HL Deb 17 April 1978 vol 390 cc880-906

3.5 p.m.

Lord FOOT rose to call attention to the apparent failure of the present legal and administrative system to preserve the Ridgeway for the quiet enjoyment of walkers and equestrians: and to move for Papers. The noble Lord said: My Lords, some of your Lordships may have seen that the Motion which I have the privilege to move this afternoon was originally on the Order Paper in the name of Lord Kennet. The only reason why I am endeavouring to substitute for him is that he has recently been appointed to the European Parliament, and he thought that if he maintained his name on the ballot list a date might turn up which coincided with some engagement in Europe. Nobody regrets his absence more than I do, because I am afraid that upon all counts I shall prove an unworthy and poor substitute for him.

I say that, not out of any innate modesty but because of two particular facts. One of them is that the Ridgeway, which is the subject matter of this debate, if not on Lord Kennet's doorstep is at any rate in his back yard. The second reason why he could have spoken here with almost unique authority is that one of the Acts of Parliament which is closely concerned in this discussion of the Ridgeway is the Countryside Act 1968, and, as some of your Lordships will remember, as I remember very clearly, it was Lord Kennet who had the responsibility of piloting this very complicated Act of Parliament through this House at that time. Therefore, on those two counts he could have spoken to your Lordships today with an almost unique authority.

I cannot claim to have any similar familiarity with the Ridgeway. Indeed, I should have been speaking here with more confidence this afternoon on a subject of conservation if the subject matter had been the conservation of Dartmoor. I feel that I should have had a familiarity with that subject which might almost have equalled Lord Kennet's familiarity with the Ridgeway. But I shall try to do my best as a poor substitute. Perhaps I should say at the outset what the Ridgeway is, because it has been indicated to me (indeed, since I came into the Chamber this afternoon) that there are other Ridgeways. I do not think that any of the supporters of this Ridgeway would acknowledge that there is any other Ridgeway of any consequence throughout the length and breadth of the world; but, in order that the matter may be put beyond doubt—and I hope none of your Lordships has come here under false pretences, thinking I was going to talk about some other Ridgeway—let me say that the Ridgeway I am talking about this afternoon is a very ancient driftway or track, dating back to the later Stone Age, which runs from the great stone circle at Avebury eastwards over the Downs and finishes up, if it finishes up at all, at a place called Streatley, on the Thames.

There is there today, for all to see, the same driftway or track over which, in Neolithic times, our ancestors drove their flocks and moved from one settlement to another. I do not want to be tempted into hyperbole upon this subject, but is it not a marvellous thing that we should have such historic antiquity in the heart of the South of England? That is the Ridgeway I am talking about. It extends over a total distance of about 40 miles.

There has been some confusion in the use of the word because, back in 1971 or 1972, the Countryside Commission, using their powers under the Countryside Act 1968, designated this Ridgeway and an extended part which goes further to the East and finishes up at a place called Ivinghoe Beacon. They designated a long-distance path all the way from Avebury to this distant place of Ivinghoe Beacon, which is about 83 miles in all. But the Ridgeway with which I am concerned this afternoon is the Ridgeway of a length of about 40 miles of which I have spoken.

In the course of its meandering progress over the Downs of Wiltshire, it passes through three counties, Wiltshire, then Oxfordshire and then into Berkshire. All along the route of this green path—for that is what it is over most of its distance—you have a great wealth of ancient monuments linked together by this drift-way or track. I suppose it would be right to say, and I doubt whether anybody would dispute it, that it would be difficult to find in the length and breadth of the United Kingdom a single place which presents such a series of antiquities and ancient monuments. Indeed, the place itself can be rightly considered a gigantic ancient monument on its own. It traverses what is some of the most beautiful countryside in England. I will not fall into hyperbole; I am steadily resisting that temptation.

May I turn now to what is the status of this track or driftway. In law, it is a public road and, under the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949, it and other similar green paths and green roads were given a new name. They were called roads used as public paths. That definition was designed to cover minor, and usually unmetalled, roads mainly used by pedestrians and equestrians but where in the past there had been vehicular rights and where those rights were acknowledged.

That is the legal status of this track. There are other factors which must be borne in mind in order to understand the situation. The first is that the Ridgeway passes through three counties, Wiltshire, Oxfordshire and Berkshire; and the significance and importance of that is that each of those is the highway authority for that part of the track which passes through its area. The second factor is this. The Ridgeway is crossed by a number of ordinary metalled roads running North and South, and the importance of this is that it has the following results. Anybody travelling up and down those crossroads can, without obstacle or obstruction, turn right or left into the Ridgeway and travel as far as his vehicle can safely go in either direction. The fact is that the track is available for motor cars, motorcycles and vehicles of all kinds.

That is the situation which, as I think you will agree, had in it from the beginning the seeds of future serious conflict. It was obvious that there was going to be a potential conflict between the interests of conservation and the interests of the people who want to go on it in their motor cars and motorcycles. That was apparent from the outset. What has happened is, in fact, precisely what one might have expected to happen. In increasing numbers over the years motorists, motor cyclists and drivers of four-wheeled vehicles have taken the opportunity of driving into the Ridgeway and along it, of parking along it on both sides of the track, and there engaging in the lawful occupation of picnicking and using it as an informal playground. The result, in the summer months at least when the invasion is at its height, is that you have on the Ridgeway a whole series of linear car parks, with cars parked on each side of the Ridgeway at all the points at which it is possible to get off the ordinary road. That is the situation which has developed; and, unhappily, as this Motion draws to your Lordships' attention, that inherent conflict is no nearer solution today than it was when the Ridgeway was originally categorised as a road used as a public path.

