§ 3.8 p.m.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Lord Whitty)
My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.
This Bill implements two important commitments given in the Government's manifesto at the last general election: to provide "greater" freedom for people to explore our own countryside; and to strengthen protection for our natural heritage. The Bill is, therefore, designed with the objectives of protecting our beautiful countryside and our natural heritage and giving us all the opportunity to enjoy them more fully.
I hope to be able to reassure all sides that this is a balanced and measured package which offers benefits to millions of walkers and other recreational users; which provides a more effective protection for wildlife; and which brings benefits to landowners and farmers. In debating this Bill it is important that we do not lose sight of the balance of the Bill as a whole.
I accept that Part I of the Bill is the most controversial, particularly among those landowners affected. Like my right honourable friend the Minister for the Environment, I want to place on record that the access provisions in the Bill do not amount to an unfettered "right to roam", as some have implied. The provisions create an important limited measure to increase access to upland areas and other areas of open countryside. Therefore, there is no question of the right applying to intensively farmed land or to gardens. Clause 1 makes it clear from the outset that the right will apply only to mountain, moor, heath and down and to registered common land.
The nature of the right is set out in Clause 2. That right is balanced. It is balanced because that right will be limited to those on foot; it is balanced because there are comprehensive restrictions (mainly in Schedule 2) to avoid interference with other legitimate uses of the land; it is balanced because the public may, under the provisions of Chapter II of Part I, be excluded altogether on up to 28 weekdays in each year, for any reason, and for longer periods, including weekends, on application to the countryside bodies or national park authorities; and it is balanced because the landowner will remain entirely free to farm, fence, improve, or develop his land, within the constraints of existing law, and will be under no obligation to facilitate or improve public access on to his land.
We believe that the access provisions of the Bill strike a reasonable balance between the aspirations of millions of walkers, and the understandable concerns of landowners, farmers, and others with an interest in the land affected. The Bill meets all the justifiable concerns that were expressed when it was first introduced in this House during our discussions on the White Paper. The Government have done much, both before the production of the Bill and since introducing it in another place, to ensure that the introduction of the statutory right of access will not have a negative impact on those who live and work on the land affected.
630 The Bill provides that walkers who are in breach of any restriction will lose their right of access to land in the same ownership for the remainder of the day. Such walkers will, therefore, become trespassers and may be dealt with just as landowners deal with trespassers at the moment—by requiring them to leave. In some cases, a breach of a restriction, such as causing damage or disrupting lawful activities, will also constitute a criminal offence for which much tougher penalties are rightly available. The Bill grants access authorities extensive new powers to make by-laws and appoint wardens on access land where these are required to meet local circumstances.
Some concern has been expressed about protecting the interests of the landowner and farmer in so far as decisions may be made that are contrary to their interests. We have provided for extensive rights of appeal for landowners, and others, with a legal or financial interest in the land. For example, anyone with an interest in the land will be able to appeal under Clause 6 against provisional maps of access land, and under Clause 28 against adverse decisions by relevant authorities on applications for the exclusion or restriction of access. Owners and occupiers will also be able to appeal under Clause 36 against notices to secure a means of access.
Clause 13 ensures that occupiers will have no liability to walkers for risks arising from the existence of natural features of the landscape, and only the minimal duty currently owed to trespassers in respect of man-made features. This will significantly reduce the exposure to liability of many landowners who currently permit access on the basis of toleration or concession, and, in law, will place occupiers of access land in a more favourable position than other property owners.
Where the discretionary 28 days' right to close land is insufficient, consideration will be given to applications from landowners for directions in the interests of land management, so that such directions will be available where public access poses real problems for land management. In view of all these qualifications on the new right, and the extensive provisions to minimise any interference with landowners' interests, we do not believe that any demand for compensation is warranted.
Finally, this part of the Bill extends the right of access only to mountain, moor, heath, down and registered common land. Therefore, the Bill takes account of advice we received last year that we should not seek to extend the statutory right to woodland and riverside. However, owners of any such land should still be enabled to dedicate it permanently to public access. That situation is covered in Clause 16.
We were also advised last year to extend the right of access to coastal land. However, the Government believe that more work and more public consultation are needed before we do so. Accordingly, Clause 3 provides a power to extend the right of access to the foreshore and land adjacent to it by order. That will require the approval of both Houses of Parliament 631 and, as my right honourable friend the Minister for the Environment has made clear, any order would be made only after undertaking a full public consultation.
These measures demonstrate how the Government have taken into account the legitimate concerns of those who will be most affected by the legislation. For many, this is a regime with a light and common-sense touch, which fairly balances the interests of those who may exercise the right with those who manage the land on which it is to be exercised.
I turn now to Part II of the Bill, which sets out a number of important changes to the law relating to rights of way. The rights of way system is immensely complex. It reflects the varied origin of different routes over many hundreds of years. Many rights of way have historic associations. However, the network as a whole does not always match the needs of people today. A key priority of Part II of the Bill is that it should do so. As the system is so complex, I shall go through it in a little detail.
Clauses 43 to 48 designate roads used as public paths—or RUPPs, to those of your Lordships who are familiar with rights of way jargon—as a completely new category of highway called "restricted byways". These will carry statutory rights of way for walkers, cyclists, horse riders and horse-drawn vehicles. All will have the certainty that comes with the statutory creation of public rights of way over these routes.
Clauses 49 to 52 build on proposals in the Government's consultation paper aimed at encouraging completion of the historic record of rights of way. Local authorities are required to record rights of way in their areas on definitive maps. However, in reality, few of those maps are anywhere near complete. This reduces certainty for users, owners and land managers. In our consultation paper, we proposed a 10-year target date for recording rights of way created before 1949—the date of the legislation which introduced definitive maps. It was clear from many of the responses we received that that 10-year period would not be long enough. We continue to believe that a deadline is important to the effective implementation of these proposals, but have extended the deadline to 25 years.
Broadly speaking, footpaths and bridleways created before 1949. which are not recorded on the definitive maps, will be extinguished if claims have not been submitted by the 25-year deadline. The same applies to higher rights over ways that are shown on the maps. There are savings for certain rights of way and powers for the Secretary of State and the National Assembly for Wales to extend the deadline and to make regulations excepting other rights of way from the provisions; for example, those which give access to premises,
Clauses 56 and 57 of the Bill require local highway authorities to draw up rights of way improvement plans and to keep them under review. We want to encourage active provision of new routes where they are needed and to extend access through rights of way for horse riders, and others, to whom the right of access under Part I of the Bill may not be available. 632 Authorities will be required to take account of the needs of the public, including the disabled, the blind, the partially sighted and those with mobility problems; and to have regard to statutory guidance issued by the Secretary of State or the National Assembly for Wales. These provisions will require local highway authorities to take a completely new approach to evaluating and strengthening their rights of way in response to public demand.
In addition, the Bill provides stronger powers for dealing with obstructions on rights of way. People will be able to serve notice on local highway authorities where a right of way is obstructed and, if necessary, seek an order from the magistrates' court requiring the authority to secure the removal of the obstruction. Magistrates' courts will also have a new power, when convicting a person of wilfully obstructing a highway, to order that person to remove the obstruction.
There are also new powers to divert rights of way to protect sites of special scientific interest (SSSIs) and to close, or divert, rights of way to prevent crime in designated areas and to protect children and staff in schools. Land managers will be able to apply formally to a local authority for a footpath or a bridleway to be closed or diverted. If the local authority refuses to do so, there will be a right of appeal to the Secretary of State or to the National Assembly for Wales.
There are also powers for occupiers of land to divert temporarily a footpath or bridleway in order to undertake works that could endanger the public. Therefore, we aim to provide in Part II a balanced, package of measures that will ensure the genuine improvement of the network of rights of way. I believe that the balance is about right and that the provisions of Part I and Part II of the Bill work well together.
I turn to Part III of the Bill, which represents a major contribution to giving greater protection to wildlife. Part III combines strengthening the powers to prevent damage and, more positively, to manage sites of special scientific interest with substantially increased penalties for wildlife offences.
Our proposals for SSSIs, as set out in Schedule 8, are underpinned by a clear objective; namely, that the strongest protection for SSSIs should be associated with a productive partnership with land managers, who share our appreciation of the national assets for which they are responsible. The conservation agencies already encourage and support positive partnerships, sharing good practice and achieving conservation gain. Those relationships generally work well and we wish to build on them. We expect the conservation agencies to engage in a constructive dialogue with everyone who has a responsibility for the management of these very special sites.
The Bill also substantially strengthens the powers of the conservation agencies to protect SSSIs and to provide for their more effective management. The new powers include the ability to refuse consent for damaging activities; to serve management notices requiring action to combat neglect; to enter land where that is essential for the protection and management of sites; and to purchase land compulsorily where, in the 633 last resort, that is the only way to secure the future of a site. Those new powers for the agencies are reinforced by substantially increased penalties where SSSIs are deliberately damaged.
The conservation agencies' new powers are balanced by significant improvements to their accountability, including the requirement to prepare management schemes and new appeal procedures for owners and occupiers where rights have to be curtailed. In addition to creating the legislative framework, we are currently consulting on revised guidance on the basis for payments under the conservation agencies' management agreements. That places a new emphasis on positive management and value for money whilst reflecting changes in European rules for state aids and agri-environment funding. We are also taking views on a code which will guide the agencies in the exercise of their new powers.
Finally, Schedule 10 introduces tough new measures to strengthen the enforcement of wildlife legislation. It increases the penalties for offences under the Wildlife and Countryside Act, which contains controls on our native plants, animals and birds and it clarifies and strengthens the powers of the police to investigate and prosecute wildlife offences. For the first time, the courts will have the option of putting people in prison for up to six months for such offences. On top of that, they will be able to impose fines of up to £5,000.
The Bill provides stronger powers for enforcers to require tissue samples for DNA analysis. DNA has proved to be a break-through in solving crimes against people. It is showing the same promise for offences against wildlife and there have already been a number of successful prosecutions where that technology has been used as evidence.
§ Lord Renton of Mount Harry
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for giving way. Before he leaves this part of the Bill, perhaps he will tell your Lordships a little more about the clauses that the Minister for the Environment. Mr Meacher, said in Committee in the other place that he would introduce in order to strengthen the position of areas of outstanding natural beauty in relation to land protection and conservation, and also to give powers to introduce statutory conservation boards where that was asked for locally. Bearing in mind these are major changes to the Bill, it would be helpful for the House to have some idea of what is likely to be involved.
§ Lord Whitty
My Lords, following discussion in Committee in another place, my right honourable friend the Minister for the Environment indicated that we would be introducing amendments to the Bill during its passage through this House which strengthen the management of areas of outstanding natural beauty. He outlined those proposals a couple of weeks ago and some of the ideas may be familiar to the noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry, because he was engaged in the promotion of his own Bill on such matters a few months ago. Amendments will be brought forward to put into effect the 634 commitment given in the other place. Therefore during Committee stage in this House, a section on areas of outstanding natural beauty will be introduced. While I am discussing amendments, I should also inform your Lordships that we will be introducing a number of other amendments during the Bill's passage through the House. They are necessary to make corrections and complete provisions, and some will implement the undertakings given by the Government in another place. On this Bill I expect the number of amendments to be modest.
This Bill will open parts of the countryside for the first time to many thousands of our citizens. It is not one to be feared. It will benefit all those who use and love our countryside and natural heritage. It is a balanced Bill that brings access to the countryside, our rights of way system and the protection afforded to wildlife into the 21st century. We have ensured, in our view, that the interests of landowners are respected and that those who wish to use the new right of access may only do so in a responsible way. Our rights of way system will be simpler to understand and our wildlife and natural heritage will be better protected. This is a good Bill. I commend it to the House.
Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Lord Whitty.)
§ 3.24 p.m.
§ Baroness Byford
My Lords, this Bill has been welcomed by many people and organisations, and we, too, give some of it a warm welcome, though the Minister will not be surprised to hear that we have reservations about other aspects.
Already the standard of debate in another place has been high. Some improvements to the Bill have been made and I congratulate the Members of the other House on their progress. But the Bill is still an unworkable muddle and we have much to do. The basics have not been altered. The Bill only confirms that this Government do not understand the country. As recently as March this year the Prime Minister implied that all was well in the countryside with just a few exceptions. But we know that is not true. Some 18,000 plus farmers gave up in despair last year, and many more are hanging on by their fingernails.
Today we are considering a Bill which, in its present form, not only takes away from the farmers' already dwindling incomes, but also demands more of their time. We would much prefer to have seen an expansion of the voluntary agreement system rather than this overburdensome, heavy-handed, regulatory and impracticable Bill.
This Bill is three Bills in one. An attempt by Labour Back-Benchers in another place to add a ban on fox hunting with dogs outraged many country people. The amendments were withdrawn and are not part of this Bill. But the Government are to bring forward a Bill next year which could prevent people from participating in their lawful recreation. That is for another day.
Before I move forward, I want to say how much I am looking forward to hearing the maiden speech of my noble friend Lord Brittan. He is an experienced 635 parliamentarian and we welcome him warmly to this House. I look forward to what he will shortly have to say.
I am acutely aware that this Bill, in all three parts, most closely affects that sector of our population which is under serious threat; namely, the farmers. They have seen their incomes drop for the fourth year running. On top of that, the growing of crops is subject to the effects of climate change, of genetically modified organisms, and of legislation on pesticides, pollution and propagation. The production of meat is affected by animal welfare legislation and the severe competition from the Third World.
The dairy industry has insufficient quotas to supply the UK milk needs, but near neighbours have a saleable surplus. Further down the chain the closure of abattoirs threatens even the most independent person and those who want to produce, as organic farmers, for the niche market. All areas suffer competition from farming methods allowed in other countries but not here.
It may be asked why it matters. It matters because the very countryside which this Bill celebrates is the product of centuries of work in the agriculture sector. Moreover, many of the features most beloved of our calendar manufacturers—dry stone walls, animal-filled fields—were created by the farmer.
I turn to the Bill. Part I, dealing with access, is still controversial. Although the Minister spent only six minutes on it, I hope your Lordships will forgive me if I spend a little longer. It does not make sufficient allowance for land management techniques, especially management of heather moorland, 70 per cent of which is designated as SSSIs or special protection areas. Moorland management contains heather habitat which encourages ground nesting birds, including waders, curlews, lapwings and golden plovers.
The most important moorland bird is the grouse which, along with other game birds, provides occupation and income directly and indirectly to thousands of country people. The major danger for those birds comes from disturbance during courtship, nesting and fledging. The current allowance in this Bill for the closing of land against walkers is 28 days, excluding Saturdays, Sundays and Bank Holidays. That is simply not enough. Forty days was the period suggested by my colleagues in another place and is a more realistic figure, recognised by English Nature which stated that the period should last from March to July.
Another problem is presented by dogs. Even dogs on leads enjoy chasing birds. Their owners must face stiff penalties for failure to control them. The time which they can be allowed to run free must be shortened.
The question of overnight access was debated at great length in another place, but without any reasonable outcome. The Minister recognised that the concerns that were expressed were genuinely held, but he felt that they were exaggerated. Night-time access is granted now by agreement between local landlords 636 and ramblers, mountaineers and Duke of Edinburgh award organisers, to name but a few. Surely the Bill could extend this practice by giving people the right of night-time access provided they sought approval in the first instance.
Clauses 12 and 13 deal with liability for injury to individuals on access land. The occupier is not liable for injury caused by natural features, defined as plant, shrub or tree. We are grateful for that provision. However, everything else will give rise to occupier liability. Yet dry stone walls are often referred to as "natural features" of an upland landscape. I know that we shall wish to table amendments in Committee to widen the present "natural features" definition.
I readily acknowledge that the prospect of greater access pleases the vast majority of people and is a provision that they will treat with great care and respect. However, we have to recognise that, sadly, not everyone is like this. We have to legislate for the unfortunate few who spoil things for the majority.
As I said earlier, it is important that we have a sustainable countryside for farmers, for wildlife and for others whose incomes are derived from the land, and also for those who wish to enjoy our countryside as an amenity. A balance has to be struck.
I wish now to turn to the timetable of the Bill, which I consider totally unworkable. Clause 77 lays down the time at which each clause of the Bill will be implemented. I understand that the department is currently preparing tender documents for issue to anyone interested in participating in the mapping process. They will be ready by the end of July.
Thereafter tenders will be prepared, submitted, processed, assessed and the winner or winners notified. The mapping of land above 600 metres and registered common land will then begin and will last for about two years. The mapping of moor and heath is estimated to take three to five years beyond that.
Most of Part I will come into force two months after the day on which the Bill is enacted. The rest will be activated as decided by the Secretary of State. In the main this covers the rights of the public in relation to access land; the offence of displaying notices designed to deter public access; by-laws and wardens.
The Bill will be enacted. There will be a two month hiatus. I suspect that this will be followed by a period of two to eight years during which it will he known which mountain, moor, heath and common land are to be open access but the public will have no right of entry because the maps defining access land will not have been published. Many people tell me that the right to roam is already in place. However, that is not the case.
Am I alone in thinking that this is essentially unworkable? Am I alone in feeling that the Bill must contain rules governing the spread of information about what the public are or are not allowed to do? Am I alone in believing that landowners and tenants need statutory protection for the period before the public right of access has been codified and made legal?
Funding is a further issue which deserves close attention. In less euphemistic terms: "who is going to pay?" I understand that the Secretary of State will be 637 able to give grants to the Countryside Agency and the Nature Conservancy Council. Ministers of the Crown and their departments will be reimbursed. Increased costs due under other Acts will be defrayed.
The Countryside Agency will pay for the mapping process and will make grants to landowners and tenants for managing the countryside. However, the means of reaching access land, of signing the boundaries and keeping the public informed of entry restrictions are to be arranged by the national park authorities and the local highway authorities. How will the latter meet the costs of their new duties?
Access authorities may pay owners or occupiers in full or in part for carrying out access work; they may also pursue them for non-compliance. Careful reading of the relevant clauses leads me to the conclusion that the Government intend that owners and tenants will routinely subsidise the cost of creating and maintaining the means of access to their own land. I hope that the Minister will clarify that point.
Hill farmers have this year earned an average net income of some £2,500. Tenants own neither land nor buildings and the value of their stock is at present derisory. Many of them will be affected by the access provisions. Will we see the local highway authority taking them to the bankruptcy court because they can neither afford to do the work demanded nor pay the authority to do it for them?
Will they also be held responsible for paying for the restitution of stiles, bridges, and walkways damaged by vandals; for removing burnt-out wrecks of cars or heaps of fly-tipped rubbish? Is it fair to expect an owner or occupier to do that? Is it fair to make it illegal for him to be unable to afford to do it?
I now turn to Part II of the Bill, which concerns rights of way. Matters to which I have already alluded have relevance here, too. Local highway authorities are to produce improvement plans (under Clause 56), manage local rights of way, extend the network and do anything else the Secretary of State demands. Local authorities have been unable in 20 years to produce a definitive map of existing rights of way. Where are they to find the money to pay the staff to produce an improvement plan? Where are the resources to cope with preventing obstruction?
A recent National Opinion Poll revealed that some 65 per cent of the population prefer to walk on prepared paths within five miles of their homes. Many rights of way, public footpaths and bridleways are reclaimed and maintained by organisations such as the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers. Where does this legislation leave them?
I refer again to the timetable. Part II of the Bill will come into force when the Secretary of State decrees. Should there not be a statutory delay built in to ensure that the highway authorities have time to clear obstructions on registered footpaths before having to tackle the full enforcement obligations of the Bill when it is enacted?
638 I now turn to Part III of the Bill. This part has been keenly anticipated by all shades of political opinion. It increases cover for sites of special scientific interest and gives power to the Countryside Agency and the National Assembly for Wales to enter into agreements with owners or occupiers of land to improve the management of these sites. It also further involves public bodies in the conservation of SSSIs and raises the penalties for anyone damaging them.
I recognise that the vast majority of people visiting these sites will enjoy studying the flora and fauna without causing any damage or disruption. However, once again, we must legislate for the few who seek pleasure in destroying the results of so much work. I should like at this point to record my thanks to those many owners and occupiers who have worked with wildlife organisations and local authorities over the years to preserve and improve these precious havens.
However, much of our wildlife lives outside these designated safe areas. Recognising this, concerned individuals and organisations have set up local wildlife sites which are usually well run and fulfil their role in providing safe habitats for threatened species. In a Bill of this magnitude there is surely room to legitimise the work of these local groups and to give their clients protection under the law.
Biodiversity action plans have been set up in many places in response to international accords on environmental protection. At the moment they are the result of voluntary co-operation between landowners, tenants, conservation organisations and private companies to produce plans for conserving wildlife. These plans cannot be sustained without the active support of local authorities and government departments, which are the main source of finance.
Currently there is no statutory obligation on the Government to advance or support BAPs. When money is tight, the authorities drop their non-statutory involvements. For example, the Countryside Council for Wales has had its budget frozen and has been forced to stop working on 102 of the 222 BAPs which relate to Wales. The Bill could be used to give local and central authorities a duty to advance, promote and support BAPs. By adding a duty to review them periodically, we could ensure that each one remained relevant to its aim.
At the risk of being accused of nagging, I must return to the subject of funding. Part IV of the Bill relates to the whole; the section on expenses does not mention local authorities, local highway authorities or access authorities, nor does it set a duty on the Government to incorporate funding for the consequences of the Bill into the standard spending assessments. If the aims of the Bill are to be met, there must be a mechanism for long-term support for those charged with their delivery.
Finally, I return to the subject of fair play. As it is set up, the Bill will give wide-ranging rights to vast numbers of people, most of whom do not live or work in the countryside. Those rights should be balanced by responsibilities—for instance, the carrying of insurance by those who wish to enjoy the more 639 dangerous aspects of the freedoms that they will be given. Equally, the penalties for non-conformance with the statutes should be balanced. It is simply not fair to criminalise a landowner or tenant for discouraging people from walking on his land when the penalty for misbehaviour by one of those walkers is merely to be turned off that land until midnight.
The Bill does not even nod in the direction of those people and bodies who will have to put up with the byproducts of the freedoms given. Why, for example, is there no power for parish councils to control where people park; why is there no authority to charge them? What about the effects on the police, the rescue services and the voluntary bodies dedicated to saving life?
The Government cannot have it both ways. They have implied that our concerns are exaggerated. If that is so, I submit that this Bill will not result in large numbers of people coming into the countryside for the first time. But we have to assume that the Bill is needed and that there will be a significant response; so we must get it right. In Committee, we shall bring forward amendments to cover issues such as unlimited nighttime access; the length-of-closure rights; Saturdays, Sundays and bank holidays; penalties for contravention of the regulations; restrictions on dogs; owner liability; wardens; and the issue of local access forums, which are not included on the face of the Bill. We shall also cover funding; the timetable; and, if I may take up a point raised by my noble friend Lord Renton of Mount Harry, the issue of the inclusion of AONBs in the Bill.
In addition, we should broaden and deepen Parts II and III; and we should extend Part IV to cover funding by local authorities, the paying of expenses, and compensation for owners and occupiers. We should set up the mechanisms necessary for the mapping exercise to be completed, but in a shorter time-scale. We should then abandon Part I, perhaps, until a later date.
§ 3.43 p.m.
§ Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer
My Lords, we on these Benches welcome this Bill. We welcome increased access to many of the parts of England and Wales that have the most beautiful landscapes; we believe that people should have the right to explore those parts of our heritage. We hope that this will build on the work pioneered by the National Parks movement to encourage people of all backgrounds, from cities, towns and villages, to enjoy the peace, recreation and, indeed, spiritual renewal that such areas can offer. The Bill should provide an opportunity for rural areas to be better understood and appreciated.
We certainly welcome more thought being given to the rights-of-way network—although, as it stands, Part II of the Bill is rather like Wednesday's child: it has far to go. Part III, which concerns added protection for wildlife, is long overdue; we warmly welcome it.
640 Speeches and amendments from these Benches will be concerned with the practical application of the Bill. Although the aspirations of the Bill are worthy, their practical working will be extremely problematic, despite the hard work of many honourable Members in the other place, including particularly my honourable friend the Member for Somerton and Frome, who brought forward many helpful amendments. We believe that the Government intend to return to several of those amendments in your Lordships' House and we await that.
Many of the practical workings are still ill thought out. As it stands, some parts the Bill leave the nightmare of a lack of definition of meaning, a lack of clarity as to how it may be applied and a lack of understanding as to how access and rights of way work in the countryside. If one wants success, one needs a willing partnership between landowners, users and local authorities. In order for that relationship to be constructive, it must have a clear consultative forum. Problems must be openly debated and a compromise reached that all partners can live with—and it must be adequately resourced. The fact that local access fora are not included on the face of the Bill causes us concern.
One crucial matter upon which the Bill is silent is that of educating the public so that the provisions of this Bill can bring maximum benefit to the public and the minimum disruption to those who make their living from the land. It has been years since there was any kind of country code campaign run by any government. As the Bill becomes law, this is the time for a campaign that spells out, and then constantly reinforces, the essential messages—do not disturb livestock or wildlife; do not pick the flowers; leave gates as you find them. We need people to be as clear about a 21st century country code as they are about the Highway Code—perhaps even more clear.
We on these Benches will cover the Bill from a variety of angles. Many of my noble friends have a keen interest in the Bill and I shall mention a few of them in particular. My noble friend Lord Greaves is an experienced hill walker and climber, with extensive experience of the open spaces of the north; he will concentrate on the issues raised by open access. The fragility of some habitats, particularly those such as the heathlands in the south, will be championed by my noble friend Lady Thomas. My noble friend Lady Scott of Needham Market will bring her years of experience as chairman of a rights of way committee in Sussex to lend practical advice to Part II. My noble friend Lady Sharp will cover AONBs and the difficult issues of access to common land which were raised extensively in the other place but remain unresolved in some areas. My noble friend Lord Phillips of Sudbury will deal with the difficult issues raised by time limitations being imposed on rights-of-way maps; and my noble friend Lord Addington will tackle the Bill particularly on the question of access for the disabled. With his experience of negotiating equally worthy and competing claims, he will keep us generally on the right track.
