, and, unfortunately, he is still right. He will be as aware as anyone that the countryside's dislike of the Government is growing by the week. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will therefore respond positively during our debates to our attempts to improve the Bill.

This group of amendments—particularly amendments Nos. 101 and 102—represents an attempt to continue to make this part of the Bill less impracticable: one of our main complaints about the Bill concerns its impracticability. The Government should be aware that as they stir up opposition in country areas with other measures that we have heard about this week, it is all the more important that this Bill should not cause further friction between the Government and their officials, and those who live and work in the countryside. Let me give an example of the effects of many of the measures in part I of the Bill. Every farmer contemplating providing permissive access as part of a stewardship scheme or diversification initiative will now have that income-earning opportunity removed. It is precisely because upland farmers will be the people most affected by the right of access as defined in the Bill that it is important that the provisions in part I should be made as workable, and non-disruptive to their businesses, as possible.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish)

Where is the hon. Gentleman's evidence that the measure will cause any problem? As was pointed out on Second Reading, such provisions have applied in most of the Lake district for more than 100 years—and in large chunks of the Peak district as a result of access agreements negotiated by the national park—without causing any difficulties at all. If such arrangements do not cause a problem in those two areas, where is the hon. Gentleman's evidence that it will cause problems elsewhere?

Mr. Green

The hon. Gentleman is tempting me down a route that is not entirely germane to the amendments. However, the upland areas in particular contain the farms which are under the most economic pressure: they are suffering from the worst economic crisis that many can remember. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman, who is knowledgeable on these matters, will agree that for the Government to deny money-raising opportunities to upland farmers in the climate in which they are forced to operate today is particularly unfortunate.

In this group of amendments and others, we will seek precisely to ensure that the right of access—which we did not oppose on Second Reading—is as practicable as possible so that all those who have to make it work, particularly in the uplands, can feel that, although the Government are making their lives more difficult in many ways, they are not making it unnecessarily difficult through the detailed provisions of the Bill.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire)

Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the important distinctions to be made between the arrangements applying to the Peak district and Lake district national parks and the provisions of the Bill is that, in those areas, the authorities are able to designate where people are allowed to walk? They may choose to allow people to walk anywhere, but they are certainly allowed to offer them designated access points—mainly linear access. That is quite different from what is proposed in clause 1.

Mr. Green

My hon. Friend makes the point that there are many differences between the designated national parks and other areas where access will now be allowed. Each has individual characteristics and it is important—precisely because this House cannot and should not pass legislation that bears differently on different parts of the country—that the legislation that we pass should not disadvantage those who are already in the most difficult economic circumstances.

The purpose of amendment No. 101 is to make practicable the provision of access to areas permitted under the clause. We are seeking to introduce greater consistency to the Bill, which has as one of its many faults a degree of inconsistency. The Government recognise in clause 4(5)(a) that pieces of open country may be so small that access should not be required. The amendment proposes a de minimis limit of 10 hectares, to ensure that that perfectly sensible provision in clause 4 also applies in clause 1.

I am sure that the Minister will recognise that there are many reasons why that should be the case. In all cases, there are many costs associated with providing the access land—whether related to signing, to providing wardens or to making byelaws. Quite apart from the economic effect on farmers and other landowners, there will be costs on the public purse. We want to ensure that the extra access actually provides the most advantage to those who want to use it—the walkers—and that it is targeted towards decent-sized areas of land that offer the greatest public benefit. We keep using the phrase "right to roam". Clearly, the right to roam is of less use on a small parcel of land because less roaming can be done there.

We want both to restrict the additional costs that arise from the Bill and to maximise the leisure and health benefits that will accrue if more people are encouraged to walk in the English countryside—one of the matters that does not divide those who hold differing views as to the merits of this part of the Bill. There is little point in a right to roam if there is not enough land over which to roam, so it would be a good idea to establish a minimum size for access land.

Many of those with the greatest knowledge of such matters agree with us. The point is well made by the National Farmers Union, which supports the amendment because, without it, many small areas of land that are difficult to reach could fall under the definition of access land. That would be especially relevant in the uplands. If such places were difficult of access, new areas of access land would have to be created in order to reach them. Those places might be small, of limited interest to the user and awkward to map and manage.