May I tell your Lordships briefly what has happened since and how this failure to protect the Ridgeway has developed? Under the Countryside Act 1968 it was provided, for these roads which had previously been categorised as roads used as public paths, that in the course of time the appropriate authority should introduce two new categories. One category was to include and comprise footpaths and bridleways which, by definition, are available only to people on foot and on horseback; and the other class were called byways open to all traffic—which by their definition clearly indicated that anybody could drive over them. That refinement (if I may call it that) of the categorisation provided no solution to the problem of the Ridgeway. First, it would probably—and almost certainly—have been legally impossible for any authority to have reclassified the Ridgeway as a bridle path because, over centuries of time, it has been used by vehicles, if only waggons, carts or horsedrawn vehicles. Therefore, if a planning authority or county council had sought to try to designate the Ridgeway as a bridle way that attempt probably would have been defeated in law because there was no basis for it.

Secondly, even if it had been possible to reclassify it as a bridleway, there would then have emerged a new peril to the Ridgeway. The new peril was one of ploughing. This is because, as many noble Lords will know, the legal situation is that, under the Highway Act 1959, it is in certain circumstances permissible to plough up a bridleway or a footpath if it crosses agricultural land. What has constantly happened since then is that these bridleways and footpaths have been ploughed up and, although the law requires that they should be restored, in many cases no action is taken to see that the restoration takes place.

In any event, so far as the Ridgeway is concerned, even if it was required that a farmer who ploughed it up should try to reinstate it to the original form, that would have been utterly impossible because the Ridgeway, or many parts of it, has never been ploughed in the last 3,000 years and the character of this ancient driftway would have been totally destroyed. So no solution was to be found for the problem of the Ridgeway under that reclassification of the 1968 Act.

I do not want to be diverted from the immediate matter of the subject of this Motion into a discussion of how the ploughing up of footpaths and bridleways was not averted by the Act of 1968. It may suffice to say this: I remember a debate we had, particularly with the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, on this matter. I think everybody wanted this protection against ploughing to be given to footpaths and bridleways, and under the original Bill as it was introduced my understanding is that that would have resulted. However, at a very late stage in the passage of that Bill through this House an Amendment was introduced by the Government which had the effect of allowing the ploughing of these pathways and green paths and so on to be continued. The noble Lord, Lord Brock, at that time protested strongly against the fact that we were being given something at the last possible moment which we had not had the opportunity to digest. Ever since that happened, there has been a series of protests against what at that time was done, and my recollection is that, apart possibly from the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, nobody in this House understood the significance of the Amendment which was being put to us or the dire consequences which would follow.

There is overwhelming evidence that over the last 10 years since that error was made numerous footpaths and bridleways have been ploughed up and not reinstated, and this is a continuing scandal. I hope the day may not he far away when the Government are going to deal with this matter, and that they will reinstate the position which I think everybody hoped would be the situation after the passing of the 1968 Act. However, as I say, I must not be diverted into that which is only peripherally relevant to the matter which I am attempting to discuss.

The next, and equally ineffective, attempt to protect the Ridgeway took place in 1973. Under the Countryside Act of 1968, the Countryside Commission were authorised, when they saw fit, to designate long walking and riding paths as long-distance paths; they have indeed designated a number of paths of that kind, the most celebrated perhaps being the Pennine Way—long stretches of territory through which the walker and the rider can move. In 1971 the Countryside Commission designated the Ridgeway, and that extension beyond Streatley right up to the Ivinghoe Beacon, as a long distance path. It may be of some interest if I quote the terms in which that was reported by the Countryside Commission in their Fifth Report of 1971-72. They clearly regarded this as a considerable success and advance. The report reads: The Commission's report proposing a line for the Ridgeway path, an 85-mile route over the Marlborough and Berkshire Downs and along the edge of the Chilterns, was approved by the Secretary of State for the Environment in July. Between Overton Hill in Wiltshire and the Goring Gap at Streatley it will be a bridleway"— of course, it is the Ridgeway which we are talking about— for use by riders and cyclists as well as walkers; beyond the Thames and as far as Ivinghoe Beacon the path will continue as a right of way for walkers only". From that it is perfectly clear that the Countryside Commission had in mind that the part of the Ridgeway which I am talking about would in future be preserved for riders and walkers. But, although that intention was perfectly obvious from the way in which the Countryside Commission reported the matter, it has proved abortive because they did not at that time take the steps which they could have taken to try to ensure that vehicles would in the main be banned from the Ridgeway. Unhappily, the only result has been—as some people suppose and it is only reasonable to think they are right—to exacerbate the problem by giving publicity to the existence of the Ridgeway to which people might go in their motor cars. That is the sorry story of the way in which, by muddle and ineptitude, we have failed to maintain this marvellous place.

What was needed? As a matter of fact, the machinery for protecting the Ridgeway against the invasion of the automobile has always been available. There were two ways in which that object could have been achieved under the legislation which has been in existence for so long. Under the Road Traffic Regulation Act 1967, the highway authority were authorised, where they thought fit, to impose a traffic regulation order. In 1975 they imposed such an order on the grounds that it was for the preservation of nature and the countryside. They were given that authority under the 1968 Act.