641 I shall touch now on a few issues which we feel, if the Government were to accept our suggestions, would dramatically improve the Bill. We welcome the statement in relation to AONBs and we are anxious to have more details. We are surprised that we are dealing in this House and the other place with issues affecting Wales. We should have preferred those matters to be devolved to Wales. The Assembly is well capable of dealing with them.
Turning to Part I of the Bill, the definition of land is still too loose—for instance, the issues of hay meadows and land cropped for silage have not been adequately resolved.
Mapping is a crucial part of making access work. A good consultative mapping process which results in a map backed by people in the locality will be the key to the success of these arrangements. The Government believe that they can get away with a bare minimum of information on a map—that is, whether land is in or out of an access area—but there is a strong case for more detail. For instance, is the land in that access area MoD land? Is it part of gallops? I believe that other noble Lords will be concerned with that aspect. What part of the open access land is covered by SSSIs? We shall be making a case for more detail.
With regard to closures, the current provisions appear to bear no relation to the realities of farming or wildlife. Do the Government believe that birds will not lay eggs on Sundays or bank holidays, or indeed in some cases that sheep will not lamb, although I believe that lambing has been somewhat covered by amendments passed in the other place? I know the Government believe that they have matters under control, but I bet that they cannot really control the urge to mate!
I hope that in your Lordships' House equal time, energy and passion will be spent on improving Parts II and III of the Bill as are spent on Part I. We believe that Part II, dealing with the rights of way network, is in many ways a particularly interesting part for most of the public who do not wish to travel vast distances to open access areas. Part II deals with where people can walk after work, walk to the pub easily at the weekends, ride their horse or their bike, and the school can take a nature walk. It is the network on people's doorsteps. We feel that a properly resourced and coherent network of rights of way for non-motorised users is a goal worthy of as much effort as open access land. After all, it is on their doorsteps. They do not have to get into their cars to travel in order to walk. It is a truly sustainable aim.
There is a backlog of years of work on the rights of way network. Redefining RUPPs as byways will not solve the fundamental problem of how to deal with a backlog that in many counties stands at hundreds of years of work. Simply to introduce a cut-off date will not cause that work to get done. Even though under the Bill local authorities have a duty to produce a rights of way improvement plan, there is no firm suggestion as to the adequacy of the resources they will have to implement it, or even that they will have to implement it.
642 There is another surprising aspect of Part II of the Bill. Under the DETR rights of way improvement consultation document, improvements for horse riders and cyclists are right up there at the front as one of the aims of the Government. The Government say that they wish to improve life for those two user groups. However, even though under the Bill RUPPs have been redefined as byways, the network used by riders and cyclists is still extremely fragmented. The Bill does not do much to improve their lives. They have come to a perfectly good agreement that the Bill should allow cyclists to use bridleways and horses to use cycle tracks. In deciding how to spend public money on developing the rights of way network consideration should be given to making the best value of it too. Excluding one group from one entire network does not achieve that.
In drawing up the rights of way map and indeed the access map, it is important that the public, the users and the landowners should have equal rights of consultation and appeal. As it stands, the Bill is not even-handed. It will be, if it remains uneven, a recipe for discontent, non-co-operation and legal action. Once local authorities become bogged down in a morass of legal action, they will have less time, energy and money to get on with the constructive side of creating an excellent network.
With regard to costs, when the Countryside Commission was in existence, it estimated that the cost of getting the rights of way network into a decent state would be £30 million per year, every year for five years. If the Government intend local authorities to update their maps and implement their rights of way improvement plans once they are drawn up, then that is the starting point. That is £150 million for the next five years. I should like to hear from the Minister whether that is the Government's intention. The figure would be at least that because the Countryside Commission made its suggestion a couple of years ago. If there is no money, there is no chance of making the kind of improvement the Government are seeking. In the Explanatory Notes the Government mention a figure of between £12 million and £19 million, which seems to fall far short of the Countryside Commission's suggestion.
In terms of costing, the access legislation will need adequate funding not only for mapping but for an adequate warden service, which will be the first stop for resolving disputes between landowners and the public. It should also save further court action costs. If money is saved by inadequate funding for wardens, funding costs will go into legal action, which will benefit no one. The estimate is £2.2 million annually and a £7.6 million one-off expenditure. I have checked with a number of organisations that have no particular axe to grind. The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors estimates that an adequate warden service might cost as much as £112 a hectare in intensively-used open access land. What information did the Government receive back from local authorities when the DETR consulted them to enable the proposals to be costed more thoroughly?
643 I turn to Part III of the Bill. The protection offered to SSSIs under Part III is welcome. The Government have made some very valuable moves towards giving Britain's wildlife a fighting chance of survival. The measures for SSSIs and wildlife sites are a good start, because they do in fact create safer oases for wildlife. But they do not extend that provision as widely as wildlife will need. We shall be looking for statutory underpinning for the biodiversity action plans and for local sites. While pressure for development land continues to be intense, a planning consent cannot even take into account as a material consideration what effect development will have on the biodiversity action plans. That is a crucial point. If a local authority wants to implement that plan, it must have the means at appeal to be able to say that wildlife is as important in some instances as development.
We want to know what will deter people from ignoring closure orders and disturbing breeding wildlife, or even intentionally disturbing creatures. I am sure the Minister will know how the access legislation complies with the EC habitats and birds directives. I hope that he will share that information with us when we come to the Committee stage. Dogs will also be the subject of amendments from these Benches. Constant disturbance by dogs is more a killer of wildlife than being hunted.
In conclusion, we hope that the Bill will provide an opportunity for linking urban and rural areas, for making sure that the countryside and its issues are more widely appreciated and understood and for protecting what is marvellous about it. We support those aims, but not at the cost of beleaguered rural areas whose local authorities are still unfairly penalised for having sparse populations and whose social and economic future is still under threat. The worthy aims of the Bill must be underpinned by real money and it must be made easily workable by making practical amendments to it.
§ 3.58 p.m.
§ Lord Brittan of Spennithorne
My Lords, I start by adding my voice to those of the many new Peers who have expressed their warm thanks to the Officers of the House and to their fellow Peers who have taken immense trouble to explain how things work here and who have made us feel very welcome.
I have learnt during that process that a maiden speech must not be too controversial or provocative. I soon realised that anything I had to say about Europe was likely to be both controversial and provocative. But of course anything said about the countryside, especially in this House, is likely to be equally controversial. I shall attempt what I hope is not the impossible task of squaring that circle by not talking about the fundamental principles involved in giving people the right of general access to other people's property, but I will deal with some particular points arising from the Bill as it has now reached us.
Fortunately, during the debates in another place a consensus seemed to emerge that if access of this kind was to be conferred there had to be clarity and 644 effectiveness as to its exercise and a reasonable balance between the rights of the walker and those of farmers and landowners. How to achieve that clarity, effectiveness and the right balance is, I hope, not too controversial a subject even for a maiden speaker.
I can also claim without excessive immodesty some credentials for speaking on the subject. Both of the constituencies that I had the privilege of representing in another place contained large tracts of land within a national park. The second constituency, Richmond (Yorkshire), had the very rare distinction of having parts of it located in two national parks. Yorkshire farmers and landowners are not famous for being mealy-mouthed, so I soon became aware of their interests and concerns, although I myself have never owned more than three or four acres. On the other hand, I am also an enthusiastic and regular hill walker and have derived immense pleasure from walking over much of the open country of North Yorkshire; indeed, that is my principal recreation.
Having read much of the debate on this Bi11 in another place, I welcome the fact that on many points the Government not only said that they would listen but actually showed that they were listening. I welcome even more the fact that they candidly said that on a number of points they are still open-minded. Indeed, they seem almost to look forward to the debates in this House. In my experience, that is a rare example of governmental masochism.
It is clear that the Bill creates a complex network of rights and obligations. People with more experience of these matters than I possess have said that this can work only if adequate wardens are available both to help walkers and police the restrictions. The Government clearly recognise the desirability of this by providing for the possibility of wardens being appointed and being paid for. However, I note with regret that the Bill contains neither an obligation appoint wardens nor any money to pay for them. If there are not going to be sufficient wardens, it is all the more important and fair that walkers should know clearly where the right to go applies and what are the rules about its exercise. I do not think that it will be sufficient to give a wholly discretionary power to the access authority to erect notices or allow those authorities to pay for others to erect such notices.
When it comes to the balance of rights, I very much agree with my noble friend Lady Byford—I am also grateful to her for her kind personal remarks—that it surely offends most people's sense of justice that someone who flagrantly disobeys the conditions of access (for example, by lighting a fire, selling merchandise or driving a vehicle) merely has to leave the access land for the rest of the day, whereas a landowner who puts up a notice which is even unintentionally misleading may be in breach of the criminal law.
What is unfair is rendered ludicrous by the fact that the only sanction faced by the walker who breaks the rules is that he has to leave land in the same ownership as that on which he has been misbehaving, as if 645 ownership of the land was in any way relevant to the misconduct and as if the offending walker could possibly know to whom the land belonged.
I have also followed carefully the arguments about whether access should be allowed at night. Given the rising level of rural crime and the number of isolated farmhouses which are unquestionably surrounded by access land, I do not think that the fears expressed about night-time access are unreasonable or excessive. It is one thing to be allowed to walk on a known footpath; it is a completely different matter to be allowed access everywhere.
Although I respect them, I find the arguments in favour of such access frankly unconvincing. The legitimate dawn birdwatcher can be catered for by the proposal put forward in another place that access should be permitted for one hour before sunrise and also one hour after sunset so that the birdwatcher can get there and away in time. As regards the people who are alleged to gain special pleasure from contemplating an unimpeded night sky, is it too much to ask them to do so from a footpath? I do not think that that is an excessive sacrifice to make for the sake of the security and peace of mind of others. That is also the view of the Association of Chief Police Officers.
Most serious of all, however, are the deficiencies with regard to occupiers' liability and the lack of any provision for mandatory compensation. It is impossible to justify liability, albeit limited, for damage caused by broken walls but not by dangerous hedges. The whole distinction between natural features and man-made ones is both unfair and illogical. It will require very careful examination and probing in this House.
The fact that that is the case renders the lack of a compensation provision all the more objectionable. Ample precedent has been set for granting compensation when a new right is conferred which may cause loss while there is very little precedent in our legislative history for not doing so. I am not suggesting automatic compensation for a theoretical loss in the value of land, but for compensation to be available when loss can actually be proved to have been suffered. Many examples were given in the other place of how that can occur. Frankly, I cannot see how, without such a provision, the Government can state so confidently that this legislation is consistent with the European Convention on Human Rights. Frankly, I do not believe that it is. It would be a sad irony if the first victim of the Human Rights Act, which is to come into force later this year, was legislation designed to confer new human rights on the public at large.
I hope that these matters, along with quite a number of others, can be put right in the debates in this House, in particular as important provisions have been made in other parts of the Bill which are very much to be commended. It is in the interests of walkers, farmers and landowners alike that, by the time the Bill leaves this House, it has greater clarity, provides more effective help and guidance to the walker and a better 646 balance of rights between walkers, farmers and landowners. Even as a novice here, I am confident that these improvements can be achieved in this House.
§ 4.7 p.m.
§ Lord Donoughue
My Lords, it is an honour to follow the excellent maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Brittan of Spennithorne. It was characterised by his usual lucidity and perception, and it was relatively uncontroversial. It is also a personal pleasure to congratulate the noble Lord. I have known him for nearly 40 years. In some ways our careers have followed similar routes, though it might be said that they ran on different political rails. We were both Henry Fellows, although he went from Cambridge to Yale while I went from Oxford to Harvard. We worked together on the Sunday Telegraph.
In the 1970s, when I served the Labour governments of Harold Wilson and James Callaghan, the noble Lord was one of the Members devising, perhaps I may say, an effective opposition to our governments. In the 1980s he held three different posts as a Cabinet Minister and was reported, I trust, to have been on the liberal side. Over the past decade he has served as a most distinguished European Commissioner. I am sure that I speak for the whole House when I say that we look forward to more contributions that will demonstrate his characteristically civilised and liberal approach.
§ Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton
My Lords, before my noble friend continues with his speech, perhaps I may place on the record that again noble Lords have left the Chamber during the tribute.
§ Lord Donoughue
My Lords, I shall now turn to the Bill. Having looked at the list of speakers, I am impressed that 45 Members have chosen to contribute to the debate. I note that many come from Benches opposite. Indeed, I recall how during the passage of the House of Lords Bill it was suggested that one of the downsides of those reforms would be the departure of representation of the countryside in this House. I am sure that we are all reassured to note that that has not been the case.
I would like to say to my noble friend how much I support this Bill in general. I congratulate the Government on bringing it forward. It will be and has been welcomed by most of those who are interested in and enjoy the countryside. Most of it will have my enthusiastic support.
I have two reservations, one of which has been touched upon; namely, that it does not appear to improve the guaranteed access of horse riders who, numbering upwards of 3 million, represent a very important body in our country. The Pony Club is the largest youth club in Europe, and yet our country roads grow more dangerous and horse riders need greater access to bridleways. Local authorities have the power to enable that but in practice do not do so. I ask my noble friend and his ministerial colleagues to look again at any way in which the access of horse riders can be improved.
647 More acutely, I am concerned with the fact that access appears to be guaranteed to horse-race gallops and training areas—Lambourn, Newmarket, Manton and many private gallops. This is a matter of great importance, where I think that the Government are wrong. I should declare an interest, being now and having been in the past painfully an owner in various slow horses which were deeply in need of exercise on the training gallops; but that is not my sole consideration.
These gallops are already very dangerous places. Some 2,000 thoroughbreds a day exercise on them. They are nervous horses; they are big, fast horses. They often get loose; they bolt. Injuries already take place. To open those areas to access would be greatly to increase the dangers. That aspect must be rectified. I have seen the clauses in the Bill. There are possibilities that local authorities could do this, but our experience is that they do not.
This is a most important issue. I would appeal to my noble friend, who is very wise, to come back to us this evening with a positive reply. I would ask that he does not mention Epsom, however. It was mentioned in another place without it being made clear that Epsom is not a good example: it now has few trainers, and anyway it has its own legislation. Having replied positively, I hope that he will then speak to his ministerial friends, not all of whom, given their many other responsibilities, may understand this issue as well as he will, and that he will come back to the House with proposals to correct this situation; to limit this danger; to make sure that we do not have increased accidents on the gallops.
I am a great supporter of this Government and I would much prefer that they derived the credit for making these changes.
§ 4.15 p.m.
§ Lord Moran
My Lords, the last occasions on which I spoke in your Lordships' House were on the Local Government Bill and the Learning and Skills Bill, in both cases in relation to Section 28. I am relieved that this time I have not had a briefing from Stonewall and am in more familiar and agreeable territory—for today we are talking about the countryside.
The Government as a whole do not, to judge from their actions, care for the countryside: forcing local authorities to allow the building of many more houses than they think can be fitted in; giving hardly any help to struggling farmers; making small abattoirs pay such exorbitant charges for hygiene inspection that they are driven to close; and now threatening to ban hunting. But however perverse the Government's rural policies may be, this particular Bill deserves careful consideration.
In fact it is two Bills: one on the right to roam—earlier described as the "John Smith Memorial Act" and promoted by the Ramblers—the other to increase the protection of wildlife, for which environmental NGOs have been pressing for some years. Such is the congestion of the legislative programme, they have 648 had to be forced into a single Bill, even though they are to a certain extent contradictory. They sit somewhat uneasily together.
I do not much like Part I on access. I would have preferred a development and extension of voluntary arrangements. I can see both sides of the argument. When I was in Canada, at weekends we would drive to the lake country round Ottawa and look for somewhere to walk. Again and again we were met by notices saying "Private" or "Keep Out". At home in Wales, however, ramblers left the gates open on our small farm. Our cows got out and into a rocky river, where one of them damaged her leg. It took us seven hours to get them out of the river and back where they belonged. That evening I was not particularly enthusiastic about the right to roam. Nor was I a couple of weeks ago, when I came across a youth trying to cut down a small tree in our woods. He seemed quite unaware that there was anything wrong about that.
Ramblers do not put anything into the countryside, unlike farmers or the young volunteers who help the RSPB, the wildlife trusts and those in the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers. When, during lambing, a farmer and his wife have to set their alarm clock to go off every two hours or need to sit up half the night to tend a sick cow, the ramblers are not there. When summer comes, however, they are there, sometimes asking quite aggressively why there is not a ford or a stile where their maps say that there should be one.
I believe that the vast majority of walkers want footpaths which take them up to and across wild places, not blanket access to every part of open land. As the RSPB has pointed out, a large amount of the land that is to be opened up is of high wildlife interest and has special protection status, giving the Government an obligation to take steps to avoid disturbance of the species concerned.
In some areas, keeping the public to defined footpaths is imperative for conservation reasons. Mr Meacher said at the Second Reading of this Bill in another place:There is no question but that wildlife will be protected. My priority is, through the Bill, to extend rights of access on foot, provided that such access does not damage the interests of wildlife, which must prevail". —[Official Report, Commons, 20/3/00; col.724.]That statement is greatly to be welcomed. However, it means that on grouse moors for example, as the Game Conservancy Trust has pointed out, the public must be kept to defined pathways during the spring nesting season—March to July inclusive—and forbidden to take dogs onto the moors. The Game Conservancy Trust has reminded us that it is grouse shooting that has enabled this country, alone in western Europe, to retain a good deal of heather moorland. It and the RSPB have established that ground-nesting birds—curlews, lapwings, snipe and golden plover—are much more abundant on managed moors than on unmanaged moors. We must ensure that these birds are undisturbed in the breeding season.
The adoption of the right to roam brings with it serious problems, which we shall need to consider carefully at subsequent stages of this Bill. Most of 649 them have been discussed in another place, but only in a few cases have the Government met the criticisms and amended the Bill.
It is extremely important that the question of closures and restrictions, both for conservation and for farming needs, is put right. Living as I do in Wales, I agree with Plaid Cymru and with the Opposition that 28 days is too short. Something like 40 days would be much more appropriate to protect ground-nesting birds and lambing flocks. We really must not lift all restrictions, as is now proposed, at the weekends and on bank holidays. The RSPB has rightly called for stronger sanctions, such as fines, to safeguard conservation closures.
It is unsatisfactory, indeed dangerous, to extend the right to roam to the hours of darkness. I am sure that there should be no general right of access by night. I understand that the Association of Chief Police Officers shares that view. Special needs can be met by special permission.
We must address the question of liability of landowners. I agree with the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Brittan, in his admirable and stimulating maiden speech, that the attempt to distinguish between natural and man-made obstacles is impracticable. To get the question of liability right will go some way to making the Bill more acceptable to farmers and other landowners.
The question of resources needs to be examined, particularly the financing of wardens or rangers, who in some parts of the country—for example, on moorlands—will be essential. Indeed, the whole question of visitor management and costs needs to be considered carefully.
Another still unresolved question is that of the definition of cultivated land, especially of improved grassland and downland. We must get this right.
I am glad that the Government have not included in the Bill access to water or to watersides. This should be dealt with by voluntary agreements, of which there are already many which work well. When considering the question of access by canoes, attention needs to be paid, as the Countryside Council for Wales has stressed, to conservation needs on small and sensitive rivers, on which canoeing ought not to be allowed, and to the need to avoid disturbing spawning salmon and trout in November and December.
I welcome Part II of the Bill on rights of way. However, one point needs to be dealt with. It was discussed but not settled in the other place. It has emerged that the Road Traffic Act 1988 is technically defective in prosecuting motorcyclists who use bridleways—as was demonstrated when eight of them were acquitted in Derbyshire last year. A simple amendment can, I hope, put that right.
I welcome Part III of the Bill on nature conservation and wildlife protection and I declare a small and unpaid interest as president of the Radnorshire Wildlife Trust. It is very important to retain a sense of balance when considering wildlife protection. Much of our wildlife is threatened and we need to do all we can 650 to preserve it. But in some instances, by conferring blanket protection on some species, we have threatened other species or created disease problems. I am thinking of grey seals, fish-eating birds and perhaps badgers. But I believe that this Bill has got the balance right.
I am sure that the provisions on SSSIs are right. Indeed, back in 1991, when I was chairman of Wildlife Link, we published a report detailing the damage that was being done to a large number of SSSIs. I am only sorry that it has taken nearly 10 years for the Government to address the problem. The present arrangements are clearly too weak. English Nature has told us that a third of all SSSIs suffer from neglect or mismanagement. As long ago as 1992, the Law Lords said that the Wildlife and Countryside Act,does no more in the great majority of cases than give a breathing space within which to apply moral pressure with a view to persuading the owner or occupier to make a voluntary agreement".We need something better than that, and this part of the Bill provides it at last.
But we must also think of wildlife in areas outside SSSIs. The wildlife trusts have called for statutory backing for the better protection and management of wildlife outside the network of SSSIs. What they say is needed, and I believe that they are right, is statutory backing at national level for the local wildlife sites process and for the UK's Biodiversity Action Plan, which at present remains a purely voluntary commitment. I very much hope that we can provide for that at Committee stage. The Biodiversity Action Plan, co-ordinated in the DETR by Mr John Plowman, was an admirable exercise, but it needs to be strengthened by a reference to it being included in the Bill.
I welcome Mr Meacher's statement on areas of outstanding natural beauty. It is good news that these are now to be given a higher profile and that the Government will be introducing amendments in this House to bring that about. There is as yet no duty on local authorities to maintain wildlife sites, only guidelines, and no obligation on government departments to look after them. We should address that.
We are supposed to be a seafaring nation, yet we neglect the sea in our legislation. I was surprised that the Bill contained nothing about marine habitats or the protection of marine species. I understand that this is being reviewed by the Government. It may be too late to include provisions in this Bill, but if it is, I hope that we can have separate legislation without delay.
One all-important aspect of wildlife conservation is the question of funding. The statutory bodies must be given adequate resources to do their job and to carry out the duties prescribed in the Bill. In this context, I am very much concerned to find that the Countryside Council for Wales has been starved of funds and is now only able to do work on half the biodiversity action plans which are relevant to Wales. Scottish Natural Heritage and English Nature have received increases in funding of 25 per cent and 29 per cent respectively, but CCW has received an increase of only 9 per cent.
651 This is really not good enough, and we must press the Welsh Assembly to provide increased funding without delay.
What in essence we have to do in the subsequent stages of the Bill is, first, to correct the obvious defects in Part I—in particular, the arrangements about conservation closures, night-time access, landowners' liability, definitions of cultivated land and resources; to welcome Part II, clarifying the law where necessary; and to make the desirable small improvements to Part III to provide statutory backing for the national Biodiversity Action Plan and for local wildlife sites outside the SSSI network; and to seek an assurance from the Government that they will provide adequate funding for the statutory agencies—all of them.
If all that is done, we shall have a valuable piece of legislation which should be of real benefit to our struggling wildlife and perhaps increase appreciation of the countryside by our overwhelmingly urban society.
§ 4.26 p.m.
§ Lord Denham
My Lords, I am going to limit the few remarks that I shall make this afternoon to the parts of the Bill referring to access. I was a member of the Countryside Commission from 1993 to 1999, so I was involved at an embryonic stage in the discussions as to what statutory advice should be given to Her Majesty's Government with regard to the access provisions of this Bill. I was also lucky enough to be the commissioner having the responsibility for liaising with the Peak Park Authority, which was the pioneer in voluntary access and which is responsible for over 50 per cent of the voluntary access agreements that are now in effect in the whole of England.
One of the most worrying things we considered was access with accompanying dogs. Dogs are like children, in that we all know that everybody else's are disobedient and totally unreliable, whereas our own are perfect. This applies just as much to people who have been born and brought up in the country—and, in this, 99 out of 100 of us are wrong! When the Countryside Commission discussed dogs early on, we were unanimous that, where access was granted, they should be on a lead at all times throughout the year. The Peak District National Park Authority, which has always been firm about this, urged the Department of the Environment in April of this year to follow its own example. More trouble between land managers and visit ors arises from dogs than over anything else. But this Bill allows access to owners with dogs without leads at certain times of the year. Surely a complete ban is necessary; otherwise, people who innocently think they are obeying the rules may make a genuine mistake about the date. For the sake of avoiding acrimony, dogs on leads at all time is a small price to pay.
The second serious reservation about this Bill relates to the right of access extending beyond daylight hours. There really is serious concern about people living in isolated houses in moorland areas being frightened by signs, sounds or lights that suggest that strangers 652 might be approaching in the dark. It has been said that perhaps birdwatchers might have an understandable wish to get themselves into a position to hear the dawn chorus, which would entail arriving in the dark. My noble friend Lord Brittan, in a notable maiden speech, made this point. Surely there are enough footpaths and rights of way to satisfy them, where any "daylight only" rules would not apply. Even if not, is it really necessary to give access at night, if it is to cause alarm to a large number of isolated home owners, in order to satisfy a very small number of people legitimately enjoying a rare hobby?
The third concern—the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, has already mentioned it—is that landowners and farmers, who have been forced to give access, might find themselves victims of an ever-increasingly litigious society, who will sue them for any injury sustained. Putting one's foot in a rabbit hole and breaking a leg may be covered, but slipping off a bridge over a stream, falling off a rotten fence or slipping on damp concrete—all these being man-made—may not be.
The Peak Park agreements and by-laws, rightly, ensure that the people who enjoy access do so totally at their own risk. Can the noble Lord confirm that this safeguard is adequately maintained under this Bill?
This Government, perhaps because of their enormous majority in another place, have been less prepared to listen to, and be persuaded by, genuine concerns regarding aspects of their major legislation than any of their predecessors; in particular, far less than any of my noble friend Lady Thatcher's administrations between 1979 and 1987. Access, especially compulsory access, which personally I find acceptable in principle, will work only if there is good-will on both sides. With voluntary access you have a choice; with compulsory access it is the responsibility of Parliament to see fair play. Will the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, personally accept this responsibility and give every concern expressed in this House the unbiased attention that it demands?
§ 4.31 p.m.
§ Lord Addington
My Lords, this is a very wide-ranging Bill. I speak basically because of my usual interest in sport and recreational activities. Walking, riding and cycling fall within that interest. I was brought up in East Anglia. Perhaps Noel Coward slightly over-stated it when he talked about "very flat Norfolk". Certainly, we have very little ground over 600 metres above sea level. It is nice when a joke goes down well!
