HC Deb 01 May 2002 vol 384 cc1018-28

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mrs. McGuire.]

7.55 pm
Mr. Robert Jackson (Wantage)

In my maiden speech in this Chamber in 1983, I waxed lyrical about the primeval monuments that distinguish my constituency, including the white horse, dating back to 1,000 years before Christ, and the bronze age barrows dating back 2,000 years before that. I am afraid that I omitted to mention the even older feature that links all those monuments together: the Ridgeway. Tonight, I hope to make up for that omission.

The Ridgeway, stretching along 85 miles from Overton Hill in Wiltshire to Ivinghoe Beacon in Buckinghamshire, is England's oldest green road. It dates back to the earliest days of agriculture and inter-regional trade in this country, 6,000 years ago. It is an historical feature of European importance, and because of its upland location it is, or rather it ought to be, a site of great natural beauty.

I say ought to be, because the Ridgeway is being subjected to such abuse and progressive degradation that, although the distant views from it may be splendid, those who walk it or ride along it are dismayed at every turn. The present unhappy state of the Ridgeway, to which I am drawing the House's attention, has come about as a result of a combination of many different factors, the most fundamental of which is the growth in the number and variety of motor vehicles. That has exposed this ancient highway to a host of new pressures. Alongside that is a failure of public regulation, which has not kept up with this automotive explosion, and has not mitigated and managed its impact.

I shall begin with the growth of motor traffic on the Ridgeway. I particularly want the Minister to realise that it is certain that growing affluence and the multiplication of automotive technologies will go on throwing up new ways of abusing the Ridgeway, and of expanding and intensifying the scale of the pressures that we have already experienced. For instance, over the past decade there has been a 400 per cent. increase nationally in the number of off-road motor bikes and 4x4 motor cars, which has brought with it a corresponding increase in the use of the Ridgeway by such vehicles.

The consequences of that problem immediately hit the eye when one walks the Ridgeway at any time of the year, as my wife and I do frequently. Those vehicles destroy the surface of the trail. In wet weather, huge sections of it become a sea of mud and deep puddles. In dry weather, the surface sets into a series of ankle-twisting, knee-wrenching ruts. The impact is not only visual: there is also the noise, especially the buzzing from the motorbikes, and the pollution that those vehicles cause. This is a matter of great concern in my constituency and in those of my colleagues who are present for this debate.

Those are not the only abuses that arise from the openness of the Ridgeway to motor traffic. Because of its easy accessibility, the Ridgeway is the scene of all-night raves, with large numbers of vehicles driving along it to party sites. It is used by so-called travellers, who set up their camps and leave behind them piles of rubbish when they are moved along by the authorities. There is also more and more fly tipping: it is easy to drive a short way along the Ridgeway to dump waste materials. Cars stolen for joyriding are frequently taken up to the Ridgeway, driven along it and then torched, leaving behind a burned-out wreck.

A particularly unpleasant example of what is happening is the use of an iron age burial mound just off the Ridgeway at Peewit farm in my constituency as a stunt ramp by motor bikes and 4x4 vehicles, to such an extent that it will soon be totally destroyed.

The damage being done by all this is not just aesthetic, but economic. A great deal of effort and taxpayers' money is being put into encouraging the diversification of the rural economy, and the Ridgeway should be a major tourist attraction; but a survey published last April by the National Trails Office showed that some 50 per cent. of users were so dissatisfied with the condition of the trail that they were not likely to use it again. The Ridgeway is not as much used by hikers as many other national trails, and its potential as a contributor to a more diverse rural economy is not being fully realised.

Meanwhile, the flora and fauna are also suffering. Dr. John Dover of Staffordshire university has demonstrated the potential value of "green lanes" as biodiversity reservoirs in intensively managed farmland. If and as—with agriculture policy reform—farming recedes from some of the uplands along the Ridgeway, a great opportunity for expansion of those reservoirs will present itself; but that cannot be done if the Ridgeway continues to be exposed to abuse by cars and bikes.