In 1975, the Oxford County Council, the authority for a part of the Ridgeway, made an experimental traffic regulation order for a length near a place called Uffington and then, possibly rather strangely but of their own violition and not at the instance of the Secretary of State, they set up a non-statutory public inquiry and got an inspector from, I believe, the Department of the Environment. He held an inquiry to which anybody could come and represent their point of view. That proved to be completely ineffective for this reason. The inspector, after he had acquired all this evidence from the parties concerned, came to the conclusion that there was no problem. That may seem somewhat surprising, but it may seem a little less surprising if I quote the words of his own report: I cannot see how the presence of motor vehicles can affect the conservation or enhancement of the natural beauty of the area". If you start from that premise, you have got a man you cannot argue with. I do not think it would be helpful to the House if I were to make any further comment upon it. Faced with that extraordinary report, the Oxford County Council, I believe by a majority of one, decided to abandon the order altogether. That was the end of the saga of the way in which we have failed to protect the Ridgeway.

I said that there were two ways in which the Ridgeway could have been protected. That was one. The other way was this: Under Section 32 of the Countryside Act 1968 it was specially provided that the terms of the regulation Act of 1967 could, in certain circumstances, be applied to long distance groups, of which the Ridgeway is of course one. Under one of the subsections of that section, the Road Traffic Regulation Act 1967 was amended in order to allow a regulation to be imposed where one of the considerations is: the purpose of conserving or enhancing the natural beauty of the area". Under another subsection, the Minister—the Secretary of State today—was enabled to make a regulating order under the general provisions of the regulating Act. Finally, if was provided that the Minister should make such an order only if he had a recommendation for it from the Countryside Commission and, if he thought fit to bring it into effect, that he should do that only after consulting with the highway authorities or the authority involved.

At any time in the past, ever since the passage of the 1968 Act which created the Countryside Commission and gave the Secretary of State those additional powers, the Countryside Commission could, if they had wanted to do so, have made a recommendation for the Ridgeway to the Secretary of State, so that the Ridgeway could be banned to all vehicles. Nothing in fact was done until February of this year, since when after constant pressing by all kinds of amenity bodies over the past 10 years, the Countryside Commission have come up with a recommendation which may, and I fear will, prove as ineffective as everything that has gone before.

What the Countryside Commission have now recommended is not that the Minister or Secretary of State should make a regulating order banning vehicles from the Ridgeway, but rather that a field officer should be appointed to work in conjunction with the highway authorities concerned, in particular with the Oxford County Council; that this person should receive his instructions from the Oxford County Council—which failed so dismally in the past to provide a remedy—and that this field officer should make yet another study of the problem. What is there to study? We have had inquiries. I have not wearied your Lordships with this minor history of the matter. All kinds of census have been taken; inquiries made from the user by traffic, and the like. Now the Countryside Commission have come up with this suggestion that it should start all over again and that for a period of at least a year, as I understand it. this field officer should go round accumulating information, information which is obvious to anybody who cares to visit the Ridgeway at all. I suppose that we are stuck with this for the next 12 months.

There are one or two questions upon this new study that I should like to put to the noble Baroness who is going to answer for the Government in this matter. May I say at once that the responsibility for this study does not rest with the Government and the noble Baroness; it rests entirely with the Countryside Commission. Some of the questions I should like her to answer are as follows: May we have an absolute assurance that this new study is not going to be prolonged beyond the period of 12 months? May we have an assurance that once that study has been made and the report has been handed in, there will be a limit of time upon the subsequent consultations that the Government may hold with the various interested parties? May we also be told what the terms of reference of that field officer are to be? If he is being asked simply to ascertain the statistics and tell the Government and the Secretary of State what the facts are, that is one thing. It will delay matters but that would be perhaps of no consequence. But is the field officer going to be invited to make the same value judgment on the matter as was made by the inspector at the previous report? I suggest that it would be entirely improper to ask him to be the judge of what is a subjective matter of value.

I am sorry that I have taken up so much of the time of the House; but I am a little fortified by the fact that there are not many speakers to follow. May I say this in conclusion: As I indicated at the beginning of my remarks, I know more about the problem of Dartmoor than I do about the problem of the Ridgeway. But about two years ago the Government were good enough to set up an inquiry, as the noble Baroness will know, which was presided over by the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, to inquire into the matter of the military use of Dartmoor by the Services. The noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, conducted a long inquiry and, in the course of it, the issues which were at stake there began to emerge. One of the things that we in the amenity societies urged upon the noble Baroness was that there was an irreconcilable conflict between the objectives of the national park and the use of the national park as a military training area, as a firing range.

We made the observation that if one tried to combine the two, the net result, if one sought for a compromise, might be a second-rate training area and a degraded national park. That conclusion was, I am glad to say, largely accepted by the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp. She herself used the word "incongruous". She went on to say that she had no doubt whatever that the military use of the park was extremely damaging to the amenities. The reason why I mention that inquiry was that in it there was a clear conflict between two national interests: there was the interest of the nation in preserving our national parks, and there was the interest of course of the Government and the nation in the proper training of our defence forces. If it had been possible to discover any place to which the training forces could have been removed without substantial damage to their training facilities, then I have no doubt that that would have been done.

The reason I refer to that is that in the present case there is no clash of two national interests. There is on the one hand the national interest in maintaining this wonderful place running along the Downs in Wiltshire, Oxfordshire and Berkshire. That is a national interest. On the other hand, the only curb which is going to be put upon the activities of the nation is to require that motorists and motor cyclists shall put a curb upon the places to which they want to go and, in particular, they shall not turn what is a great museum of living activities into a car park and race track. Those are the issues which I suggest are involved here. I shall listen with the utmost attention to what comfort the noble Baroness may be able to give us. My Lords, I beg to move for Papers.

