HL Deb 19 May 1999 vol 601 cc303-57

3.16 p.m.

Lord Gladwyn

rose to call attention to the issues raised by public demand for access to the countryside, in the light of the Government's Statement of 8th March (HL Deb, cols. 40–42); and to move for Papers.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, a new chapter in the long history of public demand for access to the countryside was opened with the Government Statement of 8th March. This statement was triggered by Gordon Prentice's Private Member's Bill on the Right to Roam, which was debated at Second Reading in another place on 26th March. It is therefore appropriate that your Lordships' House should have this opportunity to debate the subject. In raising it I have no interest to declare. I am not a landowner, nor have I held a position of authority in any of the interested organisations; but I am the author of several books about counties in southern England, of which three are guides to long-distance walking trails, and I therefore consider myself to be an informed observer. I look forward to the maiden speech of the noble Viscount, Lord Eccles.

The Government intend to introduce primary legislation to permit access on foot to all open countryside in England and Wales that is defined as mountain, moor, heath, downland and common land, which represents about 10 per cent of the land mass. It is to be regretted that the aim of providing greater freedom for people to explore the open countryside, which was stated in the Labour Party manifesto, could not have been achieved by means of voluntary agreements. But it is also perfectly understandable that the Government should have decided to establish, in clarity and in permanence, the right to roam that had been the intention of the 1949 Act.

On the basis of the figures in the Government's own appraisal document, it seems that although most of our open countryside is currently available for access by one means or another, about a third is not, amounting to some half a million hectares. In the highly sensitive Peak District National Park over half the open land remains closed, if that is not a contradiction in terms.

Understandably, many landowners feel deeply aggrieved about the element of compulsion. Had the present voluntary arrangements continued, they could have stood to benefit from incentive payments for loss of amenity, even if access enforcement orders had been served on them. Now they will get nothing, and will incur additional costs. The government's appraisal is that such costs will be only slight on the greater part of land that is defined as being of low visitor pressure.

Where there is high visitor pressure, however, this loss of amenity becomes more significant. The figures may be disputed, and the one group which will certainly have a field day is the lawyers. The central issue of the law relating to property may go all the way up to the Court of Human Rights.

The "right to roam" is an emotive phrase, implying an indiscriminate intrusion. But the Government, as explained in its Framework for Action, intends to mitigate it with important restrictions and an emphasis on responsibilities as well as rights, with codes of practice. To lay the groundwork for the proposed legislation, the new Countryside Agency is charged with the supervision of accurate mapping and with the establishment of access forums of the type already set up in Wales and Scotland. Much will depend on the composition of these local forums, whose remit will cover the entire countryside in their area. The Countryside Agency, which is already engaged in setting up the English National Forum, is determined that its membership should be quite small and well balanced between conflicting interests.

The broad intent of the government Statement raises a host of unresolved questions, and the Country Landowners' Association has already compiled a list of 150. There are questions of definition, for example: what will be the minimum area qualifying as "open land"? How will open land be recognised by those without maps? What about the adjacent enclosed land through which many walkers will seek to pass? What is meant by "extensive grazing"? Access is to be confined to walkers seeking open-air recreation; but what kinds of sport or recreation might that include? Will occupiers' liability insurances incur higher premiums?

There are questions about the effect on wildlife and vegetation. What limitations will be imposed on numbers, on special events and on noise in order to preserve the wildness and tranquillity that are prescribed in the 1995 Act? How much will the public stick to paths or wander across the rough ground? The right of access will not just be roaming in the gloaming; it will be all through the night. So what about camping and rough living? Dogs are to be kept on leads, but how long is an extension lead? How closely will access be monitored?

Then there is the question of closures. Apart from the statutory 28 days, further closures may be imposed for conservation, health or safety or else conceded by the access forums for reasons of land management. Will that standard 28 days be equally sufficient in very varied circumstances? How long will it take to arrange a special closure? How costly will it be for the landowner to implement the closure? How will the closure be recognised by the public?

The Government's Statement also envisages extending the right to roam over other areas of countryside. As well as woodlands and coastal areas, those might include inland water and waterbanks. Rights of access may extend to other users beyond the mere pedestrian. That introduces an element of uncertainty altogether greater than the provisions for the open countryside, which have at least been outlined.

Uncertainties such as these persist also in Scotland where the new Parliament is expected to bring in its own Bill in the near future, foreshadowed by the ministerial statement of February. Here the access policy is likely to be even more liberal than in England, with a general presumption of access to land and water everywhere, subject to safeguards and restraints.

With access established as of right, the need to manage and control it will be all the greater. In addition to decisions made by the local forums about what happens on the ground, much can be done by limiting the number of users by means of traffic management, especially at the honeypots of the national parks and the National Trust. Speed limits, calming methods, road hierarchies, cycle lanes and restrictions on car parks will all help. But what will be of far greater effect—and I should like to see far more—would be the closure of sections of road to visiting private motor vehicles, as has been done already in two valleys of the Peak District. Above all, remote areas should be kept remote.

I turn now to the remainder of our countryside, the great majority of it, all enclosed in one way or another, mostly very beautiful although downright unsightly in parts. Here the issues about access relate to our unparalleled network of rights of way, those gossamer webs which were once vital arteries, in the days when the now empty countryside was full of working people. The Countryside Commission, as it still was, early this year issued its report entitled Rights of Way in the 21st Century and now the Government, in conformity with their 8th March Statement, are to produce a consultation paper.

What does the commission's report say? It criticises local authorities for not doing enough to secure their networks; and it recommends changes to the law so as to make it easier for landowners to obtain reasonable diversions, as well as for the authorities to remove obstructions. It also wants to call a halt to the interminable challenging of the legal status of rights of way by means of a ten-year time limit. I find all those recommendations entirely desirable. The costs of even the most trivial adjustments to the network are ridiculously high. Those recommendations of the Countryside Commission will require substantial additional funding—£150 million has been suggested. That is in addition to the extra funding needed for monitoring and "wardening" the new right to roam on open country.

The great majority of rights of way are footpaths, for walkers only. Naturally, those near or within conurbations are used more than those in remote parishes. Most people take a walk just to keep fit or walk the dog, rather than to explore the countryside, and they want to do so without getting into a car. That simple therapeutic action is now actively encouraged by the medical profession, thus affirming Sir George Trevelyan's brief but splendid sentence in his Essay on Walking: I have two doctors, my left leg and my right". But there, on the fringes of towns, is where the tension is greatest, where many footpaths have been eliminated by urban spread and where landowners suffer most from inconsiderate behaviour. Those patches of undeveloped rough ground, on which teenagers used to let off steam, have mostly gone. Perhaps replacements should be acquired.

On bridleways, walkers are joined by horse riders and cyclists. Horse riders understandably feel they have a raw deal. Country lanes in south-east England are hazardous enough for walkers who can sometimes feel as though they have strayed on to the Cresta Run. But for riders, they are positively lethal, as accident statistics show all too well. So horse riders are doing all they can to establish bridleway status wherever possible, especially so as to join up fragmented routes and to secure permissive trails with landowners, even if that involves payment.

Cyclists are the newcomers to the scene, thanks to the development of the mountain bike. In fact, they represent the strongest surge in demand for access to the countryside. The South Downs Way now seems to be dominated by them. Inconsiderate cyclists can be very alarming to walkers and horse riders, but all three should learn to respect each other for their physical energy. It is good that Sustrans is making use of new countryside trails, such as disused railway lines and canal towpaths, as part of its system. However—and I say this not just because I am a walker—the Government are surely correct in prohibiting both cyclists and horse riders from the open countryside, because of the damage they inevitable cause to the fragile habitat.

On byways open to all traffic, the muscular users are joined by the mechanical ones. The pressure from drivers of four-wheel drive vehicles to get onto those green lanes is intense. The issue has come to a head in respect of as yet unclassified rights of way—known as RUPPs—and the commission proposes to grasp the nettle and force their redesignation, to the dismay of the defenders of quiet enjoyment.

Access to the lowland countryside is not confined to rights to way, of course. It exists among many voluntary agreements and schemes in agricultural land and woodland, notably in Forestry Commission properties. It exists in local authority country parks and village greens. Then there are the countryside properties of the National Trust and English Nature. There are the parklands of great houses. I suppose one might almost say that it exists in the tens of thousands of golf courses, even if only to a manicured countryside.

Altogether, the British countryside is there to be explored in all its wonderful variety. In that regard, I award the palm to the present American ambassador, Philip Lader, who, since his appointment, has walked every yard of a rough route of 1,000 miles from Land's End to John O'Groats, putting up at bed and breakfasts.

The great question now is: when will the Government introduce their Bill? The danger of postponement is that uncertainty will increase aggravation. Users will assume that they can wander indiscriminately, and some landowners may renounce existing agreements. Restraint and understanding are required on both sides. I believe that will prevail.

Despite much-publicised spats and confrontations, there is a remarkable lack of conflict in the 3 billion day visits made annually to the countryside. The Ramblers' Association and the National Farmers Union are in sensible dialogue. The differences between urban and non-urban living are diminishing all the time. I do not believe in the simplistic town versus country social divide. Thanks to TV and educative programmes, the message of the countryside that it is not a theme park but a working environment, is increasingly understood. People appreciate that it depends on profitable agriculture if it is not to deteriorate into a monotonous wilderness, and that private shooting rights have helped to preserve our precious habitat and wildlife. But, in return for subsidies, they demand access.

My Lords, I beg to move for Papers.

Viscount Bledisloe

My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, as the president of the Cresta Run, perhaps I may assure him that it is virtually impossible for a pedestrian to stray on to it.

3.30 p.m.

Lord Grantchester

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Gladwyn, for initiating this debate on access. It is clearly time to consider the practical implications of the access Statement last March. I declare an interest. I am a land-owning dairy farmer in Cheshire.

Everyone is agreed on the need for more access in general. Opinions vary on how we are to achieve it. I support the thrust of the proposal for a statutory right of access to mountain, moor, heath and down. That will provide a stepped change in the amount of countryside permanently available for people to explore and will create the opportunity to increase the quality and diversity of areas where walkers can enjoy the countryside. It will not be dependent on voluntary agreements comprising a diversity of access arrangements often combined with poor publicity which only cause confusion to the walker at best or the likelihood of increasing resentment.

Voluntary access arrangements can extend the areas made available through statutory right to include lowland areas and forests and even some agricultural land around towns. But they cannot be relied upon to provide a consistent framework. Indeed, the amount of areas could decrease rather than increase should some unfortunate access experience, a change of landowner or simply a timed end of agreement lead to a withdrawal of access. I urge the Country Landowners' Association arid other interested bodies to continue their dialogue arid to work with the Countryside Agency to provide voluntary access to further areas in addition to the statutory areas. The management of access is vital, and the input of landowners and local communities will be invaluable. Proper account of the sensitivity of the environment to withstand the pressures of the volume of walkers, of the needs of land management to maintain quality, and of the conflicting demands of users of the countryside can only be undertaken at local level.

Public demand needs to be better assessed and made more aware of existing provision. For example, in the Countryside Commission's national survey in 1994, only 42 per cent of rights of way were signposted. Local post offices and notice boards could easily display footpaths and access areas. The quality of access can initially be easily improved where rights of way are not clearly defined, publicised or maintained. This will highlight the need to structure the network better and to modernise the legislation to allow flexibility through alterations and modifications to the rigidity of the footpath legislation. In the Minister's Statement of 8th March, the undertaking was given, to strengthen and develop the rights of way network". —[Official Report, 8/3/99; col. 41.] Can my noble friend the Minister assure the House today that provision will be included to more easily re-route, delete, create and link up existing rights of way? Under whose responsibility will this be undertaken? What will be the criteria against which alterations will be judged? Where there is a dispute. how will it be decided? Can the Minister confirm that there is a role here for the proposed local access forums to advise on the rights of way network?

The practicalities of the statutory access provision will ensure that the forums will be crucial throughout the countryside. The need for consistency within the national framework will necessitate policy guidance against which provision can be assessed as well as a code of practice for landowners and the walking public to follow. How will local bodies be able to qualify a statutory right, as management of access and land clearly entails a qualification?

The key to the success of this measure is land management, and although access does not include access to agricultural land in its strict sense it will clearly impact on the livestock sector, mostly the sheep farmer and to a lesser extent beef farmers in the uplands. Agriculture is in a state of crisis at the moment, suffering falls in income throughout all sections of the industry of the order of 25 to 30 per cent. Will my noble friend the Minister recognise today that management of access will have costs? Will he undertake an assessment of the impact on the upland livestock farmer who will have no means of meeting these costs?

There must also be recognition that here is an opportunity for rural areas to develop services. The Minister's Statement made clear that provision of access will be free to the user. Nevertheless, a key ingredient will be how to deliver value. I am reminded that if something is free, it is of no value. I should like to think that as policy develops on the practicalities of access arrangements, it must be borne in mind that access provision has to be of value not only to the walkers, but also to the provider, or nothing much will be improved. As it is to be free to the walker, the management costs can be recognised in various ways. First, there are already pilot schemes on countryside stewardship. Within this and the agri-environment measures in general, there must be included an access provision with grants.

I understand that this is already the case in Wales under the Tir Gofal scheme. The targeting of access elements of agri-environment schemes can contribute to the gradual development of rural areas away from production support of the common agricultural policy. Secondly, there is the opportunity of the New Opportunities Fund of the National Lottery perhaps to defray much of the costs of provision of information or even the provision of additional routes.

Furthermore, access provision must become integrated with local strategy plans on tourism. Although not producing income to the access provider in itself, the quality provision of leisure walks will help economic activities in predominately agricultural areas under severe economic hardship at the moment.

Access is not a threat to rural areas. It provides an opportunity to integrate leisure pursuits within a working countryside where costs must be recognised. I trust access measures will receive the full encouragement of this House.

3.35 p.m.

Viscount Eccles

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Gladwyn, for introducing this debate and for providing me with the opportunity to speak in your Lordships' House for the first time.

Much of my walking experience has been in North Yorkshire, although I do stray into Durham from time to time. Home is in Moulton, a village which lies between the Dales and the North York Moors. Both have national parks and there is much other attractive walking country all around. Access is a subject of great interest to anyone who regularly walks.

The Government's Framework for Action, published in March, outlines an approach to access using the definitions "developed land" and "agricultural land" in contrast to "land extensively grazed" and "open countryside". One issue which arises may be illustrated by a walk in Swaledale, which is to be found on the Yorkshire Dales North map. Here I acknowledge with thanks the excellence of the Ordnance Survey mapping. Its maps are of vital assistance to walkers.

The walk begins in the centre of Reeth, where the parking of cars is well organised. After a spell in the village, the route takes you more than half a mile through 14 allotments with dry stone walls, which are easily damaged. There are angled slits in the walls which allow human legs to pass but not a sheep's shoulders. Thereafter, you reach the steeper open slopes of Calver Hill and, beyond, High Reeth Moor. It seems logical that the Countryside Agency and the national park would decide that Reeth was developed and the allotments, agricultural. Here, as now, we would continue to keep to the footpath.