I hope that the Government will take the amendment in the spirit in which it is intended; it would improve the practical application of the measure without denying to any great extent the right of access to any area.

Amendment No. 102 is an attempt to improve the Bill by adding greater precision to the definitions of access land. Currently, the phrase "wholly or predominantly" is used. We want to make the wording more practicable by changing it to at least 60 per cent. We all have a vague idea as to the meaning of "predominantly", but the scope of the provision is unclear none the less. In Committee, the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin), said that "predominantly.' meant anything more than 50 per cent. Our proposal is that it should be 60 per cent. Other people have suggested 66 per cent.

I shall take the unusual step of referring to a briefing that is in disagreement with the amendment. The NFU agrees that further clarification is needed, but thinks that our amendment sets too low a threshold. That is one point of view. However, it is unarguable that some sensible and definite level needs to be set; otherwise confusion will reign and it will not be clear whether the measure is being applied fairly.

There are some other problems—literally around the edges. The definition of whether and how far the land can extend beyond the edge of the heath in certain circumstances is clearly relevant too.

I am aware that the expression "wholly or predominantly" has been taken from access agreements and orders made under the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949. However, there is an important difference between such orders and those that would be made under the Bill. The provisions made under the 1949 Act applied by agreement or by a carefully considered order and were subject to compensation. We shall discuss compensation later, but the key point is that those provisions were not likely to be applied to land that was not obviously open country. The Bill will impose that regime on 4 million acres of open country and it is obvious that the definitions require more precision if they are to be applied to such land.

Other legislation applying to land designations—to sites of special scientific interest, for example—does not use the word "predominantly". If the Government wished to accept the amendment, they could satisfactorily argue that it followed precedent. There are better ways of defining land areas than that used in the Bill.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

Does amendment No. 101 spring from the premise that the privacy appertaining to a small piece of land is inherently greater than that which applies to a larger piece of land, or is it my hon. Friend's contention that it is merely a matter of practicality that informs the amendment?

Mr. Green

My hon. Friend tempts me into a debate about principle, which I suspect you, Madam Speaker, would not find acceptable in this context. I merely say that practicality is the predominant issue in this group. However, I am aware that many hon. Members on both sides of the House have views about the principles involved.

Should they wish to, the Government could accept amendment No. 102 in the full knowledge that they would merely be following the legislation that set up the sites of special scientific interest, which hon. Members on both sides of the House supported. I recommend that the Government follow that example rather than that used in the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949.

Mr. Bill Etherington (Sunderland, North)

The hon. Gentleman has referred to the size of the area of land and to practicalities, but is he aware that at Hawes in Wensleydale, north Yorkshire, is the Hardraw force, one of the most beautiful waterfalls in the country? It is made more interesting by the fact that, in the 19th century, it was destroyed by severe flooding and was rebuilt in a magnificent way by the then landowner. If the hon. Gentleman prevents the public from having access to small parcels of land, he will deprive them of the opportunity to see the one small feature that is worth visiting in an area of many square miles. Will he respond to that point?

Mr. Green

I will happily respond to it. I am not aware of that waterfall, but I shall make a point of visiting it. I am advised by my hon. Friends who know the area that a footpath runs right to the waterfall, so there is already access to it. The hon. Gentleman's example is not relevant to the Bill and to the access provisions, because access is already provided. Even if there were not a footpath to the waterfall, I remind him that it is open to any landowner to provide voluntary access, in the way that many do. As the hon. Gentleman said, a public-spirited landowner repaired the waterfall in the 19th century. I hope that his descendants—if they still own the land—are equally public spirited and would wish the public to enjoy the full beauty of that waterfall.

The hon. Gentleman's point is not relevant to my point, which is that, if the Bill is to have largely beneficial effects, it needs to be as practicable as possible. My hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) will speak to amendment No. 306, which deals with a specific issue but which is also concerned with the overarching point that the Bill should be as practicable and tidy as possible. In that spirit, I commend the amendments to the House.

4 pm

Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury)

I shall speak to amendment No. 306. I fear that, inadvertently, the Bill will extinguish the rights of the villagers of Great Wishford in my constituency and remove their ancient privileges.