3.39 p.m.


My Lords, I was particularly pleased to find that the noble Lord, Lord Foot, was speaking this afternoon, and I was even more interested to hear his comments. He has spoken about the Ridgeway, but he also referred to Dartmoor being used as a military training area. I am sure that it will please the noble Lord, Lord Foot, that, 20 years ago, I had the honour of being sent to Dartmoor military training area for expert training in desert warfare, and there was four times the normal average rainfall for that month. So very often the plans of military men go very much the way that the planners of national parks would wish them to go. I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Foot, would accept that all is not lost. Also, when I came into your Lordships' House some colleagues asked me, "Which Ridgeway? Is it the one in North London?" I found that there were 25 localities hearing that name in the Greater London street directory.

The noble Lord, Lord Foot, has explained to us in great detail and most eloquently the subject that is under discussion this afternoon, and I am sure the House owes him an immense debt of gratitude. The noble Lord has taken over from the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, on a particularly difficult subject. Not many Members of your Lordships' House would have been able to take on such a task or to carry it out with such panache.

The Motion is concerned with the consideration of how best the quiet enjoyment of the Ridgeway can be continued. We shall, of course, await the reply of the noble Baroness, Lady Stedman, and I hope that she will allow me to make several points and to put one or two barbed questions to her. I am sure she will be able to explain to me and to the House the legal differences between byways, footpaths and bridleways, together with byways open to all traffic and indeed roads which are used as public paths. I am sure the law must be enforced and it will indicate which parts of the Ridgeway may or may not be used for different purposes. Of course, it is the legal language which causes so much confusion and difficulty in our minds. Indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Foot, has taken great care of the phrasing of this Motion.

Some reasons for the continued disturbance of the peace and quiet of the Ridgeway are more easily discovered than others. In the last 30 seconds of his speech, the noble Lord. Lord Foot, mentioned that, in the main, it was motor cycles and motor cars which were responsible. I agree that those may well raise the major problems; but I like to have personal experience of the subjects under discussion when I take part in debates in your Lordships' House, and three winters ago, after one solid week of sitting across the park with the North Atlantic Assembly and because I felt I needed some air, I walked along a 17-mile stretch of the Ridgeway. Perhaps I took the wrong decision, because I took this I7-mile walk and was immediately struck by the quiet and loneliness of the Ridgeway. But at the end of the day my doctor and I were also struck by the size of my ankles and the pain in them.

I do not know whether the noble Lord, Lord Foot, has been along the Ridgeway, as a pedestrain—I was going to say "on foot"—but I think he will find that it is akin to a ploughed field, though not from ploughing. I do not know whether that situation is caused by lorries or other wheeled vehicles, or whether it is the remains of the chariots or the carts of Roman times that he was speaking about. In many cases it was the kind of place where no sane driver of a wheeled vehicle, let alone a car driver, would want to go; and precious few pedestrains would have been able to get through in summer, let alone in the height of a wet autumn, when I went along.

Two points struck me when I had recovered my senses at the end of the day. Two young trail riders on lightweight motorcycles passed us and they were proceeding at what I would regard as a very reasonable pace. They seemed very keen to afford priority to us, the pedestrians. They slowed right down and went away off the Ridgeway. Their vehicles were not noisy: we saw them well before we heard their vehicles. I would accept that this occurred in mid-December 1974 on a fairly damp afternoon and that conditions were very far from those conditions which I understand occurred at Uffington. I believe it was in the main the particular set of circumstances there which led to the public inquiry to which the noble Lord, Lord Foot, referred. I think there was some kind of trail-riders' test or championships or practice, and I believe that the tolerance of other users of the Ridgeway was stretched a little far.

The second point that occurred to me after my walk along the Ridgeway was that it would indeed be a foolhardy driver who would proceed along the Ridgeway in any vehicle, and I wonder whether an order prohibiting motor traffic on any part of the Ridgeway would preclude genuine agricultural traffic or even disabled persons from proceeding a short distance along the path from one of the access roads mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Foot. Indeed, the access that I and my fellow pedestrians gained on to the Ridgeway was that we were driven up from Swindon station to the Ridgeway where it crossed one of the metalled roads that traverse it from North to South.

It has been suggested to me that, should all wheeled motor traffic be banned from the Ridgeway, it would preclude some, if not all, disabled drivers proceeding a short distance along the Ridgeway. They might have to abandon their vehicles in these extremely narrow lanes which climb up to the Downs, and so would not be able to enjoy the peace and quiet of the Ridgeway which we all desire so much.

However, I believe that the law cannot achieve what the noble Lord, Lord Foot, and the rest of us desire—namely, the preservation of peace and quiet on the Ridgeway—because the problem seems to exist mainly West of the Thames at Streatley and, as the noble Lord pointed out, is the common responsibility of the Oxfordshire and Wiltshire County Councils. It seems that the Ridgeway has been classified by Oxfordshire as, a road used as a public path". I wonder whether the noble Baroness would confirm that the Countryside Act lays down the possibility of a review not merely of the general amenities but also the possibility of defining the class of a path, a by-road, a bridleway or a footpath in practice. If it is possible to classify a road which is used mainly for other purposes, what would be the fate of the Ridgeway under any such reclassification? At present it seems that trail riders and certain other vehicle drivers use the Ridgeway, in some instances for a long distance and in other instances for an extremely short distance.