My areas of interest in relation to the Bill are by definition limited. Primarily, my experience of access and public rights of way is limited to a quiet walk accompanied by a dog, usually on a Sunday afternoon. I am in total agreement with the noble Lord, Lord Denham. Any dog has the potential to chase something; it merely depends on the particular situation and fancy of the dog on the day. The only way to restrict a dog is to remove one or more of its legs.
653 One may have a dog on a lead and then come across a field which one expects to find crossed by a footpath; instead, the field is ploughed up. Alternatively, one's access points may be totally removed. That is my usual experience of access to the countryside, and it is perhaps my starting point. It is a perspective rather different from those who engage in mountaineering or who walk across high, rough ground. That is a much greater challenge and so "sport" is the right word. Such recreational activity demands control and has a culture and organisation. The idea is that one accepts a challenge in trying to negotiate land by map-reading.
I suspect that my usual activity is the norm, certainly in the South of England. One has many problems in gaining access to the countryside. One does not decide spontaneously to go for a arduous walk if one lives in East Anglia. Those of us in that situation do not have great insight into the problem of access to the high moors or grouse moors. Therefore, any comments that I make here are probably confined to my reading of the Bill.
As to night-time access, I had sympathy with the view that this should not be allowed until I thought about access to footpaths. If one lives in a remote country house with a footpath next to it one is as vulnerable as one will ever be.
One turns to lamping, foxes and people firing guns. Some of the briefing material that I have received makes certain areas sound like battlefields with high-velocity shells whizzing past one's head. While that may be a possibility, I think that the risk is over-stated.
As to the ability to use footpaths, to have a definitive set of maps within a certain period of time must be a relief to everybody. My noble friend Lady Scott of Needham Market said that during her years on Suffolk council, in only one of four specific areas of interest was any real progress made. The council was confronted with resubmissions, litigation and repetition of the same points. Many of those who objected were not local residents. Landowners and outside bodies appeared to take up the vast majority of the time. I suggest that, unless local people are the primary point of contact, that will always happen. Local people have a much better understanding of what is required. We shall get nowhere if we do not involve local people. We shall merely have 25 years of wrangling followed by an arbitrary decision—or, most likely, the papers will be thrown away.
As my noble friend Lady Miller said, a model country code will make most of this work. We must establish what is reasonable behaviour. We have heard enough arguments to understand that what some regard as reasonable is unreasonable to others. Just as dogs chase things, people believe that they have right and reason on their side. We must try to formulate a statutory code with which people will conform.
§ Lord Addington
My Lords, that is the 64,000-dollar question. Parliament must help to set it up and get it across. We must ensure that it is discussed and that we continue to work on it. I merely suggest that we work towards it, not what should be in it. For one who is in public life I make a very rare admission: I do not know the ultimate answer to the noble Earl's question.
Many disabled groups take slightly different attitudes to access. Some believe that access merely means having good gates; others say that footpaths should be better maintained; or it may be a combination of both. If one has a hard surface a person who carries a stick or has an injury can walk across it slowly. However, someone may depend on a semi-motorised vehicle. At one time the Disabled Drivers' Association, which is now more closely associated with the ramblers, believed that those with cross-country wheelchairs should be able to have greater access to the countryside. Again, we incur costs in our approach to the countryside.
If the Government want this Bill to be truly effective there must be a far greater financial input than they appear to be willing to make at the moment. Wardens, stiles, gates and codes of conduct all require resources. At the moment, local authorities do not have the resources to do it all. Effectively, in solving old problems we create new ones. I hope that we all join in the debates on the Bill with an open mind as to the ultimate aim and try to establish a consensus. To go back to an earlier remark for which the noble Earl upbraided me, we must come up with something with which we can all live.
§ 4.40 p.m.
§ Baroness Trumpington
My Lords, I shall start with an unfashionable expression. I was worried that the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, was going to shoot my fox. However, I do not think that the noble Lord finished it off so it gives me the chance to support him and speak about my serious concern about safety should the public have the right to roam across horse training grounds.
I am aware that, quite rightly, racecourses are to be excluded from the areas over which the public will have a right to roam. However, the same does not apply to training grounds; hence my great worry not only for the riders but especially for the public.
Perhaps I may give your Lordships a few facts. I take Newmarket as an example. As the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, said, over 2,000 horses are exercised on the training grounds every day between early dawn and 1 p.m. Unlike race tracks, the gallops themselves are unfenced but marked out with "bushes", white plastic markers, which are regularly moved on to fresh ground. It is not unusual to have up to five loose horses each morning. Those loose horses bolt home at a full gallop and although the training grounds, extending over 2,800 acres, are largely fenced, horses occasionally escape on to the roads and into the town. On average one rider a week will sustain serious injuries and have to be hospitalised. I am told that over the years a number of riding accidents have resulted in death—three in 1997.
655 Of course the Jockey Club Estates works very closely with the Health and Safety Executive to minimise any possible risks. I should be extremely surprised if the latter were not to support my case that the public should not be given right of access on to the training grounds while training is in progress. Perhaps the Minister will reply.
It is my view that the public would be exposed to very real danger and compound the already dangerous environment in which stable lads have to work. I picture to myself the happy rambler, perhaps with his dog, innocently setting forth for his pleasure perhaps on the Downs near Lambourn. Picture again that same happy rambler suddenly and too late becoming aware of half a tonne of riderless horseflesh descending at speed upon him or her. Surely that same happy rambler could wait until 1 p.m. when training ceases in order to walk in safety?
If a notice is erected, as at present, stating "No pedestrians until after 1 p.m.", that notice would in future be illegal. I do not take seriously the reply given in another place on 4th April by the Minister Mr Meacher to the amendment of my honourable friend Mr Paice. He said that Opposition Members seem to be unwilling to accept that access might be compatible with the training of horses. He said that they should visit Epsom Downs where the training gallops are situated on land to which a statutory right of access applies. He also quoted Cleeve Hill near Cheltenham where the same public rights and private interests co-exist without apparent problems. These are very bad examples. Few trainers still exist at Epsom compared with other centres of excellence. For instance, there are 200 horses on the gallops at Epsom compared with the 2,000 at Newmarket.
Your Lordships will take note that at present the Epsom and Walton Downs Regulation Act 1984 states that horses in training have a right of way between 0615 and midday. Under that Act no member of the public can commit any action which will interfere with the training of racehorses before 12 noon. For instance, any pedestrians with a dog must keep it on a lead and if they fail to do so they will have committed an offence. That Act would be nullified under the countryside Bill as drafted at present. I should be grateful for the Minister's reply to these points. Epsom is deeply concerned that a right to roam Act may be allowed to supersede the 1984 Act in relation to the gallops in that area.
We shall be dealing with a completely new set of ramblers who may come from far away and will be unaware of the risks. For as long as can be remembered, when training is over local people have enjoyed access to Newmarket Heath and other gallops. I believe that that freedom of access is very much appreciated. Exercising a blank invitation to those who wish to roam is, however, clearly a very different issue. I shall be most interested to hear the Minister's reply.
This is most definitely not a party political matter. It is one of sensible safety for the benefit of everyone. If the Minister turns down this small but important change to the Bill, I submit that he will not be exactly a happy man if and when accidents occur in the future.
§ 4.45 p.m.
§ Baroness Young of Old Scone
My Lords, in welcoming the Bill, I must declare an interest as chairman of English Nature, one of the bodies named prolifically throughout the Bill. Noble Lords may not have recognised its alternative name: the Nature Conservancy Council for England. During the passage of the Bill, I hope that the Minister will agree that the title is a trifle confusing.
I do not declare an interest in the technical sense. I hope that I also convey a sense of great excitement. The Bill is the first piece of major wildlife legislation before Parliament since the Wildlife and Countryside Act almost 20 years ago. It is a long-awaited Bill. I hope to deal briefly with the three parts of the Bill although my excitement may mean that I am unable to constrain myself with sufficient brevity considering the size of the speakers' list.
We have heard much about the risks of increasing access. I welcome the general principle, enabling more people to have the opportunity to experience and understand more about the countryside. We rail about the lack of understanding of the predominantly "townie" British population of issues in the countryside, but it is difficult to expect people to value the countryside and wildlife if we do not give them the opportunity to see them.
Seventy per cent of SSSI land is to be designated access land. Seventy per cent of our most important wildlife sites will come within the definition of access land. Access is not necessarily bad for wildlife and special sites. Along with other conservation bodies, English Nature has had considerable experience of access on national nature reserves; it is by and large positive. However, the Bill needs to take account of three issues. First, access needs to be on sound science-based advice. Such advice needs to be the basis for necessary restrictions for the protection of wildlife. Secondly, access needs to be managed. If properly managed, it can often be combined with the needs of wildlife. Such management needs to be properly resourced. Thirdly, we need to ensure proper sanctions and penalties for those few people who misuse the privilege of access.
Under Part I, there is concern over the issue of dogs. Generally speaking, dogs and wildlife do not mix well. The period for dogs to be on leads, March to June, is probably too short. Many ground-nesting birds, in particular those depending on second broods, are still nesting in July. Perhaps the Government will take into account the considerable body of scientific evidence which supports an extension to July for the restrictions on dogs.
An important principle is embodied within Part II of the Bill, which deals with rights of way. We must not encourage people to believe that getting in their cars and driving long distances to walk on access land is the best way of experiencing the countryside. Many people, particularly those in conurbations, do not want to see areas which are the most glorious, the most special and the most full of wildlife. They want a nice, open, green space which is free from noise, enabling 657 them to open up their lungs and feel that they are out of the city. For many people, such space is to be found on the edges of cities and I therefore commend in particular the provisions on rights of way and additional access to land close to large centres of population in ways which can be managed successfully for larger numbers of people.
I am excited primarily about Part III of the Bill; the provisions dealing with wildlife and sites of special scientific interest. It is a vital part which the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, said was long overdue. I agree with her. More than 4,000 SSSIs cover a tiny proportion of the countryside; less than 7 per cent. However, they are, to use that hackneyed expression, the "jewels in the crown" of nature conservation. They are the basic building blocks upon which much of our conservation depends. They are the equivalent of cathedrals and stately homes. Indeed, as with cathedrals and stately homes, they are managed by a wide variety of people; 32,000 owners and occupiers. They are also managed in close partnership with the statutory bodies and others. The noble Lord, Lord Whitty, emphasised the importance of that partnership and I agree with him.
I believe that the Bill enhances the partnership. It will provide help to owners and occupiers in the form of advice and, perhaps more importantly, financial support for the positive management of the sites. These days, that is often the most useful resource for hard-pressed land managers. The Bill will help land managers and owners as regards the vexed question of damage by third parties. There are few provisions to prevent such damage, but the Bill will help. It is an issue of common ground between landowners and those responsible for conservation.
Perhaps more controversially, during the remainder of the debate and in Committee we shall hear that the Bill makes provision to issue management notices and restoration orders. Those are vital in ensuring that SSSIs thrive and prosper. At present, 30 per cent of our sites of special scientific interest are in unfavourable condition; up to 70 per cent in some of our upland habitats. That is unacceptable. It is as though we were saying that our cathedrals should be allowed to stay black and to crumble, subside and rust. We in this country cannot live with that.
In many cases, the unfavourable condition is not due to deliberate damage. That is rare. More often, it is due to neglect and the lack of adequate management; management that is not sufficiently sympathetic to the vital component of the site, which is the nature conservation interest. The Bill gives new powers to address those problems with landowners. Those new powers are accompanied by real, ample checks and balances, including rights of appeal ultimately to the Secretary of State if consents are refused or management notices are served. Therefore, I believe that the Bill provides a proper balance between the legitimate needs and interests of landowners and of conservation.
658 In such a long debate, it is perhaps unfair to discuss what the Bill does not do. However, some of the omissions might be remedied as it passes. The issue surrounding local wildlife sites has been highlighted. Many of our species depend not only on nationally important SSSIs, but also on the wide range of local wildlife sites which are inadequately protected. I am not looking for a system similar to that in relation to SSSIs—that would be using a sledgehammer to crack a nut—but modest changes can be made to the Bill in order to improve the safeguarding of local sites.
Mention has been made of a statutory underpinning for the biodiversity action plan, which is a unique feature in British public life. I know of no other sphere of human endeavour in which a common hymn sheet, a common set of priorities, is shared across the statutory and voluntary sectors at local, regional and national level. Without too much difficulty, we have agreed on a set of priorities, and that is a rare phenomenon. It would be useful if the Bill could give the biodiversity action plan a gentle statutory underpinning. It need not be bureaucratic or onerous—it need not even be excessively committing of individual bodies—but it could point up the importance of the plan and of its continuation.
Of course, the Bill does not and cannot "join up the dots". The SSSIs are the building blocks, the foundation, on which nature conservation in this country is based. If we are to reap full value from the Bill and from the SSSIs, we need to join up the isolated dots; to ensure that the general, farmed countryside around them is as environmentally friendly as possible. I know that steps which are afoot in common agricultural policy reform need to be accelerated in order to achieve that.
I am delighted to see a long list of speakers today. It is a most healthy sign. I am looking forward to full discussion of the Bill, not only tonight but during subsequent stages. I want to commend the Government on bringing the Bill forward. It can be improved—and I hope that in modest ways it will be—but I want to sound a note of caution. It will be a black day for the English countryside if in attempting to improve the Bill it is obstructed.
§ 4.56 p.m.
§ Earl Peel
My Lords, I want warmly to welcome my noble friend and neighbour Lord Brittan, who made an excellent speech. I am delighted that for his maiden speech he chose this subject and not Europe or one of the many other subjects on which he is well qualified to speak. In our part of the world my noble friend is well known for his interests in the countryside and is a great walker. Therefore, I hope that the Government will take heed of his wise words.
Whatever one's attitude towards the Bill, it is a hugely significant piece of legislation which will have a profound effect on the countryside and on those who live there or visit. It will also influence attitudes, which could be highly relevant. I am bound to say that both politically and practically I have grave reservations about the Bill.
659 Perhaps I may begin by declaring an interest. I own and manage an upland estate in the North of England where I already have wide-ranging responsibilities in trying to balance the needs of farming, of nature conservation—the whole estate is an SSSI—of public access and of grouse shooting. Perhaps I may make it clear from the outset that the latter is the economic dynamo which drives the management of the estate and in turn provides the wildlife, which is why it was designated in the first place.
Of the 3 million to 4 million acres of land to be covered by the access provisions in the Bill, 800,000 are heather, of which 70 per cent has been designated as SSSIs. As was pointed out by the noble Lord, Lord Moran, a recent survey carried out by the RSPB and the Game Conservancy Trust shows that heather moorland managed for grouse produces twice as many curlews, five times as many lapwings and five times as many golden plover as moorland not managed for grouse. Those statistics are relevant. Of course, it is no accident that those areas are great wildlife havens; that is due entirely to a combination of habitat management and predator control, financed by the grouse interests at no cost to the taxpayer.
It is largely against that background that I have followed the history leading up to the Bill and refer most of my remarks this afternoon, although much of what I say will affect the whole of the access areas within the Bill. Therefore, I apologise if I take up a little more of your Lordships' time than have other noble Lords, particularly when dealing with Part I of the Bill.
I realise that there are strong feelings attached to the principle of the so-called "right to roam". Those feelings come from both sides and conjure great passions and great rhetoric. I fully appreciate and understand the aspirations of those who wish to enjoy and share in the pleasures of the countryside. Indeed, I myself would be very much in that position were I not so fortunate as to live where I do and own the land that I do.
However, as W H Auden wrote in 1954 about the Pennines:I mention them with mixed feelings. On the one hand, I want all worthy people to agree with me about their beauty. On the other, I have a feeling of personal possession which makes me jealously afraid of unworthy or unappreciative intruders".The truth of the matter is that, unfortunately, difficulties are already brought about by unworthy and unappreciative intruders, although I am bound to say that the majority of people whom I experience behave impeccably and have a great desire to understand how these areas work.
However, we already have difficulties, and therefore it is little wonder that the Yorkshire Dales National Park, in whose land my estate is, and, indeed, the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust both have expressed grave concerns about the access provisions in the Bill. From a personal point of view, I am sorry that the Government did not pursue the voluntary approach. They talked about it but never gave it a chance. I believe that it would have worked, but that is history.
660 The point is that behind all the emotion, the rhetoric and the political dogma which so often have clouded fruitful discussion is the real world of dealing with management problems on the ground. It falls on the farmer, the shepherd and the gamekeeper to pick up the pieces left by ill thought through legislation. I am bound to say that one cannot blame people if they regard the Bill as yet another kick in the backside for the countryside.
However, as the Minister, Mr Meacher, said when referring to the Bill at the Standing Conference on Countryside Sports:If we do not succeed in making people who live and work in the countryside feel that these policies are relevant to them, and better for them, then we will have failed".I concur entirely with such a bold statement. But, in truth, unless we see major concessions within the Bill, I believe that that will be no more than a ministerial dream. What I find so disappointing is that the Government have had every opportunity to amend the Bill in another place and to overcome the inadequacies that litter this piece of legislation but have failed to do so. As usual, it now falls on your Lordships' House to try to rectify some of the problems.
Of course, we should recognise that the Bill was mentioned in the Queen's Speech. I certainly do not want to waste time by arguing the philosophical rights and wrongs of the case or by going back over old ground. However, if I may, I should like to touch briefly on some of my major concerns. I now deal specifically with Part I.
Clearly, the closure periods for open access and the way in which they will be administered by the park authorities and the Countryside Agency will be essential ingredients in the ultimate success or failure of the Bill. As is always the case, the devil is in the detail, and much will depend on the guidance and regulations which as yet have not been published. However, whether it be the 28 days when the owner can close his land or an additional closure order made by the relevant authority, how on earth will such orders and by-laws be adhered to if visitors are unaware that they exist?
Given the innumerable points of access that exist on to access areas, I therefore ask the Minister to explain how a closure order or, indeed, by-laws will be observed if there are to be no statutory access points. As I believe noble Lords have already mentioned, information and education are essential if this legislation is not to be reduced to a farce. It seems to me that to date the Government have failed manifestly to address that point.
I turn to the access provisions themselves. On the one hand, it appears somewhat contrary to give open access and the likely disturbance that goes with it and, on the other, to give additional powers to the countryside agencies in order to protect SSSIs. However, as I have already pointed out, most of the moorland areas are SSSIs and all ground-nesting birds, including grouse, are susceptible to disturbance, as shown by Professor Hudson in his submission to the DETR. Therefore, I ask the Minister how the 661 Government will balance their responsibilities—the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, also made reference to this—under the habitat and birds directive? And if doubt remains, will the precautionary principle prevail?
I have no doubt whatever that the Minister will have scrutinised in great detail the well known document on how the European Commission wants to apply the precautionary principle. I can assure your Lordships that it is a right riveting read! No doubt he will have noticed the paragraph which states:Measures based on the precautionary principle should be maintained so long as scientific information is incomplete or inconclusive".Given that, can the Minister inform the House what science is available regarding the effects of disturbance on ground-nesting birds in the spring and summer; whether such evidence will be taken into account; and, in the absence of such research, whether the precautionary principle will, indeed, be maintained? Where there are holes in our knowledge, will the Minister assure the House that further research will be forthcoming?
I turn to the question of dogs, a subject on which a number of noble Lords have already touched. How on earth dogs managed to get into this Bill I simply do not know; I thought that it was a Bill about people. However, I am bound to say that I find it absolutely breathtaking that anyone drafting the Bill from the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, no less, could even have contemplated allowing dogs to be let off leads on access areas in July. I imagine that the department took advice from English Nature and from the Countryside Agency. I believe that it is the view of all organisations who represent management and, I suspect, all conservation groups as well that dogs must be kept on footpaths at all times, as my noble friend Lord Denham has already suggested.
My noble friend made reference to the fact that he was involved with the Peak Park in Derbyshire when he was a countryside commissioner. Interestingly, that authority recently mounted a campaign to keep dogs on leads and prevent them from running wild. It failed miserably, with more than 60 per cent of people ignoring the advice that they were given. We are talking not about municipal parks but about some of the finest wildlife areas in the country. I urge the Minister to take great note of what we are saying.
My noble friend Lord Brittan put the issue of night-time access very well and I shall not add to what he said. The Association of Chief Police Officers and the local watch organisations are concerned about the additional provisions. Lindsey Waddell, chairman of the Moorland and Gamekeepers Association, said recently:The poaching fraternity who use dogs with lights at night will hardly believe what the law has given them if this is allowed. They will be able to enter land at night with dogs unchallenged on the premise that they are going for a walk".That speaks for itself.
662 The Bill's provisions on owner's liability are unjust and the Government will have to think again. I appreciate that they have already made a concession on what they call "natural features", but that is not enough. For the situation to be equitable, unnatural features will also have to be removed from the provisions.
I am sure that other noble Lords will refer to the inadequacies of the compensation provisions. Reductions in capital values as a direct result of the legislation will be difficult to prove. No doubt that is why the Government have moved away from that. However, I suspect that that will not prevent cases going to court. Even ordinary costs that have been established are being ignored. Access agreements have been built up over 40 years in the Peak park, where the authority now acknowledges that additional management costs to landowners and farmers are in the region of £4 an acre. The Bill will discard that payment. Can we please have an indication from the Government of the likely additional costs to the national park authorities and the countryside agencies of implementing the legislation? Unless proper resources are made available, wardening will be yet another pipe dream.
Another point touched on by my noble friend Lord Brittan was the disparity between the penalties to be imposed on owners and occupiers who fail to comply with the provisions and the paltry measures designed to prevent abuse by visitors. Many organisations have expressed strong concerns about that. A dog owner letting his dog off the lead during the nesting season will merely be a trespasser who can be prevented from returning to the same piece of ground for 24 hours. That is not good enough. Owners and occupiers must be allowed to manage with the confidence of knowing that they have the proper redress against anyone who undermines their interests or those of the wildlife that they manage. Equally, walkers must have the confidence to be able to enjoy themselves by knowing where they can go and what they can and cannot do, but with the clear understanding that there will be equivalent penalties if they undermine the interests of those whose land they are on. Anything less than that will lead to bad feeling and conflict.
There are many other items in Part I that we shall have to come back to in Committee, but I shall move on briefly to Part II. I accept that there are some useful and welcome new measures, particularly a more streamlined system for diverting and coding rights of way. I also very much welcome the recent amendment that allows local authorities to stop or divert rights of way to prevent crime. However, I suspect that that power could be largely negated in open access areas for reasons that have already been mentioned.
The noble Lord, Lord Moran, referred the increasing amount of damage being caused by four-wheel drive vehicles and bikes. That is of concern to many noble Lords and I suspect that we shall have to look at the issue closely in Committee to try to redress the difficulties and damage caused.
663 Part III is also enormously important. I acknowledge that SSSIs are still being damaged, but that is due largely to the inadequacies of the common agricultural policy and the shortage of funds available to the countryside agencies to engage in worthwhile management agreements with managers. I do not know whether the noble Baroness, Lady Young, endorses the figure, but I read the other day that English Nature needs £20 million to carry out proper management agreements with landowners and farmers to ensure that such damage does not continue.
Payments to owners for positive management is the right way forward, but it is vital to remember that there will always be one or two cases in which payment for profit forgone will remain relevant and it will be fair and equitable to maintain that system. That will not happen often, but we must not lose sight of the possibility.
The Bill gives English Nature and the Countryside Council for Wales considerably more powers. They must be used wisely and with great discretion. Good relationships do not come easily. It took a long time for English Nature and the landowning and farming fraternity to build up the special relationship that now exists. I do not want that to be put in jeopardy by hard-handed and over-zealous behaviour by English Nature, given the additional powers in the Bill.
I read in the newspaper that the Government are considering spending £60 million on compulsory purchase orders for potential access land in the South Downs without even negotiating with the farmers beforehand. That gives out all the wrong messages and undermines confidence. I hope that the Minister will refute that story and tell us that big brother is not on our tails.
In conclusion, I remain deeply sceptical and concerned about much of the Bill. It is based on ideology rather than common sense. That always results in had legislation. I firmly believe in the maximum amount of access for all within the strictures of pragmatism. I wish to avoid conflict and I want people to enjoy the countryside with the confidence of knowing where to go and what to do and why. That requires information and education. Above all, I want the countryside to thrive in all its guises. That depends on management and a rural economy. I believe that there is a real danger that both could be compromised.
Finally, I go back to the day that the Government announced the Bill. The cartoon by Matt in the Daily Telegraph featured a walker going across open countryside with a lawyer in his backpack. I hope that we do not come to that, but unless changes are made, there is a real chance that we shall.
§ 5.20 p.m.
§ Lord Beaumont of Whitley
My Lords, when there is a Bill about the countryside which is welcomed by all the parties, even if slightly half-heartedly by the Tory Party, it would be very unusual if the Green Party did not also welcome it; and it does. It seems to me to produce extremely long overdue regulation of a difficult issue. Your Lordships are not to think that 664 because my contribution to this long debate is short, that that is at all indicative of any lack of enthusiasm. Indeed, I must warn that the brevity of speeches which we have had until just recently will undoubtedly be balanced by a certain pertinacity at later stages.
Part I gives new right of access to much of the countryside. We welcome that wholeheartedly. But we recognise that stewards of land—commonly and, in our view, mistakenly called "owners" —need protection in relation to the livelihood that they can get from it and also to protect their stewardship of biodiversity, which is ultimately much more important.
It is my experience, going back to my youth, when my father was quite a large landowner, that most landowners recognise that they are stewards, although all their actions are not consonant with that recognition. It is a standpoint—that of stewardship—which is theologically sound and consonant with a British tradition which goes back to feudal times.
As regards the amendments that I am likely to want to see moved and that we are likely to see moved, I shall help to resist any attempts to make the right of access available only in daylight hours. For a number of reasons which we shall no doubt explore in Committee, access is important at night and, as was found in another place, the arguments to the contrary have little force. Particularly in an age when light pollution denies to most of the population appreciation of the night sky, it is important that there should be an opportunity to get out into the countryside to see it, although I take the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Brittan, about the use of rights of way for that.
Bird-watchers do not need to be out only during the dawn chorus and at evening. There are various birds which it is only possible to see at night and modern technology in the form of ultra-violet or ultra-red light—your Lordships must forgive my lack of expertise in that area—provides an opportunity to see those birds, as we have seen in a large number of television programmes.