My second point is that the Ridgeway is suffering from the failure of public regulations to keep abreast of the impact of expanding automotive technologies. Most of the western half is classified as a "road used as a public path", or RUPP, while the section in Wiltshire is classed as a "byway open to all traffic", or BOAT. It is on the basis of those regulatory classifications that the Ridgeway is open to motor traffic.

In 1992, the then Countryside Commission, together with the county councils, sought to introduce a traffic regulation order along the whole Ridgeway. That constituted a welcome recognition of the growing problem, which I supported at the time; but the inspector who presided over the public inquiry that followed, and the Minister to whom he reported, unfortunately failed to rise to the occasion. As I recall, the application for a TRO was rejected mainly on the ground that the presence of motor vehicles on the Ridgeway did not pose a safety risk to other users. I submit that the issue is not one of safety.

Over the past 10 years, the preferred device for dealing with the continuing deterioration of the Ridgeway has been a voluntary code of respect drawn up by worthy representatives of the different users and managers of the trail. I fear that there is considerable naiveté on the part of the worthy authorities involved about the motives of many motorised users. The code of respect asks them, for example, to avoid using the trail in wet conditions or when the surface is vulnerable after wet weather, but that is precisely when most of them enjoy the sport most. The code also recommends that motor vehicles stick to the well-worn parts of the track to prevent damage to the whole width, but although the Ridgeway is 30 m wide in some places its whole width is often covered with ruts. We must face the fact that the more the surface is destroyed, the more many motorised users enjoy it.

The only effective way of protecting the Ridgeway from this growing abuse is to return to the principle of traffic regulation. I ask the Minister to do two things. First, I ask him to tell the Countryside Agency and the relevant councils along the Ridgeway that he looks to them to promote traffic regulation orders to ban all non-essential motor vehicles from the Ridgeway. Secondly, I ask him to confirm that if such TROs are not in place by the time the Countryside Rights of Way Act 2000 is implemented, all sections of the Ridgeway currently classified as RUPPs will become restricted byways that will no longer be open to motor vehicles except as narrowly prescribed in the Act.

Let me briefly anticipate and rebut two objections to my proposals. The first is that enforcement is impossible. I do not agree. The vast majority of users of the Ridgeway are law-abiding people who will refrain from doing what it is clearly not lawful for them to do. Physical barriers—locked gates with keys available to legal users—can also be effective. Beyond that, there is the fact that the police can take action against abuse on the basis of dated and timed photographs of the abuse taking place.

Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury)

During last year's foot and mouth crisis, the Ridgeway path was closed and people—both local people and visitors—adhered to the regulations meticulously, and stayed off the Ridgeway altogether. As a result, paradoxically, by the end of the summer the surface of many parts of it was probably in better condition than it had been for many years.

Mr. Jackson

I agree, and that confirms my point about the law-abiding nature of most users of the Ridgeway. It does not, however, support the contention that the voluntary code of respect is doing the job. The fact is that it is not.

The second objection to the proposal for TROs is more philosophical. I have heard it argued that the right of motorists to use and abuse the Ridgeway is one of the immemorial liberties of the free-born Englishman. I suggest that those who advance that argument re-read John Stuart Mill's "On Liberty"—if they have read it in the first place—and ponder on his distinction between self-regarding and other-regarding actions. The motorised abuse of the Ridgeway is a good example of an other-regarding action in which the pursuit of one man's satisfaction significantly reduces the satisfactions available to many others.

As the debate is taking place on May day, let me end by drawing the Minister's attention to the way in which the honourable traditions of Britain's labour movement, which he represents, bear on the problem I have described. I do not know whether the Fabian Society still holds summer schools, but I know from the diaries and memoirs of Barbara Castle and many others that in the past a summer school walk along the Ridgeway was a common event—perhaps after a weekend with Lord Faringdon at Buscot park, and an inspection of his mural painting of Stalin and Gandhi playing tennis on his lawn. Those Fabians might have been mistakenly slow to recognise how the motor car can liberate the individual, but they would rightly have seen how easily it can also become an instrument of private selfishness with each man wrapped in his metal cocoon, driving wherever and however he chooses.