Marking the point at which walkers reached open countryside would not be too difficult on the four footpaths out of Reeth to the west towards Calver Hill. But on the way back, bowling down the hill, avoiding the disused tips and pits, the shafts and the quarry, not to mention the shaking holes, walkers could reach the agricultural land boundary at any point on a three-mile perimeter, with bonus points to those who had a map. Presumably there would be frequent signs with perhaps "Please rejoin the rights of way system", although a somewhat more controlling message might be expected.

In Swaledale there are some 15 villages of substance and many other scattered pockets of agricultural land close to dwellings. The surroundings of each would need to be studied and the map would need to be modified. The mapping, the deliberations of the relevant authorities and the local forums, and the appeals procedures seem likely to be very time-consuming.

To illustrate the issue further, I would tell your Lordships that we also walk near Marske-in-Swaledale and here sometimes meet a Dales farmer's wife who makes it plain that walkers are not her favourite people and that she dislikes their cars even more. She also forcibly points out that the farming life in her dale is difficult. Many would agree.

I move on to a quick plea for dogs. Framework for Action says that legislation will specify that dogs should be on leads. If enacted, that would frustrate both dogs and owners. Many dogs, with their inbuilt equivalent of four-wheel drive, go several times as far as their owners, and the owners take their dogs to get them well exercised and satisfactorily tired. It is certain that the great majority of Yorkshire dog owners respect both nesting birds and lambing sheep. Their dogs are well trained; if not, they are left at home.

Upland walkers in Yorkshire already have a fine range of country to choose from. One set of the many guide books describes 90 Dales walks. They include the coast-to-coast route, the Pennine Way and the Cleveland Way. However, walkers in the agricultural lowlands would certainly be helped by a strengthening of the rights-of-way system, as foreshadowed in the framework. Many footpaths were naturally established to take walkers straight from A to B and not necessarily to provide a satisfying round trip. Maintenance and strengthening of the system are already a responsibility of local authorities. They have a difficult task.

I know of one set of exchanges concerning the correct alignment of 200 yards of a path which 50 years ago was in the middle of a drovers' road, now abandoned. The matter is unresolved after three years of discussion and correspondence involving more than 10 parties. It is no isolated example.

No doubt in the search to improve access the manner in which existing legislation works will be carefully taken into account. After all, rights of way, with their long and detailed history, give rise to strongly held and conflicting opinions, and a satisfactory balance is difficult to find. Therefore, the eventual proposals to legislate for greater access will generate much interest and discussion. But I suppose there may be some doubt as to whether I will here to comment upon them.

3.42 p.m.

Lord Beaumont of Whitley

My Lords, it is my very pleasant duty to congratulate on behalf of all your Lordships the noble Viscount, Lord Eccles, on his maiden speech. I was a great admirer of his father, his predecessor, who wrote an extremely good book called Half-Way to Faith which I have on my bookshelves and react from time to time. In my view, he was a very great man, and I am delighted to welcome his son to his place in this House. Indeed, the quality of the speech we have heard, which contributed greatly to your Lordships' debate this afternoon, particularly through its detailed knowledge of the situation and of the subject we are talking about, almost persuades me that there is a virtue in hereditary peerages—almost.

The noble Viscount's experience as chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew, is something that he will be able to bring to bear in your Lordships' House in dealing with the kind of subject that we have before us today. I hope we shall have the chance to listen to him many times more before he leaves the House in one way or another.

I would also like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Gladwyn, for having initiated this debate. He gave us a wide-ranging summary of the various situations and provided a great deal of thought and material for the rest of the debate. My only complaint is that, unlike the noble Viscount, he was to a certain extent taken away from what he might have told us from his personal experience. Your Lordships will know that the noble Lord is a noted walker himself, a noted leader of walks throughout the countryside and a noted writer about walks and walking. It was from that background that he was able to introduce the debate.

There is a general principle that almost everyone accepts, although landowners from time to time tend slightly to forget it, that individuals are not the owners of land. They hold it as stewards under the Queen, who holds it as steward under God. The rights of individual landowners are severely limited by the rights that those superior landlords hold on behalf of the community. In a way, the land of this country belongs to the people of this country. The Government are to be congratulated on their attempt to put some of that principle into practice.

The right to roam is a principle, and a very good principle. But, like all principles, it needs some limitation. It is subject to the need to protect the legitimate interests of the land's occupants, among whom I include not only the stewards who hold it as landlords and the farmers who farm it, but also the wildlife that actually occupies it.

It would probably be a very good idea if whatever legislation is finally introduced has a timescale that takes into consideration the nesting and breeding seasons of the wildlife and the life of the farmed animals in the areas dealt with, because much of what we are talking about is land where sheep graze, and where we must hope sheep may continue safely to graze.

One point which has not been seriously raised has been brought to my attention by the Small Farms' Association: the need for dogs not just to be kept on leads but to be healthy when they are taken into the countryside. If dogs are not correctly wormed on a regular basis, and if tapeworms are picked up by a sheep, they can cause cysts within its body, and the sheep can die. If tapeworms are found within the carcass of the animal once slaughtered, the carcass is condemned. In either case the farmers are the losers, and, as the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, pointed out, the farmers at the present time can in no way afford to be losers.

The Government have taken on a very complicated and difficult issue. We must ask them today about their timetable. Adam Nicolson commented in the Sunday Telegraph, not for the first time, on the right to roam proposals and on the absence of any timetable. He said: When is any of this going to become law? Nobody knows. There will now be a long and incredibly elaborate exercise in mapping the boundaries of the new open ground. No one knows how long that will take, or even how it is going to be done. Once—if—they have managed to identify what is open access country and what isn't, there is a nearly insuperable communication problem. National Dark authorities, which are going to carry much of the brunt of this, are already viewing the prospect with despair". As one of the vice-presidents of the Council for National Parks, I hope that real support will be given to the national parks authorities in their important work.

It is impossible to come up with easy solutions to these problems. Indeed, that is really the point of this debate, which is important as it tries to expose at least some of the questions that need to be asked. I hope that we shall have some interim answers from the Government.

3.50 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Carlisle

My Lords, I am happy to add my congratulations to those that have been paid to the noble Viscount, Lord Eccles, on his maiden speech, and again to thank the noble Lord, Lord Gladwyn, for his magisterial survey of the issues confronting the House and the Government in preparing such legislation.

I should like to put in a word on behalf of the working tenant farmer, but to do so against the background of that Statement of vision of 8th March, which stated that there are glorious parts of our heritage which should be the delight of the many rather than the preserve of the few. It is towards the fulfilment of that vision that I hope that the Government will continue to work.

I do not have a personal interest to declare in the sense that I am not a tenant farmer, but I live in the historic house of the Bishops of Carlisle which is set in the middle of an estate of 25 tenanted farms, so I am regularly in touch with the tenant farming fraternity and have considerable contacts with those on the hills and fells of the Lake District.

Tenant farmers working on the high ground have a living to earn. They are among the hardest working, but the least well financially recompensed of that very hard-pressed sector of society. They are already the often unacknowledged, unpaid wardens of some of our areas of outstanding natural beauty. We owe it to them to take their concerns seriously. I am grateful to Mr. Peter Allen, the chairman of the Less Favoured Areas Committee of the National Farmers Union, for some information on the subject, although I hasten to add that I approached him and that he did not in any sense lobby me.

Perhaps I may cite the example of a tenant farm on the fells above Ullswater where there happens to be a camping site. The area will therefore receive between 150,000 and 200,000 visitors each year. If only 1 per cent of that number causes any kind of problem or damage, that will present considerable difficulties for the tenant farmer and be at his personal cost. It is the tenant farmer who repairs the walls while on the fells shepherding. The damage is usually incidental and is not necessarily deliberate. People tend to go the shortest route from A to B, and if that goes over a wall which is already beginning to crumble, gradually the wall will come down. The tenant farmer frequently encounters the taking off of gates, usually for fun and just occasionally for firewood when the barbecue season is upon the camping fraternity.

It is difficult, if not impossible, for people who think that they are walking through open country and long grass to realise that they are helping to destroy the fell farmer's winter hay. Such points need to be borne carefully in mind. Uninstructed and unwary walkers can also easily subject themselves to danger. They may see an apparently contented herd of cows grazing on the high fell, but if they do not know that the herd is newly calved, with the calves at foot, perhaps hidden by the long grass, the walkers may be in serious danger of physical damage. It is the farmer who has to solve all such problems—and at his own personal cost.

Should access, therefore, be statutory or voluntary? I do not want to disturb the distant memories of those of your Lordships who struggled with Latin at school. Nevertheless, noble Lords may remember that there are three ways in Latin of asking a question, two of which concern us now. One way is to use the word that anticipates the answer "yes" and the other is to use the word that anticipates the answer "no". So, should access be statutory or voluntary? I have no doubt that the Ramblers' Association would use the word anticipating the answer "yes" and I would be very surprised if the Country Landowners' Association did not at least start to phrase the question with the word anticipating the answer "no". In the current climate of openness and personal liberty, I am inclined to think that the answer should be "yes". I hope that the Government will press ahead, but there need to be important provisions and safeguards.

I have already referred to some of the experiences that may await the unwary walker. There needs to be a serious programme to make readily available detailed information, not to say education, about those aspects of life in the countryside which town-dwellers cannot be assumed to know. Without such a programme, there are problems and dangers.

I wonder whether we should abandon the phrase "the right to roam". It has a wonderful feeling of liberty about it, but sadly it is the sort of liberty that leads to irresponsibility. Perhaps we could use a term such as "agreed access" because that would at least signal partnership between landowners, farmers and those who wish to experience the freedom of the hills.

Various references have been made to the cost of all this, but we must also provide a time-scale for monitoring the effectiveness of whatever legislation is put in place. Without that, we shall continue not to know its effect or effectiveness. Getting this right will take much persistent hard work. We may need to provide for deliverable sanctions so that the unwilling can be assisted on their passage towards willingness.

I should like an assurance from the Minister that a serious attempt will be made to take account of the proper interests of those who are tenant farmers on the hills and who work so hard in ways which we so readily fail to appreciate.

3.57 p.m.

Earl Peel

My Lords, I too congratulate my noble friend Lord Eccles on his excellent maiden speech. I found it quite moving to hear him describe hills of Swaledale, which are very close to the area from which I travelled down here this morning. Indeed, his description made me wonder why I bothered! I did so for a very good reason: this is an extremely important debate, and I thank the noble Lord, Lord Gladwyn, for initiating it. I must apologise most profusely to the House. I shall have to leave before the winding-up speeches because I have a long-standing engagement in Newcastle which I sincerely hope that I can make. I shall read carefully in Hansard what the Minister has to say.

As a member of the Country Landowners' Association and an estate owner in Swaledale, I declare an interest. I am also a member of the Moorland Association and, as such, I have been involved in the access argument for something like 20 years now.

Therefore, perhaps it is not altogether surprising that I am very concerned about the Government's proposals. I say that for three basic reasons. First, in ideological terms, I regard the proposals as one of the most savage attacks on basic property rights that has ever been seen in this country. Secondly, despite wide consultation, the Government appear to have ignored virtually all the evidence received from the vast majority of organisations which were consulted. Thirdly—in some ways this is perhaps the most important reason—what is on the table at the moment is a recipe for confusion, conflict—we do not want that under any circumstances—and a lawyer's paradise. In other words, those are the very best ingredients for the very worst legislation.

I have no doubt from my own experience that the majority of walkers respect the countryside and its traditional management and do not want to compromise its well-being. Furthermore, I do not believe that the majority of walkers actually want open access and the right to roam. The CLA evidence certainly substantiates that view. However, there are always exceptions. Unfortunately, I had an encounter last weekend with a lady who had a pair of Dobermann pinschers rampaging around the moor at perhaps the most vulnerable time of the year. When I asked her what she was doing, she said, "I have the right to roam. I have the right to go where I want". I said, "You have not as yet". Is that an indication of the taste of things to come?

Noble Lords


Earl Peel

My Lords, I have no doubt that the Government's response will be that there will be a duty of care incumbent on walkers which will form part of the legislation. Everyone knows that realistically the message will get through only to those who want to hear the message. At the moment, English Nature and national parks authorities' signs, asking people to keep to paths and to keep their dogs on leads, are very often torn up and discarded.

I am not against access—far from it. I have long argued that there are considerable opportunities to expand people's enjoyment of the countryside through extending the footpath system. That is why we were so disappointed, like so many others, in particular the CLA and the Moorland Association, when the Government abandoned the voluntary approach which was leading to some worthwhile progress. I believe that so much goodwill has been lost.

Most of the uplands of England and Wales will be covered by the Government's legislation. Where I live, the red grouse has long been a symbol of good habitat management and local employment. So many areas managed for that game bird have been designated as SSSIs and SPAs, which I believe is a testament to the management system. In my view, it is imperative that access must not allow the economic dynamo that has driven the conservation and wellbeing of the heather moorland for so long to be compromised.

That vulnerable and internationally important habitat relies on the shooting interest and still supports considerable numbers of other ground-nesting birds which are in major decline in other parts of the United Kingdom. Of course, I refer to birds like the golden plover, the green plover, the curlew and the snipe. I believe that to allow such species to come under any further threats would be nothing short of environmental vandalism.

With speculation about the possible closure orders at certain times of the year, I urge the Government to make a full commitment, as soon as possible, that there will be no access other than on footpaths, at least during the nesting, fledging and mating season, if, for no other reason, than to comply with their international obligations. Furthermore, I support, without any question, the fact that dogs must be kept on leads at all times, not just from a wildlife point of view, but also from a sheep point of view.

I agree with the words spoken by the right reverend Prelate about hill farmers. At the moment their position is perilous. The seven tenant farmers on my estate feel as strongly as I do about the proposals that the Government have put forward on the right to roam.

We all have a stake in the countryside, but that cannot give everyone on this small island of ours the right to decide what to do there and when. Management decisions based on experience and local knowledge must be allowed to prevail. That means managing people along with the land itself. It is no good the Government bringing in new rules to give so-called benefits to the public only to leave those on the ground with the task of picking up the costs and the responsibilities of making the system work. The occupiers' liability has not, as yet, been addressed, but that is also of enormous importance.

I am particularly concerned that once on the statute book there will be no compromise in future. What happens when access becomes an intolerable burden on landscapes, as indeed is happening in certain areas already, when restrictions will undoubtedly be necessary? I suspect that there will be a fudge. For that reason I have always supported the voluntary approach, with its built-in flexibility, relying as we have done for so long on the precautionary principle.

Noble Lords spoke in your Lordships' House as long ago as 1981, when I made my maiden speech, on this subject. How can I forget the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Sandford. The Sandford principles became an integral part of the way in which we considered that land should be managed in this country. It is a tragedy that this legislation appears to propose abandoning that principle.

I ask the Government to consider carefully the consequences of their actions. I say that purely as someone who has a great love of the countryside. I want people to enjoy the countryside, but I want them to do that in a way that does not compromise the countryside and does not lead to conflict between town and country, something that we should avoid at all costs.

4.4 p.m.

Lord Chorley

My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Gladwyn for initiating this debate. It is an important topic. He speaks with a background of considerable practical knowledge and experience.

