HL Deb 18 July 1995 vol 566 cc107-10

2.46 p.m.

Lord Kennet asked Her Majesty's Government:

What action they will take to remove the metalled surface which has been laid on the Ridgeway within the Avebury World Heritage Site, and to ensure that all motor vehicles except agricultural ones are banned from the Ridgeway west of the Thames.

Lord Lucas

My Lords, the Government may only intervene on these matters at the request of the Countryside Commission. The Ridgeway is a local highway and direct responsibility lies with the relevant local highway and traffic authorities. We would nevertheless expect them to take due account of the designation of Avebury as a world heritage site in exercising their responsibilities.

Lord Kennet

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that the Ridgeway is the most spectacular of the neolithic roads left in England and that for 5,000 years people have been walking along it? Is he aware that it is now being churned up by vehicles designed specifically to be able to be driven off the roads? Does he share the opinion of his opposite number in the other place who said yesterday that the Government were aware of the groundswell of opinion that legislation in this matter was inadequate and that we need to put it right?

Lord Lucas

My Lords, I do not think that he went quite that far. He said that we are aware that public opinion is in the process of changing on this matter and that we are very conscious of the need to keep in touch with the way people feel about it. This is very much a matter of dispute between one type of user of these highways and other types of user. These are matters which to our mind are best dealt with locally by local consultation and local decision except where damage is occurring. In that event, local authorities have the powers to deal with the matter and to prohibit vehicular traffic if that is appropriate.

Lord Renfrew of Kaimsthorn

My Lords, can my noble friend confirm that the Countryside Commission has in the past commissioned professional reports to predict the environmental and heritage impact of such works; for example, the admirable collaboration with English Heritage in respect of Hadrian's Wall? Can he explain why the Countryside Commission failed to do so in this case? Will his department be so good as to encourage the Countryside Commission to commission such reports in future before undertaking works in such highly sensitive areas as the Avebury World Heritage Site?

Lord Lucas

My Lords, to be fair, it was not the Countryside Commission's fault. Wiltshire County Council undertook the works without consulting the commission. I do not believe that it will do that again.

Baroness Seear

My Lords, will the noble Lord reconsider his statement that this is a local matter? The Ridgeway is a trailer for the whole of the country. You might as well say that Stonehenge is only a pile of old stones as say that the Ridgeway is no more than a local road.

Lord Lucas

My Lords, the Ridgeway is many things, but it is also a local road.

Lord Marlesford

My Lords, does not my noble friend agree that the Ridgeway is far more than a local bridleway? It is a major national asset. As there are thousands of acres of tarmac and concrete reserved for motor vehicles, do the Government really feel that it is appropriate for a small number of people who want to use the Ridgeway, not to transport themselves but for fun, to largely destroy significant parts of the Ridgeway?

Is the Minister aware that under Section 22 of the Road Traffic Regulation Act 1984 the Government have reserve powers to declare traffic regulation orders for such long distance routes as the Ridgeway? Will he urgently consider the matter again? I know from my time several years ago on the Countryside Commission that there is a tremendous feeling among all those concerned with rural England that such activity must be stopped.

Lord Lucas

My Lords, as I am sure my noble friend is aware, as recently as 1992 there was a public inquiry on the subject of traffic management on the Ridgeway. It concluded that no additional measures were justified. The Countryside Commission has not approached us to say that it wishes us to review that position. Until that happens, and certainly in view of the fact that the inquiry was so recent, we believe that the matter is essentially a local one.

The Earl of Carnarvon

My Lords, before asking my question, I must declare an interest in that I own and manage race horses working alongside the Ridgeway. Will the Minister confirm that there is a code of conduct for use of the Ridgeway? Is that code enforced in the winter months?

Lord Lucas

My Lords, it is a voluntary code of conduct and cannot therefore be enforced. However, as I am sure the noble Earl is aware, most of the damage to green lanes and similar tracks occurs from farm vehicles. If we can persuade farmers to do better than at present, most of the problems should disappear. There are local areas where recreational vehicles cause a problem. In general, county councils have dealt with those matters expeditiously.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, a study of the Countryside Commission, which I believe took place some eight years ago, discovered that the average tourist moves less than half a mile from his car. Does that study still carry weight? If so, is the answer to the Avebury Ring to move car parks further away?

Lord Lucas

My Lords, that is an interesting suggestion.

Lord Williams of Elvel

My Lords, the noble Lord did not reply to the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, about the powers that Government have. Do the Government have powers under the Road Traffic Regulation Act 1984 to impose the restrictions which the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, implies? If the answer is yes, it stops being a local matter and becomes a government matter.

Lord Lucas

My Lords, yes, I believe that the noble Lord is right. However, as I said in my initial Answer, it depends on the Country Commission requesting us to intervene. We had exactly this situation at the end of the public inquiry in 1992. The inspector recommended that there should be no additional restrictions, against the background of the Government having proposed that there should be. The Government accepted the inspector's recommendations. We cannot continue reviewing matters every three years.

Viscount Mersey

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that I walked the Ridgeway some four years ago when it was in very good condition? It stands to reason that the damage to the Ridgeway is extremely recent. Therefore, the fears of the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, are real and should be urgently addressed.

Lord Lucas

My Lords, there is damage to localised parts of the Ridgeway. However, most of the Ridgeway is in good condition to this day.