The Ridgeway is a species of common land, but that does not mean that access to it must be a free-for-all. The preservation of common assets—this is a good Fabian tradition—depends just as much on self-restraint and, if necessary, the law, as does the preservation of private property. We can stand back and allow our common heritage to be appropriated in selfish ways, treating it as just another throwaway item of the modern consumer society, or—and I appeal to the Minister to do this—we can use the legitimate power of the state to restrain unwarranted and antisocial private appropriations of what should be open to reasonable use, on fair terms, by all. It is in that May day spirit that I commend my proposals to the Minister and the House.

8.8 pm

Mr. David Rendel (Newbury)

I am delighted that the debate is taking place earlier than expected, because that gives those of us whose constituencies contain parts of the Ridgeway a chance to support the hon. Member for Wantage (Mr. Jackson). I congratulate him on raising a matter that is important to us. Indeed, it has become increasingly important over the past few years—as he said—because of the degradation now being caused to the Ridgeway, and the difficulties that that creates for other users.

The Ridgeway is a particularly beautiful place. In my constituency, it runs through an area of outstanding natural beauty. It is a place where people like to walk, jog and ride their cycles and horses. None of those uses causes the damage caused by motor vehicles. Motor vehicles are incompatible with other users because of the way in which they tear the place up and leave it full of terrible ruts, making it difficult for others to use. It can therefore be argued that only those who cause the damage—mostly drivers of four-wheel-drive vehicles—should be excluded. Of course, they say, "Why should we suffer, if no one else is to be excluded?" However, the reason is that they are the only users who render the Ridgeway totally unusable by anybody else.

A number of four-wheel-drive owners say that they are careful to use the Ridgeway only on the right days and in accordance with the voluntary code of practice, and that they do much work to repair it. However, even if it is true that only a fairly small minority of four-wheel drive vehicles cause most of the damage, the fact remains that some irresponsible users have caused an enormous amount of damage, to the detriment of other users. They cannot possibly repair the damage that they do; it is far too great to be repaired by individuals. Sadly, it is necessary for the local authority to get involved. As the hon. Gentleman said, it often has to spend a great deal of money on repairing the damage done.

I am glad to have the opportunity briefly to support the hon. Gentleman, and to make it clear that, so far as the Liberal Democrat party is concerned, this is in no sense a party political issue. The same is doubtless true of the Labour party, and I hope that the Minister will back us in this regard. It is simply a question of trying to ensure that all those who have greatly enjoyed this beautiful land can continue to do so.

8.11 pm
The Minister for Rural Affairs (Alun Michael)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Wantage (Mr. Jackson) on securing this Adjournment debate, and on using it as an opportunity to rewrite his maiden speech. With that in mind, I am not sure how to describe today's speech, so perhaps I shall leave that thought there.

I also thank the hon. Gentleman for his courtesy in making clear the issues that he wants to discuss, and I hope that I will be able to respond constructively. Like the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel), I welcome the fact that the debate has occurred earlier than it might otherwise have done. That is always preferable for a debate such as this, not only to enable more Members to contribute, but so that we can conclude our discussion before dinner, rather than after.

My interest in such issues is not just academic, or confined to the fact that they form part of my portfolio. As a walker myself, I know the importance of the condition of paths. I took the trouble to visit several of our national parks, and to examine the situation in areas of outstanding national beauty, so that I might understand what is happening on the ground and the nature of the problems experienced in various places. I certainly welcome the interest in this ancient right of way, and I appreciate that there are long-standing concerns about stretches of the Ridgeway.

I am sympathetic to the concerns expressed by the hon. Member for Wantage, but I must question—constructively, I hope—some of the facts that he offers. I have particular respect for the fact that he has walked the path himself and brought such personal experiences to the debate, rather than simply relying on the reports of others. The challenge is to focus clearly on the real problems and issues, and to ensure that they are targeted effectively. In other words, we must respond in a way that actually solves some of the problems. Today, I shall try to cover both the general issues and some of the specific issues that he raised.

I recognise that some regard the use of motor vehicles on this ancient right of way as totally inappropriate. It is argued that such an unsurfaced way was intended for use only by carts and carriages such as those that the philosopher whom the hon. Gentleman quoted in his support might have used. I understand such concerns, but we must ensure that any action taken is well-founded and proportionate. He may be aware that audit work is under way. It is due to be completed in June, and should provide a real focus of information and a basis for action.