I believe that this is the first occasion on which we have discussed the subject since the Government's White Paper, Framework for Action, published on 8th March, nearly two months ago. In my view, the announcement gave rise to a huge amount of hype and uninformed comment. I believe that the CLA overreacted in one direction and the Ramblers' Association in the other. It is not surprising, therefore, that there was considerable public misunderstanding of what was being proposed. The White Paper referred only to so-called open countryside, which I believe is an Ordnance Survey definition, a cartographic classification, defined loosely as mountain, moor, heath, down and registered common land, and it did riot apply to ordinary farmland. It applied only to access on foot, and for much of that land there was already, particularly in the national parks, pretty good access. So it is not surprising that the public and, to some extent, farmers and landowners have overreacted.

Moreover, some recreational organisations. such as the British Mountaineering Council, make a point of maintaining good relationships with landowners. They regret slogans such as "right to roam", which says nothing about duties and responsibilities. It is a nice slogan but we should have checks and balances.

I propose to speak mainly about the management of access, about the problems and issues of open space recreation. Currently, I am a patron of the British Mountaineering Council, and like the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, I am a vice-president of the Council for National Parks. From 1991 to 1996 I was chairman of the National Trust, which I suppose is the biggest "supplier"—if that is the correct word—of access in England and Wales. It has 600,000 acres, not all of which is open space land and about 600 miles of coastline.

In effect, acquiring open space landscape and making it available for the benefit of the nation is a statutory purpose of the trust, so we take access management very seriously. A few years ago we set up a working party to review our access policies and arrangements. The report of that working party is really a handbook on access management, written by people who know what they are talking about. Incidentally, the new chairman of the Countryside Agency, Ewen Cameron, was a member of that working party, as was the chairman of the Open Spaces Society.

The report enunciated two principles: first, if serious conflict arises between access and conservation, conservation needs should prevail. Secondly, the trust will ensure that our countryside will retain those characteristics which ensure the widest range of experience and will enable people to enjoy access to its properties. I want to suggest to the Minister that those principles, or something along those lines, should be enshrined as the main purpose of the proposed legislation.

Conflict between recreational access and conservation is only one form of conflict. Conflicts also arise between different kinds of recreation. The trust has listed over 40 different sorts of open space use. The Government do not have the same problem, as they are limiting the proposals to access on foot. That limitation in itself raises issues, although I am inclined to think that the Government are right. Equally, one can think of a list of foot-based activities—my noble friend Lord Gladwyn hinted at some of these—for example, angling, orienteering, fell-running, parapenting and, pre-eminently, climbing.

I can see a considerable danger of the legislation tying itself in knots and getting into a muddle in trying to define what we mean by "access on foot". I wonder how the Government will tackle this issue. After all, one activity in one place, or at one time of the year, may be acceptable but not so at another place or another time of year; for example, when does walking become scrambling and scrambling become mountaineering? Those activities form part of a continuum whose character changes with place, season and person. I could expand on that at some length.

I should like to touch briefly on three other issues in my remaining couple of minutes. The first is the need to protect from over-use areas that are valued for their remoteness and wildness. That is particularly important to mountaineers. Secondly, and related to the first, is the problem of serious physical damage being caused in popular areas by foot erosion. Footpaths need to be repaired and new paths created. But who pays for that? The National Trust now spends around £750,000 a year on such matters from its budget. But what will the landowner do?

The third point relates to the important issue of occupier's liability, which has already been touched on. The White Paper refers to ministerial discussions on whether liability should be reduced more generally for recreational users. Can the Minister tell us where those discussions have reached?

The Government have decided to legislate. We must make it work, and there is a huge amount of work to be done in preparation, not least all the mapping and the detailed administrative arrangements. Then there is the ongoing work. All my experience tells me that local access forums will be the key—that is the experience of both the trust and the BMC. They will have a difficult and complicated job to do.

I conclude by saying that I do not believe that the countryside will be overrun by the anorak brigade any more than it is already. In the event, ramblers and landowners will behave like grown-ups and we will all enjoy our countryside.

4.11 p.m.

Lord Hardy of Wath

My Lords, I join in the commendation of the noble Lord, Lord Gladwyn. He provides the House with a useful opportunity for debate. It is also an opportunity for a third Yorkshire Peer to take part, not counting the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Carlisle who is extremely familiar with my area from the days when he was very much our leading Anglican.

I see the Government's approach as one with a good pedigree. It is a manifestation of the commitment to the environment and the countryside demonstrated by the government of 1945—a government who also did a great deal for the farmers. From that time we have seen an enormous increase of interest in conservation with a proliferation of bodies and organisations committed to our natural heritage and conservation to the point that membership of all those organisations must dwarf that of the political parties. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds may actually have more members than all the political parties in Britain put together.

Interest in these matters is enormous. But the Government may already have helped the voluntary movement to which reference has already been made. While many farmers in my area are friends of mine, there are a few who were not very good at being helpful to the voluntary movement. I used to go round with my deer-hound and wolfhound to open blocked footpaths. The deer-hound would jump over, but the wolfhound would not jump and went straight through. We frequently cleared footpaths by that approach.

That does not mean that I am not appreciative of the work of a number of farmers and landowners in serving the cause of conservation. I understand what has happened since 1945 when there were few cars. There is a great deal more mobility, nuisance, injury and damage today; and there is a great deal of anxiety. Like the noble Earl, Lord Peel, I am involved with the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust. I have been a member for 40 years and a patron for a long time. I hope that the Government will pay clear attention to the trust's submission, which I am sure will be echoed by many other conservation bodies in Britain.

The trust has 78 nature reserves. Inherently a nature reserve cannot be open to unfettered public access. A number of noble Lords, on our all-party visit to Kew last week, will have heard the director speak about the lady's slipper orchid. The lady's slipper orchid featured in the Bill I took through Parliament in 1975 when there was one single surviving plant. It had to be treated with absolute security. If we have complete, unfettered licence to roam, someone could put a hobnail boot on it. It is in a better state now but it is not yet so secure that the veil of confidentiality can be relieved. I made it quite clear at that time that I did not wish to know where it was. I still do not know where it is and I do not want anyone else to know until there is a proliferation of the plant.

In my area I estimate that the skylark population has dropped by around 90 per cent. I can see three pairs from my study window. I believe they are breeding. I was therefore less than pleased last weekend when off-the-road motorcyclists were cavorting up and down the area where one of the pairs have their nest. I would rather see skylarks than off-the-road motorcycles.

The litter problem is growing enormously in country as well as in town. Only last week I took a number of photographs of litter within 1.5 miles of my home and within one mile of a very good dumping site. I sent them to the local media, the chief constable and the chief executive of my local authority as an illustration of the scale of the problem.

There is also the problem of people who believe that access to the countryside does not include any commitment to responsibility or common sense. A man was about to shoot birds on a lake for which I have some care at the side of my home. He seemed to believe that the Government's White Paper will allow him to do just what he likes; that is, to shoot what he likes, when he likes. He went away somewhat puzzled. The Government will have to make clear that access is for walkers, not shooters, coursers, motorcycles or off-the-road motor vehicles.

There is responsibility and ignorance, but there is also danger. I put a great deal of effort into promoting the economic and environmental recovery of my area. We received substantial sums of money and the local authority dedicated great energy to transforming our environment. We have a big lake where there was once a colliery. People decided to take motor boats to the lake across an area of newly planted shrubs and trees causing thousands of pounds in damage. Children are attracted to the lake. I took the number of one of the vehicles concerned and offered to be a witness in court. I warned that there was a great deal of danger. A boy drowned the following week. There are risks in access where there is no common sense.

I want to see people enjoy our countryside; it is a great source of inspiration in English literature, poetry, music and art. We have seen too much of it destroyed in recent years, often in an eagerness to produce food at all costs. Thousands of miles of hedgerow were taken up for that reason. In recent years it has become set-aside. We must ensure that our countryside remains worth seeing. We must ensure that it is also enjoyed, but enjoyed with an attitude of common sense and wisdom.

4.18 p.m.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I, too, thank my noble friend Lord Gladwyn for introducing this debate and for his excellent speech, in which he asked a number of pertinent questions. I differed from him only when he said he thought the conflict between the urban and non-urban populations was less than it was before. I remember when I read agriculture at university many years ago being told that one of the difficulties was the conflict between the urban and rural dwellers. It was said that that must be lessened. But I feel that that gulf has widened, which is a great pity.

I should declare an interest in so far as I am involved with agriculture and have been involved with land and land management in various ways during a large part of my life.

I hope that this will not be regarded as provocative, but it is quite nice to have a break from the House of Lords Bill and all the issues that we have been discussing over the past few days. Indeed, if we were to remove those who are speaking from the Front Benches, it is interesting to note that of the 23 speakers who are taking part in today's debate 17 are hereditary Peers. I just mention that as an interesting statistic and noble Lords can make of it what they wish.

I agree with the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Carlisle that the "right to roam" is a controversial expression. We ought to find something else which is less controversial. It is controversial because it is a right. Once you give people rights, you impose obligations upon others. That is a matter which has not been considered nearly enough. Any one who holds any part of the countryside in this country has a great privilege. I do not agree with the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, who said that the countryside belongs to the people. With the greatest respect to him, I think that that is a whole lot of old rubbish; indeed, it belongs to the individual owners. That does not mean to say that others should not have the advantage of it and indeed access to it. But to say that it belongs to the people is simply not true. Sometimes it belongs to a smallholder, sometimes to a landowner, sometimes to a person who just has a house in a garden, sometimes to a company and sometimes a trust. So all those different owners enjoy a certain privilege. However, they also enjoy a great responsibility. I agree that people ought to be encouraged to use and enjoy the countryside for all the reasons which the noble Lord, Lord Hardy of Wath, gave so eloquently.

We all take pride in the countryside. It is a cause of pride because it has been managed. However, as the right reverend Prelate has reminded us, it is also people's workplace. I was impressed by what he said about the problems of fell farmers—for example, when people find a broken wall, they crawl over it and it has to be replaced. If they find a broken gate, it, too, has to be replaced. All those costs have to fall upon someone and I just do not think that the Government have thought enough about it.

It has been said that 80 per cent of the people who answered the consultation document were in favour of the right to roam. But if you sent out a consultation document which asked, "Would you like a free bottle of champagne?", I should think you would get quite a substantial answer in one way. The fact is that if that document had asked, "Are you in favour of people trampling over nesting birds?", a different response might have been received.

The access to the countryside has to be managed. People do not walk in a straight line. Dogs will be let off the lead and they will sniff out birds and worry sheep. Moreover, people will want to brew up a cup of tea and, inadvertently, set fire to a place. Indeed, what happens when people camp at night? Who will see them off? What right has that person to do so? These people may well say, "We have now been given a right", and the response could be, "Yes, you have a right to roam but you must not go over that particular area because it is a site of special scientific interest". Those people may reply that they did not know that, so who will explain it to them?

Whose responsibility is it to look after such places? Is it to be the responsibility of the landlord? Further, what happens if he has to take out greater liability insurance? What happens if someone falls down a hole on someone else's land? Who will pay for that? These are matters of great concern. I agree with my noble friend Lord Peel that it would have been far better had this been done on a voluntary rather than a statutory basis.

There are many interests involved in the countryside, especially in the uplands, and so on. There is agriculture, tending the countryside and the protection of birds, nesting birds and wildlife, together with the lambing of sheep as well as the shooters, the horse riders, the walkers and everyone else. If all this is to be opened up, it must be controlled. If you are going to control it, you must consider how you will do so. Indeed, rules, laws and regulations will have to be made and there will also have to be administration. It may perhaps be necessary to have wardens and car parks—heaven knows! The fact is that this does invite another huge array of bureaucracy. That is what worries me.

I have just suffered a momentary lapse of memory, as happens frequently to some people, but I now recall that it is the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, who is to respond to the debate. He will be replying for the department in which I once had the responsibility of being an ornament. There is one great thing about that department: it has an in-built dynamo to interfere. As I believe I said only the other day, following the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Hardy of Wath, on hedgerows, that is not a reflection on the civil servants. However, when Ministers say, "Let's have a right to roam", it must be controlled. But how will you control it? The answer is that there will be endless laws and regulations—indeed, 15 pages of regulations were introduced covering hedgerows—so heaven knows how many regulations will come out on the right to roam. What will it cost, and who will pay for it? Is it really right when all this should be done in a voluntary way? There are an enormous number of unanswered questions here, many of which go far deeper than giving people what seems to be a very nice right to roam.

4.26 p.m.

Lord Bridges

My Lords, I must first thank my noble friend, and neighbour, Lord Gladwyn, for his excellent choice of a subject for one of our Wednesday debates. He introduced the topic in his usual clear and level-headed way. This is extremely timely: we have today an opportunity to give some considered reactions to the important government Statement of 8th March, and to seek answers to some particular matters arising from it. Indeed, I suspect that our proceedings this afternoon resemble a sort of Second Reading debate without the text of the Bill—or is it to be Bills, in the plural?—which the Government have promised. I trust that some of the points raised may be useful to the Government in preparing the text of the legislation.

I join other speakers in asking whether the Minister can tell us more about the timing of this legislation. Noble Lords may recall that the Statement said that legislation will be introduced, "as parliamentary time allows", an expression which sometimes turns out to mean the Greek Kalends. I am sure that that is not the Government's intention, but any decoding of the expression which the Minister can give us would be very welcome.

I should explain briefly my personal position. I do not own land but am an enthusiastic walker over hill and dale, which I have practised from childhood and still continue with some zest. I have walked extensively in this country, and in the other nations where I have lived. It is clear to me from this experience that the access which we already enjoy in this country to "open countryside" compares very favourably with that available in foreign countries, few of which have a system of rights of way, or common land, as we know and enjoy them here.

France does have an ambitious and extensive network of long distance footpaths, called, I think, Les Grandes Routes, which I have walked on in Provence and recently seen in Corsica. I have also walked on the Appalachian trail and in the Rockies in the United States and elsewhere. The conclusion I draw is that no one abroad has anything comparable with our rights of way which are a national treasure, to be maintained and nourished for use by everyone.

It is not clear to me from careful study of the Statement just what it is that the Government propose to do with our rights of way. Perhaps they do not yet know themselves. As I see it, the need here is for an increase in resources rather than any fundamental change. The biggest threat to our footpaths just now is the explosion in the number of mountain bikes and four-wheel drive recreational vehicles. It would surely be a mistake to change the law so as to permit the more extensive use of green lanes by these powerful, noisy and destructive monsters. It is absurd to create a general right to open a lane to motor traffic, because it might once have been used by a pony trap or horse and cart earlier on this century. That is the kind of decision which is actually being taken at present. Per contra: there is a case for reclassifying the RUPPs as bridleways by statute, to afford them greater protection. In general, reclassification should be for the benefit of the non-motorised user, a point upon which I heartily agree with the noble Lord, Lord Hardy of Wath.