But I am fairly sympathetic to the need to control dogs. Keen as I am on animal rights, I do not see that a right of access extends to pets. I absolutely agree with the noble Earl, Lord Peel, that there is no need to increase the liability of landowners to the public. We are moving too quickly as it is into a litigant society. If anything, I should extend the exemptions from responsibility.
As has been pointed out in another place, the idea that a 28-day restriction of access for good reason should not include weekends and holidays is total nonsense, as every farmer and countryman knows.
I support amendments to Part II designed to give more protection to SSSIs and I wholeheartedly support the protection given to wildlife and nature conservation. As one who piloted through this House the first Bill to protect wild plants, that is particularly close to my heart. The spokesman for Plaid Cymru in another place made a serious point when he suggested 665 that the sanction against a trespasser who damages, albeit inadvertently, an SSSI of being told to go away for a day is inadequate, to put it very, very mildly.
I cannot conclude without commenting that welcome though this Bill is, far more welcome would be measures to save the family farms of Britain. This is not in any way a Bill against farmers, but in some ways it is a Bill which is almost geared to a situation like that in New England where farming has, for all practical purposes, ceased. It would be good to know that the Government were prepared to take some steps to halt that progression. A helping hand in Brussels for the French Government's attempts to introduce territorial farm contracts would be a start.
I welcome access to the countryside. I only hope that when my many grandchildren grow up, there will still be a recognisable countryside in which they may exercise those rights.
§ 5.24 p.m.
§ Lord Monro of Langholm
My Lords, first I join Members on all sides of the House in congratulating my noble friend Lord Brittan on a brilliant maiden speech. Also, I say "Well done" to my noble friend Lord Peel who has put so much of this Bill into context.
If I had a text for my few remarks, it would be the word "harmony" because without harmony and good-will it is difficult to achieve the objectives of the Bill. At present, farming in the countryside is facing the worst crisis that it has had in living memory. It is hardly the moment at which to impose additional burdens and expect enthusiastic co-operation.
I do not think that the Minister realises the resentment against his Government at present. Petrol costs 86p per litre or £4 per gallon and is expected to rise to £1 per litre by Christmas. There are problems in relation to the Post Office, transport and council tax and, more important, the huge drop in farming income.
Over the years, farmers and landowners have made the countryside what it is and they cannot understand the lack of support which they are now receiving from the Government. The Minister of Agriculture should be on their side. For example, the Government have pledged neutrality on the Bill to deal with foxhunting, yet we find the Minister of Agriculture passionately opposed to it. So the Government have created totally the wrong environmental climate into which to introduce the Bill. It will receive a very thorough examination in this House.
It is difficult to know quite where the Liberal Democrats stand. The noble Baroness, Lady Miller, gave the Bill a warm welcome and then spent most of her speech tearing it apart and announcing a team of opponents to the Bill which could have won the European Cup.
On many occasions in his speech, the Minister highlighted the fact that this is a balanced Bill. That is manifestly not so. It is weighted heavily against the countryside in each of the parts which matter.
666 Part II will receive the easiest passage. Footpaths are always a complicated matter and they require simplification and swifter procedures at far less cost. Again, it is no use burdening the farming community with legislation relative to footpaths which will cost a great deal of money.
We want the consultations to be fair. Too often, the Government go out to consultation and listen only to the Environment Agency or English Nature or a governing body like the RSPB and ignore the advice of other bodies which have just as much, in fact more, practical experience. I know the problems. I spent nine years on the council of the Nature Conservancy Council. I was sometimes driven to despair. Indeed, I did much to encourage the formation by the Secretary of State for Scotland of Scottish Natural Heritage so that Scotland could get out of the clutches of Peterborough.
Of course, that has been overtaken by devolution. But we must have a good relationship between Scotland and England. The legislation must move in parallel. The birds and mammals do not appreciate where the borderline is and nor, indeed, I am afraid, do a great many walkers in the countryside.
Just north of the Border is the Langholm Moor. Obviously, from my name I know all about it even if, sadly, I do not have a financial interest in it. The Langholm Moor was subject to most detailed scientific research and a report. Speaking in shorthand, because it would be wrong to go into the details, the SNH and the RSPB refused to accept that report and as a result there have been vast repercussions in relation to the scenic beauty of that wonderful moor and there have been job losses. It would drive anyone with any common sense to despair.
Possibly new legislation is required. To me it seems odd that the RSPB, the SNH and the NCC, whom I supported at the time, have translocated the sea eagles and red kites. I am now told that they are thinking about corncrakes, but the mere mention of a raptor and all those organisations go into orbit. They take an autocratic view that they are right and everyone else is wrong. If that lack of harmony and lack of understanding continues, in a decade or so many grouse moors in this country will follow the same route.
Part II is less draconian than its equivalent in Scotland. I welcome the opportunity to see the recreation of hill walking throughout the United Kingdom. However, changes must be made to the Bill if it is to be effective and understood, not only by those who come from urban areas, but also by those who live in the countryside.
In Committee we shall have to argue so many detailed points. I read the debate on grassland at Report in another place. On a hill farm grass is crucial and in April, May and June it must not be disturbed. It is grown for feeding lambs or more importantly for hay or silage. That grassland will not be renewed every year, as the Bill indicates—only grassland under a year old will be excluded—but it will be down for several 667 years in rotation and then reseeded. That is the way things operate in hill farms, unlike the normal rotation of a farm in the lowlands.
In relation to night access, with the exception of the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, who has just spoken, in everyone's view that must be carefully monitored and restricted. It cannot go ahead as laid down in the Bill at present. Not only is there the difficulty of seeing obstructions at night, but the farmer would have to pay compensation if anyone were injured. There has to be some sort of compromise. If the farmers are to give, as they are ordered to by this Bill, access to their farms throughout the day, surely the limited number of people who want access at night must accept certain restrictions. There has to be some give and take if this is to work.
I appreciate only too well—I have been responsible for it in Scotland and in this country—that if someone wants to walk the high peaks they have to leave in the dark and perhaps return in the dark. However, they should walk on known routes and they should tell people where they are going, particularly in winter.
The noble Earl, Lord Peel, and others have highlighted the major issues of dogs. Of course, they must be restricted on leads for a much longer period than the Bill indicates. The noble Earl put it so well: however much one wants to insist that dogs are kept on leads in May, June and July, people will not care two hoots. Once they are around the corner or over the first ridge they will let them off the leads. I do not see how that can be policed fairly. Can the Minister tell the House how that will be done, how the wardens and rangers will work and who will pay for them? How will the police operate and who will pay for them? So many factors are in the air. It is no wonder that those in the country are gravely concerned that the Government are driving ahead without caring two hoots about those who live and work in the countryside and who are responsible for its beauty at present.
A number of noble Lords have mentioned education. When I was on the Nature Conservancy Council I tried to arrange for a simplification of the biodiversity site designation. At present we have nine: Ramsar sites, special protection areas, special areas of conservation, national nature reserves, sites of special scientific interest, and so on. The public do not know what their rights or responsibilities are when they see various sets of initials put on a post. We must simplify and educate. That education should start at school, where children can learn about the pursuits that take place in the countryside and the agricultural work that helps to keep the countryside as beautiful as it is.
I may be biased because I took the Wildlife and Countryside Bill through the other place, but I believe that that has stood the test of time. It was right to pursue the voluntary agreement principle. When I came into office in 1979 a Bill was suggested by officials that was full of compulsory agreements. We changed those agreements to voluntary ones. I believe that they have worked well because taking people with you is so much better than confrontation. I believe we have to be careful about how we work within SSSIs.
668 I read in the Scotsman that, rightly or wrongly, SNH has made the whole of the Island of Aran an SSSI and every farmer has to go through a check list of 36 operations to get permission for various things. That seems to me to be ludicrous bureaucracy. We must try to be practical. Farmers are practical people and they expect to work with practical people and not with bureaucrats who sit there with a mountain of red tape around each file that they bring to the farms.
I do not know whether it is possible under this Bill, but I would like to see a greater flexibility within the schedules of the Wildlife and Countryside Act. Moving birds and animals from one schedule to another as required and as proved by scientific reason is something that we ought to be able to achieve. In the 1950s, when Sir Arthur Duncan was chairman of the Nature Conservancy, as it then was, they put Brent geese on the protected list, and he said that when they had increased in numbers they could be put back on to the quarry list. Brent geese are all over the place now—there are tens of thousands of them—and yet they have not moved an inch as far as the schedules in the Wildlife and Countryside Bill are concerned. We must be more flexible and helpful in every possible direction.
In regard to national parks, I am concerned that we have pressed ahead with national parks in Scotland and in England because they are already honeypots. They are under severe pressure. The national parks are there to promote pleasure and not protection. New parks add to the heavy pressure and do no good to the environment. The Highland Regional Council has asked for a referendum in relation to the Grampian national park to ask whether the people actually want a national park. All the planning legislation is more able to cope with anything that needs to be done in the countryside at the present time, particularly when there appear to be no additional resources available for local authorities, land managers or the farm community to deal with what is about to be thrust upon them. All in all, this legislation is proposed by those who have little understanding of the countryside and little respect for those who live and work in it.
§ 5.38 p.m.
§ Lord Greaves
My Lords, first I apologise for my voice. At least it has not yet disappeared! I was interested in the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Monro, about education and information for the public. Perhaps, when the Bill becomes law, as I hope that it will substantially, the Government should consider holding a competition among schoolchildren for a new symbol. Clearly, such a symbol could be used on gateposts, stiles and so on, to show the boundaries of access land, such as the discreet acorn that is used on the Pennine Way.
I should first declare a general interest—I have no specific interest—in that I have spent most of my recreational time over the past 40 years hill walking, mountaineering and climbing, mainly within England and Wales at a very modest level. I am afraid I have modest ambitions and even more modest achievements. One of my great regrets is that Lord Hunt, who used to sit on these Benches, is no longer 669 with us to give us the wisdom of the mountaineering community with the distinction and authority that only he could. I feel a poor substitute, being at the opposite end of the mountaineering spectrum, but I shall do my best.
In this Second Reading I want to concentrate on several major themes rather than cover the detail that other noble Lords have so far addressed. We shall no doubt visit those issues in Committee, as they were visited in great detail in another place.
First, I genuinely welcome Part I of the Bill, at least as a principle, despite what I believe are the many flaws in the way it is set out. I am pleased that the Government had the courage to go ahead with this provision, in the face of powerful opposition interests in the country. I do not often say that I am pleased with this Government. But on this issue, I can assure them that I am.
The noble Earl, Lord Peel, who is not presently in his place, voiced his disappointment in the Government not proceeding with the voluntary agreement. For most of my life the voluntary agreement applied in relation to opening up access. With certain notable exceptions, particularly substantial parts of the Peak District, it simply has not worked because landowners have not been prepared to concede the principle of access to walkers. I believe that 50 years later the time has come to legislate for a substantial degree of compulsion in that regard.
My second point is that there is little that is new in this Bill. What is new is the extension to all areas of open country that which already happens in large areas of England particularly, and also in parts of Wales. The whole of the English Lake District has open access. No doubt many noble Lords have experienced that when they have been on holiday there. Over half the open country in the Peak District is subject to access agreements. Large areas of heather moorland—the noble Earl referred to this particularly—have access by agreement or de facto access; that is, if we walk there, nobody turns us away. I spent many happy days of my life walking in the North Yorkshire Moors—probably the largest single area of heather moorland in the north of England. Unless there is shooting going on—in which case, one is mad for going anyway—one is not turned away.
The opponents of the access provisions of the Bill must show why the situation is different in the areas where access is currently excluded compared with those areas where it is not. I do not believe there is any difference. I do not believe access has any significantly different effect in the two types of area. I spend a lot of time climbing and walking on heather moorland not far from where I live. There are times of the year when access is not allowed, for various reasons. That is fine. We all accept and adhere to that. Equally, there are large areas of Pennine moorland close to where I live where, technically at least, I am not allowed to go, but whether or not I do go is a different matter. Access is not allowed and there are signs saying, "Keep Out". But there is no reason whatever why that should be so. Some noble Lords may say that people want to walk 670 on footpaths. That may be true for 95 per cent of walkers on moorland areas. But the fact is that there are no footpaths. We cannot walk on the footpaths because they do not exist and landowners have refused in the past to negotiate access agreements to provide footpaths. So legislation is the only way forward.
My third broad point is this. The Bill is exceedingly complex—this applies to Part II and the rights of way provisions as well to Part I—and I am afraid that, as other noble Lords have said, members of the public will have high expectations as to what they can and cannot do. However, nothing much will happen in many areas because of the complex, bureaucratic systems that will have to be operated in terms of mapping, determinations and appeals. The only way round that is for the Government to devote sufficient resources to make the operation work. As yet, as my noble friend Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer said, we have not had the assurances we need on that vitally important point.
My fourth general point is that, by definition, all places are different. I am concerned that the way in which this legislation is being introduced puts all areas of open country, as defined in the Bill, in the same straitjacket. That is leading to great anxiety. For instance, a piece of land at the edge of a town may be defined as open countryside, but security problems or conservation issues may arise if people are allowed to wander wherever they want. So a great deal of local flexibility will be required.
I understand that it will be helpful if people know their rights in relation to access. But every place is different. The answer may rest with local by-laws, which do not have to be identical for every piece of land. For example, generally banning night-time access does not make sense in the great upland areas of the north and west of England and Wales; it flies in the face of experience. I understand that there may be places where it is necessary for security reasons. The sensible application of local by-laws may be a way of addressing the need for local diversity and variation.
I agree with those who say that local access forums have to be beefed up. We need to understand, before we pass this legislation, how the access forums are to work, who will be on them and how local they are to be. For example, will there be an access forum for the whole of Yorkshire or the whole of Lancashire? That would be nonsense, and leads me on to my fifth and final point.
This drive for more access will only work if it is based on understanding, consultation, consent and acceptance by everybody concerned. If landowners and farmers are left feeling resentful about the legislation and do everything that they possibly can to block it, it will not work in a practical sense. Equally, if walkers, ramblers and mountaineers, who believe that they have been given rights, see themselves being denied such rights by obstructive local people—as they would see them—it will not work because people will take it into their heads that they have these rights and will try to exercise them in any event. It must be done on the basis of agreement and sensible negotiation. 671 I believe that this must, essentially, take place at local level. As it stands, the Bill relies too much on national quangos sorting things out when what is really required is for local people on the ground to negotiate with each other in a sensible way.
Most rock faces in England and Wales are open to climbers. Almost all of them are in private ownership. Climbers make their way to them and climb on them. They do not pay to do so, but it is both accepted and allowed. How does this happen? It happens because there are many hundreds of people in this country who, under the aegis of the British Mountaineering Council, are able to do so. The council negotiates and consults with landowners in order to come to sensible arrangements. That sort of attitude will be required if this legislation is to work.
§ 5.51 p.m.
§ Lord Renton of Mount Harry
My Lords, perhaps I may begin by joining my noble friends in saying how delighted I am to see my noble friend Lord Brittan in this House. It gave me great pleasure to listen to the clarity and force with which he made his maiden speech. I was not, like the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, immediately taken back to Cambridge; I was taken back to a time some three or four years later when my noble friend was the Conservative candidate for North Kensington. At that time, North Kensington was not quite the place that it is now—Notting Hill had not become famous. I am sure that my noble friend is delighted, from one point in his political career to another, to have exchanged the pavements of W11 for the beauties of the Yorkshire Dales, which he said he now enjoys walking over.
I very much agreed with the final words of the noble Lord, Lord Greaves. This is a most difficult Bill. Its publication was widely awaited; it is very complex in parts; and it will only work if there is more understanding, more clarity, better definition and a better acceptance of it from all sides. I hope that it works. In all my years of parliamentary experience, there has rarely been a Bill which has aroused, on the one hand, such huge expectation from walkers who walk for a few hours to hikers who want to walk for a week, to bird-watchers and botanists and, on the other hand, so much worry on the part of farmers, landowners and those who work on the land and make their living from it. I share the sympathy expressed by my noble friends Lord Peel and Lord Monro for farmers, many of whom are experiencing a very bad time at present, with no particular improvement in prospect.
I believe that the rights of way part of the Bill gives us an important opportunity to update this very complex legislation. The fundamental test of the legislation will be whether the integrity of the rights of way network is maintained and enhanced. We shall have to watch both how the Bill progresses in Committee and what the end result looks like in years to come.
As far as concerns SSSIs, I very much welcome the legislation and the strengthened position that it will afford our key wildlife areas, although I very much 672 agree with my noble friend Lady Byford, speaking from our Front Bench, that it is disappointing that there is no reference in the Bill to placing a duty upon government agencies and local authorities to prepare and implement biodiversity targets for their area. However, I hope that that position may be changed.
There are two other aspects of the Bill upon which I should like to spend a little time. The first is the extraordinarily difficult question of access. Here I should remind noble Lords of my interest in that I am chairman of the Sussex Downs Conservation Board and have recently become a member of the executive committee of the new Association of Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty—a new association but one to which I believe all 41 AONBs in England and Wales have now become paying members.
Both I and the conservation board that I chair would have preferred to see a voluntary means of increasing access. In the years that I have been chairman, we have had a sort of "target" of 5 per cent a year for increasing access in the very large part of the Downs for which we are responsible, but we have never managed to achieve it. We talk about it, but when it comes down to hard negotiations it does not actually happen. In a way, the board represents a paradigm of what such access is about and of the problems surrounding its definition. In the AONB for which the board is responsible, we have about 4,000 hectares of chalk grassland; we have 100 hectares of heathland; and we have 3,800 hectares of common land. Only the common land is clearly defined. Further, only 3 per cent of what is usually known as the "South Downs" is chalk grassland, so much else has reverted either to scrub, to buildings or has been ploughed up. If we are to make this legislation work, we desperately need a clear definition of what "down", "heath" and "cultivated land" mean, as well as clear guidance as to how these terms are to be applied.
Great problems will arise in preparing and agreeing conclusive open-access countryside maps for our area. The last thing that anyone wants is a succession of continuous appeals, which would be both costly and time consuming. They would also actually nullify the intent of the Bill. In our area, heath turns into scrub and woodland, downs can be chalk grassland, permanent pasture or short-term grassland. We cannot put up postings saying, "Here you are leaving grassland over which you may walk and you are entering scrub", or, "Here you are leaving permanent grassland and entering what is pasture". In his brief and clear introduction to the Bill, the Minister was too dismissive of this problem. It is not a question of opponents inventing difficulties. If the problem is not solved, the legislation will not work.
I turn now to some of those provisions which are not in the Bill but which we are promised. The noble Lord, Lord Whitty, kindly confirmed that promise when answering a question of mine. I refer to the AONBs and the additional powers for landscape protection and conservation and the management plans that are to be introduced at a later stage of the Bill. There is also the possibility of statutory conservation boards being established. However, as I stressed previously to my 673 noble friends who were worried about this, I believe it is the Minister's intention—as was the case with the Bill that I introduced into this House—that this will only happen if local communities want it to happen.
It is fundamental for us to recognise AONBs as being nationally important landscapes. They have within them a wealth of visual beauty, of wildlife and of history. However, I also accept that these are working landscapes in whose long-term management the needs of the farming community must be understood and implemented.
I am concerned that at the moment there is little information as regards what money will be available for these new, more important—to use a facile phrase—conservation boards. This echoes points that the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, and others have made. At the moment little is known about what funding will be made available to meet the worthwhile, legitimate objectives of the Bill.
I hope that I may now speak in a personal context of the conservation board which I chair. I happened to enter your Lordships' House this afternoon at the very moment when the noble Baroness, Lady Farrington, in replying to a question from my namesake and noble friend Lord Renton, said that if the South Downs and the New Forest became national parks there would be a discreet arrangement about funding. The trouble is that it is all too damned discreet at the moment! We do not have a clue what is to happen. How can one move forward on that basis that there is to be a discreet arrangement over funding? It is rather like going to see one's banker.
I inherited the chairmanship of the conservation board from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Nathan. It is widely recognised as being a success.
§ Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry, obviously did not understand my use of the term "discrete". The matter concerned funding. The spelling I intended was "discrete".
§ Lord Renton of Mount Harry
My Lords, I am sure that the Hansard reporter will have heard that and moved the position of one "e".
The conservation board I mentioned was started eight years ago. For six years it constituted a voluntary arrangement between the Countryside Commission, as it then was, and local authorities. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Nathan, spent the final year of his chairmanship fighting to get money. He ended up with a reduced subscription from the Countryside Commission—a third less than it had been before—but on that basis he was able to persuade the local authorities to continue their support. I am now in precisely the same position vis-à-vis the Countryside Agency, as it is now called, the local authorities, and—through the Countryside Agency—with the Department of the Environment. I receive many kind words, but kind words do not butter parsnips and it is the buttered parsnips that I now need.
674 The Minister, Mr Meacher, told the Labour Party Conference that the South Downs are to constitute a national park. The park will be an unusual one in that it is 106 miles long and, on average, is not more than four miles wide. It is surrounded by towns, all of which are growing successfully. To the north lies Gatwick and to the south lies the sea. It will embrace 16 local authorities. However, in my judgment all of that does not mean to say that this is the wrong solution; it is possible that it is the right one, provided the details are right. For example, local authorities will, quite rightly, want to know what the planning arrangements will involve. Unlike in other national parks, they will want to be solely responsible for planning at development control level. Working this out, working out the size of our national park, and taking into account the inevitable public inquiry, the process will probably take four to five years.
Meanwhile I have a board to run. We have rangers to pay who are responsible for maintaining more than 2,000 kilometres of rights of way. We have just created a new website which is widely consulted for information on where to go in the South Downs; where to spend the night; how to find archaeological sites; fauna and flora; and for educational purposes. We are determined to launch a South Downs marketing initiative. We shall wish to restore downland on a permanent basis and we shall wish to encourage more farmers to enter into longer-term ESA and Countryside Stewardship Schemes for that purpose. But the board's current funding expires in nine months' time.
It is not surprising that I have considerable sympathy with those who say that we need much more information about funding and about the money that is to be available. I regard the Minister as a sympathetic soul. I hope that he will take that message back to the department, not just for the sake of my conservation board, although naturally I shall want to hear more about the funds with which we are to grow in this interim period of four or five years. However, I also want to hear what new money will be available to implement the provisions of the Bill to enable it to be not only effective but also fair. When the Bill is enacted local authorities and the relevant countryside bodies must not be starved of the money needed to implement it.
§ 6.5 p.m.
§ Baroness David
My Lords, this is a welcome and important Bill. Like my noble friend Lady Young of Old Scone, I support it with enthusiasm.
It is not surprising that we have 45 speakers. When we debated the last of the big countryside Bills, the 1981 Act, which was apparently the first big countryside Bill to come before any Parliament, there were 27 speakers, only four of whom are speaking today: the noble Lords, Lord Beaumont and Lord Buxton, the noble Earl, Lord Peel, who then made his uncontroversial maiden speech, and myself. I wound up for the opposition. I regret that this time we do not have Lord Melchett and the Earl of Cranbrook, whose enormous knowledge of wildlife in all its aspects was 675 comprehensive and wonderful. One thing that we shall not have this time are long discussions on the rights and wrongs of bulls being put in fields which are crossed by public footpaths.
This is a big Bill with its four distinct parts. I wish to concentrate on Part III, which concerns nature conservation and wildlife protection. Greater protection for SSSIs is urgently needed, and the Bill strengthens the legislation. The weakness in the 1981 Act was that there were inadequate powers to protect sites; inadequate powers to take over their management and enforce the law; and penalties were too low. The result has been that nearly one in five SSSIs have suffered damage in the past five years and nearly half are suffering from neglect and mismanagement. The Bill will improve the process for notifying sites; allow English Nature to support landowners in positive management of their land; and address problems where third parties are causing damage.
I recently talked to a friend who had just finished her two year stint as President of the Botanical Society of the British Isles. She said that it was relieved that there would be greater powers of enforcement and larger penalties. As many people have said, I hope that English Nature has the funds and the manpower to carry out its increased duties.
I wish to raise one matter which is not dealt with in the Bill but which has been discussed in the Commons in Committee and at Report and has been mentioned today by the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, the noble Lord, Lord Moran, and my noble friend Lady Young of Old Scone; namely, to provide statutory backing for better protection and management of wildlife outside the network of SSSIs. That is where many losses have occurred in recent years. Effective ways have to be found to safeguard this biodiversity. I very much support everything that my noble friend Lady Young said on this matter. I hope that the Government will accept an amendment, or better still produce one of their own, to deal with this problem.
I trust that some landowners—most are co-operative—will not try to make a case for profits forgone. I have heard this matter mentioned. It was mentioned today by the noble Earl, Lord Peel. It seems to me quite iniquitous that farmers should be paid for not doing something they never intended to do. I was interested to read the comments of Viscount Ridley, on this matter in the 1981 debate who said,It will be tempting for some farmers to try to get paid for not ploughing out heath and moorland, which they had no intention of ploughing out, anyway … Before the war, many farmers in the United States were paid money not to raise hogs. Lots of farmers made lots of money by not raising lots of hogs".—[Official Report, 16/12/80; co1.1036.]I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, is not speaking in the debate today as he made the same point in col. 1050 of Hansard of that date. I hope that no efforts will be made to change the Bill.
I wish to raise the matter of limestone pavements. From my visits to my daughter, who lives in the Yorkshire Dales, I am well acquainted with them and enjoy and admire them. Clause 69 refers to them and 676 increases the fine to a maximum of £20,000 for inflicting damage on them. That is good. But I understand from the Cumbria Wildlife Trust that the damage continues. For those not familiar with limestone pavements, they are one of Britain's rarest and most treasured landscape features. On a global scale, limestone pavement is extremely rare. The bottom line is that, short of another Ice Age, this unique habitat is irreplaceable. But damage goes on; the legal and illegal removal of stone and disturbance of pavement is still causing problems; there is overgrazing by sheep; and people are still buying stone for their rockeries at garden centres. The trust and Limestone Pavement Action are pressing for a ban on the purchase and selling of limestone pavement in the UK. Perhaps that measure can be incorporated into the Bill.