The hon. Gentleman also referred to the growth of motor traffic on the Ridgeway. I do not doubt the figures that he quotes concerning the number of off-road motor bikes and 4x4s. He says that the number of such vehicles has increased by 400 per cent. nationally, but that does not necessarily translate into numbers used on the Ridgeway in general or proportionally. The most recent survey—admittedly, it was conducted some six years ago—actually showed a small decrease in vehicle use on the Ridgeway. That makes it all the more important that we examine the facts emerging from the current audit, so that we can be sure whether the concern expressed by the hon. Gentleman is justified. For example, the audit might conclude that there are problems with a particular part of the Ridgeway, rather than throughout its length. That is why we must ensure that we understand what is happening, so that we can target whatever mischief is being made.

Mr. Rendel

Does the Minister accept that it is not just a question of the number of vehicles? Even if the number of vehicles using the Ridgeway has declined in the past few years, the damage done by each one has in many cases increased. Vehicles are getting more powerful, and more 4x4s are being used. What is important is not just the numbers, but the overall damage done.

Alun Michael

Indeed, and the audit must inform us about such matters, but I was addressing the specific point made by the hon. Member for Wantage. He suggested that a 400 per cent. increase in the number of vehicles nationwide means that a similar increase has occurred on the Ridgeway, but we need to know the actual level of use and the damage done. The hon. Gentleman will doubtless agree that we cannot simply extrapolate from statistics.

Mr. Robert Jackson

The audit is not before time, and I welcome it. The Minister is welcome to come and look at the Ridgeway in person. The four Members of Parliament who represent the Ridgeway—my hon. Friends the Members for Henley (Mr. Johnson) and for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington), the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel) and myself—would be happy to receive him and to show him the ruts for himself.

Alun Michael

I am grateful for that invitation, and I certainly do not rule it out. An appropriate time to visit would be once the audit has been completed and the local players—including local Members—have had an opportunity to consider the findings and the discussions that will take place with bodies such as the local authorities. I am certainly happy to take an interest and for it to form part of the response, but the hon. Gentleman will agree that I should not detract from the responsibility of local parties to work the matter out. That is the right place to start.

The hon. Gentleman also referred to fly tipping and joyriding. Of course they are illegal activities, so a traffic regulation order is unlikely to deter the perpetrators, who constitute a nuisance in any case. There is a need for a co-ordinated approach. If such law breaking is causing a problem, the right way to deal with it is through the local authority and the police. They have a joint responsibility for identifying the nature of crime and disorder in the locality, and for producing a strategy to deal with any problems that are identified and agreed on.

Mr. Jackson

It is true that anybody determined to overcome traffic regulation orders and physical barriers can do so. However, although physical barriers may not solve the problem of bicycles, they could be an effective deterrent to motor cars. They could form part of a strategy to deal with the wider problems.

Alun Michael

Again, I am trying to respond to specific elements in the hon. Gentleman's speech and suggesting that the audit should consider the size of each problem that he mentioned. Something that is already illegal must be treated as an illegal activity, and it is the responsibility of the police and the local authority to co-ordinate action where necessary, proportionate to the extent of the problem. That would be the place to start that discussion.

The hon. Gentleman also referred to concern about an iron age burial mound, but my information is that it is a bronze age bell barrow. However, he is right to raise the concerns felt about the monument. I understand that efforts have been made to protect it, but it has no statutory protection as a scheduled ancient monument. It has sustained some damage, although some was caused by bicycles as well as by motor vehicles. It would be appropriate to invite English Heritage to advise on that and to take part in the discussions that will follow the audit.

Mr. Jackson

I am happy to be corrected on the point that the monument is bronze age rather than iron age, which makes it even older. However, the issue is the code of respect. What kind of respect is being shown to those monuments, even by bicyclists? The code of respect is not working.