The House will equally await the reply from the noble Baroness regarding the Countryside Commission; it was their recommendation which provided some basis for the confusion referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Foot, as he himself mentioned, in July 1972. The Commission deliberately avoided recommending the exclusion of motor vehicles so that the Secretary of State could study what might be involved in banning them from part or perhaps the whole of the Ridgeway. I believe that study is continuing, but after six years the Commission should at last have focused attention on one or two of the more contentious areas and indeed on one or two of the more contentious geographical areas.

The noble Lord told us in great detail about the public inquiry which was held in 1976. That enabled objectors and supporters of the traffic regulation order to be heard. I understand the order would have made permanent during the months of July and August in each year, starting from 1977, a review of traffic up to and along the Ridgeway. I understand that an outright ban was not envisaged. Nevertheless, the public inquiry was held and we heard of one or two of the comments made by the chief inspector. He mentioned that he had heard the evidence and had found that it would not be expedient for the Oxford County Council to proceed with the order. I am sure the word, "expedient" will ring a bell in the mind of the noble Lord, Lord Foot, as it does in mine, in as much as both he and I were involved in a similar planning Bill last July. So far as I can understand it, it is a very useful catchword which is let loose at laymen like myself. The noble Lord, Lord Foot, is a member of the legal profession and may understand it, but the word tends to dazzle me. However, the word, "expedient" was used by the chief inspector and, indeed, as the noble Lord, Lord Foot, pointed out, the Oxfordshire County Council voted by, I believe, a majority of one that they should not proceed with their order.

It would seem that, with the failure of the council to obtain even this limited control over some uses of the Ridgeway, peace and quiet are qualities which are still not always in evidence, especially at weekends. I should feel far from gloomy were I to be in the walking shoes or riding hoots of the noble Lord. Lord Foot. But the Countryside Commission is continuing to work with all the councils involved along the Ridgeway, and, as I understand the case, the Secretary of State will take the next and necessary steps to approve any designation of a by-road as a bridleway or a footpath. I wonder whether the noble Baroness can enlighten me about what has to he done in order to obtain such a designation. She may have the answer in her notes, but, if not, perhaps she can answer me later.

However, there is one major point that worries me. Once an order has been made, which bans or restricts motor traffic, especially trail riders, from certain parts or from the whole length of the Ridgeway, who will enforce that order and how will it be enforced? I think that the noble Lord, Lord Foot, will certainly agree with me that such reasonable laws are normally easily enforceable, but perhaps he or the noble Baroness, Lady Stedman, can enlighten me on this problem. Does this problem exist in other national parks, or in similar areas of outstanding attraction? I cannot see traffic wardens controlling car parking at the many large and small metalled roads which cross the Ridgeway, nor can I see traffic police pursuing young trail riders, who have by design, or by error, joined the Ridgeway. The House may consider this to be a somewhat mischievious scenario, but I assure noble Lords that I wish such an order to be accepted and, above all, respected and enforced.

Trail riding on motorcycles, which I have mentioned—and it comes into the report of the public inquiry—is hugely popular, both in this country and in the United States of America, especially in the State of California where there is far more room than there is on the Ridgeway or elsewhere in England. But it is self-discipline which prevails, as well as education, not to mention the fines levied by the forest patrol, owing to the ever-present risk of fire. I should be worried that, if an order which banned trail riders from one short stretch of the path were to be passed and made permanent, those riders would merely be able to move along to the next section and, perhaps, practice for their competitions or try interesting little jumps, and thereby cause equal annoyance. I hope that education and discussion will go a long way to remedy this problem, but I appreciate how difficult it is for the Government and local councils to find a method of enforcing what is both an acceptable and a sensible order.

The noble Lord, Lord Foot, has done a great service to the users of the Ridgeway in moving for Papers on this subject, and it is very heartening to find that he has been so careful and precise in wording his Motion. Quiet enjoyment is sought by those who use the path, for whatever purposes, and it is extraordinarily difficult to understand what obstacles prevent the enjoyment of those desirable objectives of tranquillity, safety and pleasure, until a full study can be made, with the Countryside Commission, of the workings of the Countryside Act. To those of your Lordships who are unaware of the many faces of legal and administrative life, the continual nuisance caused to others by some users of the Ridgeway should be examined.

The noble Lord, Lord Foot, pointed out to us that the Ridgeway is one aspect of the English countryside and history which should be guarded and kept, but, I hope and believe with a lightness of touch engendered by education, persuasion and co-operation. I am happy to have an interest in both sides of the problem, both as a walker—and not just along the Ridgeway—when my ankles arc healed, and also as a trail rider. It seems very strange to me, wearing both crash helmet and walking shoes—separately, or at the same time—and very sad that some users of such a locality simply cannot, or will not, respect the wishes or pleas of others. But, if the law has to be invoked in order to enforce respect for the rights of others, then, at least, that law must be capable of enforcement, and with the help of the Government and of the noble Baroness, Lady Stedman, I think that a start will be made to settle this problem. After thanking the noble Lord, Lord Foot. for taking so much trouble, we all look forward to hearing what the noble Baroness has to say in reply.

3.55 p.m.


My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Foot, who I believe is a lawyer or is, at least, a member of the legal profession, spoke for over half an hour and I do not think that that will improve his case. However, I should like to congratulate him on his research, which has obviously been lengthy, and on the fact that he gave us a very interesting history of the Ridgeway, which many of us do not know, or have not had an opportunity of walking along or of riding a motorcycle along. I shall not refer again to the history, and my intervention in this short debate is simply to point out, and to ask for confirmation, that there has never been any question of the Ridgeway being closed to vehicular traffic.