I also greatly welcome the recognition that access to the open countryside should be for quiet enjoyment. That is a matter which we have debated in recent years and constitutes a welcome change of heart by the Government. I see from the Statement that there is a commitment to make some improvement to the rights of way system. I am sure that its prime need is to have more resources than have lately been available. It is, I think, generally understood that for this purpose local authorities have tiny budgets which are manifestly inadequate. Increasing these resources should be the first priority in this whole subject as it would enable the system to operate more effectively. There is little or no cash to hand at present to mend stiles or to spend modestly on signage. Let it be modest, please: our village has lately sprouted a forest of smart metal signs with arrows decorously picked out in white paint to indicate the direction to be taken. That is quite unnecessary for anyone with a map, particularly as these lanes do not go anywhere in particular. Yet there is little or no officer time available to arrange visits to those who may be privily obstructing a registered right of way.

I also suggest to the Minister that this question of rights of way is cardinal to the whole question of access to the open countryside because many of these areas will not necessarily have road access or other means of access. Therefore it may be necessary to identify particular rights of way to enable the walker to reach these places. I am particularly intrigued to learn of the proposed local access forums which will have an advisory role in assessing these matters. Can the Minister explain how these appointments are to be made and who will choose the members? Will the selection be in the hands of the elected authority and not, I trust, in the gift of the regional development agency?

I conclude with this simple observation. The Government are now committed to introducing a Bill which will fundamentally alter the concept of land ownership. The noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, made a number of valid points in that connection. I greatly hope that the change can be undertaken without reducing the sense of responsibility which most owners of land in this country have felt about their property. The best of these people have indeed acted as stewards for life, and it is important to maintain, and not to diminish, that sense of responsibility as these measures are devised and take effect.

4.32 p.m.

Lord Marlesford

My Lords, I too declare an interest as the owner of land in Suffolk. I find myself very much in agreement with the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, as regards the privilege of owning land. I was interested to note the slight distinction that I felt was made between my noble friend Lord Ferrer; and the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, on that point. I regard the privilege as equalled only by the obligation one has. In my case there are not many things I want to achieve in this world more than to leave my own little cabbage patch more attractive than I found it. I believe passionately in that because I believe passionately in the protection of rural England. It is because I !relieve: in that protection that I believe the more people from urban areas visit the countryside, the more powerful will be the lobby to protect the countryside from undue or insensitive development.

I do not totally agree with my noble friend Lord Ferrers that the division between town and country is getting greater, because all the figures show that more and more people visit the countryside. I shall return to that point in a moment. The most beautiful areas should be open to public access. Much was achieved after the war with the Acts that designated national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty, heritage coasts and so on. In my view, that was one of the two great achievements of the Attlee government, the other being the establishment of the National Health Service.

In more recent years we owe a particular debt to the National Trust, especially for its Enterprise Neptune scheme. The National Trust now owns about 600 miles of the 900 miles of coastline that it originally targeted to achieve conservation and access. Without that we might well have the kind of denial of access that is. for example, to be seen on some parts of the coast of the south of France. We are particularly fortunate in access to our coast.

The biggest problem is to get people to visit many of these areas. I believe that the access that is already available is arguably one of the great under-used assets of this country. I refer to five areas that I know well. I have been lucky enough to walk in certain parts of the Suffolk AONB with the noble Lord, Lord Gladwyn, to whom we owe a debt for giving us the opportunity to discuss these matters in this debate. The Lake District National Park is the most heavily used national park, but if one ventures away from the roads one can at almost any time of year soon enjoy deep solitude. On a number of occasions I have been fortunate enough to walk in Yorkshire with my noble friend Lord Eccles, who spoke with the authority of someone who uses the countryside in that part of the world. One can walk in that area in the height of summer and see practically no one. That is remarkable. I refer to one of the most obviously visited counties; Hampshire. I have walked with the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, in various parts of Hampshire, including the New Forest and the Isle of Wight. Again, even in the height of summer it is possible to enjoy solitude and the beauty of the countryside.

I refer finally to Cornwall, which has arguably the most beautiful heritage coast in our land, both on the north and south coasts. For 10 years now I have visited Cornwall every other year and I have walked there fairly strenuously for about five hours a day. Only three weeks ago on a bright Saturday sandwiched between a wet Friday and a wet Sunday my wife and I walked with friends in Cornwall for some six hours on part of the south coast of Cornwall near Fowey. During the whole of that walk I believe we passed about 35 people. We walked on the National Trust coastal path. Therefore I believe that at present there is a great deal of public access to land which is not fully used.

There have been conflicts with regard to access. It has become a difficult issue which is deeply rooted in history. The current conflicts are caused sometimes by the arrogance of a few landowners. Sometimes that arrogance is deliberate but sometimes they are just thoughtless. The closure of a footpath can be an act of thoughtlessness or of arrogance. I would like to see bodies such as the CLA and the NFU take tough action against their members who behave in that way because they bring great disrepute to the landowning fraternity.

One can also encounter aggression among ramblers. I think that things have moved on, but I remember that some years ago Mr. Alan Mattingley, who was then the chief officer of the Ramblers' Association, wrote an article in the Tribune or the New Statesman on the foundation of a body called the Socialist Countryside Group, of which he was a founder member. Incidentally I do not think it is appropriate for a national officer of a voluntary organisation to become involved in an overtly political organisation. He said that the Labour Party had a simple policy as regards access; namely, land nationalisation. Noble Lords will realise that this incident took place a long while ago and that view is as far out of the frame as it is possible to be. However, I recognise the point made by my noble friend Lord Peel that special protection is needed for those who obtain their living from sporting activities in the countryside. Special protection is also needed in conservation areas.

I wish to make two specific points. First, I believe that there is great virtue in the new gates that many local authorities provide which open and shut automatically. They are sometimes called Yorkshire gates. It is difficult for bicyclists to get over them. In that respect they are just as difficult as stiles. However, they are easier for disabled people to negotiate than stiles. That is important.

Secondly, I would like to see parish councils, which I regard as the real grassroots of government, have the power to issue orders that footpaths should be opened where there have been obstructions rather than having to go through the whole bureaucracy of county councils.

Finally, I congratulate the Government on their subtle approach to the matter. They cleverly leaked the idea that the matter would be dealt with by voluntary methods and then produced the promise of legislation. It will take a long time for the legislation to mature because there must be full consultation. It is slightly similar to the hedgerow legislation which took the previous government some 10 years between pledge and implementation—and then it was not perfect, as my noble friend Lord Ferrers will know. As one who is perhaps to remain here for a while, I hope to do what I can to improve the eventual legislation.

4.40 p.m.

Viscount Colville of Culross

My Lords, I am sure it is a coincidence that I am the fourth successive speaker from East Anglia to join the ranks of those who wish to congratulate my noble friend Lord Gladwyn on introducing the debate. I do so from a background of some forensic experience of rights of way. I am glad that in his comprehensive and admirable speech my noble friend touched upon that matter. I hope that the noble, Lord Whitty, will take the opportunity of building a little on what he said in his Statement of 8th March about the flexibility that the Government wish to build into the new approach to the network of public rights of way. I hope he will comment also on the documents that have now appeared from the Countryside Agency, referred to by my noble friend Lord Gladwyn.

The present legislation is immensely complex. Starting in 1949, it was amended by the Countryside Act 1968; then by the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981; and then again in 1985. It runs to a large amount of print. It is supplemented by what the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, will no doubt welcome as a typical Department of the Environment circular running to 28 pages, circular 2/93, on how local authorities are to implement the legislation.

There is now an opportunity to cut down on some of the complexity. Circular 2/93 informs local councils of two matters: first, that there is to be no increase of expenditure or manpower. Councils are to ensure that sufficient resources are available from existing budgets to carry out their statutory duties. They are nevertheless to keep their maps up to date and ensure that the rights of way network is kept fit for use and clear of obstructions. Secondly, they are informed that the target date is the year 2000. Perhaps the Minister can say whether local authorities will achieve that target. Everyone will rejoice if they do.

Other noble Lords have spoken of the cost of the legislation, not least to local authorities. Of course they are promised that they can recoup some of the costs of diversions or the stopping-up of rights of way from those who benefit. That was brought into effect by statutory instruments in 1993 and 1996—but it is still discretionary. My local authority footpath officer tells me that the average cost of a very simple, unopposed diversion order for a footpath is between £700 and £800; £400 for the advertisements and about £300 to £400 for officers' time. Some of that money may be recouped but, of course, as it is discretionary, it may not.

The legislation is too complicated and too expensive. We are now 50 years on from the 1949 legislation and we are merely recording existing rights of way and their status—nothing more constructive than that. The legislation is so complicated that it took the Court of Appeal to decide in a certain case in 1990 the point of all the legislation. It is now clear that it is to record what is available for public use; it is then for the local authorities to ensure that it is fit and available for such use.

There are problems with maps. A definitive map is created under the legislation and now, very sensibly, it is brought up to date from time to time as part of a continuous process. But the availability of the definitive map is a major problem. The Ordnance Survey has to be given notice of any changes; it then has to incorporate those changes into its maps. Copyright prevents any distribution of the definitive map to anyone who wishes to walk along a footpath Local authorities are not allowed to give the map to anyone. If they do, it is a breach of copyright and severe financial penalties ensue. That approach stands in great contrast to the approach of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Foods, which publishes maps under various conservation schemes—countryside stewardships, countryside access, environmentally sensitive areas and so on. The ministry will say to a local authority, "Here is a map. We are keen to promote the use of these access sites, so please feel free to make as many copies of the enclosed plan as you require." That is a very different approach from the one associated with the definitive map. I took advantage of the service on the way home. I went to one of the access sites, a heathland regeneration area, which was full of sheep and heavily fenced. I do not know what to make of that.

Now that the network is there and, broadly speaking, we all know who is allowed to do what, perhaps I may ask. the Minister what the Government propose to do to bring about a balance. Will local access forums be set up to conciliate between the very sincerely held views of landowners, ramblers and others who wish to use the countryside and to cut down the costs of disputes? Will a conciliation process be built into the legislation?

I welcome the maiden speech of the noble Viscount, Lord Eccles. He made it plain that we must bring forward the process for the wider purposes that the Government have brought into the debate about access to open countryside. He described why one needs to have maps. Will the Minister say something about mapping and copyright within the wider process? I am sure that the Countryside Agency will help. I urge the Government to consider positively the needs of users of both the existing rights of way and the proposed wider areas defined in the legislation in order that everyone will know where they can go and where they cannot go. The Government can make a valuable—

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords—

Viscount Colville of Culross

My Lords, I am well aware that I have overrun my time. If the noble Baroness had not interrupted me I would have sat down 30 seconds earlier. I do so now. I hope that the Minister will tell us where the Government are going on these matters.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, I respectfully remind noble Lords that when the clock indicates seven their time is over. If everyone speaks for two minutes too long, the Minister will be unable to answer any of the questions.

4.49 p.m.

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood

My Lords, following that instruction, I am almost tempted not to speak at all.

I shall not follow the noble Viscount, Lord Colville of Culross, down the footpaths and bridleways that he has opened up, except to say that on that subject I entirely agree with the noble Lord, Lord Bridges, that the assumption that every track to which there has ever been vehicular access should now be open to motorised vehicles is idiotic and should be reversed.

Turning to the subject of the debate, so excellently introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Gladwyn, following the Statement made on 8th March by the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, I expressed concerns, particularly in regard to the damage that could be done to fragile ecologies. I chose as my example lowland heathland. I have had a number of conversations on this matter and have taken care to reread the Statement and attempt to understand what it is all about.

I am to some extent reassured by the fact that much heathland is already open to general roaming and no harm is apparently suffered by the wildlife there. Also, there will be a continuing ability for the owners and managers of such land, and all other land covered by this approach in legislation, to close the land. or parts of it, at certain times of year and for certain lengths of time. Nevertheless, I still have some reservations about this approach to access to the countryside. Some of the attitudes that I wish to express were expressed much more ably by the noble Lord, Lord Hardy of Wath, in an excellent and most interesting contribution which will certainly bear rereading.

My first specific question is: what will happen to open land owned by the Ministry of Defence? It is an important element in open, uncultivated countryside in Surrey, Hampshire, Dorset and Wiltshire, and no doubt in other parts of the country such as Yorkshire, where traditionally there have existed large military encampments of a permanent nature. It is an important matter that the Government are the owner, pro tem, of the land and they may wish to set a good example to others.

Secondly, there is the question of extending the right to roam to woodland. I come from Surrey, which is the most heavily wooded county in England. Much of that woodland is extremely remote. I assure noble Lords who may think that it is impossible to be remote in Surrey that that is not the case. The woodland is remote from any highway. The question would arise as to how anyone could reach it, supposing that any right were established for people to roam in it. The only way that it could be done would be by establishing rights of way through cultivated land. I wonder whether the Government have given any consideration to that problem, which no doubt arises in respect of other parcels of land, not merely woodland.

The question of cost has been referred to by several speakers. I have attempted to understand the Entec report commissioned by the DETR, which deals precisely with the cost-benefit analysis of various methods of achieving the Government's ambitions to grant a right to roam. In every case there are quite heavy costs which will be borne on an on-going basis by the owners of land. As the right reverend Prelate, among other speakers, reminded us, in some cases the people who are responsible for such uncultivated or open land are by no means among the richest of landowners or land managers. Nevertheless, as I understand it, the Government are not speaking in the same breath about compensation; they are simply talking about costs.

More generally, my doubts about this approach to increased access to the countryside can be summed up in the idea of creating an absolute right to roam. Every year, at Liberal and Liberal Democrat conferences and assemblies we have sung enthusiastically, "God gave the land to the people". Maybe He did, but most gifts require responsibility in their use. I do not share the optimism of some noble Lords that everyone knows how to use those gifts wisely.

The other day, on Leith Hill, we found a grass snake or slow-worm; to be honest, I cannot say which it was. The first group of people who found it, left it. However, we later came across a couple of young men carrying the said snake over a stick. When my daughter remonstrated with them she was subjected to abuse. In those circumstances everyone who has expressed doubts as to the balance of rights and responsibilities which the Government intend to build into forthcoming legislation is justified.

4.56 p.m.

Lord Peston

My Lords, I was not sure whether I should take part in this debate. However, I was considerably encouraged, indeed cheered up, by the remarks of the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers. The noble Earl pointed out that I have the rare distinction of being a life Peer rather than a common or garden hereditary.

The debate focuses on the Government's Statement on access to the open countryside. I believe that the policy outlined achieves a reasonable balance between the needs of all the interested parties and is worthy of support. We look forward to the proposed Bill, which we shall be able to scrutinise in detail. I know that we cannot anticipate the gracious Speech, but it would be less than satisfactory if the story in Monday's Guardian were true and there is to be no legislation in the coming year.

I wish immediately to raise a point concerning existing rights of way. There appears to be persistent flouting of the law on the part of some, albeit a minority, of farmers and landowners. They rely on public ignorance and complacency on the one hand and a shortage of local authority resources on the other to deny people access to paths which they are legally entitled to use. In my judgment local authorities ought to act more vigorously than they currently do and bring the law into play sooner for persistent offenders.

In that connection, will my noble friend the Minister tell the House what is the maximum penalty that can be imposed in such cases? Will he also tell us, in connection with one or two of the most appalling cases, whether, when the offender is a foreign national, there are legal powers which can lead to the person concerned being denied the right of residence in this country?