Alun Michael

As I have said, I am trying to respond to the specific points that the hon. Gentleman raised. If we ensure that all the authorities that have an interest in the matter are participating in the discussions of what should be done to combat the problems identified by the audit, we will arrive at a soundly based methodology.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that economic considerations are important. He mentioned people being put off the Ridgeway by the conditions, but we should question whether that is the case for the whole of the Ridgeway or for specific elements. The last survey by the National Trails Office in 1996 showed that 80 per cent. of those using the Ridgeway had used it before, so they had returned to use it again; 60 per cent. would not use the Ridgeway in certain conditions; and of the 60 per cent., only a small proportion said that a poor surface or motor vehicles had spoiled their enjoyment. That is why it is so important to establish the facts and then decide on the right solution.

There are powers available to restrict vehicle use where necessary by means of traffic regulation orders. The hon. Gentleman referred to a previous effort to apply such an order to the whole length of the Ridgeway. The purposes for which such orders can be made range widely, including avoiding danger to persons or other traffic using the way; preventing damage to the way or any building on or near the way; facilitating the passage of a certain class of user; preventing use by vehicular traffic of a kind or in a manner that is unsuitable, having regard to the character of the way; preserving the character of the way in cases in which it is especially suitable for use by persons on horseback or on foot; and preserving or improving the amenities of the area through which the way runs.

The application that was made in 1992–93 would have banned vehicle use on all of the western section on Sundays and bank holidays. At public inquiry, the inspector considered the issues of surface damage, danger to other users, noise and pollution, which were presumably informed by the nature of the application. However, he concluded that insufficient evidence existed to justify the ban. He also concluded—this is an important point when considering use of traffic regulation orders—that much of the surface damage was from tractors and other farm vehicles, which would not be banned by such an order. That returns us to the need to identify the real mischief and to take account of issues of proportionality in the response to problems.

Mr. Rendel

I listened to the list of reasons why a traffic regulation order might be made for the Ridgeway, but I could not spot a single one that would not apply in this case. Perhaps the Minister would care to consider that.

Alun Michael

The list was considered by an inspector in relation to a large section of the Ridgeway to see whether the evidence justified an order at that time. The fact that the earlier application for an order was unsuccessful would not prevent local authorities from using traffic regulation orders in particular problem areas. That is a decision for them, based on local circumstances. It may be that the audit will pinpoint parts of the Ridgeway where an order is necessary, and the evidence of the audit would greatly strengthen the hand of the local authority making the application.

Mr. Boris Johnson (Henley)

I speak as a vice-president of the Friends of the Ridgeway—as my hon. Friends probably also are—and I have just joined that body. The Minister mentioned the audit. Can he confirm my impression that if the audit finds that walkers and ramblers are being deterred from using the Ridgeway by the damage that has been done to it and by the presence of 4x4 vehicles, he will be minded to institute traffic restricting measures?

Alun Michael

If the audit brings up evidence of the sort that the hon. Gentleman clearly expects, the local authority would be able to proceed on that basis. It is for the local authorities to initiate such action. The intention is for the audit to be discussed by the partners locally and by a wider forum, which will involve organisations such as the one to which the hon. Gentleman belongs, to develop a local strategy on that basis. It should start with the facts, try to reach agreement with people and then move forward, and that would be a constructive approach. My point was that if there are parts of the Ridgeway for which a traffic regulation order would target specific circumstances that cause problems, the outcome of the audit would help to provide evidence to substantiate the need for such an order.

We certainly should not give in to a counsel of despair. Traffic regulation orders and other means should be used to try to protect the environment, but any response should be proportional to the evidence of the problem. It would be wrong to suggest that the imposition of a blanket ban on motor vehicles along the whole length of the Ridgeway would be the appropriate response, unless the evidence of the audit suggests strongly that that is the case. We should also not ignore the current initiative by the Ridgeway Management Group.

Mr. Robert Jackson

I welcome the Minister's comments about the audit, and possible proposals that might emerge from its conclusions. However, I remind him of the conclusions of my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key), who was the Minister in 1992. He said in his decision letter that he expected proposals for parts of the Ridgeway, but nothing was done. That is why we are in this situation 10 years later. I am very concerned that the message should be sent that we expect action to deal with the problems.