This is a very important Bill, for which we have waited a long time. I hope that our debates in Committee and on Report will be positive and constructive. In introducing the Third Reading in another place, the Minister, Mr Meacher, said:I pay a warm and genuine tribute to my colleagues, and extend that to right hon. and hon. Members on the Opposition Benches for the balanced and thoughtful manner in which they have represented their views and for the generally constructive approach taken throughout our debates".—[Official Report, Commons, 14/6/00; col. 1059.]I hope that the Minister will be able to say the same when we have completed our debates.
§ 6.11 p.m.
§ Lord Roberts of Conwy
My Lords, I shall take a Welsh eye view of the Bill, which I think is justified as it is estimated that about a third of the access area envisaged is in Wales, where the Bill will have a disproportionate impact on the countryside in a variety of ways, including costs. Wales already has three national parks, five areas of outstanding natural beauty, 1,000 SSSIs—which is about a quarter of the total—and more than 40 per cent of the coastline is heritage coast. It also has a number of Ramsar sites—wetland habitats of international importance—several special areas of conservation for a wide range of habitats and species, and special protection areas for wild birds, all of European importance. More than two-thirds of Wales is covered by some form of conservation/environmental designation—much of which, I am happy to say, is accessible a s a result of the voluntary agreements achieved to date.
The first point that occurs to me is that while in the past the emphasis has been on conservation and protection of areas and wildlife against human intrusion and interference in its many and varied forms, we now appear to be moving strongly in a different direction and seeking to open up to the public the few wild and quiet places that are still left after the depredations of previous decades.
Of course it will be said that the 1949 Act provides for access as well as for parks and that the protective legislation remains in force and may be enhanced—as are the SSSIs and wildlife protection under the Bill—but such legislation of itself involves a degree of 677 management and interference because the public are involved. If access is to be made statutory, it is quite clear that it must be policed. People are not all benign, not even those who set out for a walk in the hills. They are liable to disturb the natural peace of places, wildlife and livestock, and to leave gates open and their litter behind; our experience of public access in the national parks and elsewhere has proved that. To put it crudely, we in Wales certainly do not want to see supermarket trolleys in the hills as we have seen them in our rivers. In short, the access provisions of the Bill will have to be carefully reconciled with the "Keep Out" policy that is implicit in so much of our environmental protection legislation. I do not think that the Government have fully grasped the paradoxical situation that they are creating through the access provisions of the Bill.
The implementation of the Bill in Wales will be the responsibility of the National Assembly and its subsidiary bodies, especially the Countryside Council, the National Parks and other public and local authorities—and, of course, one must ask the crucial question of whether they will be given adequate resources to perform their functions properly. There is widespread concern that the Government have underestimated the costs. When the Minister comes to reply to the debate, it will be interesting to know how reliable are the estimates and statements given in the Explanatory Notes. I assume that the National Assembly is covered by Clause 75, the expenses clause, although it is not specifically mentioned. I hope that I am right and I should appreciate confirmation of that.
The lead role under the Welsh Assembly will be taken by the Countryside Council—the financial position of which has been referred to twice already, once by the Liberal Democrats' spokesman and once by my noble friend Lord Moran. The council will undertake the mapping of access areas and other centralised functions and will certainly require extra resources. I wonder whether it will have adequate resources to do the job.
The 11 national parks in England and Wales have calculated that they will need on average about £150,000 a year each, in addition to their current funding, if they are to provide stewards and other essential services, and the access scheme is to be properly supervised. As we heard today during Questions, the Welsh park authorities have been underfunded historically compared with the English authorities and will certainly require extra support.
Local authorities will also require extra funding to deal with the rights of way provisions. There is a genuine fear that much of their costs will have to be borne by council tax payers in rural areas already burdened by low wage levels and the special, increasing costs of living in the countryside. The main beneficiaries under the Bill will be visitors from the urban conglomerations. The realisation of this and the fact that their contribution is likely to be minimal, fuels much of the doubt and antipathy widely felt in rural areas towards the Bill.
678 But, of course, the Bill's most vociferous critics are the farming communities and the farming unions. The communities see themselves bearing the brunt of the costs— both in terms of worry, effort and labour, as well as money—at a time of real economic hardship, when morale is as low as incomes. My noble friend Lord Monro said that goodwill is essential. Without goodwill on the part of the farmers, I foresee tension and difficulties galore. There is not much doubt in my mind that, as it stands, the Bill is unbalanced and tipped against the farmers.
The Government appear to expect statutory access to be achieved by consent at very little or no cost, but they must be aware that access agreements have in the past been paid for in Snowdonia and the Peak District national parks, and payments have also been made under the Tir Cymen scheme, which is the Welsh equivalent to the stewardship scheme in England. Farmers see the existing agreements threatened and their negotiating position of course weakened by the imposition of statutory as opposed to voluntary access agreements. More such farmer friendly access agreements were anticipated under European agri-environmental schemes, but I am not sure as to how matters now stand with those schemes.
The Government would be wise to give strong reassurances in this area if they wish to have the goodwill of the farming communities, otherwise there will be interminable difficulties and friction in securing access to the hills, through the coed cae or ffriddoedd lands of the slopes and foothills. Access above the 600 metre, or 2,000 feet contour, is pretty useless, frankly, unless there is access through the foothills.
We are all aware of farmers' major concerns; and as a countryman I share them. Dogs, even on a leash—as I would call it—are a menace to livestock, especially sheep which can sense their presence at a considerable distance whether or not they are on a leash. We have some 11 million sheep in Wales, a high proportion of them in hefted flocks, attached to their grazing by their localised rearing rather than walls or fencing. A wandering dog on the loose for days in the hills can cause irreparable damage and wreak havoc on such flocks. It happens now, occasionally, and the dog has to be hunted and shot. Anyone who has experienced a dog on the loose and the havoc it can cause on the mountains would certainly not allow dogs into open access country. For legislation to promote the opportunity for such accidents to occur is, to my mind, madness. I hope that the local deviations from the provisions of the Bill will be allowed to deal with this problem, either through secondary legislation in the National Assembly or through by-laws.
To allow night access to the hills is also to court trouble, certainly with regard to the hills that I know. They are full of hazards, ranging from deep crevices, caused by subsidence and old mine-workings in South Wales, to sudden mists in the north that leave the unwary prey to hypothermia. We have a lot of unwary young visitors coming to Snowdonia. In Snowdonia, death—I regret to say—is an all too familiar end for those who wander off the beaten track even by day, let alone by night. The risk of fires, criminal activity and 679 vandalism is obviously much greater at night. We have no wish certainly to see hillside bonfires near afforested land or during the nesting season. Neither do we wish to see an increase in drug parties on the hills. Those are now becoming common.
Finally, I wish to emphasise the need for education in countryside matters. We must bear in mind not only the needs of urban visitors, who have probably been misled by the facile cry of the right to roam and who will have to be given guidance about what is allowed and what is not and what is good behaviour and what is not, but farmers and land managers must also be given guidance as to their rights and their obligations. They, too, will need a code of practice if this Bill is to have any chance of success.
§ 6.24 p.m.
§ Lord Williamson of Horton
My Lords, the Government are right to describe this as an historic Bill because the introduction of the right to roam over mountain, moor, heath, down and registered common land will change at least some hundreds of years of our history. In addition, the changes proposed in Part II of the Bill on public rights of way, with the creation of the new category of restricted byways and the possible ending in due course of certain unclaimed rights of way, are also a new step in the history of our countryside.
I am broadly in support of all three principal parts of the Bill, but like all other noble Lords who are strongly attached to British agriculture and to the future of our rural communities, I shall flag a number of points which seem to call for further examination during the later stages of the Bill in this House. On the basis of speeches so far, including the excellent speech of the noble Lord, Lord Brittan of Spennithorne, I think that there will be a great deal of common ground in the identification of what are the important points that we need to examine. I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Whitey, is putting a good number of ticks in the boxes on his brief, and I hope they will be the same boxes.
I should declare an interest as a member of the National Trust's regional committee for Wessex and as adviser to the National Trust on some matters, since the National Trusts in the UK are not only the major conservation charities but also resolutely committed to the principle of access for the public. Their position was cited by Mr Mullins in the debate on the Bill in another place.
The main points to which I want to draw attention are, first, access to mountain, moor, heath, down and registered common land. It is, of course, not surprising that such a large percentage of the population supports a statutory freedom to roam; for example, 85 per cent of those surveyed in a NOP poll in 1998. Evidently very many people will benefit from the right to roam under this legislation. It is truly a permanent and new advantage for our citizens, which is greatly to be welcomed. It seems to me important that when this is being achieved, Parliament should be particularly attentive to risks or problems for those landowners or occupiers for whom the land is generally their 680 livelihood, and who will be giving up their present control over access to their land. Inevitably there has to be some trust in the good sense and behaviour of walkers because, although some of the obligations on landowners and occupiers could he enforced, the practical enforcement of the restrictions to be observed by persons exercising the right of access under Schedule 2 will be almost impossible in many cases. Who left the gate open? Was the dog on the lead all the time or not? Obviously such provisions cannot be effectively enforced.
Both the legislation itself and its implementation need to avoid the scope for contention and dispute. So first and foremost we need, as soon as practicable, maps which show clearly where the public has a right of access. I strongly support the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Byford. The Countryside Agency has said that it will start work later this year on two pilot schemes to develop methodology, and the mapping itself will take a minimum of three years from the enactment of the legislation. I am always suspicious of the phrase "a minimum of three years", because it usually seems to mean twice as long as three years. But we shall see. But as maps showing access land are the only reliable basis for the big change in our countryside, I have some sympathy with the request of the Ramblers' Association that a timetable for the introduction of maps should be introduced. The National Farmers Union is concerned that new rights of access to open country may be introduced before the bulk of the mapping exercise is completed.
Secondly, we need to decide about night-time access. In the debates in another place Mr Meacher said that the arguments for and against night access are finely balanced and indicated that where there is good reason to restrict night-time access, that could he dealt with; for example, by local restriction on access or even by-laws. We shall need to probe whether or not that is a sufficient and workable solution. Personally, I think that it is not and that we shall need a general restriction on night-time access.
Thirdly, we need to deal with the definition of the possible 28-day exclusion period, which excludes weekends and bank holidays. However, as we have already heard, pregnant ewes do not take leave at the weekends and during bank holidays. If it does not introduce too much complication, we might consider that the 28-day period should be treated differently in respect of land on which livestock are present and other open land.
I turn now to Part II of the Bill, which deals with public rights of way. Our network of footpaths, bridleways and other rights of way is a great heritage, although a slightly confused one. I welcome the proposal to redesignate the roads used as public paths—the so-called RUPPs—as restricted by-ways on which there will be no general right of way for vehicles, or perhaps, in a more limited number of cases, re-designation as by-ways open to all traffic (BOATs), which will produce a more reasonable pattern of use. However, speaking personally, I hope that we shall not see too many BOATs on our land.
681 I also welcome the decision to set a cut-off date for the recording on definitive maps of footpaths and bridleways created before 1949 and the extinguishment of certain rights of way that have not been claimed by the deadline. As regards the value of establishing and mapping the new order, a cut-off date as far ahead as 1st January 2026—the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, said that the period began as one of 10 years but was then extended to 25 years with the possibility of further extension—does not seem to be consistent with the excellent precedents we have in this country for speedy action, first established by William the Conqueror with the Domesday Book. I hope that we shall be able to move a little more speedily to reach the deadline.
This part of the Bill also contains supporting amendments of current law on the use of rights of way which are to be welcomed, notably that the unauthorised driving of off-road vehicles will become an offence. I understand that a new section is to be introduced in the Road Traffic Act 1988 to cover offences caused by vehicles which do not fall within the definition of a motor vehicle. I have certainly seen quite a few of those in the countryside. It is clear that we need legislation to cover such vehicles.
The reordering of many of the present provisions on rights of way is inevitably legally complex. I look forward to the Government following up the discussions held in another place as regards the filtering out of irrelevant objections before a determination by the Secretary of State. That was recommended by the Countryside Agency.
Perhaps I may now turn briefly to Part III. Clearly, the Bill gives greater protection to sites of special scientific interest (SSSIs), which was long overdue. Both the framework document following consultation and the Bill itself certainly command a great deal of support, and rightly so. A power will be given to the conservation agencies to secure the management of an SSSI and the possibility to impose permanent restrictions in place of the present temporary four-month restrictions to prevent damaging operations. As has been stated by other noble Lords, evidence gathered over recent years has shown that some SSSIs have suffered damage either deliberately or through neglect. We wish to avoid that in the future.
In addition, the conservation agencies will have the power to enter into agreements with owners or occupiers of land adjacent to SSSIs. That is sensible, although personally I have some hesitation as regards the power to compulsorily purchase such adjacent land. I am always hesitant about compulsory purchase powers.
Finally, I welcome the action to be taken on the hitherto neglected areas of outstanding natural beauty, which have been promised stronger protection, both because I understand that in the future they will enjoy the same protections under the planning system as our national parks and through the adoption by local authorities of management plans.
682 From my home in Somerset I look out every day at an area of outstanding natural beauty. If, as promised, the protections are put in place then I shall look out even more happily in the future.
§ 6.34 p.m.
§ The Earl of Caithness
My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady David, revived happy memories for some of us of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. The Minister will not encounter the problems faced by my noble friend the late Lord Avon when he was in charge of that Bill. When he made his closing speech during Bill do now pass, my noble friend said that he wished that he had had wing mirrors on the Dispatch Box, such was the trouble given to him by his own Back-Benchers. Although the Minister might have to keep a wary eye on the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, the limited remainder of those on the Government Benches appear to be fairly placid about the Bill.
I should declare a non-interest. On the last occasion that I spoke in your Lordships' House on the matter of rights of way, I received a letter that declared that all I was trying to do was to protect the interests of my own vast estates and farms. Sadly, I do not have any vast estates or farms. I used to work as a land agent. I think it is wise to declare that non-interest just in case that nice person wishes to write to me again.
When he introduced the Bill, the Minister said that it would give greater freedoms and also protect our heritage. Those two aims are contradictory. It does not require a survey along the lines of that carried out by my noble friend Lord Peel to remind those who, like myself, were lucky enough to be brought up in the hills that a grouse moor, by the nature of its management, is one place where it is possible to achieve much more concentration of wildlife than elsewhere. Opening up such areas will undoubtedly cause problems, not only for the wildlife but also for the land itself. We have all seen the problems created by access. It needs very careful management.
The noble Lord, Lord Whitty, said also that there had been some misunderstanding as regards the purpose of the Bill. Of course he is right. The title itself is misleading. Someone who does not understand the legislation and merely notes the title will be misled into thinking that a total right of way in the countryside will be the result of this Bill. The Government face a great deal of work in trying to educate people about this.
I approach the Bill with a slightly heavy heart. The Government have taken the hard road when they should have pursued the route of voluntary agreements. However, they decided not to do that. As a surveyor, I wish to see the best way of sensibly implementing the legislation. I shall turn, first, to the matter of occupier's liability. As we have heard, the countryside is full of hazards, but those hazards are not covered in the legislation. The noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, and my noble friend Lady Trumpington referred to the problem of the gallops, in particular those at Newmarket. However, what are we to do about the old coal adits that are to be found in Yorkshire, or the disused arsenic mines in the south-west of the country? They are open holes in the ground. 683 Have we considered what is to be done about the chalk faces on downland? These areas are not specifically excluded in the Bill. If the owners' and occupiers' liability is not somehow protected, we shall face serious problems.
We have already heard of the case of a rambler who, in trying to avoid a three-foot wide muddy path, fell to her death. A case was also recently reported of a surveyor who found an American lying on a hillside. The American said, "Don't touch me until the ambulance comes, and who do I sue?". Problems of those kinds will be exacerbated by the Bill. We need to find a sensible way to minimise the problems before we encounter too many cases of that kind.
The by-laws resulting from the exclusions in Schedule 2 should be implemented by legislation. I take completely the opposite view to that taken by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, who sadly is not in his place. I think that he would have been right to pursue local agreements had the Government set out the legislation on the basis of the voluntary option. But they have not; they have pursued the blanket approach, countrywide. It is only sensible to put in place a system of model by-laws that apply throughout the country but can be modified for specific areas.
As my noble friend Lord Roberts of Conwy pointed out, if the person who will truly benefit from the Bill comes from an urban area, he will not bother to understand the specific by-laws that apply to Yorkshire as opposed to Exmoor National Park. Unless there is a common basis of by-laws, we are building problems for ourselves right at the beginning.
We also need visitor management. There needs to be a ranger service of some description. The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors has estimated that there needs to be one warden for every 400 hectares in order to achieve proper enforcement of the by-laws and the management of access which most people want. If access is for the public good, it is only right that the public purse pays for it.
We need to look seriously at definitions. My noble friend Lord Renton of Mount Harry asked how one could define downland. It is not well defined in the Bill, and that will lead to all sorts of problems. We also need to define who are walkers. The Government have been encouraging people to go out and walk through farmers' land in groups. In that way the farmers have benefited through tourism, and the groups have normally paid a fee to the farmer. That will now be overridden. Under this Bill those people will have a right to go onto that land. That will lead to a diminution in the farmer's income and present a further hazard to the farmer in operating his land. From a situation where he knew that groups were coming in a set order and at a set time, we would be moving to an open and free-for-all system. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, will take that point on board and see whether that definition can be tightened up.
The mechanism for closures is an important area and one which will need attention. If this system is to work in practice, it has to be completely clear, quick 684 and efficient for everybody, including the landowners, the occupiers, the farmers and those who want to use the land. It may need to be implemented at very short notice.
An issue which is not covered in the Bill is that of fire threat. Given the hazards that exist in the face of climate change and the drying-out of the hill, if there is a threat of fire, the hill land ought to be closed to the public. Those of us who have been involved in a moorland fire will know that it can be a terrifying experience because one is never quite certain where the fire will spring up next. One may think that the fire has been put out behind one, yet one can turn round five minutes later and find that one is completely cut off. If there is nothing in the Bill to prevent access 10 the hill when there are conditions of increased fire risk, the Government are building potential problems for themselves.
Another matter in relation to the issue of closures is the allowance of 28 days. Despite all that the Government's best spin doctors have been able to produce, neither the hinds on the hill nor the ewes on the uplands and the downlands understand that it would be best not to calve or to lamb at weekends. A period of 28 days is totally inadequate; a period of 40 days would be more sensible, with closure at weekends during the key lambing and calving seasons.
I believe that the local authority should he clearly identified as the agency which enforces the closures. It is no use having a closure order unless it can be enforced sensibly. The only sensible authority to do it, and do it on a comprehensive basis, is the local authority.
Reference has already been made to dogs. I will recount just one incident which I saw when walking some three or four weeks ago in Richmond Park. A person got out of his car with a big Alsatian. There was no attempt to put it on a lead; it was left to roam. It found a hind that was about to calve and had a happy 10 minutes chasing that poor hind. One does not go up to somebody in Richmond Park who has an Alsatian, particularly somebody of the size of this person, and say, "Put your dog on the lead". He would not take kindly to that. If that happens in Richmond Park, how much worse will it be on the hill?
On rights of way and footpaths, I am all for updating the footpath map, but I hope that the Minister would agree with me that we ought to have a footpath map which looks forward to the needs of the 21st century, rather than building on the necessity for paths in the 19th century. Surely this is an opportune moment to carry out a comprehensive review. The sizes of farms have changed; the nature of the need to walk across the countryside has changed. Let us now put the footpaths in a sensible place for the modern-day walker, rather than leaving those paths—which in the 19th century were set beside a hedge—running through the middle of fields.
I turn now to public understanding, which was mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, and by my noble friend Lord Roberts of Conwy. It is very important that if, as the 685 noble Earl, Lord Peel, mentioned, some of the people—the unworthy and unappreciative—are to be allowed a new right to roam, they must also be educated in their responsibilities. So too must the landowners, farmers and occupiers. It is a matter of education for everybody and a comprehensive government approach is needed.
Finally, I turn to a subject which most of your Lordships have raised, the question of funding. We have heard of national parks in Wales whose funding has been reduced. I know of one in England which has had a 6 per cent cut in its budget. Unless there is a substantial amount of new money, this Bill will not operate successfully. If there is to be a warden scheme and sensible access, it will require new money and public education—all of which are costly.
The one thing on which I can agree with the Minister is that he will probably not get the money from the Treasury. Let us hope that, with your Lordships' support, we can force the Treasury's hand and make this Bill rather more of a success than it would be if it were to be implemented in its present form.
§ 6.45 p.m.
§ Earl Ferrers
My Lords, I would like to consider this Bill in the wider context of the countryside. I should declare an interest in that I have been involved with agriculture and the countryside all my life. That was during a period when agriculture and farming were respected. We have now seen a cataclysmic fall in the fortunes of agriculture and, in particular, in the livestock area.
I do not blame the Government entirely for this, but they have divided the countryside into two areas: the environment and agriculture. They do not seem to understand or to care about the latter. The noble Lord, Lord Whitty, said that we should not fear this Bill. I believe that there are certain things to fear in it, however. Before I sit down, I fear that I may not have many of your Lordships agreeing with me or many friends left—but I can take that risk.
The Government have turned the balance of the countryside over entirely to the environment and to wildlife. Anyone who is in favour of the environment and wildlife is therefore a "good thing" or a good person. This Bill is evidence of the Government's desire to encourage everything to do with wildlife, and that of course encourages more rules. More regulations will be imposed on a distraught and impoverished industry.
The countryside is not gardening on a large scale or running a zoo without cages. In its essence it is a mixture of all things: the flora and fauna; the domestic animals; the wild animals and the wildlife.
Many people have recently given up their dairy herds, and I am in the process of doing the same, because the dairy industry is now right at the bottom and also because we are importing milk from Poland and France. When this happens, animals have to be sold. Young animals have to be sold. The older animals go straightaway, but not into the food chain. 686 Those under 30 months can go into the food chain; but the price obtained for them is so low that it may be worth while to keep them and to sell them over the 30 months—so that the statutory payment is made. What happens to those animals? They are killed and ground up, and are then incinerated to make electricity. It is appalling that farmers should be engaged in a system in which they bring their animals up, only for them to be used to make electricity.
I dare say that the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, and the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, would rise up in horror if badgers, butterflies, beetles and bats were hoovered up, incinerated and turned into electricity. It would indeed be horrifying. But the domesticated animals—cows, sheep and pigs—have just as much right to the countryside as the wildlife.
I was talking to someone the other day who said that when walking through the village she had noticed that one of the fields was rather overgrown. She had suddenly realised that the farmer had sold his cows and, as he had no sheep, the grass had been allowed to grow. It was too long for hay—although there would, of course, have been no point in making hay because there were no animals to eat it. So the result was desolation. If we ban fox-hunting, there will be no horses either. Every child's idea of a toy farm is that it has pigs, cattle and sheep, and those are the first models that a child puts on the farm. They will now be in short supply.
It seems that agriculture is now considered a fairly expensive irrelevance and that the only thing that matters is the environment. The Government believe that there is virtue in legislation; they commend themselves on the amount of legislation that they produce. Of course, "legislation" means regulation. We are talking about wardens; my noble friend Lord Caithness said that more money is needed, as have a number of other speakers; and we are talking about codes of conduct—and the noble Lord, Lord Addington, was not quite certain what they were or who was going to run matters.
It is not Ministers, civil servants or local authority officers who have made the countryside what it is. It is the farmers and landowners of the past. I agree with my noble friend Lord Monro that the Bill has been put together by people who do not know about the countryside. My noble friend said that the Isle of Arran had been designated as an SSSI and that there is a checklist of 36 points that each farmer has to go through before he can do anything. That is intolerable.
Like the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, I had the privilege of being in the Department of the Environment. I was appalled by the momentum that was generated and perpetrated in the department for the protection of almost anything. Cormorants were in a low state, so they were put on the endangered species list. Then the cormorant population grew like mad and you cannot get them off the list unless you spend about £5 million over five years doing research to show that listing is no longer required. The result is that they hoover up all the fish out of the sea. Then there was that wonderful thing, Desmolina's Whorl—a 687 miserable little snail about the size of a biscuit crumb which was found on the site of the Newbury by-pass. I said in a slightly flippant way, "Do you mean to say that we are going to build a bridge over the snail?"—to which I received the response "Oh no, because the snail does not like shade".
Then there is the stag beetle. To my horror, I was told a short while ago that stag beetles were to be declared an endangered species. Stag beetles are nasty, beastly things. They bite. I said that I did not believe it, and the answer was, "Oh no, not all stag beetles. Just a very, very special stag beetle which is so rare that not many people know about it". I said, "Well, if it is so rare, what happens when you have a stag beetle in your kitchen? The first thing you do is stamp on it. If it is rare, how do you know it is rare? And if you have stamped on it, how is anyone to know that you have stamped on it and have committed a criminal offence?". The whole thing is unbelievably absurd, unless, of course, you give great publicity to a rare stag beetle which no one ever sees. It really is absurd.
Now we are told that adders are to be placed on the endangered species list. Heaven help us! Adders are the most horrible snakes. If an adder comes anywhere near anyone in our family, everyone screams like mad. I can see no virtue in putting them on the list. But the Department of the Environment loves it. What it does is to ask the professionals what they think; the professionals produce a whole list of things that ought to be preserved; they give it to the Minister, and the Minister says, "Well, I'd better send it out to consultation. Who do we send it to?". The local authorities, English Nature, the Countryside Commission, the National Farmers Union and all those great big bodies say, "Oh well, of course, if that is what the experts think, we'd better agree with it". So the thing gets on the list. The Government need to get a grip. They need to put fewer things on the list, and to care slightly more about those in the countryside who are trying to earn a living and make a success of it.
What is the real damage to the countryside? It is not what the agriculturists have done; it is what was once described as "the march of bricks of mortar over the fair plains of England". The idea that everyone who goes into the countryside and avails himself of the right of access is a good person, a kind, gentle, understanding person, is absolute nonsense. My noble friend Lord Buxton has a path near his home which a whole lot of cars and people go down. My noble friend thought that this was rather dangerous, so he made a special additional path for people to walk down so that they do not get tangled up with the Land Rovers and cars. He saw one family getting muddled up with the Land Rovers and the cars, so he went up to them and said, "Look, there is a good pathway here for individual walkers". The man, who was a charming character with rings in his ears and his nose, turned round to him and said, "Mind your own business"! So my noble friend did not get much credit for having tried to help in that respect.