On a more pleasant theme, access to the countryside is part of our national tradition. I speak as someone who has always enjoyed the right to roam in the big city. But that is complementary to walks in the countryside rather than a substitute. The city environment has certainly deteriorated, especially in London, not least because it is now so much more crowded and congested. But my subjective impression is that there has been a different kind of deterioration in the countryside. That is not so much to do with crowds, although I understand that there are places in which there are so many ramblers that a solitary and quiet walk becomes impossible; it is much more that farming and other developments involving wire, impenetrable fences and locked gates make it almost impossible to walk across open countryside. I do not believe it is only in my imagination that my sisters and I when young ran across fields and gathered bluebells in the local woods. I appreciate that the world moves on, but it would be a great pity if young people in the future were denied the freedom that we used to have and experienced the natural world only in a structured and controlled way.

This takes me to another favourite theme. If one lives in the country one must get to the paths along which one wishes to walk. That means going down country lanes which themselves used to be suitable places for rambling. Without pavements, and with motor transport now out of control, they are no longer as safe as they used to be, especially if young children are involved. Speed limits are not low enough and are ignored by country folk who engage in so-called "rat runs" to save a minute or two rather than use main roads. These are the same people who are loudest in their protestations of the need to preserve the rural environment.

In the past, joining with other inhabitants of East Anglia, I have remarked that this is a problem in Suffolk where I live. The local authorities, the county council, the police and so on are always sympathetic but carry on blithely doing nothing. I am told that the problem is as great in other counties. I would prefer that local authorities acted on their own behalf than called for central government intervention, but we shall see whether that becomes necessary in due course if matters deteriorate further.

I revert to another of my favourite themes: the excellence of local newspapers. In this case I refer specifically to the East Anglian Daily Times which every week outlines a suggested local walk. That is most helpful to amateur ramblers like myself—perhaps I should now refer to myself as an amateur limper—both in terms of sticking to rights of way and stimulating interest. I know that other local newspapers perform an excellent service in guiding people towards such excellent walks.

To conclude, I join with others in saying how grateful we are to the noble Lord, Lord Gladwyn, for introducing the debate in such a well-informed and sensible manner and for reminding us of the value of the countryside to our national heritage. As other noble Lords are aware, the noble Lord, Lord Gladwyn, is the author of an excellent book on Suffolk, which I read with great pleasure. So much of our history is set in rural areas and so much of our great literature is remarkable for its countryside scenes. It would be dreadful if young people viewed the countryside much as they view Mars—as a strange and distant place which they can read about but cannot visit or, when they do visit, are not welcome. Equally, it would be dreadful if no parts of our countryside retained an air of tranquillity. I hope that the debate will help to limit the damage that has occurred in some places and lead to policies that in due course will reverse it.

5.2 p.m.

Viscount Bledisloe

My Lords, I rise to seek the views of the Government on two specific cost issues which will arise if—I suppose that I should say "when"—they require the occupiers of land to allow people onto that land with no discretion as to their suitability or likely behaviour and no power to require from them terms and conditions. I join with the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Carlisle in stressing that the occupiers in question are not just owners of large estates, who are often wrongly deemed to be rich, but include tenants, particularly upland tenants, who seek to earn a living from unpromising and unfruitful land.

The first issue I raise is the cost arising from the need to insure against occupier's liability. This point was raised by the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers. As a lawyer I recognise that the Government propose to impose on occupiers only the same level of duty as they owe to trespassers. Accordingly, the Government have said that they do not expect the cost of insurance to be much greater than it is at present. But let us take the case of open land quite near a population centre, and therefore likely to be visited, which has features such as rocks, caves or the mineshaft to which the noble Viscount, Lord Eccles, referred, that may attract people who want to climb, go down potholes and so on.

In those circumstances I suggest it is quite possible that with this potentially large influx of people who are exercising a right, and therefore are more likely to bring claims, insurers will either insist on a higher premium or require works to be done, notices to be put up, safety precautions to be taken and so on. Surely, that cost, if it arises, must fall on the Government who have sent these people onto the land rather than on the reluctant occupier who is being ordered to receive them.

My second issue raises perhaps a greater problem and concerns damage done by these new compulsory visitors. I wholly agree with those who have said that however much rules are made, bureaucracy imposed, monitors created and so on damage will occur. I take two examples: first, dogs that are let off leads—however much the rules say that they must be kept on leads—and then chase sheep, killing lambs or causing ewes to abort. Secondly, what about picnickers who light a fire which then spreads to a neighbouring plantation or building? It is likely that those who are exercising this government-given right will be less aware of and considerate to the risks and problems that their behaviour is likely to create. That point was very well made by the noble Lord, Lord Hardy of Wath, and the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas of Walliswood

In those circumstances, if such damage occurs it is highly unlikely that the occupier will have the name and address of the culprit. Even if he does, that culprit may well not have the assets to pay the damages. Surely, in those circumstances the Government, somewhat like the Motor Insurers Bureau, must accept ultimate liability for damage caused by those they have sent onto the land when no other source of compensation is available to the occupier.

Unless issues such as these are addressed and solved the Government's policy will cause great unfairness and resentment. I hope that in the light of my extreme compliance with the Government Whip's observations I shall receive very favourable answers to these problems.

5.7 p.m.

Lord Renton of Mount Harry

My Lords, I remind noble Lords that I have an interest in what we are debating as chairman of the Sussex Downs Conservation Board. Currently, that is the only conservation board in the country set up by joint agreement between local authorities and the Countryside Commission. hope that that will be remedied shortly and that there will be other conservation boards as a result of a Bill which may receive its Second Reading in your Lordships' House on Friday. That is a bit of advanced selling of my legislation.

I am delighted to take part in this debate initiated by my noble friend—also one of my oldest friends—Lord Gladwyn and to have the chance to listen to the maiden speech of another old friend, my noble friend Lord Eccles. Listening to them both I felt that in a sense I had other interests to declare. I have walked with my noble friend Lord Gladwyn. My only criticism of his walks is that he tends to go a bit fast; he likes to get places and not have too many people talking en route. My wife and he have ridden the South Downs Way from the Hampshire border to Eastbourne. That is the longest bridlepath in the country and one that now falls under the bailiwick of my conservation board.

Listening to my noble friend Lord Eccles I was reminded of Bill Bryson's notes of walks around England in his enchanting book written before he returned to the States. I remember walking with my noble friend Lord Eccles and Viscountess Eccles through part of Swaledale not many months ago. The only omission from my noble friend's speech was the name of the extremely good pub at which we ended our morning's walk. I am sure that that is not because he has forgotten it.

I am anxious to agree with the comment of both the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Carlisle that the terminology "agreed access" is very much happier than "right to roam" because it emphasises the spirit of compromise in approaching the very tricky issue of greater access to the countryside. It would be a better title.

The conservation board, which I have the honour of chairing, has done a lot of work on public access to the South Downs and long before the Government announced their intention to legislate on 8th March. That is only right because we are responsible for 2,200 kilometres of rights of way on the Sussex Downs. We put out a number of leaflets headed, "Take Your Bus for a Walk." The aim is to encourage people, for example in Brighton, to take their local bus on a normal bus route into some part of the Downs where they can get off, go on a circular walk and return to the bus an hour or two—or three—later.

We are developing a database, with the help of the East Hampshire authority and with some European Union money to map all the current areas of access to the South Downs.

The majority of those on the board favour a voluntary route to increased agreed access. We have had a great deal of discussion on the matter. We have always made it a principle to work with farmers, landowners and the local authority to arrive at land management agreements, which often include increased access, perhaps opening up a linear path between two open areas of access which are currently not joined together.

Shortly after I became chairman of the board we set ourselves a target of an annual 5 per cent increase in the amount of open access on the Downs. Although we made some progress, we have not yet reached the target and further progress has now stopped as a result of the Government's announcement. I am sure that the Minister will listen carefully to what I say. It has been stopped not least because the farmers and landowners with whom we were talking now say, in the nicest possible way, "We want to see the shape of the legislation before we go any further." That is a perfectly natural reaction.

The second reason for progress stopping is the Government's decision to freeze access payments under agri-environment schemes, for example, the environmentally sensitive area schemes and the country stewardship scheme. That was a mistaken decision because whatever the final shape of the legislation it has meant that the stewardship schemes, which were designed to open up access, have come to a grinding halt. I hope very much that the Minister will ask his colleagues to reconsider that decision. It was a useful bargaining tool.

I wrote to the Minister for the Environment about some of these issues on 19th March. I pointed out that the particular problem for us in the downlands was going to be the agreed definition of "down". A careful definition is critical to the success of any open access scheme. If it is confined only to chalk grassland it will mean very little indeed; if it is permanent grassland, the maximum definition, then that is likely to upset many farmers and landowners. We have to be wise and clever in making definitions; otherwise the Bill will start off by causing a great deal of confusion and distress.

Are rights of way improvements to be included in the legislation? How will the Government act to stop land being ploughed up before the right to roam legislation comes into force? The Government must take these points very seriously. I hope that in so doing they will consult very widely with a conservation board such as ours. We are there to help, whatever our views about the legislation.

The issue of the public liability of those who are required to open up their land under right to roam legislation and improved access legislation needs to be cleared up. The noble Lord, Lord Whitty, was very dismissive of this point when he answered questions in your Lordships' House on 30th March. I hope that he has had time to reflect further because it is an imponderable of great additional possible cost, a Sword of Damocles that cannot be left hanging over the necks of farmers and landowners.

Finally, I hope that the Minister will give some indication today of when we can expect legislation on these matters. We have been waiting for many months, and the situation of suspense at the moment is intolerable.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, I must remind noble Lords that when the minute seven is shown on the Clock, their time is up. The Minister is now losing time for responding to questions.

5.18 p.m.

Lord Northbourne

My Lords, in this crowded island it is evident that access to our beautiful countryside for any member of the population who wants to enjoy it ought to be possible in some sensible way.

Unfortunately, noble Lords who have spoken so far have underestimated the sense of frustration on both sides, the sense of bitterness and confrontation which exists between some parts of the farming industry and the rambling fraternity. I do not think that bitterness and confrontation help anybody. There are landowners and farmers who do obstruct rights of way: there are also ramblers who are exceedingly unhelpful when it comes to the question of reasonably argued diversions that would be to the benefit of both the landowner and the public. I will return to that issue in a moment.

The Government have a duty to achieve a consensus at the centre and to isolate the extreme fanatics on either fringe. In this context I should like to make two suggestions. The first relates to the right to roam in the open countryside. The problem with all the proposals that have been tabled so far, including the Bill in another place, is that they will be impossible to manage.

Reference was made to the duty of care, but that duty of care has to be managed. It includes problems of litter, fires, camping, abuse of animal rights, danger to wildlife and wilful damage.

For 45 years I have been involved in land management in various parts of the world. I am a Fellow of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors. I do not own any open countryside, but I know that the current proposals are unmanageable. It would be easier to manage those proposals if the right to roam were subject to a licence to roam. There is nothing difficult in that. It would be a licence similar to a dog licence or a licence to kill game, both of which can be obtained from the Post Office. It should be a licence with a photograph on it. It would have a number of distinct advantages. Somebody applying for a licence could then be targeted with necessary information about the country code and also about personal safety, which will be very important in relation to some of the more rugged hill areas. The licence would be available to anyone, subject to good behaviour: in other words, provided they did not have a record of convictions for doing damage or doing anything illegal under the country code or the Act when it is passed. With the licence, it would be easy to identify the transgressor. At present, if you walk to the top of a hill and find someone destroying something, you ask him his name and he calls himself Mr. Smith from Laburnum Grove, there is nothing to be done. At least, with a licence, it would be possible to identify the person.

Finally, if there were a modest licence fee, that could be used to help to supplement the increased cost of emergency services. Real dangers are involved in wandering in the countryside. The fee could also contribute to the cost of management.

The second point I wish to make relates to the rights of way network. As several noble Lords have said, that is a priceless asset in this country. I, too, am a slightly reluctant walker. My wife is very keen. I tend to volunteer to take the car and pick her up at the other end when there is an opportunity to do so. But I have walked extensively with the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford. The problem is that the rights of way network is set in aspic. The needs of today's walkers are totally different from the needs of walkers of 150 years ago when the network formed itself.

Many noble Lords who walk will agree that today the public want circular walks, both long and short, preferably ending somewhere where you can park the car and if there is a pub not too far away, that is better still. That is what the public want.

I shall not go into detail, but I give the House an example of the problem of securing circular walks. Fifteen years ago, I was approached by my local council which asked me to agree to certain changes to rights of way in the parish on the land that I owned in order to achieve short and long circular walks, both of them ending at the newly constructed village hall. It is not newly constructed now; it is 15 years old. We still have not got there, after 15 years of negotiation because the legal position is so exceedingly difficult. If you want a comprehensive scheme, there is no way in which that scheme can be approved as a whole. Each variation, closure and dedication must be agreed separately, so that the inspector can cherry-pick. We believe that he will cherry-pick to our disadvantage, and I speak as a landowner in this case. The ramblers believe that he will cherry-pick to their disadvantage. So neither group wants to risk putting the application to the test. It is absolutely daft. It would be extremely easy to change the legislation to make sensible change easier when everybody wants it.

I hope that the Government will make a point of ensuring that when they introduce legislation, it is friendly to the development of new circular walks.

5.22 p.m.

Lord Montagu of Beaulieu

My Lords, this debate has covered many interesting points. I must start by declaring an interest as an owner of land. I was very sorry that the choice was made to have confrontation through legislation rather than having a voluntary agreement. That was an opportunity to achieve good will turned away. Nevertheless, we must get on with it as it is.

I speak for many when I say that we are not against properly controlled and better access to the countryside. First, we must remember that we have a fast-growing urban population, an increasing ignorance of the countryside, a diminishing land resource arid with it, its wildlife.

For over 100 years, my family has voluntarily permitted footpaths on the estate. In spite of that, recently I have been under pressure to allow greater access. I believe that the majority of ramblers are responsible and sensible people. However, there are leaders among them who display an insatiability for more. The noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, referred to the diversion of footpaths and how there are those who always oppose everything, however sensible it is. So when their demands included entry into a Grade I national nature reserve I am glad that English Nature stood firm. I must declare the fact that part of my estate is in that nature reserve.

However, I wish to speak briefly about the coastal regions and to ask that special thought be given to its protection. Some of our rarest birds nest on our coasts or on the mudflats. They are already under pressure from natural predators: raptors, foxes, rodents and so on. When not harbouring nestlings, many wintering birds use them for migratory purposes. It is also an area very rich in flora.

Thanks to the National Trust, as the noble Lord, Lord Chorley, reminded us, nearly 600 miles of coastline is now being restored because of Operation Neptune. But there is one great problem; that is, that the immediate hinterland is often uncultivated and could be defined as moorland. Careful thought must be given to ensuring that the lands adjacent to the coast are not damaged by human intrusion. That intrusion is not only by pedestrians. There is also access from the sea; for example, by yachts. We must somehow deter people coming for their picnics with dogs and children.

I have no doubt whatever that English Nature can be relied on to defend the SSSIs it controls. But in the past, many landowners have created their own reserves on their estates and often on uncultivated land. Therefore, I hope to hear that nature reserves, however small, will be protected. Where appropriate, daily permits can be issued to people interested in birds.