Prior to the Commons Registration Act 1965, there was considerable doubt over what land was subject to rights of common, and what rights of common existed over common land. In order to ascertain exactly what common land existed and to provide for the management and improvement of common land, the Commons Registration Act 1965 introduced a scheme for registering common rights that were claimed to be in existence. I know that the Minister for the Environment referred to that in Committee.

Under the 1965 Act, among other things, common land and rights over common land were registrable. After July 1970, no land could be deemed common land unless it was registered under the Act, and no rights of common were exercisable over any land unless they were registered under that Act or had been previously registered under the Land Registration Acts 1925 and 1936.

Examples of rights of common are the right of piscary—the right to catch and take away fish; auceptary—fowling; turbary—the right to take peat or turf for use as fuel; and estovers—the right to take wood from the land of another for a specific purpose.

On 29 May each year—this year was no exception—the villagers of Great Wishford celebrate Oak Apple day. It was during the Whit recess this year, so fortunately I was able to enjoy it. I did not get up at dawn to exercise the right with the villagers to go into the forest to gather wood. In a very ancient ceremony probably going back to the 14th century, the boughs of oak that have been gathered are taken into Salisbury cathedral, a dance is performed in front of the altar, and the villagers shout, "Grovely, Grovely, Grovely and all Grovely", and go back for a jolly good feast.

That is history and reality and, for the souls of Great Wishford, a treasured part of their heritage. The Wilton estate, and the Earl of Pembroke in particular, fully support and welcome the continuation of those rights. That is not in question. No one is suggesting that those rights should not exist—on the contrary, we want to preserve those rights and privileges for the villagers of Great Wishford. Everyone recognises them as an essential part of the character of the life of Great Wishford.

There has been great uncertainty, however, on the part of that estate and the Oak Apple club, which was formed almost two centuries ago to ensure the perpetuation of those ancient rights, about what the rights comprise. That was fully investigated a couple of years ago, and everyone in the parish received a letter jointly from the parish council, the Oak Apple club and the estate to clarify the position.

The rights have existed since time out of mind, and they were recorded in a charter of the forest court of Grovely in 1603. All but one of those rights were abolished under an Enclosure Act of 1809 in return for a grant of allotment land outside the wood. The only right not abolished was the right of estovers—the right to collect dead wood. That is now registered as a legal right under the Commons Registration Act 1965. The other ancient custom that has been resurrected is the collecting of green oak or hazel boughs on 29 May each year, and that continues.

The right of estovers is defined under the Commons Registration Act 1965 as the gathering and bringing away of dead snapping wood boughs and sticks over the whole of Grovely wood. The right can be exercised by all the inhabitants of the parish of Great Wishford, subject to these conditions: the collecting of dead wood must take place on foot. If required, a handcart may be used, but there is no right to take a vehicle beyond the main entrances to the wood. The right does not include any right to roam freely over the wood for purposes of recreation, referring only to the collecting of dead wood. The exercise of one's right to collect dead wood does not mean that one has a right to exercise a dog. The exercise of the right must not interfere with the owner's lawful use of the land.

That is all agreed. As far as I am aware, no one in the village disputes it. The management of Grovely wood is undertaken half by the Wilton estate and half by the Forestry Commission. They are involved in the responsible and far-sighted management of that land. The policy of the estate is to welcome and support public access, as far as is reasonable, within the constraints of other management considerations. In addition to the right of estovers, there is a network of bridle paths. Indeed, there are permissive bridlepaths in addition to the public rights-of-way network, an increase in the amount of way-marking and the placing of maps at the main entrances to the wood to show the extent of public access. That is all clear. However, it seems that the Bill, which has many good points, will give any member of the public the right to enter and remain on any common land for the purposes of open-air recreation, subject to his observing various restrictions. Access will also be allowed with a dog, subject to certain restrictions.

The effect of the Bill would be to allow the general public unlimited access to about 2,000 acres of woodland which previously was subject to only very limited rights of access for a very limited group of people—the villagers of Great Wishford.