I cannot understand how consideration could be given to allowing access to these areas at night. It is absolutely crazy. It encourages felons and it is 688 frightening for those who live in lonely cottages. Perhaps I may be allowed an anecdote. I remember, when I was in Malaya as a young man in the Army, that at night in the jungle we used to see little lights, and we all got jittery because we thought that bandits were approaching. It was merely a firefly, but we did not know that. It is the same with people in their cottages at night seeing a light going along outside. They will be alarmed in the same way.
What happens if a person goes onto premises and causes damage, say, by starting a fire? The landlord pays, and the premiums go up. He cannot turn round and tell the person not to come again. The person can come along the next day. If the landlord says, "Don't come again", he says, "I have my rights. I can still come". That does not seem correct.
What happens if a person moves a stone into a river and then falls off it and breaks his leg? Presumably, the landlord pays for that. What happens if a person catches his foot in a rabbit hole, falls and breaks his leg? There may be a public liability for that. If a person damages your property, you can be compensated for that—unless, of course, it is access land, when you cannot. I ask the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, whether this does not represent the removal of a person's fundamental right to his property. Does it comply with the Human Rights Act 1998? What about the upland farmers who pay rent to their landlords for private access to the farms that they work, only to find that others will now have access without paying any rent?
The trouble with the right to roam is that it will not, as the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, said, be seen as being confined to certain areas. People are being given the right to roam, and they go out and roam. They will not look at the legislation and ask themselves whether a particular area falls within the confines of Section 53, or whatever it may be.
The noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, said that the Bill will enable people to appreciate agriculture. That is a fanciful idea. I wish that the noble Baroness were right, but it is absolute nonsense. I believe that people will just take advantage of what is given to them.
We have heard a lot about SSSIs, AONBs, local authorities, the Countryside Agency, English Nature, management plans, biodiversity, the whole lot. All are receiving money or spending money; and all are in the business of trying to manage the countryside. The management of the countryside is important, but here the Government have gone over the top by encouraging others to believe that in the countryside the only thing that matters is the environment. With the greatest respect to the noble Lord, the environment is a valuable part of the countryside but only one part of it. It is not right to fetter, curtail and even threaten with criminal sanctions those who know what the countryside is about and look after it.
I view the Bill with great suspicion. I look forward to the many amendments that I am sure will be tabled at later stages of the Bill. I would like to say that I wish the Bill well, but I do not think that I do.
§ 7 p.m.
§ Lord Dubs
My Lords, as usual the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, has been amusing and engaging, but I find it difficult to agree with the thrust of his arguments. When I was Minister in Northern Ireland responsible for both agriculture and the Department of the Environment my experience was that farmers saw the environment as something to which they wanted to contribute. I was always pleasantly surprised at the willingness of farmers to adopt environmental schemes for the wider benefit of the environment while they got on with their farming. I did not witness the conflict which the noble Earl described, and I doubt if it happens here. I can assure the noble Earl that, based on my knowledge, the Government are not committed to a division between the environment and agriculture but to co-operation between them.
§ Earl Ferrers
My Lords, perhaps I may intervene. The noble Lord is absolutely right that the majority of farmers want to protect the environment while they carry on farming. I sought to say that it was dangerous for government by diktat to lay down in legislation how it should be done.
§ Lord Glentoran
My Lords, I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, for allowing me to intervene. Does he agree that in large part the situation he describes in Northern Ireland arises because there is no pressure of population? In Northern Ireland there are six large areas of wonderful wilderness with less than 1 million adults living there.
§ Lord Dubs
My Lords, I fear that I would make a rather longer speech than the House would wish if I gave in to provocative comments of that kind. All I say is that the vast majority of farmers in Northern Ireland, of whom the noble Lord is one, were keen on the environment and wanted to adopt measures that helped it. They saw no conflict between the environment and their agricultural business, difficult as it was. Farmers were then, as now, going through a difficult time. Co-operation between agriculture and environmental matters is possible and can be demonstrated to work. I believe that the vast majority of people want that form of co-operation.
Having said that, I welcome the Bill and give the Government nine out of 10 for it. In one or two respects the Government could improve the Bill, but I welcome it. A good number of people have waited for years for legislation of this kind, and I know that it will be greatly welcomed by people in many parts of the country. Some years ago I read a story about the Kinder trespass which occurred in the 1920s or 1930s. In some ways that led the way to increasing public awareness about the desire for access to the countryside. The Kinder trespass was illegal and has passed into history. However, it showed that many people had a desire for access to the countryside which at that time was denied to them.
I am a very keen hill walker. I am a member of the National Trust. I have walked in hills in many parts of the country, particularly in the Lake District.
690 The Lake District already has a large measure of access. The difficulties that I have heard described by many noble Lords today simply do not exist in the Lake District. Why not? The situation there is the same: the land has farms, sheep and so on. All the conditions are the same as have been described by other noble Lords. However, in my experience the difficulties that have been described do not exist in the Lake District; nor have I heard others say that there are such difficulties. People walk through fields during the lambing season. I have never seen a gate left open in the Lake District, except when a farmer has done so deliberately to let out his animals.
I have seen very little litter in the Lake District. People with dogs are careful, particularly in the lambing season. Why is it that that is possible in one part of the country but some noble Lords say that it cannot be done elsewhere? If someone can answer that question I may have more sympathy for the critics who have spoken today. The people who walk in the Lake District are keen walkers, not townies who walk Alsatians in Richmond Park. Those people understand the countryside and value the relationship between farmers and the environment generally and want to appreciate it without causing any harm. That requires a little education, knowledge and publicity. All of that appears to take place in the Lake District which I believe is a model for the way that this Bill will operate when it is enacted.
I have walked in the Pyrenees in France and seen litter in the most beautiful places in such volumes that they appear to be landfill sites. In this country we are better, and in the national parks we are better still. It is a matter of education and making the wider public aware of what is meant about the right relationship between them and the countryside and what is meant by designated areas, whether SSSIs, AONBs or the myriad of EU designations. We need to educate and better inform people as has happened in our national parks.
My next point is prompted by the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers. I believe that this Bill will work best if there is good co-operation between all those involved: farmers, landowners, walkers and people with horses. All of them can co-operate to make the Bill work, which is surely the desired aim.
I refer briefly to one or two detailed points. I thought hard about night time access. I once spent the night in a tent on the Brecon Beacons. There is hardly a greater pleasure in life than to wake up in a tent on the Brecon Beacons with the sun shining and to see the beauty of the hillside. I do not want that to be made illegal. I once spent the night, unintentionally, in the Cuillins in Skye. Bad weather intervened and I and others could not leave. We had to spend the night there before it was safe to leave. I do not want to find myself in a situation where that may be regarded as illegal.
I believe that the right answer is to permit night time access but, where it may be inappropriate in certain areas, to prevent it by by-laws. Local by-laws will provide flexibility provided they are well publicised so 691 that anyone who arrives in a part of the country with which he is unfamiliar can quickly learn about any restrictions on access to the countryside.
I should like to make a plea for hedges and dry-stone walls in the countryside. I am not sure whether the Bill deals with that matter. I am concerned about the disappearance of hedges and the protection of dry-stone walls which are a wonderful aspect of many parts of the countryside. I should like them to have a better measure of protection than I believe is now provided for.
I have said that almost always in the Lake District people who walk with dogs behave sensibly. However, I take note of the argument that the breeding season for birds is a little longer than is allowed for in the Bill. I ask my noble friend to consider extending to the end of July the period when dogs must be kept on a lead rather than the shorter period envisaged in the Bill.
I note that part of the Bill which deals with rights of way. I believe that in some parts of the country a small addition to rights of way would be welcome. At one time I was slightly bewildered by the fact that Wainwright, who produced the walkers' bible for the Lake District, indicated a particular access to a fell access to which was denied by barbed wire. I could see no particular reason for it. There was a field with sheep in it and the adjacent field was similar, and yet access was prevented. I hope that the Bill will be sufficiently flexible to permit, where appropriate, new rights of way to he created where no damage is caused to the farmer.
Another issue that gives me concern is the use of mountain bikes. I own an ordinary bike, not a mountain bike. I am not against mountain bikes, but it is clear that on difficult and perhaps marshy terrain a mountain bike can cause the same environmental damage as several hundred walkers. I do not argue that mountain bikers should not have rights. But if we were to designate those paths and areas most appropriate for such bikes, we might prevent those with mountain bikes from going on to terrain where the environmental damage is out of proportion to the pleasure for the cyclist. We need to give more thought on how that might be managed.
I am sometimes puzzled when barbed wire prevents access between two pieces of land each of which allows access. I was walking along a path through Forestry Commission land the end of which was blocked by barbed wire. Beyond the barbed wire was open access with paths. It does not seem sensible to have barbed wire between land with equal open access on both sides. Perhaps that was an exception.
§ Earl Peel
My Lords, perhaps the noble Lord will give way for one moment. One of the principal reasons for fencing between different-access land (as the noble Lord calls it) is that the areas could be under different ownership. Fencing is usually put up to ensure the stock does not move from one area to another. It is perfectly normal farming practice.
§ Lord Dubs
My Lords, one learns something every day. I understand the point. However, there was no 692 need for barbed wire to prevent humans from obtaining access. A stile might have been more appropriate. It would have kept the stock in an area outside the Forestry Commission land.
I have sought to understand the way the Bill deals with town and village greens. There can be a difficulty. If a green cannot be registered, it is hard to protect the land from development. People want such town or village greens registered in order to prevent development on them. I see no difficulty in principle. However, I am not sure that the Bill lends itself to that aim.
Finally, in some respects the Bill falls short of the requirements of the EU habitats directive. I hope that the Minister will consider that. I give the Bill a warm welcome. I hope that the difficulties expressed by some noble Lords will not be used as devices to block the progress of the Bill in its later stages.
§ 7.12 p.m.
§ Lord Bradshaw
My Lords, I come from the part of Oxfordshire which is one of the last strongholds in southern England of the stag beetle. We sell pictures of stag beetles to raise money for the maintenance of the churchyard and its environment. I had not realised until the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, spoke that the stag beetle is regarded with such loathing by some people although, when I bought half a dozen cards I was told that I was the only person who had done so. Perhaps the noble Earl's views are shared by others.
I must offer an apology to the House and the Minister. I have to be somewhere else early tomorrow morning. I must catch the last train from Paddington tonight and may miss the end of the debate. I shall be brief. Both the Government and noble Lords on these Benches want the Bill to be a success. It is not simply a matter of putting a measure on to the statute book; it is the delivery of improved access to the countryside and the protection of wildlife. As the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, and others have said, that means that resources must be sufficient for the provisions in the Bill.
In my county of Oxfordshire, I did some research into the extra resources required. We have three areas of outstanding natural beauty: what used to be called the Berkshire Downs where the White Horse of Uffington is; the Chilterns; and part of the Cotswolds. We employ 13 staff at a cost of £140,000 to deal with access. That includes the definitive map, claims for paths and practical maintenance—people who go out and do things in the field. We do not have wardens although some are employed by the National Trust and others by local nature trusts. The people employed are not expensive. Thirteen staff at a cost of £140,000 does not compare with lawyers in the rail regulator's office. We could probably employ all our staff for one of those. However, we should be spending £250,000 even at our mean rates because we fall well short of carrying out our existing discretionary duties and there is a large backlog of potential work.
693 Many of duties imposed by the Bill are statutory. Therefore the county council and other local authorities will be obliged to carry them out, even if over a long time scale. In our county, we estimate the cost at probably between £300,000 and £500,000 before allowance is made for public inquiries, compensation to owners, if that is required, improvements, such as the possibility of better disabled access in respect of which we are faced with many representations, employment of wardens, local by-laws and the maintenance of wildlife sites.
If Oxfordshire is typical, we are probably talking about spending across the country at four times the current local authority level. In our county that would mean about 40 staff. As I am sure do other noble Lords, I should like to hear what resources will be delivered. Without resources, many of the aspirations of the Bill cannot be met.
I reiterate the need for co-operation. I have taken one footpath diversion course through five years of wrangling. Many speakers today have suggested that landowners do not co-operate. In that case it was the obduracy of the Ramblers' Association. It refused point blank to co-operate in a diversion which was not only to the benefit of the farmer but was safer and provided a better walk with improved views. And the farmer also dedicated an extra footpath. We should recognise that farmers are not always the villains of the piece.
I have many suggestions for amendments. However, in view of the time, they can wait until another occasion.
§ 7.17 p.m.
§ The Earl of Selborne
My Lords, for the sake of brevity, I propose to say nothing on Part I of the Bill, little about Part II, but something about Part III. My noble friend Lady Byford thought that it was three Bills rolled into one. The noble Lord, Lord Moran, thought that it was two Bills rolled into one. However one determines the number of Bills in this composite Bill. Part III is about nature conservation and wildlife protection. It is important that we recognise that these are the most important wildlife provisions to have come before Parliament since the Wildlife and Countryside Act of nearly 20 years ago.
My first and main complaint involves the name of the Bill. It is regrettable that the word "wildlife" is not in the title of the Bill. That would demonstrate how central the Bill is to the evolving and generally recognised need to update legislation for nature conservation. Few speakers have objected—I suspect that none will object—to the main thrust of Part III, although some noble Lords objected to some of the details of the provisions. There is a recognition that the SSSIs which were set up some years ago as a defensive measure—the jewels in the crown of nature conservation—need better protection. We have heard that about 30 per cent are less than adequately maintained. The reasons are many. As the noble Baroness, Lady Young, was fair enough to remind us, 694 it is not due to the malevolence of land managers but to a combination of circumstances which can arise from the change in farming techniques. We no longer coppice as part of the economic routine. To coppice involves a cost and therefore requires some input of funding or a love of maintaining that habitat.
Grazing on chalk downlands is also in great decline as a result of the change in farming systems. Benevolent neglect, which often occurs, can also be damaging and detrimental to SSSIs, as can overgrazing and undergrazing. All that demonstrates the need to try to put in place positive management.
Therefore, I warmly welcome the provisions in Part III which suggest that there might be a new income stream via the nature conservation agencies for England and Wales which will allow farm managers, landowners and occupiers to be rewarded for their successful management. Many of them are underpaid or not paid at all. It will also allow funding to go to the 30 per cent who are clearly in need of it.
However, although it must be agreed that changes in agriculture are responsible for the pressures on SSSIs, it is not wholly the case. We have heard about development and note invasive species such as rhododendrons. We must also recognise that in the long term climate change is one of the most serious pressures on SSSIs. We are only just beginning to consider the consequences of that and what we mean by the "positive management" of climate change. It is a complicated concept.
When we hear about the overfertilising of some SSSIs, we must remember that fertiliser does not always come out of a bag. It can be the result of people driving around the countryside. Nitrogen oxides emitted from cars and volatile organic compounds result in lost habitats. SSSIs are enriched by means which are dispersed and not attributable to the local land managers. Let us recognise, therefore, that positive management will be necessary and helpful to the jewels in the crown, which are the SSSIs. We should certainly move away from what began as a defensive technique to try to protect those jewels and into the era of positive management. However, that must be long-term conservation, which implies long-term agreements with those who are in a position to deliver the conservation that we seek.
I accept that as regards the few who deliberately damage the SSSIs, Part III provides more easily imposed penalties. That is nothing but helpful. As regards costs, an earlier speaker said that English Nature suggested that £20 million was needed to treat SSSIs in unfavourable conditions. But I would add to that the figure needed to fund those who manage well but are at present unpaid. It would be invidious to fund people who have allowed their SSSIs to decline into a poor state, but not to fund the people who have always done a good job but have been unpaid. Although Wales does not fall within the sphere of responsibility of English Nature, I suspect that with positive management and encouragement to look to the wider countryside beyond the SSSIs, we are talking about a figure much larger than £20 million.
695 I look on that as a sensible investment in management of the countryside, which speaker after speaker has reminded us is facing pressure as never before. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, that farmers and land managers have always been interested in managing the environment. They are never too proud to take money from taxpayers; they have been doing it for many years and many people believe that they are rather good at it. Here, I must declare an interest as a farmer. However, I recognise that the delivery of well-crafted, positive management schemes will be highly satisfactory in aligning agricultural and environmental interests. After all, that is always the goal of any good environmental management.
I must admit that I am slightly alarmed by stagnation in the funding of the Countryside Council for Wales. Perhaps it is a consequence of devolution, but the Welsh Assembly appears to have cut its funding to a level at which the CCW cannot carry forward the habitat action plans which are relevant to Wales. That does not bode well for the new arrangements for the conservation agencies.
Several speakers have referred to the need to look beyond the SSSIs and towards ensuring that the Government are under a statutory obligation to support the biodiversity action plans which have been prepared around the country in a number of formal and informal arrangements. In that regard, perhaps I may draw attention to the report of the Select Committee on the European Communities, Biodiversity in the European Union. In January, the noble Lord, Lord Walpole, who I see in his place, tabled a Motion for the House to take note of the report, but, sadly, there has not yet been time to do so. However, I draw attention to recommendation 21 on page 24, which states:We therefore recommend that the Biodiversity Action Plan process is put on a statutory basis so that it can be accorded proper weight in decisions taken by local authorities and statutory nature conservation agencies".That recommendation from your Lordships' Select Committee has not yet been debated. However, I hope that as the Bill goes through the House we shall have an opportunity to discuss that important report, which refers also to SSSIs and a number of other measures. Although I was not a member of the Select Committee, I am a member of its successor committee and I am sure it was right to ask that that specific measure should be put in place. Others have made the same request.
Finally and briefly, I want to turn to a specific aspect of Part II of the Bill which deals with a different matter. I understand that in Committee an amendment will be tabled to deal with the problem of owners attempting to charge for access over common land. That was the subject of an amendment table in another place by Sir George Young. I should be pleased if in reply the Minister could indicate the Government's attitude to that vexed problem.
696 I repeat that it is noticeable that Part III has been widely received and welcomed by Members in all parts of this House and another place. I shall support the Government as regards that part of the Bill.
§ 7.26 p.m.
§ Lord Hardy of Wath
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, who made a succinct and forward-looking speech. I heard no previous reference to the effect of global warming, but there will be changes which cannot be stemmed and need to be managed.
The debate has a good pedigree. It began in the century before last and we hope that we shall be able to offer the Government good advice on making the Bill generally acceptable by the time it reaches the statute book. Although I recognise that it conveys great value in terms of SSSIs, areas of outstanding natural beauty and so forth, I approach it with a degree of anxiety.
First, I am not convinced that sufficient priority has been afforded to species other than our own. We must recognise that today in Great Britain many varieties of wildlife are under enormous pressure. Some species may be unattractive; for instance, the stag beetle or the adder. I should confess that when in the other place a Conservative Member complained about the adder I pointed out that its distribution was particularly strong in Conservative areas and that it could serve a very useful purpose! However, I would not dream of making such a suggestion in your Lordships' House, which in some ways may be a little less tolerant.
Not everyone is responsible or cares. In May 1997, when I retired from the Commons, I though that I would enjoy the fruits of my labours in the Dearne Valley. The collieries, railway and marshalling yard had closed and related industries had disappeared. But we had put up a good fight and secured changes to the derelict land measures. Vast sums of money were spent in transforming dereliction and squalor into green, decent, attractive areas which people could enjoy and which could attract industry and investment.
But day after day I watched the destruction as people arrived from miles around in four-by-fours and off-road motorbikes. I watched newly completed tree plantations destroyed. Those responsible for the area hired a security firm and once upon a time I taught one of the people employed. He said to me, "I am not prepared to stop people doing what they want when they wave iron bars at me and I get only £2.60 an hour"! The minimum wage brings many advantages.
In June 1997 the South Yorkshire Times carried on its front page a report of the damage. Action was promised by the constabulary. In June 2000—a fortnight ago—the front page story of the South Yorkshire Times covered the colossal damage in that area. We need sanctions and we need to see them applied, if only to ensure that the vast majority of good ramblers are not blamed for the depredations—expensive depredations at that—of a small number.
We must also consider the question of night access. In what was my constituency, just before the election a gamekeeper's widow, Mrs Glass aged 92, who lived 697 in a little house about 125 yards from the nearest other residence, had three thugs in her home. One kept watch while the other two tortured her to tell them where the wealth was. I have never employed a gamekeeper. Noble Lords opposite may have done so and will recognise that a 92 year-old gamekeeper's widow is unlikely to have a great deal of money hidden away. She had not. She died a fortnight later. That episode sent a message to poor, elderly people who live in such remote areas that thieves come in the night. Given that policing must be concentrated where people are to be found in the largest numbers, in recent times there has not been much relief for that anxiety. Therefore, I believe that we need to be extremely careful.
Again, with regard to night access, in the 1960s and early 1970s I spent a good deal of time on a detailed study of badgers, for which I was able to make use of night access. I was extremely annoyed by the fact that that access was taken away when the last administration sold off all the Forestry Commission's plantations in South Yorkshire without making public access available. Therefore, sometimes I believe that excitement on the other side of the House about public access is a little excessive. However, the fact remains that night access in close proximity to urban areas can generate a great deal of anxiety.
We need to ensure that resources for policing are improved so that from time to time the required sanctions can be put in place. In my view, for example, for those who use off-the-road vehicles which are unlicensed and uninsured, or for those who allow children aged 12 and 13, as sometimes happens, to use such vehicles or, often, two-wheeled vehicles without even having equipped them with a safety helmet, the only sensible sanction is the confiscation of that vehicle. For those who use airguns and firearms without permission, the only conceivable sensible sanction is the confiscation and perhaps the destruction of the weapon.
I was particularly annoyed when last year a young man, who tried to shoot birds on the lake by my home, was prosecuted for a different offence with that particular weapon and the court then returned the airgun to him. Fortunately, one of his neighbours gave more suitable advice about what he would do with the airgun if he saw him with it again. I do not believe that anyone has since seen the young man with that weapon. We need to recognise that if we open the door of opportunity to responsibility, we open it also to the irresponsible. I believe that we should consider that aspect of the matter.
I recognise also that other serious problems exist. Fifty years ago, a visit to the Peak District from my area was a family exercise, probably undertaken by public transport and probably planned a week or two in advance. In the same area today, if it is a fine day people simply get into their cars on a happy whim and go. Unfortunately, when they return, in many cases they will probably have left behind their litter. Over the past 20 months I have spent each weekend collecting one large sack of waste and litter around the lake near 698 my home. I tried to work out how many thousands of pieces of litter that would amount to. However, after last weekend I decided that the best thing was not to pick up the litter. The height of the litter will rise to the point where access to the lake is denied to those who otherwise would continue to bring even more litter to raise the height of the mountain.
The litter legislation in this country is absurd. There is a law, but it is scarcely enforced. Basically, it is ridiculous and provides no deterrent or discouragement. I hope that before long Her Majesty's Government will recognise that improving access and extending opportunity may greatly increase a problem that already exists and, in many parts of the country, is becoming increasingly serious.
I believe that I have spoken long enough. I am sure that none of us wish to continue beyond midnight. However, during the Committee and Report stages of the Bill we shall have many interesting debates. I hope that the many virtuous parts of the Bill will still be there at the end of our debates and that the improvements, which I believe are desirable, will be embodied in it as well.
§ 7.36 p.m.
§ Lord Kimball
My Lords, I declare an interest as the deputy president of the Countryside Alliance. The alliance's approach to the Bill has been stated quite clearly: the livelihoods of people who live and work in the countryside must come first. For some 40 years I had the privilege of being responsible for a large part of the flow country, known on the old original maps as my noble friend "Lord Reay's green table". I always considered that to be a rather charming description on the Ordnance Survey maps. The green table of My noble friend Lord Reay contained a considerable number of SSSIs over a considerable acreage. It taught me from a very early stage just how fragile is the balance of nature.
Like my noble friend Lord Selborne, I shall not dwell on the other parts of the Bill. We all know that Part II increases the burdens and problems for farmers who are hanging on by their fingertips in the worst crisis in living memory to hit British agriculture. The legislation will have significant costs: statutory costs, funds for mapping, administration and new SSSI notification. Non-statutory costs, which will fall on the agricultural and land-owning management community, include wardening access and occupier's liability. I cannot describe what it did to my estate insurance policy when a fisherman went across a swing bridge, slipped off it, lost his false teeth, his fishing rod and his camera and then claimed on the policy. It made the following year's premium extremely expensive. I am also concerned about the fact that, with the passing of the Bill, people will believe that open access is in place and will not wait for the completion of the mapping.
In the time available, I should like to turn to Part III of the Bill, which I regard as one of the most difficult, concerning the tightening of the protection of wildlife sites. Those areas are often unique because of the past 699 practice of existing landowners and land managers. Imposed on that existing system will be a view by English Nature, which becomes judge and jury in deciding what is right for the future. Regulators can prevent, but without the owner's contribution they cannot conserve and enhance. That imbalance must be corrected during the passage of the Bill.
The Bill will place a statutory duty on land managers to protect SSSIs. That must be balanced by the appropriate level of practical support and advice. I am concerned that the only form of payment given for the better management of SSSIs will be a management agreement. I am sorry that the Government are proposing no longer to pay for profit foregone. I hope that they will think again.
Take the case of mature timber, which one is asked not to fell, because of the damage that would be done to all the botanical interest on the floor of the wood. Surely it would be right to pay for profit forgone in that case, particularly as timber matures and passes its sell-by date.
I am very unhappy about the extension of powers of compulsory purchase and powers to refuse consent for potentially harmful operations adjacent to an SSSI. My noble friend Lord Selborne talked about taking SSSIs in isolation. We have to look after the whole environment. I was very concerned about the report in the Sunday Telegraph on 5th March about Mr Tebbit, a farmer on the west Wales coast, who was not allowed to carry out any farming operations adjacent to an SSSI.
I have said how fragile many SSSIs are, particularly on the moors and in the flow country. The Bill will create a right of access to those SSSIs. Biodiversity is an awful word, but it means the full range of animals, birds and plants in an area. I well remember how the full range of animals, birds and plants flourished when access was restricted. I do not mean legally restricted. Access used to be restricted by bad roads, dicey motor cars and the difficulty of getting to such places. That was an effective way of looking after an area.
Biodiversity was also helped when predators were properly managed—foxes, feral cats, crows and, let us be honest, badgers, which are among the worst enemies of ground-nesting birds. They are omnivorous and love gobbling up eggs. We have to face up to the explosion of the badger population.