Also, consideration must be given to the great parks around our historic buildings owned by the National Trust, English Heritage and privately. Again, they are often uncultivated and therefore fall into that definition.

Finally, there is no doubt that education has a vital part to play in teaching people in the towns how to behave in the countryside. If such matters are taught in our primary schools, things will be very much better. How much I agree with my noble friend Lord Ferrers that the expression "right to roam" is unfortunate. "Permissive footpaths" is obviously a better way in which to describe those new routes. Perhaps there should be "permissive footpaths" for visiting at the weekends but not a right to roam.

5.26 p.m.

The Earl of Mar and Kellie

My Lords, it will come as no surprise that I speak from a Scottish viewpoint and as an active access manager in lowland Scotland. Even this morning, I was harnessed to the strimmer, keeping the footpaths open. It was particularly pleasant in Pondwood, south-east of Alloa, in the early morning light.

This debate is about the proposed changes and improvements to the public's right of access to land in England and Wales. It is certainly true that there will be additional work for land managers if more people are to visit the countryside's footpath networks and the open hills. That must be recognised, as it has been in the Scottish access debate. The proposals drafted by Scottish Natural Heritage seem well balanced. They propose a restatement of the ancient Scots law access provisions in a single Act and identify that land managers must be assisted in their task of coping with problems generated by increased access. They are about the responsible use of access rights. That builds on the ancient right of passage over land.

There is a considerable need for greater access to the Scottish countryside, particularly in the peri-urban setting. Recreational walking gives both health and recreational benefits. The poor health record in lowland Scotland can be attacked by an increase in low-cost recreational outlets, especially those which do not require transport to reach the start or finish.

The existing historic network of footpaths was laid down either for the purpose of getting to work or as estate maintenance infrastructure. The network requires some additional linking paths to make circular walks practical. Having done that in the Marywood between Alloa and Clackmannan, I know that it is not difficult to improve a network. Funds seem to be available for footpath creation but not for footpath maintenance. That needs to be remedied, especially if wheelchair and cycle quality paths are to be provided.

I have made deliberate reference to the peri-urban environment and hence the special needs of those who manage the rural areas on the urban fringe. I believe that the increasing emphasis in planning law and guidelines is towards forcing people to live in established urban settlements. That is creating a nation of townies. Very few young people have a real chance of growing up as countrymen. I accept that having a home in a rural area does not make an instant countryman, as all those urban commuters well demonstrate. A rural job is the most likely route, followed by a rural sport, hobby or interest.

Without a firm footing in the countryside the chance of people growing up with a good knowledge of the rural environment and all its systems is reduced, if not made positively unlikely.

In Scotland there is a philosophical shift in the legal situation from access to get to work to access for health, recreation and rural education. All this is highly commendable, provided that access rights are enjoyed in a responsible manner. The watchword has to be "Leave only your footprints", and for canoeists it is even better: "Leave only your footprints on the portage trail". This does not happen on every occasion. The problems include litter and household rubbish, fires, scrap cable burning, fence cutting, damage to bushes and saplings, rods, poles and trees cut down (and not even for firewood), footpaths dug up for worms by fishermen, stiles and gates vandalised, signposts ripped up, livestock released, airguns used in the vicinity of paths. I suspect there are more. I have not even mentioned wildlife disturbance, poaching and motorcycle damage.

The frustration comes from the fact that while 99 people come and go, leaving only their footprints, it only takes one person to spoil it. My own enjoyment of land held by the Mar and Kellie estate is tempered by the risk of having to remonstrate with those others who are doing damage or breaching some aspect of common sense.

The problems of increased access will not go away but they may be reduced. The Government in England must acknowledge that. Sharing the land is very desirable but it has to be on a fair basis.

5.31 p.m.

Lord Gisborough

My Lords, I declare two interests. First of all, I am a keen walker. I have walked in Yorkshire, Wales, Slovakia, South Africa and various other places. The other interest I must declare is that I am the owner of a heather moor which starts about a mile from a large town and which is crossed by many footpaths. These footpaths are well used and I, as a walker, recognise that they must be kept open. In fact they are kept open, there is no question about it.

I fully support the keeping open of all public footpaths. In Wales I have come across wired up footpaths. That is unacceptable. On moorland the owner is an idiot if he does not make certain that his paths are clearly marked. People try to use paths but if they cannot find them they cannot be blamed for wandering off. I fully support footpaths across moorlands. All the scenery can be seen without going off such footpaths.

However, the proposal for access I look upon as extremely dangerous. I do not accept that walkers are a problem. Eighty four per cent of them walk on the footpaths, and. peculiarly enough, the wildlife do not worry about people on footpaths. I have to go out and cull deer about this time of year. I was going up a well used track, not on the moorland but in woodland. I saw a buck about 40 yards away. I could not get round so I stood up and walked up the road and he paid no attention at all. If I had been seen in the wood he would have gone a mile.

The problem with the Bill is that it is not legitimating the walkers. It is legitimating all users. In spite of the country code 55 per cent of people with dogs let them loose. On two occasions I have encountered people walking along and talking while their dogs run totally wild. They resent even being asked to keep the dogs under control. There are people with airguns. Every single way marking sign is used as a target.

Many walls cross moorland. With open access someone will inevitably come to a wall. They have to climb over. Orienteers at the moment must get permission to carry out their activity and therefore put clown a route which is congenial to the country. There will be nothing to stop them planning, perhaps from London, an orienteering scheme which crosses a wall. By the time a hundred people have been over a wall there will be nothing left of it. I lost 35 acres of prime woodland when someone set fire to it. A thousand people had walked through, but it only took one to set fire to it.

There are also the saboteurs who go out quite deliberately to disrupt the shooting. They will have the right to be on the moor where they wish, provided they are not seen and caught doing damage. The idea of educating people out of all this, I am afraid, is sad.

The moors take a great deal of managing which I do not think is realised. In order for the heather to be kept in flowering and good condition, burning of small patches has to take place over a period of eight years. It needs to be done when the weather is right. The operation is time consuming and technically difficult.

Foxes and crows have to be kept down; otherwise they pick out lambs' eyes, and perhaps kill the lambs and all the ground-nesting birds. Bracken spreads naturally and quickly over moorland. Much effort, money and time are spent reducing bracken and preventing it taking over the moorland. The moorland is what people go to see and walk through. They do not want to walk through breast-high bracken.

Who pays for all this? The shooting interests. If the moors deteriorate, not through the walkers but through people of ill intent who also have the right to be there, away will go the shooters once that activity is no longer worthwhile. There will be no management. The heather will deteriorate, and there will be no birds. The walkers will lose their scenery and will have with them only controlled motorcyclists and cycles. At the moment there is some chance of controlling them because of the keepering system.

North Yorkshire says that access will be a hindrance to what they are trying to achieve. Why should one small political organisation have their way over the majority of walkers? Why should those who want to manage the moorland for them pay for it? Even the RSPB are worried about the effect of unrestricted access on ground nesting birds?

There are a great number of questions which I am not going to be able to read out. I hope that when the Government get those questions from the Country Landowners' Association they are prepared to give proper answers. For example, what research did the Government undertake on the nature of public demand before making their announcement? What research are the Government undertaking now? What research did the Government undertake of the costs of management of access for upland livestock farmers, who have no means of meeting the costs as profit margins disappear? What advice did the Government take from English Nature on the environmental impact? The Government are in great danger of killing the goose that lays the golden egg.

5.39 p.m.

The Earl of Stair

My Lords, I am very pleased to have the opportunity to join this afternoon's debate and thank my noble friend Lord Gladwyn for initiating it. I declare an interest in that I am a landowner in Scotland, although I look on myself more as a manager and lifetime custodian of a comparatively small part of the countryside, a job description that has been so well interpreted in different ways by the noble Lords, Lord Beaumont and Lord Marlesford, and the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers. Now that Scotland has its own parliament, your Lordships' House and the other place will no longer be legislating on this subject in Scotland. However, the problems that will arise from this proposed legislation are similar in both countries.

As a landowner, I welcome the public to responsibly enjoy the open countryside, as I am sure do many other landowners. However, it is the definition of "responsible", and the degree of legislation that goes with it, which will make such a difference to the future of the countryside. In the first sentence of the Statement the Government refer yet again to their manifesto in which they promised a commitment to give people greater freedom to explore open countryside. Later in the Statement they claim that only a statutory right will deliver the access that they are seeking. Indeed, all through the Statement the Government give a one-sided preference to people to enjoy the open countryside. This, however, must be balanced by also giving definite legislation to support the people who both live in, and rely on, the rural environment to provide their living. I see it as very dangerous to make parliamentary time available for this law purely on the basis of a pre-election manifesto. The long-term effects and scope of this subject and the potential impact on the rural population are too important to be dealt with purely in that way.

The majority of the population of England is now urban based. Indeed, they are often several generations from a rural connection. Giving an open invitation and encouragement to people who are not familiar with, or even aware of, the basic dangers that can be encountered in the countryside will only increase the chances of injuries and perhaps even fatalities, a point that was aptly made by the noble Lord, Lord Hardy. If this is to be the subject of legislation, then perhaps a programme of education, backed up by an enforceable set of guidelines, should also be introduced.

The current legislation does not cover lowland ground in crop or grassland. However, silage is a crop and it is made from grass. Be it upland or lowland, it is still a crop. Under the current law, what is the difference between an enclosed silage field on low ground and an enclosed field on an upland hill farm? There are often very good reasons why public exclusion from land is enforced and it is not always just so that the few can enjoy what the majority would like to enjoy.

During the debate after the Statement the noble Lord the Minister made it quite clear that liability for all matters arising as a result of this legislation would remain with the landowner. I wish to dwell briefly on the subject of liability for damage. Following the Statement on 8th March (at col. 51 of the Official Report) the noble Lord, Lord Renton, raised the example of a discarded burning cigarette. If a member of the public, under this legislation, were to discard a lit cigarette or light a cooking fire in a high risk area, particularly in the late afternoon or early evening, on open ground, moorland or forestry, in the summer, then the results would be catastrophic, not just on the open hill where the fire actually started but possibly also on neighbouring sites of special scientific interest. Why should the landowner have to carry the full responsibility and the inevitable cost of a higher insurance premium when he has no control over who has access to his ground? If this Statement is to form the basis of law, then it must also include some protection for the landowner, who at present can at least help himself by protecting his own interest.

I say again that I agree with the Government that everyone should be able to enjoy open countryside. However, the legislation must be stronger than mere by-laws to help protect the landowner or farmer. The countryside may appear to be a beautiful place in which everyone wishes a stake. However, it should also not be forgotten that people who work the countryside treat it as a business and very often have involved large quantities of their own capital in having that countryside both to run as a business and maintain. While a visitor to open land may see no harm in releasing his dog to enjoy a run, in the same way as it does in a park, and while not actually coming into contact with a farmer's sheep, that dog may still cause irreparable harm to an already frequently erratic animal.

5.44 p.m.

Lord Glentoran

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Gladwyn, for giving us the opportunity to have this debate. I have to declare an interest. I am the owner of a farm in Northern Ireland which is in a less favoured area. I have some 800 acres of moorland among others—bog and so on. On the other side, for seven years I worked for the Northern Ireland Sports Council as chairman of its countryside and recreation committee. In that role I spent a good deal of time with other people voluntarily negotiating for access; negotiating for slalom routes for canoes, for access to campsites, and negotiating to look after and protect some of the most precious areas of Strangford Lough and yet allow the farmers to have their way, the equestrians to have their way, the walkers to have their way and perhaps even the dogs to have their way. We eventually set up a management committee, which has now been adopted by the Government. So I know a little about Northern Ireland.

I have also walked and roamed as a serviceman in nearly all the Ministry of Defence—it used to be the War Department—areas from Northumberland to Land's End, and North Wales, South Wales, and so on. I have a particular interest in access to the countryside. I believe in it. I welcome it. I particularly welcome the Bill. But I hope that the Bill is more than following up a paragraph or two of the Government's election manifesto, which was perhaps motivated in those days by things other than goodwill. Having said that, I hope that the Government will realise the enormous task on which they have embarked and will give it the time, the energy and the money to get it right, or as right as anyone could get it, which is not easy.

I believe that statutory law based in Westminster is not the right place to run the countryside. We may have to have a statute but the management of the countryside and the bringing together of its users is much better done by local authorities and groups nearer the coalface. I am concerned about two or three points; first, the interpretation of what the Government are saying at the moment about the forthcoming Bill and their communications. Dare I hope for correct communication? As the right reverend Prelate said earlier, a statutory right to roam is perhaps not the best slogan for this legislation. It will almost certainly be interpreted by most, and, as we have heard this afternoon, is being interpreted by many, literally as a right to go anywhere on anyone's property. Those who have read the paperwork produced by the Government realise that that is not the intention. I accept and acknowledge that. But what is happening now is that where people were working towards agreement and working in harmony very often across the country, walls and barriers are going up and conflicts are starting to ensue. I ask the Government to get a move on with what they are doing and not delay.

The second side that worries me perhaps even more is the management of the countryside after the Bill has been passed. The Government say in their White Paper that they will do it all at little or no cost to the Government. Yet I believe that every moor and open area that is to become accessible will need its own specific policy, its own code of practice and its own openings and closings. Relationships will have to be built, whether or not a statute is in place, between farmers, owners, users, managers and so on. People will have to be educated to understand and have respect for the fact that the farmer has to earn his livelihood where the urbanite goes to enjoy and pass his leisure time.

We have heard several times today about the considerable worries on public liability. I would put before that, as we have also heard, rescue and health and safety. Having spent a good deal of time taking young people into the mountains, taking them down potholes, taking them on rivers and teaching them to climb rocks and cliffs, I know what the dangers are. I wrote some of the original codes of practice back in the early 1960s. I had telephone conversations with people, saying "Don't let them go there tomorrow". They went there tomorrow and died. If the Government are going to take on responsibility for access to the countryside, they must work out how to manage the risks.

Lastly, there will inevitably be a cost to the farmer. I ask the Government to think again about how reconciliation will work. There will be serious damage. There will be loss of livestock, and walls and fences will be knocked down. I hope that the Government will think right through the huge number of portfolios of detailed problems under the legislation. I admire the Government for taking the role on. We have a wonderful countryside. Properly managed, access should be available for those who wish to make use of it properly.

5.50 p.m.

The Earl of Macclesfield

My Lords, I too would like to thank my noble friend Lord Gladwyn for introducing the debate. I also wish to declare an interest in that I and other members of my family own an estate in and off the Chilterns.

I am relieved that at least one subject is left to me, the rather emotive one of the 28 days' change of use without planning control in the countryside. This is for other activities that take place on what some people would consider a somewhat doubtful legitimate basis. Those people would include my brother, who suffers from parachutists. Being inconsiderate to him is one thing. What about the animals and the noise around them, as a safety factor? What about the parachutists landing in his fields? It is fine if it is an ordinary grass field; it is not so good if it is a growing crop which has just been sprayed.

To many people, these are legitimate activities that might be allowed to take place in the countryside. For "parachuting" read "other matters", such as scrambling or whatever activities other people want to bring forward, in what I would like to think would be a wide-ranging consultation at some point.

