HC Deb 24 March 2004 vol 419 cc895-6

1.5 pm

Mr. Robert Walter (North Dorset)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make new provision about establishing the existence of byways open to all traffic.

I want to make it clear at the outset that the Bill is not about banning things but about clarification of the law. Many in the House relish the countryside and its beauty. I have two areas of outstanding natural beauty in my constituency: the Dorset AONB and Cranborne Chase, and West Wiltshire Downs AONB, which also covers the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key), who is present. My Bill is about co-existence in the countryside. I have been accused of being anti-biker and anti-four-wheel drive, but it is not my intention in the Bill to be anti-anything of that nature. I want to defend the rights of horse-riders, walkers, hikers, and genuine users of the countryside—people who have traditionally used it in certain ways, particularly those who have experienced peaceful enjoyment along green lanes, bridleways and footpaths.

There is still room in the countryside for people who want to ride their motorbikes and trailbikes, and who want to drive their four-wheel vehicles. Yesterday, I discussed the Bill with someone outside the House who asked, "What about the new souped-up tractors that people are driving in the countryside?" Some of the Bill's provisions will cover that, as it would create a framework for co-existence in the countryside.

The Government have already issued a consultation document on the subject, "The Use of Mechanically Propelled Vehicles on Rights of Way". I am delighted that the Minister for Rural Affairs and Local Environmental Quality is on the Government Front Bench, because I want to make particular reference to the fourth proposal in the document, which says: We propose to introduce legislation, which will make it no longer possible to establish the existence of a byway open to all traffic by reference to historic (pre-commencement) use by, or other evidence relating to, non-mechanically propelled vehicles probably a horse and cart. However, it also says: We propose to do this by introducing a cut-off date after which (subject to certain exceptions) any unrecorded rights of way for vehicles shall be recorded as restricted byways in the definitive map and statement. We propose that the cut-off date should be one year from the commencement of the new legislation. The cut-off date is a problem, which is why I am moving the Bill now, rather than waiting.

In a letter that I received earlier this month from the leader of Dorset county council, Mr. Tim Palmer, he stated that he has forwarded to me a letter that he had written to a committee considering the consultation on opening a byway to all traffic in the county. He writes: You will see that all the evidence allowable under the current law is in favour of a byway open to all traffic. He goes on: Everyone is now looking to your Bill to give them a voice and to add to the clamour for a change in the law. One aspect you may want to cover is the retrospective review of existing byways. This is not allowed for in the Government's consultation paper. Because of this the TRF,"— the Trail Riders Fellowship— 4WD clubs etc are rushing to claim more byways before the legislation comes in. In addition we do need to be able to review the status of some ancient byways, national monuments like the Ridgeway and the Oxdrove through this constituency, both currently completely wrecked by swarms of bikes, quads and 4WDs.

This is not solely a Dorset issue. It has great support across the House. Early-day motion 380 dealing with the use of unsurfaced byways open to all traffic was tabled by the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) and signed by 90 other hon. Members. It particularly mentions the Ridgeway. In my constituency, there is a bridleway—bridleway 17—emanating from the village of Cranborne. Last June I had to attend a public meeting in the village. The 300 people who had gathered were very concerned about bikers using the bridleway not local people using it for their enjoyment, but people who had travelled almost 100 miles because it was considered a good place to ride their bike, particularly when it had been raining and the bridleway was rather muddy. There was talk of biking groups that came regularly from Bristol, Southampton and so on.

I know that my proposal has the support of the British Horse Society, the Ramblers Association and the Green Lanes Environmental Action Movement, but I also want the support of the Trail Riders Fellowship and an organisation of four-wheel drivers in my constituency called—perhaps slightly incorrectly—the Friends of Dorset Rights of Way, who have written to me on several occasions suggesting that we should find a form of co-existence.

So what will my Bill do? It will state that when a county council or other body responsible for rights of way is considering an application for a green lane, or whatever it is, to be designated as a byway open to all traffic, if the evidence is solely that 100 or 150 years ago the byway was used by a horse and cart, the council will be able to protect the rights of existing users of that byway—the riders and the walkers—as well as look after the access for farmers and for others to open spaces beyond the byway. The council should be able to protect the rights of the disabled, who may well need to use four-wheel drive vehicles to get to the open spaces beyond the byway.

The Bill would give the county council rights of way committee the powers to designate a byway as a restricted byway, and to consider the rights and responsibilities of those with mechanically propelled vehicles—the trailbikes, the four-wheel drives and so on—and to make sure that those rights are not jeopardised. Laying down specific rights should be a matter of local decision for local people exercised by their local authority. By creating a byway known as a restricted byway, we can balance the needs and rights of all the users of the countryside.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Robert Walter, Sir George Young, Jeremy Corbyn, Sandra Gidley, Mr. James Gray, Mr. Robert Key, Mr. David Drew, Mr. Anthony Steen and Mr. John Randall.