The restriction on predation management was not the only factor that caused trouble. The arrival of visitors brought disturbance to vulnerable sites and really began to cause trouble. The egg thieves were wonderful. They all had hire cars from the local hire place and stuck the necessary RSPB sticker on the back window, with probably a National Trust sticker as well and something about saving the whale. They then proceeded to clear up the local eggs.
Next on the scale of harm was that done by the arrival of the belligerent RSPB. Let us look at some of the harm clone by that organisation in valuable areas. Nature has decreed that black throated divers, which live to the age of seven or eight, probably succeed only one year in five in hatching their nest. They nest on a 700 flat green island. Their main problem is crows, which tend to get the nest unless someone gets to the crows first. There might be storms which increase the level of the water, resulting in the eggs getting flooded and frozen off. Or the egg thieves might have a go. The RSPB has increased the number of black throated divers to well over what the local conditions will support. There was a natural limitation and it was wrong to increase the number artificially by inserting floating islands on which they could nest.
I do not understand why the RSPB is allowed to translocate the goshawk into Kielder Forest. In one case it was particularly dishonestly done, with goshawk eggs put in a sparrowhawk's nest. What is the main food of the goshawk?
§ Baroness Young of Old Scone
My Lords, I should declare another interest, as vice-president of the RSPB. I categorically assure the noble Lord, Lord Kimball, that the RSPB has never translocated goshawks and would never think of doing so. Goshawks are super birds that translocate themselves rather well.
§ Lord Kimball
Goshawks certainly hatched in a sparrowhawk's nest in Kielder Forest, which is in the middle of a red alert area for the re-establishment of red squirrels. Any older bird book, although it might not be politically correct, will say that the main food of the goshawk is squirrels.
What about the translocation of the white tailed sea eagle, or the translocation of the red kite to the Midlands, where the species has never lived? Having carried out all that translocation, I do not understand why the RSPB does not agree to our translocation of the hen harrier from areas where our research has categorically proved that damage is being done.
I am concerned about the high penalties in Part III. Without some compromise, particularly on avian predation densities, we shall get into a difficult situation. A good working relationship was building up between English Nature, the moorland keepers and local people. I hope that it was not the arrival of the vice-president of the RSPB as chairman of English Nature that set back that progressive and fruitful relationship.
I am concerned about the draconian powers in Schedule 11. If they are not sensitively applied, we will end up with a difficult relationship in those fragile areas.
The one thing that I welcome in Part III is the creation of statutory area of outstanding natural beauty conservation boards. After the problems that my noble friend Lord Renton of Mount Harry has had on the South Downs, rather than making a new national park, it might be sensible to make a big AONB conservation board covering the whole of the South Downs. I shall certainly examine any AONB proposals against the interests of those who live and work there.
§ 7.46 p.m.
§ Baroness Masham of Ilton
My Lords, I add my congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Brittan of Spennithorne, on his excellent maiden speech. He will be a most valuable Member of your Lordships' House.
I must declare an interest, as my husband owns and runs some grouse moors and I farm in Yorkshire. Many people who live and work in the countryside are concerned about the problems that may arise from the Bill. I hope that your Lordships will be able to improve the Bill, which gives the impression that the owners or occupiers of land may be liable for other people's accidents just because they happen to take place on their land. That cannot be just. If a member of the public climbs over a stone wall and it collapses and they damage themselves, whose fault will it be? If a member of the public sees a bit of farm machinery in a field and climbs on it and gets spiked, who will be at fault? When mapping is being considered, I hope that the owners or occupiers of the land will be involved.
The countryside is full of hazards. It should be respected, not taken for granted and thought of as a recreational outlet for those living in the towns. Law-abiding citizens who want to enjoy the many interesting aspects of nature that the countryside can give them will be welcomed by most people, but there are others who cause concern. How does the Minister think that they are best controlled.
I shall give a few examples. Until a few years ago, Masham, where I live, always had a resident policeman who knew the area and the people. In the past few years, the police system has been changed. If the police are needed, they may not even know the area. A few miles from Masham, on the estate, is a realistic copy of a druid temple, with all the stones, including the sacrificial stone, in the correct positions. One Sunday afternoon, my secretary was going for a walk with a friend when she found a pig's head sitting on the altar, which gave her a terrific shock. It is thought that there has been devil worship there.
On another occasion, I had to leave home early one morning. Just outside Masham, I found a small group of Leeds University students who had spent the night at the druids temple. They were cold and frightened. With the night shadows and the country noises, such as owls hooting, they had fled. As I was going towards Leeds, I gave them a lift. They told me that they had had a terrible experience.
Increasing access to the countryside at night may give rise to many problems in isolated areas, such as the fear of crime, if not the real thing.
Another incident at the druid temple was a large gathering of people from Manchester who took over the place for the whole night in order to have a rave. They tore gates off their hinges and broke down trees to make a huge bonfire. The police were called and with the gamekeepers, could only watch at a distance. It was only after a fight had taken place within the group and one of the people had been taken to hospital with severe injuries that the rave subsided. When my nephew visited the site the next day to inspect the damage, he found half-burnt probation orders and 702 such discarded documents. The Bill suggests that occupiers of land should challenge people who may be causing damage. In some circumstances, the people may be very difficult and sometimes dangerous. Is it wise, in such circumstances, to challenge them?
I should be grateful if the Minister would tell the House how he sees the wardening system working. Will wardens be available on bank holidays and at weekends? To whom will they be responsible? I have had two Texel ram lambs gored and killed by two roaming red setters, which also killed six of my sister-in-law's sheep. Will wardens be able to help control dogs?
Having been on a recent visit to Devon, I saw a designated field for dogs to go with their owners and have a run. Why cannot some of the fields which are "set aside" be used for that purpose?
It is of great concern to farmers when dogs run amok among sheep, especially before and at lambing time. The National Farmers Union believes that a period of 28 days per annum in which occupiers would have the discretion, subject to notification to the relevant authority, to exclude land would not be adequate to reflect the wide variety of needs of land managers. The non-availability of the discretion for weekends and bank holidays means that many sheep farmers must apply for exclusions to cover lambing periods. How can we expect sheep not to be stressed if they see strangers with dogs roaming around them at weekends and bank holidays? Has that part of the Bill been drafted by someone sitting in an office who has never watched the lambing season at first hand?
I was born and bred in the north of Scotland. We had moorland. The red grouse is unique to some parts of the UK. Our grouse deteriorated during the last war when the Army undertook many manoeuvres with tanks on the moors and the land was not properly keepered. Then forests were planted and as grouse eat young heather shoots, that was another problem for them. Fences were erected to keep the deer from damaging the forests and the grouse flew into the fences, which killed many of them.
The red grouse has a unique flavour and it is a great delicacy for many people. I wonder whether the Minister has eaten a grouse. If not, I should be glad to bring him one, so that he could discover the difference in its flavour from that of any other bird. Many people fear that this Bill will damage the grouse in England if people trample over the nests at nesting time, squash the eggs and chicks and disturb the hen grouse.
Many people derive their livelihood from moorland husbandry. Foreign visitors bring money to the rural areas. People's ways of life need protecting. Many feel that this Bill threatens the countryside and that more protection and help is needed. I hope that the Minister will be willing to listen and to help sort out some of the anxieties in the Bill.
Many other countryside issues need to be addressed; for example, access for disabled people. Due to motor bicycles causing problems, the access for wheelchairs was blocked at an interesting place for picnics on our estate, much to my consternation.
703 Another concern I have is the crippling rates which local authorities put on riding establishments in the countryside. People coming into the countryside need and want things to do. It is destructive of local authorities not to help with those facilities. Instead, they cause them to close down. Because of that, I have little faith that local authorities will try to help those who are trying to give services to people visiting and living in the countryside. I hope that the Minister and the House will do something to rectify those concerns.
§ 7.56 p.m.
§ Lord Buxton of Alsa
My Lords, I shall not say everything that I was going to say because it has already been said and said very eloquently. I want to talk about custodial sentences.
First, perhaps I may say that I am not against organised access and have organised it very successfully at home, where I have wetlands and marshes in a reserve. I have an informal relationship with English Nature, which is nearby, and that has worked very well.
All that is voluntary and it is working extremely well. Visitors tend to act as wardens themselves. They keep in touch; they talk; and they thoroughly enjoy it. I hope that I shall not live to regret all the permissive paths which have been granted. People think that they have rights. My noble friend Lord Ferrers referred to an incident which occurred a year or so ago. But last month, one of the ramblers on the permissive path rang me during lunch and said that two people were walking straight through the avocet colony. It turned out to be two charming schoolgirls, aged about 16. They said, "Mum said we can go anywhere we like now". I want to make sure that the Minister has taken that on board because I believe that we shall be faced with an absolute tidal wave. Even though we are well organised, I do not know how we shall handle it.
However, I want to speak about custodial sentences. Therefore, I must concentrate on birds of prey. There are 15 species of raptors, or birds of prey, in this country. Of those, 14 are listed in various publications as doing well or with splendid prospects. The prospects of the kite are described as "brilliant" by Chris Mead at the British Trust for Ornithology. He is the leading authority. According to him and the trust, we can apparently expect to be overwhelmed before long by buzzards, marsh harriers and by record numbers of peregrines. In about 20 years' time in this country there may be 400 pairs of osprey. That is official.
The present overall increase in birds of prey since we got rid of pesticides and chemicals is about 200 per cent. The Government and conservation authorities need to consider what will happen when the overall increase is about 400 per cent. I may not be here myself, but some noble Lords will be. Perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, will consider holding a conference on the subject as serious consideration should be given to it. As far as predators are concerned, we must be virtually the only country in the world where the "sky's the limit". The conservation 704 authorities, including the RSPB—I am unsure about the position of English Nature—flatly refuse to discuss or consider the long term.
The hen harrier, one of the 15 birds of prey species, is the only one about which there is a problem of numbers. They do well on keepered grouse moors, because they eat grouse. In bad grouse years, when they are short of prey, the numbers of harriers fall. The bird zealots blame the keepers, but henceforth they should be more objective in their conclusions as there is plenty of evidence. There are practically no hen harriers nesting on unkeepered moors and uplands—although they are ideal sites—because there are foxes, stoats and people roaming about. Hen harriers have disappeared from areas such as Exmoor because there are no keepers and there is intrusion.
Under this Bill, unrestricted access in remote areas may well eliminate hen harriers altogether. It will be no good blaming landowners and keepers. It will be the sole responsibility of the Government and their advisers, whoever they may be. The irony is that having failed to look after birds like harriers on open, unkeepered land, the snoopers and sneakers, who are encouraged to go around looking for trouble, now concentrate on private keepered land simply because the birds are there.
If birds of prey are doing well—some very well—what on earth is the purpose of threatening citizens with prison when heavy fines are already in place? Surely it will be seen as proof that this Government are yet again going backwards. In the Middle Ages a peasant may have been put in the stocks or even exiled for killing birds, but in the 21st century, in the new millennium, a Government that hope to unite the nation, is to resort to medieval practices and ancient class warfare and they propose to send a young man to prison for killing a bird.
Let us consider a circumstance. A keeper lives, of necessity, in an isolated place with no protection with a young wife and probably children. The children have to travel to school and the wife has to shop so the house is left untended. This Bill proposes to remove that man after he has committed an offence and leave a young family defenceless at the mercy of robbers, rapists, travellers and so on, in a situation where even if the wife and children scream their heads off nobody will hear. In most cases they would be more isolated than Mr Martin, the farmer in the Fens.
That situation applies to every keeper and warden, not only on mountain and moorland, but everywhere in the British countryside, in woods, fields and farmland. In my view, Members of both Houses of Parliament, of all parties, may have blood on their hands if they heartlessly vote for imprisoning young family men for killing a bird. That sort of tyranny can soon spread to other creatures because a Minister can easily extend the list without coming back to Parliament. We may find that something like a mole or a field mouse is added, and one of your Lordships is in trouble for running it over.
Nobody is more fervent than I am about birds, as instanced by my own reserve. It is just as good as most SSSIs. We disapprove of people breaking the law, but 705 a civilised way of dealing with such offences is fines, heavy only when appropriate, and perhaps when an offence is repeated. The publicity and embarrassment will do the rest.
The most important factors are education, persuasion and good PR, not savage punishment. Apart from the timing being wrong, one may seriously wonder whether the Prime Minister picked up this idea from Mr Putin or the Chinese president.
One great thing about the last century of conservation, in which I was involved for over 50 years, was that the fathers of conservation inspired the nation: Huxley, Max Nicholson, Peter Scott and so on. The exciting new movement for the conservation of wildlife of the last century became a bandwagon. There was complete harmony and a national surge of support.
Long ago, the noble Lord, Lord Callaghan, for whom I have always had a warm regard, gave a lunch for me at No. 11 at which all the mandarins were assembled and subjected to a lecture on conservation. He was the first Cabinet Minister of any party to give such a lead. The noble Baroness the Leader of the House is not present this evening, but if she had been I would have suggested that she should emulate some of the activities of her father.
To everyone's distress, wildlife conservation has now become unpopular with many people in the countryside, the very people who matter most of all to birds and wildlife. Threatening to put people in prison will severely worsen the feeling. The ultimate error, therefore, will now occur if the Government are imprudent enough to send people to prison for conservation offences. There will be no end to this process once it starts. I trust that the Minister will persuade the Government to withdraw this divisive and savage part of the Bill before Committee stage.
Such custodial sentences could give rise to serious injustices in court, of which, within the past month, there has been proof. A keeper in north Norfolk was found guilty in connection with poisons for foxes, but which killed kestrels. That was a serious offence and he was fined. There is no argument about that. However, the prosecuting officer implied to the court that kestrels were an endangered species and that there were,only 50,000 pairs left in the whole country".That was an unpardonable distortion, evidently concocted to influence the magistrate. Birds of prey are territorial species which fiercely protect their own hunting grounds and 50,000 pairs is a substantial threshold.
Mr Crampton, the prosecuting officer, went on to say,this crime came against the context of the current decline of kestrels in the UK".Perhaps he did not know that recent evidence published by the Government's own UK raptor working party states that kestrels are common but that a recent small decrease is due entirely to the decline of prey species such as shrews and voles.
706 It is now clear that if some bird-of-prey zealots come before the courts, the prosecution can be wrongly briefed and facts may be distorted and fabricated to secure a custodial sentence. I cannot believe that the Government could possibly want to blemish further their cold relations with country people by introducing custodial sentences into a harmonious, non-party, universally popular cause. I ask the Minister to take on board what I have said.
§ 8.7 p.m.
§ Baroness Gale
My Lords, as a member of the Ramblers' Association and as someone who enjoys walking on the mountains and in the countryside, I greatly welcome this Bill. I speak in support of the Bill, particularly in relation to Part I on access to the countryside.
The popularity of walking has never been greater, with more people engaged in that activity than ever before. The majority of people in this country support the Government in their aim to open up the countryside. In an opinion poll carried out in August 1998, 85 per cent of those surveyed supported a statutory freedom to roam over mountains, moors, heath and down and common land.
The benefit to the rural economy is illustrated in a report by Professor Peter Midmore of the University of Wales, Aberystwyth, published in March of this year, entitled The Economic Value of Walking in Rural Wales. He has estimated that £132 million is spent on walking activities in Wales, generating 4,800 jobs. The report also suggests that walking is still under-exploited as a means of regenerating Wales's rural economy. It suggests that better access to rural amenities, through the proposals in the Bill for a legal freedom to roam and through greater efforts to improve Wales's rights-of-way network, could lead to higher income and new Welsh jobs.
There is evidence to show that more tourists would be attracted to rural areas if there were greater access to the countryside. A national opinion poll commissioned by the Ramblers' Association showed that 40 per cent of British people would be more likely to consider visiting Wales once a freedom to roam Act is in place. Further surveys found that 35 per cent of Americans and 55 per cent of Germans said that they would be more likely to visit Wales if freedom to roam existed.
Last year 10 million Britons visited Wales, each spending around £30 a night, according to the Welsh Tourist Board. The potential huge increase in visitors to Wales from other parts of Britain and abroad would lead to a much needed boost to the rural economy and provide more jobs in the area.
Access to the countryside is of great value not just for the boost to the economy, as I illustrated, but also in terms of people's health. All the experts regard walking as the best possible exercise. This policy on access has a major benefit to health because it will promote walking in the open countryside by granting a legal freedom to roam. More people of all ages could be encouraged to walk, including children. As a result we will become a healthier nation.
707 But this right of access to the countryside should not be limited to the daytime. Many in the Chamber today spoke of night access in a detrimental way. The noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Conwy—he is not in his place at the moment—spoke of what he thought might happen in Wales. He spoke of a Wales with which I am not familiar when he talked of drug parties on the mountains and bonfires on the hillsides. It may be because the noble Lord lives in North Wales and I live in South Wales; that may be the difference.
Night access is supported by many organisations, including the Scout Association, the Girl Guides Association, the Long Distance Walkers Association and a number of organisations associated with mountain climbing, as well as the Ramblers' Association. I was pleased to note that the Minister for the Environment, Michael Meacher, said in another place that,If there is a legitimate reason to restrict night-time access, that can be dealt with through, for example, local restrictions on access or even byelaws. The Bill provides the flexibility to deal with genuine problems that may arise locally without the need for a blanket ban … on all access land … For all those reasons, I am not inclined to accept restrictions on night access".I applaud his view and hope that it will remain the view of the Government.
In conclusion, this Bill is welcomed by the majority of people, fulfilling the Labour Party's manifesto commitment to allow people much greater access to the countryside, bringing to a conclusion a campaign that began over 100 years ago when James Bryce introduced the first Access to Mountains Bill in 1884.
§ 8.13 p.m.
§ The Duke of Montrose
My Lords, I speak of course, in the first instance, as a farmer and a landowner from a mainly mountain and moorland area. I hope your Lordships will be forbearing of another Scot taking the Floor. This is not an extension of the West Lothian question. But the Scottish Bill on this subject has yet to come before the Scottish Parliament and, naturally enough, Scottish Natural Heritage is taking a great interest in the outcome of this Bill in your Lordships' House. I feel therefore that any contributions we can make have some relevance both North of the Border and down here.
I feel that in the Countryside and Rights of Way Bill as it stands, the Government are effectively dismissing the present guardians of the countryside, be they farmers, foresters, gamekeepers or simply countryside dwellers, from that role. No one will risk the stream of abuse they will receive by going up to 10 or 20 different people and saying, "Show me what that lump in your jacket or knapsack is", with the hope of catching somebody with ill intent.
I should like to pick up the arguments used by the noble Lord, Lord Hardy of Wath. The security offered to many homes and situations through their remoteness from public rights of way will now be removed. In a town, much of the security that we have is because we are surrounded by a community who have the same interest in the peace and security of their homes as us. The idea that casual visitors have the 708 same interests as a remote countryside dweller and that they will be able to act effectively against criminals is rather fanciful. It will become easier to steal a car, break into a building or even mug someone in the country and get away with it than it is in the town. The miscreant will be unchallengeable in his rights until the moment he actually commits the crime. As a corollary to that, one of the costs of this Bill which will never be taken into account in the Government's calculation is the increased security in which every countryside dweller will have to invest.
But it is not just this Bill that is changing the situation. My noble friend Lord Kimball hinted at the other side; that is, the whole improvement to the road system and increased car ownership, which is broadly welcomed. But it has already affected the vulnerability of those in the countryside. The MFU Mutual Insurance Company, in its last report, spoke of a dramatic increase in rural crime and an estimated cost at the present time of £93 million per annum.
It is not so long since, in my home area which is a mere 24 miles from the centre of Glasgow, any vehicle or person seen in an unusual place would be noted, and if a vehicle, the number would be taken in case a crime was later discovered. Now that we have a long-distance footpath, which is basically a good thing, directing 100,000 people a year through the farm, it is a little harder to keep track of things
This Bill is just removing another substantial brick from the wall that has supported the viability of country life. I feel that the present structure is being replaced by theories, some even labelled as scientific, the proof of which lies many years in the future.
Clause 19 of the Bill gives a cursory nod towards the whole issue of the appointment of wardens. But it does not go anywhere near addressing the issues facing the countryside. The numbers and duties and the financial implications are all to fall on local authorities. When funds are to be provided, as the Bill suggests they may be, will they be ring-fenced? Local authorities have many pressures and there are no guarantees that there will be any wardens in the places where they are needed.
Wardens and rangers can be useful people. I know quite a few of them in the context of our local regional park. Appointed under this Bill their duties will be to look after the public, to enforce any by-laws and then take care of anything else that the local authority thinks appropriate. That is a completely different order of priorities from those whose powers have been diminished or, as I said before, effectively dismissed. Their order of priority had to be economic production and ecological management of the area, or a combination of both. The results of their efforts were generally regarded as pleasing to the public and were often readily available to them. We do not at this stage know what kind of a countryside the new arrangements will produce.
Wardens with the powers proposed in no way address the question that, if people and property in the countryside are to enjoy an adequate level of security, larger numbers of police or people with the full 709 authority of the law behind them will have to be appointed. Again, I felt that the noble Lord, Lord Hardy of Wath, was hinting towards that.
There is a fairly open commitment to finance contained in the Bill. But I should like to think that all those elements have been taken into account. In fact, my noble friend Lord Buxton mentioned Tony Martin and his rather "over-the-top" reaction to the situation. But it is an indication of the worries that may be going through the minds of many rural dwellers as they contemplate this legislation.
So much of the detail about a right of access in the Bill may look very good from a distant, urban perspective. But from the experiences I have had on the ground, many of them are anything but. As I mentioned, shortly after the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, I agreed to a major long distance footpath running through my farm, on a route where there was no previous access. I have welcomed this from the start, as the banks of Loch Lomond are something that the whole world should enjoy. I hope that this has taught those who use it something about the countryside in my area, but it has also taught me quite a lot about dealing with the public. In much the same way as I understand this Bill is envisaged, I receive no money from the exercise.
Paragraph 5 of Schedule 2 imposes a restriction, which will limit the right of access to anyone who has a dog that is not on a lead in the vicinity of livestock. This relates to one of my experiences and I should like to explain what happened. My long distance footpath runs through a large enclosure of rough ground where I summer a herd of hill cows with young calves at foot. Because of this, a notice at the boundary says, "No dogs, thank you". One summer day I walked up there to find a hot and breathless man running towards me clutching to his chest a large and terrified Labrador dog. He explained that he had just been in the middle of the enclosure when the cows began to chase the dog which had come running to his feet for protection. All the man could do was pick up the dog and run himself. I have a funny feeling that if anyone were hurt in these circumstances the authorities would not regard this as a naturally occurring hazard! However, as far as I understand it, everyone in this case was behaving perfectly naturally. Perhaps it would be wiser if those with dogs were constrained to avoid enclosures with unknown cattle.
I should like to support the way in which my noble friend Lord Brittan of Spennithorne so eloquently gave a perspective on the question of night-time access in his marvellous maiden speech. I am afraid that I am not quite in agreement with the noble Baroness, Lady Gale. Perhaps a little more open attitude on the part of some landowners is required, but I contend that night time access should be perfectly adequate as it is at present. If people like the noble Lord, Lord Hardy, want to go to watch badgers at night, is to too much to ask that they find out who the landowner is and let him know their interest? If, as the argument goes, these people have an intention of helping to deter criminal activity, they will need to know who the owner is 710 before any effective action can be taken. Perhaps this sort of information could be available from these, at present, hypothetical wardens.
If there is to be any move towards night time access, I feel that there should be some regulation on the question of spotlights. Some people will be bound to take this as an opportunity to go out with such equipment. Surely that would, in a way, defeat the original idea of people experiencing what it is like to be out in the dark. It might also lead them open to being charged with recklessly disturbing wild birds and animals under paragraph 1 of Schedule 10.
My noble friend Lady Byford, among other speakers, spoke about money being available for the management of land. I know that that is covered under the legislation for SSSIs, but it seemed to me as if it were being considered for a wider area under Part I of the Bill. Can the Minister tell me whether there is any such consideration and where it is likely to appear?
For the 1.2 million hectares that are classified as SSSI, this Bill certainly has a lot to offer. For birds of prey and a few species on the verge of extinction in the rest of the country it may mark an improvement. It may curtail the interference by human beings. But for the 1.2 million or 1.8 million hectares—depending on which bit you read in the accompanying notes—of mountain, moor, heath and down, it is no use pretending that it will improve the habitat for wildlife and it could cause a good deal of harm.
§ 8.23 p.m.
§ The Earl of Mar and Kellie
My Lords, I am a walker, a canoeist, a dinghy sailor and an estate owner. This Bill clearly does not apply in my native Scotland, but I feel that I ought to contribute to its Second Reading as many of the issues are relevant to my work as an estate worker, albeit in a different legal and philosophical framework. I acknowledge that legislation leading to a right of responsible access will be introduced into the Scottish Parliament in the near future.
I am involved with the management of a network of mainly woodland footpaths in the peri-urban setting of Lowland Clackmannanshire. I am also involved with a new wetland project—a managed retreat project—in conjunction with Clackmannanshire Heritage Trust, Scottish Natural Heritage and, it is to be hoped in the future, the RSPB.
Some of the estate's land is identified as a listed wildlife site by the Scottish Wildlife Trust. One of the national cycle route's link routes is about to be created through the estate, leading past Alloa Tower and on to Stirling. The context of this reform is, of course, at a time when the three rural primary producer industries—livestock, arable and forestry—are all flat on their backs economically.
I should like to focus on the issues surrounding the new right of access and the footpaths. I maintain a number of footpaths. Some are asserted rights of way, others are designated as "other footpaths" and some I have rediscovered and re-created from old Ordnance Survey maps, mainly from 1860. These paths and 711 tracks all aid the maintenance of the estate and the public are welcome to use them; that is, on the unwritten proviso that they leave only their footprints. Extra stiles have been provided, as well as small bridges.
The annual maintenance of this path infrastructure is acceptable in financial terms to the estate. By that, I mean the cutting of the grass and the removal of obstructions to walking; the pruning of both sides of the path; and the overhead pruning. The paths are mostly beaten earth and some become muddy in winter. All this is quite fair, given the privilege of land ownership. However, what is not fair is the litter and the damage. The damage comes in the form of, for example, fires, the cutting down of young trees, the erection of makeshift shelters and vandalism to stiles, walls, bridges and fences. Damage also comes from motorcyclists, who are, of course, invariably acting without insurance and, hence, acting both illegally and without permission. Motorcycles always damage beaten earth footpaths.