Perhaps the Minister could look at the rather awkward situation in which I certainly feel that a period of 28 days without control is far too much. There are people earning money out of this, but they are not contributing by way of local rates, simply because they are not registered in any way.

That brings me to the horse-riding leisure situation, where planning is somewhat unclear for farmers, as to whether they can, and if so in what circumstances, have something called a livery. All this could be considered and tidied up.

For that and similar reasons, I feel that legislation is probably a good idea. It would raise the question of insurance, and not just for the public liability that we have been talking about. Licensing, if that is the appropriate word, for activities such as parachuting at least would be conditional on production of an insurance certificate.

If the Minister or an inquiry look favourably on horse-riding as an increasing leisure activity in the countryside. it follows that there is a need for off-road places to ride, on the basis that we have already heard, that a horse and a car are an accident waiting to happen. There is no reason why this should not be dealt with by agreement with local landowners upon payment for the resource being used. Would that be a change of use by the landowner? Would it be considered a normal activity in the books, and go forward as income without any problems? What will be the situation? It is well worth getting the matter right for many years to come.

On the subject of footpaths, I entirely agree with my noble friend Lord Northbourne. At the other end of the scale there will be farmers with footpaths that they would like to have consolidated. Some of the footpaths are out of date and there really is not a need for the numbers. If we are to have rationalisation, it is only fair that the country as a whole is looked at. Thai is another reason for legislation. We look at the alteration of the straight line into the circle. At this point everybody might agree that footpaths came into being for the benefit of the locals, to get from A to B, with the agreement of the landowner, not for use by the general public. There will be occasions when it is appropriate to have an extra footpath, or two or three, and there will be areas in which it is appropriate to consolidate and remove some.

The circular footpaths will almost certainly end in car parks. Is there any good reason why the public should not pay for their car parking in the countryside? I have to pay in town. It is only fair and reasonable. And it is only fair and reasonable that assorted costs should be borne centrally, as other noble Lords have said, and not by local authorities, which, by definition, are rural local authorities. The money side of the matter bears close consideration. A little bit of fair play for the countryside would be welcome.

There is only one other point that I should like to make, in view of the area that has been covered by other noble Lords. It was rather unfortunate to hear the noble Lord, Lord Peston, refer to picking bluebells. It is an offence today to pick bluebells, and yesterday it most certainly was vandalism, which is why it is an offence today. We have bluebells, and we protect them by controlling.

On one occasion I left the farm on which I was then living and walked quietly up the road at about 6 o'clock in the evening. In front of me there was a car. Two children were picking bluebells in the wood, and their parents were sitting in the car. I did not alter my gait, but just wandered up. Clearly, the children picked up some vibes. They came out of the wood, left the bluebells and got back into the car. will leave your Lordships to think about what I said to those parents.

5.58 p.m.

The Earl of Enniskillen

My Lords. I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in the gap. I will not keep your Lordships long. I just felt that coming from Kenya, where I seldom have an opportunity to contribute, I might be able to add something to this debate.

In Kenya I am involved in wetland management. I have recently returned from Costa Rica, where I was given the honour and privilege of addressing the contracting parties to the Ramsar Convention. consisting of governments from all over the world, including the UK Government. The subject was wetland management and people and wetlands. I felt that the sense from that conference might add something to this debate.

No one would question the right of access to water, particularly in a continent such as Africa. But, in spite of that, in my address to the conference I emphasised voluntary actions, sense of ownership, conservation of the resource and equitable distribution of the resource, without giving direct access to everyone. Throughout the week of the conference while I was attending there seemed little or no dissension from those principles; nobody argued for an unlimited right of access to such valuable resources as wetlands and the ecosystems that they support.

I believe that the open countryside in this country consists of equally important ecosystems, which must be sustainably managed and equitably distributed among the people of the country in such a way that direct access to all and sundry is not available. The need for educated and informed access, so that damage is limited, has been emphasised time and again.

I totally agree with the noble Earl, Lord Peel, and others, and I am not in conflict, I believe, with the noble Lord, Lord Peston, when I say that access to the countryside must be granted, but the right to roam, implying a sense of free access to all and sundry, is an unfortunate term, which I would urge that we consider changing. It is the wrong concept. Voluntary action at community level to provide access should be the underlying driving force of the legislation. As has been emphasised, we should not have overbearing national legislation which imposes a duty on those at community level who have special needs in special areas.

I support the statement that the privilege of owning land carries with it certain obligations to make it available to others, but that does not mean that there should be open and free access.

6 p.m.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer

My Lords, we on these Benches welcome the Government's commitment to introduce legislation to give access to the open countryside as a right in perpetuity. We believe that it is a very important step in restoring the connection of people to their countryside. Although I accept that certain people own certain sections of the countryside, I believe that it is important that the countryside is seen as a common heritage. One of the difficulties that has arisen as a result of people being so disconnected from the wild, rural and beautiful areas of our landscape is that the legislation needed to protect those areas has not been brought forward. That is because sufficient pressure has not been brought to bear and that is because people have not had access to the countryside and consequently do not value it. The noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, put that point extremely well.

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Gladwyn, for initiating this debate. Access given as a right raises extremely important issues, a few of which I should like to address. Several noble Lords have referred to the environmental impact of such access. I believe that legislation on that needs to go hand in hand with legislation to improve protection for wildlife in general and for sites of special scientific interest in particular. If the legislation does not come to pass in the next Session, I hope that the Government will take the time to bring forward a package of legislation which will deliver not only access but also protection for the wildlife which is otherwise liable to be badly affected.

My noble friend Lady Thomas of Walliswood referred to fragile landscapes. In their welcome consultation paper on sites of special scientific interest, the Government highlighted some of the difficulties, stating: Damage within SSSIs by people who do not actually own or manage the land has created problems on some sites. We propose increasing the penalties for deliberate damage and providing legal means to require restoration … We also invite views on the best means of deterring damage, particularly in the wider countryside where the detection of offenders can be more difficult". Such legislation needs to be introduced in parallel with the proposed legislation on access. A wildlife Bill is essential.

That excellent document also refers to limestone pavements and to the problems of apprehending someone who is removing stones when that person does not see such actions as damaging. It is only when it is pointed out that if thousands of people removed from that limestone pavement the three or four stones which they are intent on using in their rockery such people realise that that pavement will cease to exist if that practice continues. I hope that the Government will consider introducing such legislation as a matter of urgency.

Other noble Lords have asked who will resolve the problems of access and of environmental conflict. The noble Lord, Lord Chorley, referred to the fact that a working party has done considerable work on that issue. I hope that the Government will draw on its experience. Will English Nature, for example, be asked to draw up a set of criteria that could, and should, apply? Noble Lords have also mentioned the length of time for which land should be closed to the public and for what purposes. I refer, for example, to the nesting of birds and to lambing.

I was very jealous of the noble Lord, Lord Hardy of Wath, who claimed to be able to see skylarks. I am sure that he can. However, hard as I frequently try to see them, I only ever manage to hear them. I must discover what sort of optician the noble Lord consults, given that he can see them so frequently!

I turn now to another issue which I think is of prime importance. I refer to the local access forums. How much of a say will be given to local people, such as land managers, landowners and local authorities? I believe that it is proposed that the forums should be advisory only and that the statutory agencies should have the final say. The success of such legislation will depend on the strength of those local access forums. They are the places where conflicts should be resolved and they need the necessary powers.

I must declare an interest as a local councillor in Somerset. That county has successfully introduced what is known as "P3", which stands for the Parish Paths Partnership. The county council delegated to the district councils the right to decide what will happen with regard to rights of way. The local district council has set up a partnership with any interested parish councils and has said that they should have a major say over what happens. The Countryside Commission promoted the scheme, which has been most successful. Local landowners and people with an interest in walking those routes have taken on the management of them and have started to resolve conflicts and difficulties on a very local basis. They have the time to spend on such issues. That might not be the case with a more centralised scheme.

Another example of a matter which a local access forum might address comes to mind. I refer to the question of when a linear route may be particularly appropriate and when it is appropriate to have stopping-off places. I do not believe that most people want to wander very widely. They want a decent route to follow and, occasionally, they want to be able to wander 50 or 100 metres off that route to a viewpoint at which they can picnic before returning to the marked route. Such issues need exploring. We must consider whether to waymark particular places that are suitable for particular purposes.

As well as the local access forums, the national parks have a great deal of experience of questions of access and how to maximise the benefits for visitors while dealing also with the difficulty of protecting the environment.

I turn now to traffic. Although the Government's statement of 8th March was full and reassuring in some areas, it was a little dismissive of the fear about an increase in the volume of traffic. This is a big issue for local people, which needs to be carefully considered as people drive to, and need to park in, the places where they will walk, especially when access to some of those areas will not previously have been available. Some of the national parks have introduced schemes to deal with that. At points of high pressure, particularly during the summer or, as in my local area, when the snowdrops are out in a particular valley, together with local transport owners the national parks authorities laid on a minibus and then closed the road. One noble Lord referred to road closures in the Peak District. That scheme works extremely well. People pay a small contribution for using the minibus, and that money goes into the local economy. People do not have to worry about parking. They can go off and enjoy their walk. The bus will pick them up at any point on the route when they are tired. That helps one to enjoy the day.

Dogs are an ever-contentious issue in the countryside. As the owner of a very energetic dog, I agree that it is a great temptation to let it off the lead so that it can cover 10 times the distance that one wants to cover. Local access forums are again important here. The neat little pull-up gates which the National Trust introduced provide a statement about welcoming dogs while suggesting that the owner should be responsible for them. Nothing produces a less responsible attitude than very hostile notices saying, "Keep your dog on a lead", which really means, "We don't like dogs". It is far more positive to be able to say, "We have provided this for your dog, now will you be responsible for it?".

A further important question is liability. A Question asked in your Lordships' House recently by the noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry, reflects the concern of many of those who deliver access to the countryside, such as the wildlife trusts, the National Trust and the Forestry Commission. A prime concern is the drift towards liability litigation, which the legal and insurance professions may well have encouraged. Many agencies, the prime purpose of which is wildlife and landscape conservation, are saying that they have been forced to divert increasing resources to expenditure on health and safety matters for visitors.

I believe that a clear statement of principle in primary legislation would enable a definite line to be drawn. That would be helpful to individual visitors, to organisations taking groups to the countryside, land managers and wildlife trusts. I believe that the legislation needs to make it clear to visitors to the countryside that they are deemed to accept primary responsibility for their own health and safety in respect of hazards arising from natural and manmade features that are a natural part of the countryside. I believe that important issue must be addressed as part of any legislation.

Finally, the simplification of the rights of way network is extremely important. I would not like this House to be too condemning of mountain bikers. In another debate we spoke enthusiastically of encouraging more time and resources to be devoted to youth. Boys and young men, in particular, enjoy mountain biking and a way must be found for them to enjoy the open countryside. If we want them to pursue healthy and worthwhile pursuits, but deny them any opportunity to carry out those pursuits, that would be hypocritical of us.

The Government have a big task in addressing all these issues. I am glad that the noble Lord, Lord Gladwyn, enjoys walking without talking. I walk for that reason also because I spend so much of my time talking and I take a rest by walking.

6.10 p.m.

Baroness Byford

My Lords, today we have given an airing to the many issues raised by public demand for the right to roam. I hope that noble Lords will forgive me if I do not manage to mention everyone who has made a contribution to the awareness and implications of such legislation.

The subject may be organised as follows: the public demand, the administrative consequences of that demand, the impact of that demand upon those lands involved, the implication of legislation and the management, after the Bill has been passed, to which other noble Lords have referred, and Indeed the risks thereof.

Journalists, lobbyists, politicians and private individuals have written and spoken much about what people want. A consensus has emerged than: most of them require constant access to land close to home and occasional access to more remote parts of the country which may be hundreds of miles away. A few do not want access so much as the right to roam freely, without let or hindrance, on any type of land in any location.

It would be helpful to look closely at the experience of coastal authorities, as mentioned by my noble friend Lord Montagu. Beaches and headlands have largely had open access since the 1950s. Many coastal authorities have now outlawed dogs, built charge car parks, stopped all free parking without residents' permits, imposed bans on jet skiing, on water skiing and ghetto blasters and have generally tackled some of the other problems that come with access.

A right to roam in the countryside will require similar controls and administrative backup. First, it will be necessary to decide what land is open to access and then to publish the rules, in the press, in handbooks, on maps and perhaps on the Internet. However, publicity will be sufficient in some cases, but all access land must be clearly signposted. It may be necessary to invent a universal code; for instance, a field that is totally open may have gateposts of pea-green; a field that contains footpaths may have gateposts of Jaffa orange; while an arable field that is totally closed may have gateposts of pillar box red. All fields with orange gateposts would also have finger posts which would sign the route.

Other noble Lords have mentioned the need for walkers to know where they are going, but what of territories with no boundaries? There could be footpath finger posts in orange, open land direction posts in pea-green and closed land surrounded by fence posts in red. What about areas of outstanding natural beauty? Who will pay for publicity? Who will buy and install such signs? Who will maintain them and replace them promptly when they are removed, defaced or destroyed? Indeed, those of us who live in the country already have those problems.

Of course, the roaming public will be covered for free treatment by the NHS, but what about payment for absence from work consequent on an accident? What about compensation, as mentioned by some noble Lords? The Government have indicated that landowners will continue to have public liability. Should the Government also insist that roamers carry insurance of their own, perhaps obtainable through the DSS and post offices?

It seems to me that accidents in open country will rarely be the fault of the landowner. Of course, most roamers will want to stick to established footpaths, as I mentioned earlier. Today I was delighted to see that MAFF have announced that 1,500 new farmland walks have been opened and guides will be forthcoming. That is good news, but who will provide all of those things that I have mentioned? I dare say that most roamers wish to stay on footpaths. They have no desire to disturb wildlife or to struggle with bracken, bramble or briar. However, who will provide the footpaths and maintain them, as mentioned by other noble friends? Who will patrol them to ensure that they are not annexed by bikers, abused by 4-wheel drive enthusiasts or churned up by horse riders?

In areas which are remote from town and city there will be a need for car parking facilities, public loos, seats, shelters and perhaps, where suitable, facilities for disabled access. Here too we should do well to learn the lesson from the coastal invasion, particularly from places like Cornwall. Here too we need to decide who will provide, maintain and pay for them?

In this context there is a potential clash between the right to roam legislation and existing laws which protect our areas of outstanding natural beauty. There is a clash between the needs of roamers and those who wish to maintain and protect the landscape. Who will prevail? The Countryside Commission has stated that priority in funding will be given to areas of outstanding natural beauty. Will that supremacy follow through to planning?

The outcome of that debate will impact upon rural dwellers, landowners and anyone who lives or works in an area that is open to the right to roam. The seaside experience would lead one to expect that our beautiful villages may become choked with traffic and littered. Moreover, we shall need to anticipate and legislate for the problems of the right to roam which will impact upon other legitimate countryside activities.