The landowner may be able to restrict access for up to a maximum of 28 days in any year, but I am sure that the Minister will understand the implications of the matter. Grovely wood has never been common land in the loose sense of the term. A particular common land right—the right of estovers—was formalised in 1970, but it was never the intention of anybody, landowners or villagers, that the whole of this important woodland should become common land in the way that that is implied under the Bill. I am sure that there are many similar cases throughout the country—

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold)

Is my hon. Friend aware that on 28 March, in Committee, I asked the Minister for the Environment whether under the Commons Registration Act 1965 certain commons are registered that give rights in common to certain restricted groups of people? It seems that the Bill will give a general right of access to such common lands. If so, it will widen the definition— in the Act— of common land. The Minister for the Environment said: My immediate reaction, without receiving advice, is that the Bill is intended to have that effect. If I am wrong, I shall ensure that the Committee is informed of the fact.—[Official Report, Standing Committee B, 28 March 2000; c. 25–26.]. As far as I know, we have not been given an answer. The amendment of my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) is completely pertinent to what I said in Committee.

Mr. Key

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I was aware that he had assiduously taken part in the proceedings in Committee. I have referred to a speech that the Minister made in Committee. My hon. Friend has done us all a favour by pointing out that the Minister has not replied. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman has now taken advice. I wrote to him on 15 May, and I look forward to receiving a reply.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex)

So do we all.

Mr. Key

So do we all, as my hon. Friend says. I know that he knows Grovely wood very well, and understands the importance to the people of Great Wishford of what I am saying.

My desire is to set out clearly the definition of common land in the Bill to make it clear that common land means registered common land to which the public have a general right of access, and that the Bill does not seek to extinguish rights of common and common land registered under the Commons Registration Act 1965, or land that had previously been registered under the Land Registrations Acts of 1925 and 1936.

It is a simple matter of trying to preserve ancient rights and privileges for the people of the parish of Great Wishford. I hope that the Minister will respond positively. If he has not had tune to receive advice, I understand that. However, I hope that he will take the matter on board, possibly even in another place. It is an issue that must be addressed. The people of Great Wishford will not take it kindly if a Government who purport to be extending people's rights to access to the countryside effectively extinguish their own ancient rights.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome)

It is a delight to be back with the Bill. I was feeling withdrawal symptoms after a few weeks of not having my weekly fill of discussing access issues and rights of way.

The amendments are all pertinent in their way. However, I fear that I cannot personally support them and that I shall advise my right hon. and hon. Friends not to support them. That is a shame, because we worked closely together in Committee, and we found common positions with the Conservative Opposition on many issues. I feel that the amendments are misdirected, and I shall try to explain why.

Amendment No. 101 addresses the important issue of a de minimis provision, which we discussed in Committee. As I said then, I have some sympathy for the position taken by the hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Green)—which is that there should be some kind of de minimis provision. Where I fall out with him is over the fact that he is trying to make that a fixed figure. Ten hectares or 25 acres may seem an appropriate arbitrary figure, but in particular circumstances, it may seem entirely inappropriate to a point on the map. What is proposed is an unqualified de minimis figure, which means simply that land that falls within this category is excluded from access land.

Mr. Gray

Will the hon. Gentleman give us one example of a piece of land which currently has no rights of way and, therefore, to which the public have no access, but to which, under the Bill, he believes the public should have access, and which is less than 10 hectares?

Mr. Heath

No, because I do not have an example in mind, just as the hon. Gentleman may not have in mind an example of land which would fall under the requirements of access land and meet all the other definitions in the Bill, and which would otherwise be included in the mapping process, but which falls within that limited area.

The hon. Member for Ashford is tilting at the wrong windmill. He was on to a much better point in Committee when he talked about inaccessible land. There is a strong argument for not including inaccessible portions of land in the mapping of open country. To whose advantage would it be for land which cannot be reached by any means—which by definition will be a small portion of land because otherwise it would be accessible—to be included in the map, which, presumably, people will use as a means of identifying land over which they can walk?

Had the amendment been couched in terms of inaccessibility, its movers would have had a strong point; however, imposing an arbitrary figure of 10 hectares gives rise to the question whether there is open access land as defined in the Bill that is surrounded by common land or by a promontory which is important in recreational or leisure terms and which should be included but which might be excluded simply because of the inflexibility of the suggested formula.

Mr. Bercow

I find myself in uncharacteristic agreement with the hon. Gentleman. Is his point about accessibility not strengthened by the fact that, in this context, we are discussing access by foot, and not, for example, by air? Hang-gliding and paragliding are quite properly subject to restrictions in the Bill. Does that not serve to underline the force of the hon. Gentleman's point?

