HC Deb 10 March 2004 vol 418 cc1524-9 12.33 pm
Janet Anderson (Rossendale and Darwen) (Lab)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the law relating to public rights of way for vehicles. The Government are currently consulting on the problems caused by the use of unsurfaced byways open to all traffic by mechanically propelled vehicles. Indeed, an early-day motion in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) on the subject has attracted a great deal of support.

It states: That this House welcomes the Government's proposal to close the legal loophole whereby historical evidence of use by horse and cart, or dedication as a carriageway prior to the invention of the internal combustion engine, can give rise to a claim for a byway open to all traffic which, if successful, allows for use by modern recreational motor vehicles of green lanes and other unsurfaced routes in the countryside: notes existing byways open to all traffic will still be subject to inappropriate and unsustainable use by recreational motor vehicles; is concerned that our precious countryside in the national parks and areas of outstanding beauty…continue to suffer appalling damage and urges the Government to take action forthwith to protect these areas by reclassifying existing unsurfaced byways open to all traffic as restricted byways and issuing better guidance on enforcement to enable the relevant authorities to take swift and effective action where recreational vehicles are being driven illegally. We should not be surprised at the support in this House and elsewhere for action. In my own constituency of Rossendale and Darwen, an area of breathtakingly beautiful countryside and moorland, those of us who are walkers, hikers or horse riders are continually horrified at the desecration and damage caused to some of our byways by the inappropriate and unsustainable use of those byways by recreational motor vehicles. We particularly suffer from this in areas of Darwen, such as Sunnyhurst woods, Bailey's Field and the route to Darwen Tower, not to mention Cranberry Moss, the use of which continues to attract much local debate. In the valley of Rossendale, the problem similarly abounds, particularly on Whitworth common and the countryside around Rossendale general hospital.

All this is of particular concern to horse riders. It is often claimed that there are more horse riders in my constituency than in any other in the country. The British Horse Society has recognised that riders who have to dice with death on the roads feel strongly that they should not have to worry about encountering motor vehicles on public rights of way.

For most riders, the issue is more about damage to the surface than the surprise of the occasional danger of meeting a motor vehicle. Walkers and ramblers take a similar view. Only last week, I received a letter from a resident of the Rossendale valley. It was headed Environmental damage to open moorland close to Rossendale General Hospital". The resident said: I was dismayed to observe the tyre damage to my regular walk over this area of moorland. Yesterday I decided to retreat from the moor on noting two bikers with two other adults accompanying them. I am not a wimp, but decided that a confrontation was not in order. Why should I feel intimidated? This area is used by many walkers. It is an area of tranquillity and peace. It is environmentally sensitive. Some years ago, the Council spent time and money on planting heathers etc and on improving the pathways. I would ask what legality bikers have in riding over this moorland? Mr. Alan Johnson, the countryside officer for the north-east Lancashire area, sent me a supportive e-mail. He wrote: Good news that you are introducing a Private Members' Bill to ban quad bikes etc from bridleways and public footpaths. This is a very important issue for Rossendale's countryside. My good friend Inspector Roger Ravenscroft from Rawtenstall was also supportive. He said: I fully support you on this one. As a keen mountain biker in the Ribble Valley and the Lakes, I am only too well aware of the damage some off road motorcyclists and 4x4 drivers do to tracks making them virtually unusable by other countryside users. In conclusion, I can do no better than to quote the Ramblers Association. It points out that the term "green lane" has no legal meaning, but is symbolic of many unsurfaced tracks that form part of the rights of way network and are often ancient in origin. In law, many are classed as byways open to all traffic". Although legally open to motor vehicles, these ways are defined by Parliament as carriageways used mainly for the purposes for which footpaths and bridleways are used.

Yet the growing pastime of recreational off-road driving on green lanes is of increasing concern to walkers, cyclists, horse riders, land managers and all those concerned with the conservation and protection of the countryside. The Ramblers Association view is that motorised use of rights of way, for sport, is rarely appropriate and that vulnerable pedestrians, cyclists, horse riders and horse and carriage drivers should be able to enjoy the rights of way free and safe from as much motor traffic as possible.

The Bill aims to balance the interests of individuals and organisations with appropriate protection for the tranquillity and conservation value of our countryside. The way in which we use our public rights of way has changed dramatically over the past 100 years, and the Bill will provide greater certainty about existing public vehicular rights. It will also provide my constituents with the reassurance that they seek, and I commend it to the House.

12.40 pm
Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD)

I rise to oppose the Bill, although it would not be a good use of the House's time to divide on it, so I do not intend to push it to a vote.

I am chair of the all-party motorcycling group and have previously spoken to the hon. Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Janet Anderson) about the measure and understand her concerns. I have been riding motor cycles since 1982 when I owned a Yamaha YB100—a bike so tatty that my friends knew it as the "Why bother"—and I am persuaded, as are the Government, that bikes and motor bikes have an important role to play, not only for transport but also for recreation. Used responsibly, motor cycles present no problem; used irresponsibly, they are both irritating and dangerous.

I accept that there is a problem in the countryside. A small number of individuals, especially those who use byways, can cause a great deal of trouble by acting irresponsibly, but—as ever—I question whether we should punish the majority simply because a few cause a nuisance. Is that response in proportion to their number?

One in nine people in Britain have ridden a motor bike, or hold a full bike licence, and, apart from the ecological benefits to which I referred, motor cycling can be a pleasant activity. Motor cyclists and pedestrians can coexist comfortably in rural, recreational areas as long as there is mutual respect. It is only a small minority who seem to feel that they have the right to tear up the countryside, make noise and cause danger, and it is those people about whom the hon. Member for Rossendale and Darwen is most concerned.