Alun Michael

I am not sure that I can comment on the situation between 1992 and the present, because—as I have indicated—the local authority had the power to apply for a traffic regulation order on a specific length of the Ridgeway, as opposed to one on the whole length or the western length. The current initiative was brought forward by the Ridgeway Management Group, composed of countryside service and rights of way managers from areas through which the Ridgeway passes. That work is being supported by the Countryside Agency, which has specific responsibility on behalf of my Department for engaging with such issues.

The current initiative involves the setting of standards for surface condition, which addresses some of the specific concerns raised by all four hon. Gentlemen who have contributed to the debate. The full audit of the condition is crucial and is due to be reported in June. The set of facts coming out of that audit will be discussed by the forum, with a view to the implementation of a management plan.

It is not for me to say whether that plan should include the making of orders. It is sensible that it should build on the evidence, especially as it is only a matter of weeks before the outcome of the audit will be available. I am sure that the report will be inspected, as soon it is available, with great interest by hon. Members representing constituencies along the Ridgeway.

When the audit is complete, we will have the facts before us. We will then have an opportunity for open debate and action that will be initiated at local level by those with direct responsibility and concern for the Ridgeway.

Mr. Boris Johnson

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way a second time. I accept what he says about the importance of keeping decisions at a local level. However, is he saying that he will take no view at all about the outcome of the audit report?

Alun Michael

Not at all. I am saying that it would be premature to impose solutions before the audit's full results are known, and the options that it presents considered—especially given that those results are so shortly expected. If we were being told that the audit would be undertaken in five years, with results available in 10, the concerns rightly raised by the hon. Member for Wantage, which clearly are shared by other hon. Members, would perhaps demand earlier action. In fact, the process is already nearing a conclusion. It is right that we await the outcome of the audit, and of the local debate that will be informed by its results.

Certainly I recognise that the activities of the irresponsible few can interfere with the rights of the many. However, we should consider the rights of responsible drivers, and especially the rights of people with mobility problems. Many places in this country offer only limited access to people with such problems. I am sure that all hon. Members would agree that access should be made available for them.

Access by farmers and farm vehicles is another matter for local discussion with regard to responsible use and the avoidance of problems of degradation. All such matters will emerge from the audit and the subsequent debate. That is imminent and being planned, and I commend the organisations that have put the process in hand. Clearly, they have been required to do so by the same concerns that the hon. Member for Wantage set out so eloquently when he opened the debate.

I join the hon. Gentleman in his wish to stimulate philosophical debate on some of these issues. I welcome the fact that that is happening in the age of computers and cars—neither of which were available to John Stuart Mill when he was reflecting on liberty. I certainly share the hon. Gentleman's view that the immemorial liberties of a freeborn Englishman are referred to in a variety of inappropriate places. The liberty to drive a 4x4 or a motorcycle in inappropriate places, or in a way that causes misery to others, is one such, and I recall that similar arguments were raised when I had some responsibility for introducing legislation to control handguns. I always felt it odd that the liberty to carry a handgun should be considered as inalienable as one or two other countries seem to believe. The issue occasionally appears in the hunting debate, and I wonder whether it is always appropriate there.

Finally, I assure the hon. Member for Wantage that the Fabian Society is alive and well. I declare an interest, as I am a member. It continues creatively to inform this Government's thinking, and I hope that it will inform the thinking of people in other parties as well.

Essentially, my message to the hon. Gentleman is that we are willing to take appropriate action, but that it must be proportional and based on evidence. It must also start from a strong consensus at a local level. The processes that are in place give some reason to hope that sensible proposals will come forward, and it would be entirely appropriate for the local partnership or local authorities to act on those proposals. If issues are raised that it is appropriate for the Government to consider, I look forward to walking with the hon. Gentleman and some of his colleagues—as part of a curious mixture of people—along the Ridgeway at some point in the future.

I thank the hon. Member for Wantage for initiating this debate, and those hon. Members who have joined in. They have adopted a constructive approach to what is clearly a matter of great local concern. I hope that I have responded in an appropriate way. I accept that problems exist, but I have also tried to use the information supplied by the hon. Gentleman to tease out some of the ways in which it would be appropriate to respond. I am sure that all of us will look forward to the information emerging in June, and to the local level discussion that will follow.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-six minutes to Nine o'clock.