Mr. Heath

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his support. He is right. I cannot claim originality for the concept because the proposal came from Conservative Members in Committee. However it was a sensible one which I support.

Throughout our proceedings, we have sought to make the Bill practicable—to make it work for those who wish to take advantage of access and for those who are landowners or who try to work the land and have an interest in the land, who also need clarity of definition for all sorts of reason. My main criticism of the Bill is that some areas still lack clarity.

I am not convinced that the 10 hectare proposal is a particularly useful yardstick or metrestick. Provision already exists for countryside bodies not to include land which it is of no value for them to map for the purpose of access, so the de minimis provision is essentially there but not in a defined form. The question is whether the definition adds to or subtracts from the Bill. My view is that it does not add anything and may subtract something.

Amendment No. 102 was a vexed question in Committee. All, apart from the Minister, agreed that "wholly or predominantly" was not a particularly helpful definition because it left a lot about which to argue. We suggested alternative forms of words. I proposed "almost entirely" and was told that that was equally vague. I accept that it is imprecise. "Overwhelming" was suggested as an alternative to "predominantly". Again, it is imprecise.

4.15 pm

My objection to amendment No. 102 is that I interpret "predominantly" as more than 60 per cent. The hon. Member for Ashford said that that was the NFU's criticism; it is also mine. I do not expect land that is only 60 per cent. heathland, moorland or mountain to be mapped as open access land per se. The amendment proposes an unhelpful definition, which I hope the hon. Gentleman will not pursue.

The hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) gave a complex discourse on the position in Great Wishford, and the difficulties of estovers and turbary. He made a good point about partial rights of access to common land. However, the provision to which he wants to add amendment No. 306 is not the appropriate one. I may be mistaken, but I believe he is trying to add it to a provision that excepts land from open access. The qualification would therefore make matters worse from the hon. Gentleman's point of view. The Minister will deal with that, and I shall listen carefully to the argument. The hon. Member for Salisbury made a good point, which may have to be pursued in another place. However, I suspect that amendment No. 306 is not helpful from his point of view.

Mr. Gray

I support amendments Nos. 101 and 102. I would support amendment No. 306 if I knew more about Great Wishford. However, my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) spoke eloquently enough on that. Despite the fact that I, too, am a Wiltshire man, the amendment needs no support from me. I am confident that the Government will accept the power and logic of my hon. Friend's arguments.

Amendments Nos. 101 and 102 are vital if the Bill is to work. Many people in the countryside and Conservative Members oppose the principle of the right to roam. We do not like it because we believe that it infringes on the rights of ownership and other matters. However, it is not appropriate to consider that now. If we grant that the principle has been lost, that the Bill will be passed and rights of access will exist, it is vital that the detail be crystal clear, precise and completely understood. The measure will work only if walkers understand their responsibilities and owners understand their privileges of ownership. The Bill must strike a delicate balance between the rights of owners and the rights and obligations of walkers. Imprecision in the Bill's language will lead to confrontation and to the measure falling into disrepute. It will also mean that parts of the Bill will be disputed in court. We do not want that.

In Committee, I said that I was proud of the fact that the Ramblers Association in Wiltshire is working well with the county council and others to establish an embryonic access forum. I hope that it will become a worthwhile and useful organisation once the Bill is enacted. I am worried that, if the detail is not made clear and precision of language is not achieved, such useful co-operation between walkers and landowners will fail and there will be the sort of confrontation and argument that has taken place between walkers and landowners in other parts of England.

On amendment No. 101, it is important to be clear about what we mean by access land. When pressed, the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) could not produce an example of a piece of land of less than 10 hectares, which would otherwise be suitable for access under the Bill, but would be prohibited by its size, and land that did not have some other form of access, such as a right of way, path or road. I challenge anyone to name a piece of land measuring less than 10 hectares that would not be covered by the Bill.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle)


Mr. Gray

The hon. Gentleman, who is a well known rambler, apparently has such an example.

Mr. Prentice

There may well be crags measuring less than 10 hectares to which mountaineers want access. Surely that is not inconceivable.