The noble Lord, Lord Foot, calls, …attention to the apparent failure…to preserve"— those are the key words in his Motion— the Ridgeway for…walkers", giving the impression to me that this trackway over the Chilterns was once free from traffic. To my knowledge, it has never been closed to traffic, but I must admit that it has been debated for a very long time. The possibility of closure to the public of certain sections has caused considerable concern to motorcyclists and others. I might add that I have heard mention of the Trail Riders' Fellowship, and I happen to be a patron of that organisation. I know the riders, and I also know quite a bit about it. The very fact that closure of the Ridgeway has been considered has caused some concern to motorcyclists and others who would like to use it, although infrequently. The two large motorcycle organisations are the TRF—the Trail Riders' Fellowship—and the British Motorcyclists' Federation, while there is also the organisation of the RAC. In all of them I have a close interest, and they are adamant that vehicles should be allowed to use the Ridgeway for peaceful purposes.

That does not mean that they will tear along in leather jackets, like two-wheeled cowboys, on screaming Japanese machines. Admittedly, there are many who behave in that rather anti-social fashion, but the vast majority do not behave like that and very much object to the way in which some of their fellow riders behave. That is always interesting to know. The vast majority of motorcyclists who today would use this track are extremely skilful in the manner in which they use their machines and arc very proud of them. Furthermore, owing to the high cost of petrol, more and more young people are taking to riding motorcycles. They have no wish to see their image spoiled when using the Ridgeway. To my way of thinking, it would be unfair and unjust to single out a section of the public, and deprive them of use of the Ridgeway. I also fail to see why we should make pedestrians or equestrians into a privileged class of people using the Ridgeway.

That is all that I want to say. I hope that a certain section of the public is never prevented from using the Ridgeway. I know that this may not be liked by everybody, but, when you think of it, a motorcycle is a machine which is controllable. But I am sorry to say that a horse is not always controllable, and the thought of a bolting horse facing a pedestrian is not very pleasant.

3.59 p.m.

Baroness STEDMAN

My Lords, we have had a very interesting debate today, but I, too, am sorry that my noble friend Lord Kennet is not able to be present. I know that he is concerned about the future of the Ridgeway and I am sure that he would have had a valuable contribution to make to our debate this afternoon. But, like other noble Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Foot, for giving the House a brief opportunity of discussing this subject, and no doubt, in due course, we shall also come to debate in more detail the problems of Dartmoor.

As the noble Lord, Lord Foot, has reminded us, the Ridgeway is not only an ancient route but also a part of our highway network; it is one of our best known "green lanes" and it is believed that a right for vehicles to use the Ridgeway has existed for many centuries. Since the Ridgeway is a highway, its maintenance is the responsibility of the appropriate highway authorities: in this case, the three county councils of Oxfordshire, Wiltshire and Berkshire through whose area it passes. As the Ridgeway has also been designated by the Countryside Commission as a long distance route, they are also concerned with its management in that connection. The Department of the Environment has no direct responsibility, except that it is involved in the procedure for reviewing the definitive maps of rights of way.

I must say at the outset that although I know the hills, fells and dales of Northern England and have walked them for many long days and even longer miles, I have no such intimate knowledge, I regret, of the Ridgeway. I hope that this is something which time can put right and that I shall be able to find time away from my Parliamentary duties to explore the Ridgeway in more detail. Obviously it will be useful if I explain the procedure, as asked for by the noble Lord, Lord Lyell, as to how rights of way are now classified. Under the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949, local authorities were required to draw up definitive maps of the rights of way on which they had to show three different categories of path: footpaths, bridleways and a third category to be known as "roads used as public paths". The councils concerned classified the length of the Ridgeway about which we are concerned today in this third class because of the historical evidence of vehicular rights.

In making his reference to the classifications, the noble Lord, Lord Foot, was perhaps more helpful than my initial brief. When I was faced with RUPPs and BOATs and had to sort out what they were, I discovered that RUPPs are roads used as public paths and that BOATs are byways open to all traffic. Therefore, one learns something every day if one is doing something in this House.

This type of classification, however, did not prove satisfactory in practice, because of uncertainty as to what rights existed in particular cases. The matter was reviewed by the Gosling Committee on Footpaths which was set up in 1967. It recommended that "roads used as public paths"—my famous RUPPs—should be reclassified, either as footpaths or bridleways or as "byways open to all traffic", which was to be a new designation. This recommendation was incorporated into the Countryside Act 1968, which required all county councils to conduct a special review for the purpose of carrying out this reclassification. The Wiltshire and the Berkshire County Councils have published a draft map for their reviews, proposing that their parts of the Ridgeway be designated a "byway open to all traffic". In Oxfordshire, an earlier review is still being completed. In each of the three, therefore, the Ridgeway remains classified as a "road used as a public path". Where it has been or is proposed to be reclassified, this is because of the evidence of vehicular rights.

These draft maps are now before the Department for the determination of objections. Noble Lords will appreciate, therefore, that I cannot comment on the merits of the reclassification that has been made. I should make clear, however, that where paths are reclassified as "byways open to all traffic", it does not follow that the path has been "opened" to vehicles or that vehicular traffic has acquired rights as a result of the reclassification. This classification is applied because the county councils are satisfied that such rights already exist. I might also point out that the Countryside Act provided that where a path was reclassified as a byway, the council are not then obliged to provide the path with a metalled surface or by other means a surace for the passage of vehicles.

