HC Deb 20 March 2000 vol 346 cc699-700
1. Mr. Colin Pickthall (West Lancashire)

If he will make a statement on progress in providing public access to his Department's land. [113688]

10. Angela Smith (Basildon)

What review he has made of the criteria on which his Department allows access to his Department's land. [113697]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Dr. Lewis Moonie)

There is a presumption in favour of public access to the defence estate subject to safety, security and operational reasons. Although those have been the overriding factors governing access by the public, we have also taken into account the criteria—which are now in the Countryside and Rights of Way Bill—of land management, nature conservation and heritage protection as well as the interests of our tenants. Our forthcoming strategy for the defence estate, which is due for publication in June, will be the vehicle for improving the quality, extent and certainty of access to the defence estate.

Mr. Pickthall

I thank my hon. Friend for that positive reply. Will he nevertheless consider some of the changes that could be made under current legislation? For example, will he consider complaints about Dartmoor, where about 40 firing days every year are not used by the Army, and 60,000 acres can be closed off when only a handful of troops are using a corner of the territory? Does he not agree that an awful lot of efficiency and compromise could be achieved under the present regulations?

Dr. Moonie

I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. Ease of access is clearly one of the main principles that we have in mind, and although we must also be careful about public safety, allowing access wherever possible will be an overriding consideration.

Angela Smith

I, too, welcome the Minister's answer, but may I push him further? I welcome the current review, but is he aware that in 1986 public rights of way were withdrawn from areas of Salisbury plain? Despite that, the Royal Artillery hunt is allowed access to it even when the red flags are flying, although many ordinary ramblers are not—it is still out of bounds for those who want only to walk. Given the unpredictable nature of fox hunting—the fox runs, and the hounds and riders follow—would not it be appropriate to open up access to those who merely want to walk?

Dr. Moonie

While it remains a legal activity, hunting with hounds is permitted on the defence estate. It is restricted to recognised hunts, and licences are granted only to those that have held such permission previously.

Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury)

Will the Minister confirm that, under clause 26, he will seek to exempt all military training lands from the provisions of the Countryside and Rights of Way Bill? Given the severe shortage of training land and the training shortfall, particularly in the Army, when can we expect an announcement on the outcome of the inquiry into the Otterburn range's improvement, which is putting a great deal of strain on the Army's training programme?

Dr. Moonie

First, the presumption has to be that the public have right of access, but clearly the needs of the service must be taken fully into account in that presumption. Secondly, I am sorry to say that Otterburn is not in my hands.

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