HL Deb 19 October 1976 vol 375 cc1121-4

2.37 p.m.


My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they will enable the responsible authorities to close certain public footpaths and areas of public access during periods of high fire risk, in view of the damage to agriculture, forestry and wildlife by fires during the drought which the overstretched fire services, even when helped by massive voluntary labour, were often unable to extinguish.

Baroness STEDMAN

My Lords, where access to land is permitted by an agreement or order, powers to suspend that access already exist and were used this summer; but there is no provision for temporary closure of public rights of way. The introduction of such statutory provision would involve difficulties: enforcement over extensive areas of countryside would be impracticable; exemptions would be needed for people living or working in the area concerned; and farmers and other landowners could suffer restrictions in the use of their own land. We prefer to rely on the public's common sense when they have been alerted to the danger, but we appreciate that this is a serious problem and we are keeping the matter under consideration.


My Lords, in thanking the noble Baroness for that reply I should like to ask whether she is aware that the small number of people who cause trouble in fact cause an enormous number of man hours to be spent by the fire brigade and by voluntary labour putting out the fires? Is she also aware that their occupation on the moors, particularly in North Yorkshire, seriously affected and impaired the ability of the fire brigades to deal with other fires, and in particular the one on Seal Sands which was lit quite deliberately? Had the fire reached the chemical tanks—and it was only a few feet away—it was estimated that Flixborough would have looked like a firework by comparison?

Baroness STEDMAN

Yes, my Lords, and I should like to pay my tribute to the work of the fire services during the recent drought and the way in which they dealt with the fires, not only the whole-time firemen but the retained firemen and their employers who gave them free time for hours and days on end in order to put out the fires. We are not satisfied that all the fires were caused by picnickers, by ramblers and so on. Some arose from much more natural causes; some were by means of spontaneous combustion and unfortunate accidents that might have occurred at any other time but were much more serious in the very dry weather. Unfortunately there are always a few people who do not heed any warnings at all, but it is difficult to enforce the closures of the footpaths.


My Lords, have the Government made any serious survey to ascertain how many of these widespread fires were due to thrown-away cigarette ends, how many were deliberately caused as a wicked form of prank, how many were caused by broken bottles and how many by spontaneous combustion? I should have thought the present situation deserved such an inquiry on a national scale.

Baroness STEDMAN

My Lords, I am not aware that any such inquiry has been instituted, but I will bring the suggestion to the notice of my right honourable friend.


My Lords, will the noble Baroness take notice of the fact that the damage done by these fires will spoil the amenities for generations, whereas if she blocks the public footpaths it will mean merely a sacrifice for a week or a fortnight?

Baroness STEDMAN

I accept that, my Lords.


My Lords, while I recognise that the Government are keeping the subject under review, may I ask the noble Baroness to pay particular attention to the comments made by the chief fire officers of the services throughout the country, especially those made by the chief fire officer of the county of Hereford and Worcester, which are especially germane in this regard?

Baroness STEDMAN

Yes, my Lords; and I am also forced to take notice of what the chief fire officer of Cambridgeshire tells me, as the ex-chairman of his committee.


My Lords, one knows that the difficulty of closing a public footpath is that it has legal repercussions, but is not the English public sufficiently sensible so that if a notice was put up saying, "Fire danger: please turn back" it would be obeyed?

Baroness STEDMAN

My Lords, we hope they are sensible but there are always just a few people who cannot or will not read and understand notices.


My Lords, does not the noble Baroness agree that as many fires have been caused by stubble burning with inadequate precautions as by ramblers?

Baroness STEDMAN

My Lords, I have no information as to the number of fires that were caused by stubble burning. I know that the National Farmers' Union have a very strict code with regard to the way in which stubble is burnt and that they were trying to discourage their members from setting fire to stubble at the height of the drought.


My Lords, have the Government considered calling a conference of fire chiefs and chief constables in the affected areas to advise on methods of avoiding these fires in the future? Have they also considered studying the techniques of aerial water spraying such as are used in France and Canada?

Baroness STEDMAN

My Lords, I am sure that our fire chiefs have considered ways of dealing with the fires from the air. I should have thought that the local authorities in the areas most involved were giving serious consideration as to how they had reacted when the danger came into their areas and what plans they ought to lay for the future.


My Lords, it is probably my fault for misunderstanding, but did the noble Baroness say that there are no powers to close these footpaths or that there are powers to close them but that the implementation of those powers would very be difficult?

Baroness STEDMAN

My Lords, I said that the implementation of any powers would he very difficult because of the restrictions that would be put on people who wanted to get on to the land for their legitimate purposes. But there are powers. The Road Traffic Regulation Act has been used, perhaps inappropriately, to close footpaths; indeed that was used in parts of Yorkshire. That order can remain in force for six weeks after it has been made. But, if the footpaths are closed, there are problems for the people who live in the area.

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