The 1949 Act also made provision for the establishment of long distance routes over which the public could make extensive journeys either on foot or on horseback, or on a bicycle along routes which for the whole or the greater part of their length did not pass along roads mainly used by motor vehicles. Such a designation does not necessarily convey any suggestion that vehicular rights will be extinguished. The Act does not preclude the use of roads or other ways which are used by vehicles. The proposal to make a long distance route which for part of its length follows the ancient line of the Ridgeway was approved, as the noble Lord, Lord Foot, reminded us, by the Secretary of State for the Environment in 1972 and the route was opened the following year. The noble Earl, Lord Howe, referred to the fact that he did not think that it had been suggested at any time that the Ridgeway should be closed to vehicular traffic. As I have said, the Ridgeway is a highway of historical usage.

The 1949 Act provides that when a report proposing the establishment of a long distance route is submitted, the Countryside Commission may recommend the restriction of traffic on existing highways along which the route passes. I understand that when the 1949 Act was debated in your Lordships' House there was some discussion of this provision and that it was proposed to write in a requirement that the Commission should consult associations representing the users of vehicles before proposing any traffic restrictions. The Government accepted: that it is important, and indeed necessary, that the big associations representing the road users should be consulted". An assurance was given that the extreme importance of doing so would be pressed upon the Commission. The proposal was not proceeded with on this understanding. I mention this to show that the Government have a longstanding commitment to take account of the views not only of walkers and riders but also of users of vehicles in considering traffic restrictions on long distance routes.

Having said this much as background, I should like to turn to the present problem and possible remedies. For centuries the various users of the Ridgeway have continued in harmony with one another, but in recent years, as we have heard this afternoon, a conflict has arisen between the use of the route by walkers and riders, on the one hand, and by vehicles, on the other, and it manifests itself in two ways. In the first place, a more intensive use by vehicles has a detrimental effect on the surface, as the noble Lord, Lord Lyell, found out to his cost, particularly in periods of prolonged dry or wet weather, making passage extremely difficult for walkers and horse riders and probably impossible even for cyclists. But these conditions are attractive for trail riders, and the noise and danger generated by this use greatly detracts from the enjoyment of other users.

The possibility of resolving this problem by excluding vehicular traffic has been widely canvassed. The Countryside Act empowers councils to make road traffic regulation orders for the purpose of conserving or enhancing natural beauty or affording better opportunities for public recreation in relation, among other things, to long distance routes. The Act also provides for orders to be made by the Department of Transport in connection with long distance routes if the Countryside Commission recommend it.

As the noble Lord, Lord Foot, has said, in 1976 Oxfordshire County Council made a draft order to restrict traffic on a section of the route and, in order to have the views of all interested parties, arranged a public inquiry. This order was not proposed to apply to agricultural and contractors' vehicles or to public service and disabled persons' vehicles. The inspector who conducted that inquiry recommended that the order should not be made and this recommendation was accepted. It was considered that the evidence did not support the case that the main difficulties were created by vehicles other than agricultural vehicles, nor did it indicate a substantial increase in vehicular traffic since designation as a long distance route was proposed.

In the event of an order now being made by the council or proposed by the Commission, the findings of the inspector who carried out the previous public inquiry would no doubt still carry weight. Since it was his view that there was insufficient evidence to justify an order, it is desirable that more detailed evidence should be collected before a further order is put forward. It is also possible that a fresh study might show that techniques for managing the route might be introduced which would overcome the present problem, without recourse to restrictions. The Countryside Commission are therefore proposing to sponsor the employment of a field officer by Oxfordshire County Council to investigate the use of a 40-mile section of the route West of Streatley. He will be required to assemble information on the use and condition of the Ridgeway, to make contact and develop close liaison with all the major interested parties to assess their competing claims and identify particular problems. It is proposed that the initial appointment will be for one year, during which time a full report will be prepared on the future management of the route. The officer may also be called upon to undertake experimental projects to establish the merits of proposed solutions. I understand that Oxfordshire County Council have agreed to co-operate in this initiative and it is hoped also to involve Berkshire and Wiltshire Councils.

I was asked by the noble Lord, Lord Foot, whether there will be any publicity from the field officer's report and what sort of time-scale we have in mind. The study itself is scheduled to last for one year, with a report to be finished at the end of that period. As to the findings of the report, at this stage I should not like to say that they will be published, but they will certainly be publicised. That is something on which the Countryside Commission have to decide. They have certainly got to consult with the other bodies and organisations concerned, but I would be prepared to give the noble Lord an assurance on my own behalf that once the report is available I will endeavour to give the pushes that are necessary along the way in order to get some sort of speedy action from it.

I should like to pay tribute to the help given by the Oxfordshire County Council in welcoming the initiative of the Countryside Commission and in co-operating in this study. It is desirable that the highway authority should be involved in an exercise of this kind, since if restrictions are to be imposed then the county councils as the highway authorities will have the extremely difficult job, as the noble Lord, Lord Lyell, reminded us, of seeing how they enforce such restrictions.

When the field officer's report has been received the Commission will be in a position to consult all the parties on the action that should be taken and it may be that a fresh road traffic regulation order should be made. The Commission could ask the Department of Transport to make such an order, although I believe it would be very much better if such a proposal had the support of the county council as the highway authority. Alternatively it seems to us that the problems might be resolved by management work on the route and it may be decided to extend the field officer's appointment so that this work can be carried out.