First, wildlife must be allowed to breed, feed and thrive. Secondly, rural production, which for many is their living, must be protected. For those who have had to diversify, as farm incomes have been so dire. into family holiday homes which offer peace and tranquillity. it is important that the countryside should be undisturbed and protected. Farmers' livestock should be secure and not vandalised. That may require limits to be placed on the number of people given access to certain areas. Many noble Lords have spoken of restrictions on dogs and of the importance of keeping them on leads. Last year, £2 million was paid out in insurance claims relating to sheep killed by dogs.

This subject raises many matters. We welcome the new farmland walks. As I said earlier, most people choose to walk near their homes. A recent Countryside Commission paper showed that the average journey of a day visitor to the countryside is 16 miles and that half of them travel for only five miles. On these Benches we would welcome a fair and voluntary approach to greater access for all. However, like many noble Lords who have spoken, we are also realistic.

Perhaps I may ask the Minister some questions. First, what is meant by access? I have read the Statement—I was not fortunate enough to hear it although my noble friend Lord Luke replied to it. One part of the Statement clearly states that the proposals are for walkers and that legislation will include improvements to the rights-of-way system. That will be an important package. It then states that: This comprehensive package will provide fresh opportunities for walking and other recreational pursuits". What are we talking about? Are we talking about walkers or about a Bill that will enhance many different aspects of rural pursuits? At the moment that is not clear.

Secondly, since we had the Statement, a statutory instrument has been passed in this House which referred to national lottery money being made available for open spaces nearer urban areas. That money was for pump-priming; for starting projects, not for long-term maintenance. So what happens in relation to long-term maintenance?

Will the Bill improve the situation for walkers and other recreational pursuits? And what about that most important aspect—compensation and public liability? If the Minister heard that once, he must have heard it 20 times today. There has to be a will of government to accept that it is unreasonable to expect land managers, landowners and tenant farmers to produce money to cover the cost of that liability.

All of us in this House expressed a wish to see access available. From these Benches we would like it to be a voluntary access. There is a tremendous depth of knowledge within this Chamber today and, while I am a mere lifer, like the noble Lord, Lord Peston, I am enormously grateful to all who have spoken, whether they are lifers or those who have lived in the countryside a lot longer than I—hereditary Peers.

6.21 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Lord Whitty)

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Gladwyn, for introducing this debate and for the wide-ranging and lucid way in which he revealed his knowledge of this subject, on which he is an expert outside this House, to the benefit of a lot of walkers in many parts of the country. I congratulate also the noble Viscount, Lord Eccles, on his maiden speech. He started by praising the Ordnance Survey and then rendered it redundant, at least in relation to Swaledale, by giving us a clear oral guide.

I was not quite as taken by the debate as was the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, to say that it was tending to change my opinion on hereditary Peers. Nevertheless, I was deeply impressed. Indeed, if I had been so tempted, I might have been substantially less tempted as the debate went on. Some of the contributions to this debate were fighting old battles and we really ought to be putting in a constructive light what we need to do to follow through the announcement we made in March.

Emotionally at least, if not in the precise legalistic terms of the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley. The land belongs to the people. However, there are restrictions and responsibilities on people, whether they are owners or ramblers, as to how they use it. Because I believe access is a basic right, I do not warm to the suggestion of the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, that somehow the ability to make use of that access should be subject to some sort of licensing system.

Lord Northbourne

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. Does he accept that the right to own a dog is a natural right, but it is still covered by a licence?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, various forms of ownership are subject to licensing. Various forms of operation are subject to licensing. Access to the land in this sense, in my view, should not be subject to licensing in the way described.

I should perhaps deal with the central issue. which is, why we are not dealing with this matter on a voluntary basis.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I did not want to interrupt but was tempted to do so because the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, did. I hope that the noble Lord will correct himself. He said that he agreed with the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, that the land is owned by the people. In fact that is not right. I can understand the sentiment behind it; but factually that is not correct.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I did say "emotionally". I said it "belongs" to the people and that does not necessarily imply the legal right on which the noble Earl and many of his noble friends are insisting. But in my view there is fundamentally a right for people to have access to the more beautiful parts of our countryside, and that is what this legislation is about.

We have been asked why we do not proceed on a voluntary basis. We have been trying for 50 years to proceed on a voluntary basis. If we continue to proceed on a voluntary basis in the way that we have, it will take a century or two to achieve the level of access to land that this White Paper provides. It is almost as slow as the reform of your Lordships' House. Those more malevolent than me may say that the parallel is perhaps not entirely coincidental.

We believe that once we have legislated here, the best way forward thereafter is to deal with the issue at local level by involving everybody—landlords, tenants, ramblers, voluntary organisations and the local community. Until we have so legislated, we do not believe that any significant increase in access to the open countryside will be provided.

There has been some over-reaction to this White Paper. I accept that there has been an over-reaction on the part of some of those who advocate access to the land—the ramblers' organisations and others. But there has also been over-reaction on the part of those who own land. We are not in any sense talking about access to the vast majority of enclosed agricultural land; we are not talking about an unfettered right to roam: we are talking about controlled and responsible access to the open countryside. Previous governments have tried to legislate for this; they have tried the voluntary approach. We now need to go further.

There is no doubt about public opinion; 80 per cent of those surveyed, whatever the origin of the survey, are in favour of seeing more of our countryside opened up. Therefore in March we announced the introduction of a new right; that is, the right of access on foot. but only on foot, to mountain, moor, heath, down and registered common land. In total, that is 4 million acres of open countryside. We have now asked the Countryside Agency, the Countryside Council for Wales and the Forestry Commission to report on access to other types of open country—for example, cliffs, foreshore and woodland—so that we can consider the case for extending access to those areas.

Lord Gisborough

My Lords, the Minister said that access will be provided to 4 million acres. Is he aware that 1 million acres have been opened up by voluntary agreement since 1991. That is not all that slow, is it?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, in most cases there are severe limitations on those voluntary agreements. It is not totally open access. Nevertheless, there has been some progress in recent years, partly because people have begun to feel that at some point the Government are going to have to legislate.

In terms of operating this locally, we are looking for a consensual, integrated approach to access. So we will have national and local access forums. As the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, said, these will be vital to the implementation of this policy. It is important that local arrangements are publicised, as my noble friend Lord Grantchester said. It is important also that the right of the tenant hill farmers, to which the right reverend Prelate the Lord Bishop of Carlisle referred, are reflected in those forums where appropriate.

Greater access will not, in my view, create the vast range of problems that were referred to in this debate. Indeed, making the countryside more accessible should help foster interest in its well-being and encourage the reporting by all parties of any illegal and inappropriate activities, of which there will no doubt be some. Moreover, it will enable us to modify the right of access where issues of conservation and protection of wildlife arise.

The noble Lord, Lord Montagu, and the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, referred to wildlife. It is important that we provide additional protection for especially fragile and important habitats. It may be necessary, as we recognised in the Statement, to restrict access either temporarily or indeed permanently, or to linear routes where habitats are endangered. We will be giving the countryside agencies and the national parks authorities powers to close land where it might threaten wildlife.

In addition to those safeguards for wildlife, we intend to give landowners discretion to close access to land temporarily for a number of days each year. The annual limit will be set at 28 days initially, with perhaps 12 of those 28 days available for reasons other than land management. Moreover, in special circumstances, as the noble Lord, Lord Gladwyn, suggested, where there is a need, landlords will be able to apply for longer closures where the discretionary powers are insufficient.

Questions were raised as to what we mean by access on foot. We mean precisely that. The White Paper does not provide any additional legal access except on foot and any recreation which follows will be for those who are coming to that land on foot.

Baroness Byford

My Lords, I thank the Minister for giving way. I have a quick comeback to make on this because the Statement did refer to walkers, but then went on to refer to walkers and other pursuits. Is the noble Lord clarifying that the Bill will deal only with access on foot to the countryside?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I can confirm that the Bill will deal only with access on foot to the countryside. There will also be recreational activities, like climbing in certain circumstances, which people who have access on foot may then pursue. But that is only access on foot and not by horseback or by mountain bike, although I praise the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, for advocating the role of biking to create greater health for some of our population, especially the younger element. However, the latter is not covered in the legal rights which apply here.

We on this side of the House pay tribute to those landowners who have already voluntarily engaged in access. We pay tribute to them for their management of the land, and indeed to organisations such as the National Trust. However, there are still vast areas of land through which there is no adequate access. We believe that legislating for a statutory right, followed through by local voluntary agreements on how to implement it, is now the best way forward.

A number of detailed questions were raised on this access. For example, the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, asked how one would get to the land if, in order to get there, you had to go through enclosed agricultural areas—the problem of "inaccessible islands", as I understand it is known in the trade. It will be necessary for local forums and local authorities to negotiate access across those areas. There will be no imposed right of access across such areas. However, we believe that we can deal with that problem in most cases provided that the local forums work. The noble Baroness also asked about MoD land. It is true that the MoD now provides a very substantial amount of public access to its training lands, and much of its estate falls within the definition of "open countryside".

Reference has been made to horses and dogs and to other means of access to the countryside. My noble friend Lord Peston and the noble Lord, Lord Gladwyn, referred to the effects of motorised access on existing roads. We recognise that there may be a problem and that we should perhaps have greater powers for local authorities to enable them to close off certain roads where access to areas is in fact destroying the countryside. We are considering giving greater traffic regulation powers to local authorities in that respect and will be issuing a consultation paper shortly.

As far as concerns dogs, I tend, like the noble Baroness, to be more motivated to walk in the countryside if I have a dog rather than a human being accompanying me—and I say that with all due respect to those who walk with me. Nevertheless, the legal rights which apply here will require dogs to be kept on a lead. They will be reinforced clearly by local by-laws, many of which are already in place. Therefore, it is important that there should be no additional problem of the kind that the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, referred to, in terms of dogs worrying sheep and other animals as a result of this right.

I turn now to the question of occupiers' liability. The noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry, accused me of being dismissive previously. I hope that I am not being so on this occasion. All the research that we have conducted indicates that the increase in insurance premiums would be very small, the reason being that all parallel circumstances indicate that there is not an enormous amount of additional damage upon which insurers would have to pay out. The example I gave previously in answer to the noble Lord was the National Trust, which has millions of acres of open countryside. Indeed, over a six-year period the trust only had 47 incidents in respect of which there was any question of damage and that resulted in only 15 claims, totalling £60,000, for the whole of that acreage. Such an amount is not an enormous one for the insurers to cover. Only one claim was actually successful.

Therefore, while we are not dismissive of the problem and will take on board any other information, we believe that it is a greatly exaggerated problem—

Lord Chorley

My Lords—

Lord Whitty

I am sorry, my Lords, I cannot take any further questions.

Lord Chorley

My Lords, occupiers' liability is a concern of the National Trust.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I will take the noble Lord's word for that. However, I have outlined the record as I understand it. I believe that that indicates that there should not be enormous pressure on insurance premiums.

I move on now to the rights of way aspect of the White Paper and of the announcement. My noble friend Lord Grantchester asked whether the local access forums would have a role in defining rights of way. The answer is, yes, they would. We expect the forums to discuss all access issues, including a new approach to rights of way. What we are seeking under the rights of way element of this Statement is to ensure a greater degree of flexibility. I am sure that that will be welcomed by both landlords and local authorities and that it will be recognised as necessary by ramblers' associations, and others, which advocate maintaining every right of way, come what may.

We shall shortly be consulting further on the matter and will be issuing proposals. However, it is important that those who feel they are affected by rights of way, whether positively or negatively, should have more flexible means of resolving such issues. Having revealed that he had engaged in criminal activity on other fronts, my noble friend Lord Peston asked what the maximum penalty would be for obstruction of rights of way. As app lies to other highways, the answer to that question is £1,000, although I am not sure what it would be for picking bluebells.

We must recognise that there is a background to this issue. For example, in Wales a survey was recently conducted on rights of way which showed that there are serious obstacles to 40 per cent of the rights of ways and that 23 per cent of those rights of way are impassable. It is against that background that we have to consider these matters.

The noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry, referred to the South Downs and also advertised his debate on Friday, to which my noble friend Lady Farrington will be replying. It is important for us to recognise the special status of the South Downs arid we are considering a recommendation from the Countryside Commission on that front.

A number of speakers referred to the issues of mapping, both in relation to rights of way and to the mapping of areas of open countryside for the purposes of the proposed legislation. On the rights of way side, I was asked whether local authorities would reach the target set for them of defining all rights of way by the year 2000. I regret to say that I think it is unlikely that all local authorities will do so. However, we are increasing the pressure on them to provide as much information as possible and to complete their surveys as rapidly as possible.

As far as concerns the bigger mapping definition, as the noble Lord, Lord Gladwyn, will be well aware, some of the problems involved are quite complex. For example, the mapping of downland may present a number of complexities. Nevertheless, we are asking the authorities, and others, to engage in the mapping process as rapidly as possible. The countryside agencies are undertaking their work on the identification and mapping of access land. They will be producing draft maps on which we can then consult affected parties.

For this process to work, mapping is important. Local discussions are vitally important; indeed, as the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, indicated, the details of the kind of codes and safeguards that we need are most important. It is possible that details like signing, recognition and advertising of both rights of way and of access to land may also be very important. But the basic right is also important. We announced in March that we intend to proceed down the legislative road. I cannot he tempted into pre-empting the Queen's Speech, hut I can tell noble Lords that we are putting substantial resources into ensuring that we get this right both in the consultative phase and in the legislation itself. We are doubling the number of staff dealing with access issues. We are also allocating to the Countryside Agency an additional £2 million to spend on access and recreation. Indeed, during the very first meeting of the new agency last week the board considered detailed proposals on how the agency might play its part in mapping and in the establishment of access forums. Therefore we are moving forward on all those fronts.

The noble Earl, Lord Stair, said that we should not legislate simply on the basis of a manifesto commitment. However, we on this side of the House believe in implementing our manifesto commitments through legislation. We believe in doing so in a sensible and constructive way with the maximum possible degree of consensus. The Statement takes that commitment further; further consultation will refine it. I assure your Lordships that we intend to legislate and to legislate soon.

Viscount Bledisloe

My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, he has not dealt at all with the question of damage caused by unidentified or impecunious walkers. Will he undertake to write to those of us who raised that question?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I have one minute left in which to speak. Clearly there will be irresponsible walkers, as the noble Earl, Lord Mar and Kellie, said. I have also failed to mention Scottish issues. I shall write to the noble Earl on those matters. One out of 100 walkers may cause some damage, either accidentally or with criminal intent. There are laws to cover that situation but the problems of detection in the countryside are difficult, as noble Lords will appreciate. Nevertheless, I do not believe that it is sensible to introduce new laws or new compensation in this area. After all, we do not provide such compensation to the owners of other properties when they suffer criminal damage. That damage should be covered by people's usual insurance. In this respect I do not believe that countryside landowners are different from owners of other properties such as factories, offices and buildings throughout the country. The Government do not believe that compensation is an issue in this matter.

6.41 p.m.

Lord Gladwyn

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his comprehensive reply responding to many of the questions that have been raised in this debate. I thank all noble Lords who have participated in it, with their specialised interests covering the whole of England from Carlisle to Kent and further afield. I congratulate the noble Viscount, Lord Eccles, on his maiden speech. The debate has shown how much still needs to be thought out and worked out before legislation is provided. I am glad to hear that the Government have set this in hand and are working away at it now. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.