Mr. Gray

But the mountain itself, being more than 600 m high, would be fully accessible under the Bill. Crags measuring less than 10 hectares would therefore also be accessible. The hon. Gentleman has not given me an example of a piece of land that would not be accessible—that is, land that is not a mountain measuring more than 600 m, and is not surrounded by access land.

Mr. Bennett

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Gray

Of course I must give way to the president of the Ramblers Association.

Mr. Bennett

I am certain that Windgather Rocks in the Peak district is within the definition in terms of scale.

Mr. Gray

I hope that, as Chairman of the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Environment Sub-Committee, the hon. Gentleman will want to take us to the Peak district to inspect the piece of land that he cites. I fear that I do not know it, but I am confident that it will turn out to be surrounded by access land, and therefore to be eligible for access. I shall, however, examine the position in detail later.

More important is the fact that, throughout the nation, there are large areas of otherwise cultivated land, in the centre of which there may be pieces of land that— possibly temporarily, possibly for a number of years—constitute heathland. Under the Bill, that land would become a small pocket of access land, although it would be foolish to allow that to happen, for a number of reasons.

Let us consider the issue from the point of view of those who want the Bill to succeed. If every pocket handkerchief—the odd hectare here and there—were included in the mapping exercise, the exercise would become bogged down in bureaucracy. It would not be possible to produce an accurate map covering the whole nation and including every minute piece of land. The value of the exercise to walkers would be greatly reduced: what is the point of a map peppered by a variety of otherwise useless bits of land, on which the average walker would not want to walk in any case?

Moreover, the burden on farmers who would have to prepare such land for reasonable access under the terms of the Bill would he disproportionate. They would have to spend a great deal of time and effort, and incur considerable costs, getting the land ready for walkers and safeguarding themselves against the various penalties that the Bill imposes—and probably no one would walk on the land, because it would not be appropriate for walking on.

A minimum of 10 hectares is essential. We should be able to tell farmers, "If it measures less than 10 hectares, do not worry about it: it will not be affected by the Bill." In fact, I would have preferred a larger figure. I think that 10 hectares is extremely modest, and the National Farmers Union agrees that that is a very small area suddenly to become access land. However, I dare say that the NFU, the Country Landowners Association and others would, like me, be prepared to compromise and agree on a minimum of 10 hectares, simply in order to prevent the conflict between landowners and walkers, which hon. Members on both sides of the House are so keen to avoid.

Amendment No. 102 proposes the deletion of the words "wholly or predominantly" and their replacement with a figure. Like the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome, I think that 60 per cent. is probably too low a figure. In my view, "wholly or predominantly" means 80 or 90 per cent.; indeed, "wholly" means 100 per cent. To tempt the Government to accept the precision of the definition, however, it seems reasonable to propose a figure of 60 per cent, in relation to moorland, heathland or mountain. I do not understand why the Government do not want to accept that. Surely, if we introduce precision we shall be more likely to avoid conflict between the two interested parties.

The Government may say that the question of a de minimis figure is covered by clause 4(5)(a), which says that the mapping bodies may ignore certain parcels of land if they are too small. That applies, however, only if the mapping bodies are in agreement with the landowner. However, it is possible that, in a spirit of determination to give as much land possible to walkers, the mapping or access body could drive ahead with opening otherwise absurdly small pieces of land to walkers, which would achieve nothing for them or the farmers.

In these amendments and in others that my hon. Friends will move later this evening, it is absolutely crucial that, on this terribly important principle, we should state clearly and precisely what the Bill means for the public and for landowners. I am already concerned that my constituents believe that the right to roam means that they can walk anywhere. People are saying, "We have a right to roam; we can walk on your fields, gardens or wherever we like." That is the word that has gone out from this place to the public. It is important that, on Report and during the Bill's other stages, we send out messages to the public that there will be access to particular areas.

Mr. David Lepper (Brighton, Pavilion)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Gray

I was about to finish, but of course I shall give way.

Mr. Lepper

Can the hon. Gentleman produce any documentary evidence which he could place on the record to substantiate his claim that there is a general view that people in their thousands are saying that they will be entitled to walk anywhere once the Bill is passed?