I hope that, with the co-operation of all those who are concerned about the Ridgeway, it will be possible to solve this dilemma. The adoption of traffic restrictions is not an easy answer. Those whose rights will be restricted are bound to feel aggrieved and there will be difficulties with enforcement. If the restriction is not applied to agricultural vehicles—and it is difficult to see how it can be without causing problems for people going about their daily work—there is evidence to show that the damage to the surface of the path will still not be prevented. I would like to think that this proposal would he implemented only as a last resort. Like other noble Lords, I hope that a solution can be found that will be reasonably acceptable to all concerned. The Countryside Commission have done a tremendous job on their long distance footpaths, and I am sure we all hope that one day the Ridgeway will become as famous and as popular and as pleasant to walk down as the Pennine Way or Offa's Dyke.

4.15 p.m.


My Lords, I will not detain the House for more than a minute or two now. First, I should like to thank all those who have taken part in this short debate, not excluding the noble Earl, Lord Howe, because, as I shall try to point out in a moment, I think he has made a valuable contribution. r should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Lyell, for his kind remarks about me and for what he had to say about this proposition. At the end of it, I was not quite sure whether he was on my side or the other side; but giving him the benefit of the doubt I think he must be on the side of the angels.

The noble Lord expressed the hope that there might be a way of resolving this conflict by a process of persuasion and education, because if you try to ban vehicles from going on to the Ridgeway, it will then be very difficult to enforce that ban. I should like to remind the noble Lord that over the last 50 years—and I think this clause was introduced into one of the earliest Road Traffic Acts, probably the Act of 1932—a provision has been laid down which prohibited cars from going more than 15 yards off a public road without the permission of the owner of the land. That provision has been in existence for something like 30 or 40 years. It could be argued, just as the noble Lord has argued, that some of these provisions are difficult to enforce. That is so. But, if I may refer again to Dartmoor, the experience that we have had and I am sure it must apply to other national parks—is that if you bring to people's attention that they are prohibited by law from going more than 15 yards from the road that has an extremely beneficial result. Most people are law-abiding and they want to comply with the law. I cannot remember an occasion when anybody was prosecuted for that offence; it may have happened, but I have no recollection of it.

How can the noble Lord say that we can persuade people by education and persuasion not to go on to places like the Ridgeway if the law lays down that they are perfectly entitled to do so? I am afraid this conflict will not be solved by compromise. It has to be recognised that there is an irreconcilable conflict in places of this kind between the interests of those who want to enjoy nature quietly and those people who want to drive their vehicles over it.


My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, as he has made a reference to me I should like to make a comment. He said that he found it hard to understand how I equate persuasion and education and respecting the law, but I should like to quote the analogy of seat belt legislation. We will not go into it here, but I believe that is a perfect analogy of a case of trying to use the law to persuade people to do something that is not strictly legal or illegal but which is sensible. I would continue to stress that, in my opinion, on this particular stretch of the country, persuasion and education would be the best method of obtaining a satisfactory result.


My Lords, I will not continue the argument with the noble Lord, except to say that there is a difference between the example he gives and what we are speaking about here today. The Government and many local authorities have taken enormous measures to try to convince people that they ought to wear the seat belt; but what method is there of impressing on somebody who wants to go to the Ridgeway that it is undesirable, even though it is perfectly legal, for them to drive on to these open spaces? I cannot believe the two cases are comparable.

I should like to make just one remark in regard to the comments made by the noble Earl, Lord Howe. He has come here today, as he so often does, to express the view of the motoring community. He concluded by saying that he did not see why pedestrians and equestrians should be treated as a privileged class. Apparently, if you exclude motor cars from any part of the countryside you are then elevating the pedestrian and the equestrian into a special and privileged class. What about the privileges that the motorcar driver has to drive along the motorways, from which pedestrians are excluded? In what sense are they not a privileged class if they can go to places where pedestrians cannot go? I am afraid I do not believe that the noble Earl has the support of the motoring community in the views which he has advanced.

Indeed, at the Uffington inquiry set up by the Oxfordshire County Council the fact was that the Automobile Association (who may be a much more enlightened body than the RAC) expressed the view that they did not see any reason why motor cars should go on to the Ridgeway. As a matter of fact, in a census that was taken at the time of the Uffington Inquiry, a number of people who had actually gone to the Ridgeway in their cars were asked whether in their view it would be right to exclude cars from the Ridgeway, and the majority said, Yes. So I do not believe that motorists are quite so selfish as the noble Earl has gone out of his way to suggest.

My Lords, may I thank the noble Baroness for the little comfort that she has been able to give me. I have no doubt where her heart lies, and I am sure if she gets any opportunity of giving the machinery a push she will indeed carry out the promise she has given to us today. I am afraid that those who think as I do will still be very disappointed that the Government have not been able to go further. But I appreciate the difficulties. Under the legislation it is for the Countryside Commission to take the initiative, and unless they do it and unless they eventually come up with a recommendation to the Secretary of State that lie shall impose a traffic regulation order, the Secretary of State is bound hand and foot and has no authority. I think it is wrong, but I understand nevertheless that that is the situation. I can only hope that in the fullness of time—and I hope it is not going to be too full—we shall be meeting together in the knowledge that steps have at last been taken, before it is too late, to maintain the wonderful area of the Ridgeway for the nation. I beg leave to withdraw my Motion for Papers.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.