A ban affects everybody, so I suggest that, if the hon. Lady is willing, we should try to hold a dialogue with interested parties, including representatives from the motor-cycling unions—the Auto-Cycle Union, the Motorcycle Action Group and the British Motorcyclists Federation. They are acutely aware that, ultimately. if there is no proactive solution that involves either self-regulation or some degree of understanding in relation to those public areas, the hon. Lady's proposal for a ban or a restriction may be the only way forward.

Given the comments that the hon. Lady made in her speech, I should like to highlight a few of my concerns about the assumptions that are made about motor cyclists. Appalling damage can be done, but much of the time the majority of those individuals create no damage at all. Indeed, there is no point in their causing damage, as they want to enjoy the countryside that they ride through. The use of recreational motor vehicles is inappropriate and unsustainable only if it is taken to excess or carried on without consideration for the countryside.

The British Horse Society has legitimate concerns, but as the hon. Lady pointed out, the use of horses and carts on many byways in the past provided the precedent for riders nowadays. They benefited from a precedent established in former times, when pedestrians might have had issues about the presence of horses.

I propose that dialogue offers a way forward, if the hon. Lady and other Members, such as the hon. Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies), are willing to pursue that path. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has held consultations and the Minister for Rural Affairs and Local Environmental Quality has taken an active interest. In addition, park-keepers and the police should be involved in the dialogue.

Options could include designating some paths as pedestrian-only and ensuring that their status is adhered to through voluntary agreement or the specific measures that local authorities can already enforce. In the medium term, we could ensure the enforcement of sanctions on individuals who mess things up for everybody else.

I absolutely agree that this is a serious concern, and the all-party motorcycling group takes the two-wheeled element of it very seriously. I hope, nevertheless, that we can work at least to explore whether there is a less dramatic solution than what could amount to a motor- cycle ban on some of those byways. If the motor cyclists cannot fix things for themselves, understand that Parliament may have to do so with some mandatory enforcements, but we are not yet there. It is easy to ban things; it is perhaps harder to educate people to be responsible. On that basis, I hope that the hon. Lady and other hon. Members who have taken great interest in this matter are willing to pursue dialogue before proceeding with legislation.

Question put, pursuant to Standing Order No. 23 (Motions for leave to bring in Bills and nomination of Select Committees at commencement of public business), and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Janet Anderson, Andy Burnham, Chris Bryant, Paddy Tipping, Mr. Kevin Barron, Mrs. Anne Campbell, Mr. George Howarth, Mr. Kevan Jones, Mr. Greg Pope and John Mann.


Janet Anderson accordingly presented a Bill to amend the law relating to public rights of way for vehicles: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 21 May, and to be printed [Bill 70].

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire) (Con)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. A ten-minute Bill has just been introduced that is of very great concern to a number of hon. Members who represent large country constituencies. I congratulate the hon. Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Janet Anderson) on her success, but is it not the practice, first and foremost, that if an hon. Member opposes a Bill, he or she should at least follow that through with a shout of no, which the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) failed to do; and, secondly, that at least one Minister from the relevant Department should attend in the Chamber when such a Bill is debated? I very much regret that, on such an important issue, no Minister is present from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which is currently consulting on this matter.

Lembit Öpik

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Just to clarify, you may not have heard me but I did say no—but not very loudly. As you are aware and as I made clear to your office, I felt that it would be an inappropriate use of parliamentary time to divide the House, when we are looking for a consultative solution, rather than simply trying to make a point on the Floor of the House.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) (Lab)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. If you check the records, you will find that there were many occasions when previous Speakers used to tell people that they had to oppose a motion. Indeed, when I first came here, they had to shout and divide the House. Why? Simply because not doing so is an abuse of parliamentary time. The Order Paper says that 10 minutes will be allowed for the Member to move the motion and 10 minutes for someone to oppose it. In this case, that individual—a typical Liberal, who does not know whether he is on this earth or fuller's—said that he would not oppose the motion and wanted to get together with my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Janet Anderson). Ten minutes for, 10 minutes against—that is the principle. You wasted time, you tin-pot Liberal—shut your gob.

Janet Anderson


Mr. Speaker

Let me deal with the three points of order, and then I will call the hon. Lady.

I am sure that the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) was not referring to me when he mentioned wasting time.

On the point of order that the hon. Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin) raised, I have been chairing proceedings for quite a long time, as he knows, both in Committee and in the Scottish Grand Committee, and then in the Chamber. When I am in the Chair, I am entitled to express an opinion when hon. Members shout from one side of the House or the other, and I often say that I think that the ayes have it. It is at that stage that an hon. Member can disagree with that opinion. There was a shout—it was a very quiet shout—and I only wish that that was the case at Prime Minister's Question Time. To reply to the point raised by the hon. Member for West Derbyshire: there was a shout. I heard it because I have good hearing.

There is no absolute rule about the appropriate Minister sitting on the Treasury Bench, but it is a courtesy for them to do so. I would expect that courtesy to continue, and I hope that Ministers from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will take note of what I have said.

Janet Anderson

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I wish to respond to the point raised by the hon. Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin) and to what you have said by pointing out that the Minister for Rural Affairs and Local Environmental Quality has been very supportive of my introducing the Bill. In fact, he left a message with me this morning to say that he was very sorry that he could not be present in the House because he had another engagement. I assure the hon. Gentleman that DEFRA is very much taking an interest in the matter, and the Minister did not intend any discourtesy to the House.

Mr. Speaker

I thank the hon. Lady for making that clear.