Mr. Gray

I am not sure that there is any documentary evidence about people's perceptions, but there is certainly plenty of anecdotal evidence. Many people in my constituency have asked me, "Why are you worried about rights of way? Surely, they will be finished because we will have the right to roam and can walk wherever we like." By definition, any such documentary evidence is extremely unlikely to exist because of the nature of the proposal and the fact that we are still considering the Bill, but there is certainly fairly convincing anecdotal evidence. We shall see—perhaps in a few years, the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Mr. Lepper) might be able to say that there has been no problem. I am concerned that there may be a problem, which is why it is important that the Bill is drafted precisely.

I am in favour of precision in the Bill's wording so that people outside the House know precisely what the right of access is. I fear that I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman if he is arguing that the Bill should be woolly and imprecise because he believes that there will be no problem. It is vital that we get it right so that people know precisely what the right of access is. That will reduce time in the courts, but, more importantly, it will ensure that the important relationship between farmers and walkers is preserved, as I believe it should be, in a warm and friendly way.

Mr. Bennett

I hope that the Government do not concede those amendments. The hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) pleads for precision, but that will come from the mapping. The general public will be able to look at precise maps. I would argue that, certainly in the north and south downs, many small pockets of land would not be included under amendment No. 101. Certainly, on the gritstone edges along the Pennines—areas where people like to rock climb—many fields come up almost to the bottom of the cliffs that are climbed. The moor often slopes away above the climbing area, but in several cases, it has been replaced either by forestry or, in one or two cases, by cultivated fields. I suspect that quite a few areas that are important for access would be lost under the amendment.

On amendment No. 102, such a percentage would not produce precision because the landowner would agree that a bigger area should be considered and say that the percentage is less than 60 per cent. in that bigger area. There would be a huge argument about the area over which the 60 per cent, should be measured. The amendment is nonsense, and I hope that the Government will stick to their guns.

The Minister for the Environment (Mr. Michael Meacher)

The Government will stick to their guns. Under amendment No. 101, open country of less than 10 hectares would be excluded from the right of access. As we said in Committee when a similar amendment on common land was debated, we believe that 10 hectares, which is about 25 acres and the equivalent of about 15 football pitches, is substantial and, therefore, could be valuable for the purposes of access.

4.30 pm

To take up the point raised by the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray), although he may have been referring to another clause, clause 4(5)(a) already provides for the countryside bodies—not only the mapping bodies in agreement with the landowners—to exercise their discretion and to apply a minimum size threshold in deciding whether to map an area of open country. We believe that the decision to determine a threshold is best left with them. I do not disagree in principle with the concept of a de minimis threshold, but it is not wise to pick an arbitrary figure, whatever it may be. The decision is best left to local discretion.

The provision will allow the countryside bodies flexibility in making their decisions. They will be able to consider whether a threshold is appropriate in a particular case and, if necessary, to apply different thresholds in different cases. I do not want to tie the hands of the countryside bodies so as to bind them either to exclude or to include all land of a particular size.

On amendment No. 102, we debated the definition of "predominantly" at length in Committee and I can assure hon. Members that the Government's view has not changed. The amendment would substitute a threshold of 60 per cent, for "wholly or predominantly" in determining whether, in clause 1, the countryside bodies should map land as open country. We chose not to define or replace "predominantly" by reference to any percentage or figure because that would be too prescriptive. The usual definition will therefore apply—that is, "mostly" or "prevailing". I pray in aid the hon. Member for South—East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice), who was good enough to say in Committee: I happily accept that a percentage figure would be too specific.—[Official Report, Standing Committee B, 4 April 2000: c. 119.] I agree.

On amendment No. 306, I originally thought that the hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) may have misunderstood the intentions of the Bill. Part I will give people a new right of access to open country and registered common land, subject to sensible restrictions and limitations. It does not affect common land to which there is an existing right of access; access to such land is preserved by clause 15. The amendment would create no new rights of access to common land. However, having listened to his speech, I understand that this is the Great Wishford question.

Mr. Key

indicated assent.

Mr. Meacher

The hon. Gentleman's concern is whether common land to which a small local population have privileged access should be opened to all. If the land over which the rights are exercised is registered under the Commons Registration Act 1965, as he said, the statutory right of access under the Bill will extend to the land. If the rights are registered, they are protected under the 1965 Act and there is no question of the Bill interfering with them.

The hon. Gentleman nodded a moment ago, but I was not sure whether he was indicating that the land is explicitly registered common land. If it is woodland, which is not part of the increased right of access under the Bill unless it is voluntarily dedicated by the landowner, I imagine that the Bill would not give general access to it. However, it may be better to examine the precise details of Great Wishford—although I was not specifically briefed on it before the debate, I would like to get it right—and I undertake to reply to the hon. Gentleman. He said that he wrote to me on 15 May; he should certainly have had a reply by now. I apologise and will see that he gets one in the next week.

I have a good deal of sympathy with what the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) said about the alternative of inaccessible islands. I accept that there may be some areas to which there is currently no legal right of access. However, I would not wish to exclude such areas automatically, as authorities have powers to provide access to them. The public should be made aware that such areas are currently out of bounds so that they can seek access when appropriate by applying pressure on the access authorities to act.

Mr. David Heath

The right hon. Gentleman's last sentence was helpful. However, the moment that the local authority succeeded in getting access, the land would no longer be inaccessible and would be back on the map. The dilemma, therefore, is not wholly impossible.

Mr. Meacher

If I have understood the hon. Gentleman correctly, I believe that he has answered his own question.

The Bill will give people a statutory right of access to all common land registered under the Commons Registration Act 1965, subject to provision for excepted land in schedule 1. We gave the public that commitment in our manifesto and we are determined to deliver on it. The amendments do not assist in defining the extent of access under the Bill. I accept the general principle of precision and accuracy, but there are better ways of achieving the Opposition's aims, as I have made clear. I therefore call on the hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Green) to withdraw his amendment.

Mr. Green

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) for his amendment and for his insight into his constituents' traditional leisure activities, with which they should certainly be allowed to carry on. I hope that my hon. Friend achieves his aim of ensuring that there is no damage to the traditions of the villagers of Great Wishford, once he and the Minister have resolved what may, or may not, be their differences.

Like the Minister, I was not clear about what the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) was saying in his last intervention. The hon. Gentleman appeared to be saying that he wished inaccessible land not to be included unless it was accessible. However, he now has a chance to clear that up.

Mr. David Heath

I obviously need to provide clarification. The Minister appeared to be saying that inaccessible land should be included on the map because it may become accessible at some later stage. I was saying that, once such land became accessible, it would no longer be defined as inaccessible and would appear on the map, so the Minister did not have a problem.

Mr. Green

I hope that the House thinks that that has cleared the matter up. The hon. Gentleman appears to be saying that, if land is accessible, or even potentially or putatively accessible, it is not inaccessible. He and the Minister described my formulation as imperfect but, to be perfectly honest, it is better than that.

Several points have been made about the 60 per cent. definition that would replace "wholly or predominantly" being too low. As I have said, there are arguments to be made on that. I take the point made my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) and others: perhaps I am being too moderate. I can accept my hon. Friends regarding me as too moderate, but being so regarded by the Liberal Democrats is a savage blow from which I shall seek to recover. The point still obtains that there will be confusion and a sense of unfairness if widely different definitions are used in different parts of the country. When the Bill is debated in another place, the Minister should try to give better, clearer guidance on the issue.

On amendment No. 101, the Minister said that he preferred a discretionary de minimis threshold. Again, either he or the countryside bodies should, at the very least, give some kind of guidance, not least because, if individual cases are to be decided locally, there will be serious resource implications. One of the overall problems is that the Bill imposes many extra duties not only on farmers and other landowners but on local authorities, without compensating them with increased resources. Every time the Minister says, "I shall leave that to be decided locally", he adds an extra cost for which he is not providing compensation, so other essential services will be damaged.

Mr. Soames

My hon. Friend makes an extremely important point. Does he agree that local authorities have plenty of money with which to deal with these matters and to hire, at the snap of a finger, as many people as are needed, whereas farmers and landowners do not have the necessary resources? Local authorities will tell their finance committees that they need the money and will easily be able to do the work, but a further, intolerable strain will be imposed on already hard-pressed farmers and landowners.

Mr. Green

My hon. Friend is right to point out that there will be variations in the ability to pay for the extra work that the Bill imposes on bodies in both the public and private sectors.

The amendment seeks to reduce the amount of extra work, but I hear what the Minister says, and I am sure that the other place will give the Bill full consideration. Therefore, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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