I should like to say a few words about the proposed horse riding access. For the beaten earth footpath horses pose two problems. Their hooves always disturb the footpath surface and it is very difficult for an estate worker on foot to carry out the necessary overhead pruning.
I turn to the issue of mapping and enforcement. In consequence of the many discussions on the ground, I hope that the new right of access will not be brought into force until the new access maps have been published. For the land manager, estate staff or wardens arguing the score, the published map and an accompanying new countryside code will be very helpful. Most people will want to comply and, it is to be hoped, these altercations, or perhaps I should call them "discussions", will be largely interpretative. Obviously, signage or way-marking will help, as will the provision of clear and definite paths.
I appreciate that the right of access is to all open country as designated, but most people will keep to the paths, if only for ease of walking and for safer navigation. Therefore, keeping the paths in continuous good order will certainly help to mitigate any resentment felt, or real fear, over the new right.
I have two further points to make. The first is that of insurance. Clearly, land managers will have increasing risk. What advice will the Government be giving to the public about insuring themselves? They will, after all, have the insurance status of trespassers. Presumably the Government will recommend new insurance cover.
Secondly, as a canoeist, I have to regret that any promises made earlier to open up access to non-tidal water have been dropped. I have to presume that this issue of access to water has thrown up much greater difficulties than originally envisaged. I hope that the Minister can explain why access to water has been excluded from the Bill.
To conclude, I support the general thrust of the Bill but I feel that land managers will have an increased burden.
§ 8.30 p.m.
§ The Earl of Arran
My Lords, if you are number 31 on the speakers' list you still try to persuade yourself that you are part of the quality. However, I am perfectly relaxed in admitting that I am probably part of the quantity at this hour of the night!
This is an historic Bill for a number of reasons. First, it represents a fundamental shift in our understanding of property rights. Secondly, it has the potential to impact significantly on the well-being of the countryside from a conservation perspective. In the West Country, where I live and where my wife farms and works—here I declare an interest in that she does all the work—we know from the experience of the national parks how important is the management of access and that an absence of effective management can be absolutely disastrous.
As we all know, this Bill is in three parts which concern the right to roam, rights of way and SSSIs. Properly managed, these three dimensions of the Bill are compatible. However, the irony of this legislation is that by virtue of Part I the Bill could end up destroying the very landscapes, habitats and species that the latter part of the legislation is designed to protect.
On the question of access, I draw your Lordships' attention to what this part of the Bill represents in terms of property rights. Until now a key element of ownership was a right to the free enjoyment of property. This principle applied equally to a town house with a small garden as to a large agricultural holding. The test was not the scale but the right in a free society to own property and to enjoy that property. What this Bill does is to mark out large areas of privately owned land and take away the right of control and enjoyment and give it to outside authorities and individuals. This, of course, may affect land use, its viability and ultimately, of course, its very value. The impression one gets is that if one is a landowner or farmer one has less right to the enjoyment of one's property than have others.
There is a general misconception that those who own land in rural Britain have deliberately excluded people for no good reason. The reality could not be more different. The experience of most groups wishing to conduct outdoor recreation on private land has been that an approach to the relevant landowners has resulted in a mutually agreeable settlement without any costs involved and with responsibilities being recognised. This approach has also ensured that land management and conservation considerations have been given adequate attention.
When we talk of the British countryside we are not talking about a wilderness; we are talking about a managed and working environment. The countryside is the source of people's livelihoods. Should we put recreation ahead of the well-being of rural communities? Whatever militant ramblers might say, the countryside is not a playground. To take away the rights of owners so that the small minority can have a right to roam is, I believe, a travesty of justice. The 713 fundamental problem with this legislation involves not the idea of improving access to rural Britain but the concept of a right.
I think it is fair to say that landowners recognise the desire on the part of many for greater public access to the countryside. However, land managers also know the costs involved and they will have to pick up the costs of increased access with little practical redress against those who abuse that right. How is access to be managed? I think that it will be managed with great difficulty. For, without adequate wardening, all restrictions and safeguards for land management and conservation will be in vain.
I draw your Lordships' attention to two areas that will need close examination. These are the questions of liability and access at night that so many noble Lords have already mentioned. Both of those questions could have grave implications for farmers in terms of legal costs and pest control. For example, in reducing occupiers' liability, the current definition of "natural feature" and "semi-natural feature" would not include walls and gates or other items reasonably associated with land management. This is surely an absolute absurdity. How can farmers remain liable for injuries arising from objects which are an intrinsic part of the countryside and of land management? Moreover, defining land on paper is one thing, identifying it on the ground is another.
Recently at the Countryside Live show at Syon House, organised by the Game Conservancy, one child looked at a Jersey calf and commented to the farmer owner, "That is a big dog". When increasing numbers of people are growing up in total ignorance of animals, farming and the countryside, and where their view of rural life is "Bambified", how are they to distinguish, for instance, intensively grazed land from that which is extensively grazed?
I believe that there is no justification for night-time access nor any legitimate reason for it. Indeed, I believe that there are severe misgivings on that matter on all sides of your Lordships' House.
The final point I wish to make on the access part of the Bill is that the right to roam does not respond to the genuine needs of people in this country. Landowners accept that ownership brings with it not just responsibilities and management care but also wider social responsibilities as guardians of the countryside on behalf of the nation and future generations. As such, most land is de facto open for walking already. Most land managers are sensitive and responsive to public needs. Only a few highly publicised cases have been manipulated to give the impression of obstreperous owners.
It is a mark of the success of that management that our island is so rich in areas of outstanding natural beauty and SSSIs. Over 60 per cent of our heather moorland is designated SSSI. To some it may be embarrassing or indeed politically incorrect, but it is an undoubted fact that country sports have helped to create and sustain the rich biodiversity of the moors and many of our most beautiful landscapes elsewhere.
714 In the interests of your Lordships' patience and time I shall pass straight over Part II. Part III of the Bill deals with SSSI protection and wildlife crime. Here the criminal sanctions must be proportionate and fair. It cannot be reasonable that a person exercising the new proposed right of access can do serious damage and receive a cursory punishment or be able to get away with such damage due to a failure of wardening and ability to trace an individual. We must look carefully at this part of the Bill.
On the one hand greater access is being given and on the other greater protection for SSSIs is being sought. These two aims may not always be compatible. We seem to live in an age of increasing coercion and attacks on the countryside. That point was made by my noble friend Lord Monro. Are we not in danger of losing that spirit of co-operation—which the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, said was so important—and negotiation that should characterise any relationship between a land manager or owner and someone wishing to use his land? Such a relationship allows for flexibility and takes into account the needs of recreation, conservation and management. I cannot overemphasise the need for less confrontation with people who live and work in the countryside than we have seen recently.
While I recognise the merits of greater access, I cannot wholeheartedly support the Bill in its current form. I trust that your Lordships will look at it carefully in order to ensure that the right balance is struck between the needs of rural communities and a desire for access on the part of others. The importance of this balance is essential in a free property owning society and people's livelihoods must never be put second to recreation. If we do not get this Bill right, those who seek this right of access could end up destroying the very thing they seek. This would be a profound tragedy which we must ensure does not happen for the sake of all those who live in England's green and pleasant land.
§ 8.40 p.m.
§ Baroness Nicol
My Lords, the noble Earl, Lord Arran, complained about being number 31 on the list; number 32 is even worse.
I propose to keep my remarks as short as possible. I welcome the Bill. Unlike many previous speakers, I believe that it will bring joy to many thousands of people who wish to walk peacefully in our beautiful areas of mountain, moorland and common land which are at this time closed to them. I note the anxiety expressed by some noble Lords. I believe that many of their fears are largely unfounded. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Gale, I find it impossible to reconcile some of the horror stories that we have heard—particularly from the other side of the House—with the realities of past experience. As the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, said, large areas of the countryside have been available to walkers for many years under the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949 and through the National Trust. Experience 715 shows that the vast majority of walkers who visit these areas behave sensibly and are as concerned as the landowners to protect the countryside they enjoy.
I came across an article in this summer's edition of the Timber Grower—which may not be required reading for some of your Lordships—and I should like to quote from it. A former chairman of the Timber Growers' Association, Mr Andrew Christie-Miller, writes of the difficulties which could arise from forest access. I am aware that the Bill does not affect forestry, but the comment which he makes is relevant. Having dealt with the potential difficulties of access, many of which we have heard rehearsed today, he goes on:How many of you who are giving widespread permissive access, predominantly for the benefit of local people, find they very soon adopt your woods as their own? This doesn't mean they wander everywhere but they do tend to treat it as a privilege and with great respect. What's more, if they see something amiss (litter, vandalism, etc) they very soon are in touch".This comment from someone who does not basically approve of public access is surely worth noting. It supports the view of many of us that the presence of responsible walkers, who care for the facility they are enjoying, will help to ensure that those who misbehave will be identified and dealt with.
Concerns have been expressed on all sides about night access. I understand some of the anxieties—I am sure that we will explore them thoroughly at Committee stage—but, again, where there is existing experience of night access it shows that many of these fears are unfounded. I agree with the suggestion of the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, and my noble friend Lord Dubs, that local by-laws should be used to suit local conditions. This is well worth considering because one cannot apply exactly the same rules up and down the country to entirely different pieces of countryside. A lot will depend, too, on who lives next door.
Several noble Lords want an extension of the closure period. The noble Baroness, Lady Byford, was very strong on that. I suspect that that is right—I hope that we shall talk more about it in Committee—and 40 days seems to me to be quite reasonable.
The problem of dogs is much more difficult. I understand the potential for disturbance to stock and to wildlife. We shall have to explore the issue in Committee. My own feeling is that dogs and wildlife simply do not mix under any conditions. But I understand that for many people their dog is a part of the family and that an outing without it is not complete. Somehow we shall have to find a way to reconcile those two points of view.
Part II of the Bill deals with rights of way and other paths and seems to be causing some anxiety among the non-governmental organisations. The British Horse Society, the ramblers, the Open Spaces Society, the National Federation of Bridleway Associations, the RSPB, and others have expressed concerns which we shall need to examine. I especially welcome Schedule 7, which controls off-road driving of motor vehicles. I cannot believe that any noble Lord will object to that provision.
716 Part III, which covers nature conservation and wildlife, is particularly welcome to me. I think that, by and large, it has been welcomed throughout the debate. I agree particularly with the comments of the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, and my noble friend Lady Young. The shortcomings of the 1981 Act became obvious soon after its introduction. I entered the House at the very beginning of 1983 when it had not settled down. Since then we have made many attempts, some successful, to amend the Act, but it still remains inadequate. The provisions of Part III of the Bill are very welcome.
I am disappointed that we have not succeeded in including a section on marine protection. The same happened during the passage of the 1981 Act when the marine nature reserves were tacked on as an afterthought. I am not suggesting that we repeat that now—it is a subject which will need careful consideration—but I hope that we tackle marine problems before too long.
This is a good Bill as it stands. It is a balance between the desire of all of us who wish to enjoy the countryside and the need to preserve our natural heritage. It is so much more than we had dared to hope for just a few years ago. I support my noble friend Lady Young in her plea. It would be a tragedy if those who basically approve of the Bill with its existing provisions were to cause it to fail by their pursuit of what they consider to be perfection. I urge all who have welcomed the Bill to try to ensure a swift passage for it.
§ 8.46 p.m.
§ Lord Burnham
My Lords, my noble friend Lady Trumpington complained that the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, had shot her fox. The "fox" now looks like one of the dubious photographs published by the RSPCA. Nevertheless, I intend to stick to the one point that I wish to make—your Lordships have covered much of what is included in the Bill—and that concerns the issue of training grounds for racehorses.
It is a major problem in Middleham in the former constituency of the noble Lord, Lord Britian; large numbers of horses are exercised there daily on the high moor and the low moor. In Lambourn, there are large areas of privately-owned gallops which have footpaths all over them—designated tracks which those involved with the horses would not wish people to leave. It may be said that in Lambourn the worst problem at the moment is the didicois and their lurchers, who inhabit the downland and the Ridgeway and make an enormous nuisance of themselves.
In Epsom, which both my noble friend and the noble Lord seemed to say was no longer an important training area, the ground is covered, as my noble friend said, by the Epsom and Walton Downs Regulation Act 1984, which sets out perfectly the situation between those who wish to take recreation or activity on the downs and those who are training horses there. Can the noble Lord confirm whether or not this Bill will nullify the terms of the 1984 Act? If one looks at the back of the Bill, one sees the older Acts which are in any way affected by it, and the Epsom and Walton 717 Downs Regulation Act is not included. I hope that the noble Lord will be able to give me some information about the relationship between this Bill and that Act.
As my noble friend said, Newmarket is the largest area for training. It has 2,800 acres of training grounds and employs 25 men to ensure safety. I have no doubt whatever that health and safety officers would have strong views about letting people loose on the gallops when horses are being trained because, as has been said, approximately five people are thrown every day. Half a tonne of panicking racehorse galloping, as it will if it is not caught, for its own stable is likely to cause considerable damage to anyone going for a walk with his dog.
Malton is another main area but there are smaller training establishments and smaller gallops in other areas. It would be extremely dangerous for the public to be allowed on those grounds when horses are being exercised.
At present, particularly in Epsom and Newmarket, there is a satisfactory situation whereby pedestrians and dogs are allowed on the training ground after midday when the exercising of horses has finished. That works extremely well. The local people know the form and the situation is not abused. But if the Bill is enacted and the arrogant militants of the Ramblers' Association go wandering all over these training grounds at all times, someone will be hurt. I do not know whether it will be the rambler, the rider or the horse, but it will be a most unsatisfactory situation. Therefore, it is important that there should be no dogs on these training grounds. It is even more important that there should be a method of ensuring that no bottles or tins are left on the training grounds. A bottle can cut a tendon and write off a racehorse for life.
A further point is the texture of the gallops and the danger of people always walking in the same place. The gallopsmen work very hard to ensure that there is permanently a good texture for horses to work on. However, if people are allowed to walk all over the ground, that will not be easy to achieve.
Paragraph 6 of Part I of Schedule 6 refers to:Land used for the purposes of a golf course, racecourse or aerodrome"."Aerodrome" is a wonderfully old-fashioned word. I do not know where the parliamentary draftsman found that one! We should like the exception to include land for the training of racehorses. I do not intend to move an amendment to that end in Committee but I hope that the Minister will study the matter and realise that without such an exception there will be a serious situation. Perhaps local access forums could be set up under the aegis of the Countryside Agency—such forums should include an industry representative—in order to achieve the relative balance between the different interests in this matter. I hope the Minister will be able to give the House some assurance that when we come to the next stage of the Bill the Government will be able to achieve a short and simple wording which will enable this problem to be solved.
§ 8.55 p.m.
§ Lord Bridges
My Lords, at this stage of the proceedings I must be rigorously selective. Instead of walking through the three separate parts of the Bill, I shall concentrate on two quite separate aspects: first, those which I think are praiseworthy, and, secondly, those parts which I suggest may require some further attention.
My background is as someone who lives in a village in an AONB. I am an active member of the National Trust and of the county branch of the CPRE. I am also a vice-president of the National Parks Council. Although I am descended from families which have in the past owned and cultivated land in Thanet and Yorkshire, I myself have never owned land and do not own any now. I do not shoot, except perhaps when required in uniform in wartime.
To take the positive part first, I give a very warm welcome to the undertaking by the Minister in another place, Mr Michael Meacher, that an amendment will be moved here in Committee to give greater protection to the AONBs in the land planning system. The reply given by the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, to the noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry, at the opening of this debate was also excellent news. I believe that to be absolutely essential. Although the terms of Policy Planning Guidance No. 7, which is now in force, state that the AONBs should be protected from major development unless it can be shown to be essential in the national interest and in the absence of an alternative site, experience has shown that some local planning authorities pay scant regard to its terms. The noble Lord, Lord Whitty, may recall that I have mentioned this point before in a debate to which he replied.
I now have another current example. Following the auction of large parts of the audio spectrum to mobile telephone companies, in the Heritage Coast AONB where I live these companies have been falling over each other in their haste to obtain planning approval for tall radio masts, believing that the company with the strongest signal will gain the most subscribers. The planning authorities did not at first feel inclined to question these intrusive structures in sensitive places. It fell to environmental groups, like those to which I belong, to point out that there could be alternative sites in less sensitive places which should be shared between the companies, and that the technical claims made by the companies ought to be examined by some independent expert. That is an uphill struggle. But thanks to the efforts of the parish council and the CPRE, the planners have now been persuaded to refuse these applications until alternative sites have been investigated. That intervention should not have been necessary. I believe that Policy Planning Guidance No. 8 regarding radio masts is in the process of revision. That will be timely. But sparsely populated AONBs are particularly vulnerable to this form of pressure.
It is absolutely vital that this protection should be given to the ANOBs. Furthermore, they should have more resources than they now enjoy. The Suffolk coast 719 and heaths AONB simply does not receive enough funds from the county to do its job properly. I hope that the DETR will be able to find fresh resources to match its new responsibilities and might verify the arrival of the funds at their destination.
Another welcome change is the proposed improvements to rights of way. Reclassification of RUPPs as restricted by-ways, confining their use to walkers, cyclists and horse-drawn vehicles, is most welcome. I join others in resisting any weakening of this line. However, I hope that cyclists will be explicitly limited to the pedal variety, so excluding the noisy motorbike which has no place on such by-ways. There must also be exclusion of so-called four-wheel drive recreational vehicles. As I read the Bill, I believe that that is the intention of the Government. I shall support them in sticking to this line. The new version of BOATs should also be an improvement.
Perhaps I may speak a little further on footpaths. Over the past 40 years I have walked a good deal in England and Wales as well as in mountains and uplands in Europe and America. My experience has been that the access normally enjoyed by our citizens through the footpath system is generally superior to that available in most other European countries, where the law relating to the protection of game may be used as a barrier to public access. I am thus distinctly dubious about the claims to the contrary from Peter Scott Associates and others, who have sent briefing material to several noble Lords. The only exception might be areas of high mountain terrain in Europe where good mapped footpaths and generally free access are often to be found. That was certainly my experience as a member of the Austrian and German Alpine Club.
However, in general, I would assert that our footpaths are a national asset of no small importance. What we need to do is to improve and extend the network. I applaud the Bill's intention to facilitate this. Local authorities are best placed to do it, but often they are not well equipped for an expanded role. They need more staff, who in turn require encouragement to press ahead with extensions to the network where these will lead to the greater enjoyment by the public in an innocent recreational activity. They should also be more active in the opening of existing rights of way which cannot now be used for a variety of reasons.
My welcome on these points is wholehearted and without reservation. But I should like to indicate a number of points on which I foresee certain problems. First, I turn to the general proposal to designate large tracts of land as "open country" and to have these officially recorded on a map. "Cultivated land" is to be excluded. I know that the National Farmers Union and some others have objected to this. Certainly the converse is incorrect: one cannot say that "uncultivated land" and "open countryside" are synonymous. What, for example, would be the status of set-aside land? Would it be regarded as "temporarily uncultivated"? How would such land be classified?
720 A common case is found among those owners of open countryside moorland who may also own land in the valley bottoms where they graze stock in winter. Such terrain may be cultivated in the sense that it is fertilised, harrowed, drained or put up for hay in summer. I suggest that this definition is quite crucial and will need more thought. If it is to be adopted, it may require a good deal of refinement.
My next concern relates to mapping. This is crucial to the success of the Bill and will fall to the Countryside Agency to administer. The operation will require very careful surveys and even more careful assessment if public confidence is to be won and maintained. It will be a difficult undertaking and I hope that those entrusted with the task will be most thoughtfully selected and meticulously briefed. It is not a job only for professional cartographers, although their skills will certainly be needed. I suggest that those appointed to this role should not as a rule include professional campaigners or those already strongly committed to or ranged against these proposals. Rather they should be people with a knowledge and love of the countryside who also appreciate the pleasure of walking in it while respecting the rights of those who live and work in it. I know that such people do exist. If they can be located and employed on the work, the chances of success for the whole operation will be greatly improved.
Much discussion has surrounded the difficult issue of night-time access. I, too, have found it hard to come to a conclusion on the matter. Opinions are sharply divided here. A bird enthusiast will say that his only chance of hearing a night-jar, that delicious, summery whirring noise, is by walking late at night in a rural place. Others, like the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, wish to share the delights, like Mussorgsky, of a "Night on a Bare Mountain". But the right to walk at night on private property is deeply suspect to a farmer, who has good reason to fear the cattle rustler and the sheep stealer. We all know that such activities do take place. Perhaps local rules should be negotiated for different locations rather than the imposition of a blanket right or total prohibition. I believe that the noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, suggested moving forward along those lines.
One other worry has been expressed to me by the Council for National Parks. This concerns the intended designation of new national parks in the South Downs and the New Forest. These parks have issues specific to the areas concerned. The council hopes that the status of the national park authorities in relation to planning matters will not be reduced at the instigation of the local authority. The same anxiety was expressed earlier in the debate by the noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry. I believe that there is good reason for concern here.
This Bill is a very mixed bag. I understand its general intention and broadly support its purpose. However, a great deal of detailed work is still required if we are to produce an Act that will be acceptable to all reasonable people. Nothing less than that will be good enough. In my view, this is a serious opportunity rather than a crusade.
§ 9.5 p.m.
§ Baroness Sharp of Guildford
My Lords, as someone who over very many years has enjoyed the pleasures of walking and rambling over the downs, fells, moorland and gentle mountains of Wales and Scotland, I welcome the Bill. I believe that it is a brave attempt to clarify rights and responsibilities for both the walker and the landowner; to bring up to date legislation covering rights of way; and to provide stronger protection for SSSIs and the environment in general.
I agree with those noble Lords who have argued that many of the difficult issues confronted by the Bill could usefully be covered by local by-laws. However, if we set up by-laws that differentiate by area, it is extremely important that proper information is provided about exactly what is laid down in those bylaws. I know well the Brecon Beacons national park. In the middle of the park stands an excellent information centre in which a great deal of printed information is made available. However, it is in the centre of the park; more information needs to be provided for visitors in the surrounding towns so that it can be picked up by potential walkers. If local variations are to be introduced, people must know about them.
It is inevitable with a Bill as wide and complex as this that certain issues might have been dealt with differently. As has been made clear by speakers from these Benches, the Liberal Democrats have a number of significant reservations about the Bill. I share many of those reservations and I echo two issues in particular.
First, resources: as many noble Lords have made clear, the provisions of this Bill cannot be met without resources being made available. Many of the provisions will fall upon local authorities for implementation, and it is by no means clear that those resources will be made available to local authorities within the Government's control of local finances.
My noble friend Lord Bradshaw made clear that for Oxfordshire alone the annual cost was likely to be in the region of £500,000. If we multiply that round the country, a significant cost will have to be met. At the end of the day and as things stand at present, it is likely that that cost will have to be met by council tax payers, who will inevitably blame their local councils rather than the Government.
Secondly, the environment: I do not think that the Bill is bold enough in its environmental aspirations. To give one small example, we have lost so many songbirds—larks, thrushes, warblers—and adding to this all the other flora and fauna, it is clear that we need tougher protection for our SSSIs and not just for the SSSIs but, more generally, for biodiversity within the countryside. I join with those who have been asking that the biodiversity action plans, BAPs, should be included within the broad legislation.
There are, however, two particular issues that I would like to raise in this debate. First, the areas of outstanding natural beauty, the AONBs: I live in Guildford, on the doorstep of the Surrey hills AONB. We have the Devil's Punchbowl, Box Hill, Leith Hill—all very well known and protected by the Green Belt, 722 one of the green lungs for London and the south-east, visited and loved by many. Earlier this year there came the announcement that two new national parks—the South Downs and the New Forest—would be created, the first national parks to be announced for over 40 years. I congratulate in particular the noble Lord, Lord Renton, on his hard work in relation to the South Downs. As he made clear, however, there are many hurdles yet to be jumped before this beautiful area does become a national park.
Those of us who live in the Surrey hills regret that our area of outstanding natural beauty did not achieve the same status. Originally the AONBs were supposed to have the same status as national parks but have lacked the planning protections, and above all the resources and the organisation, necessary to make such status effective.
When this Bill first emerged last January it was a great disappointment that the Government had not used it to make good this omission and to give the AONBs the status and the resources they deserved. We were therefore delighted when on 13th June this year the Government announced that they were going to bring forward amendments to the Bill to safeguard the status of the AONBs and to provide for their proper protection and management. In particular, for larger AONBs such as Surrey hills the amendments will provide for the setting up of a conservation and management board and encourage an approach which provides for a cohesive and comprehensive management strategy.
In addition, amazingly, they have also promised some of the resources necessary to put this strategy into effect, with funds coming through from the Countryside Agency and, according to the press release, increasing from £2.1 million to £5.9 million. I believe, but am not sure, that this is in a year. I would be glad to have clarification from the Minister.
I would like to use this opportunity to say how pleased we are in Surrey at this decision. We will look forward to seeing these amendments when they appear at the Committee stage of the Bill. I also take the opportunity to thank the Secretary of State and his advisers for doing so, and also to thank the noble Lord, Lord Renton, whose Private Member's Bill very much paved the way for this.
The second issue I wish to raise is a more difficult and esoteric one, discussed without conclusion at the Committee and Report stages of this Bill in the other place. It relates to rights of access to houses which front on to common land. Traditionally, many of these houses have had access rights by foot; over time, this access was translated into vehicle access. However, the 1993 Court of Appeal judgment in Hanning v. Top Deck Travel decided that, since under the 1925 Law of Property Act it was illegal to drive a vehicle over common land, householders who had had free access on foot could not translate that into vehicular access. The only way that a right to drive from a public road to a property over common land could be obtained was to get an easement from the owner of the common land; that is to say, a proper deed granting access.
723 I do not want to go into detail, but the issue is causing considerable worry and grief to those who bought property assuming that they had access rights. In some cases, private owners of common land are asking as much as 10 per cent of the value of property for such easements and, with house prices at the level that they have reached in Surrey, that can mean very considerable sums. The problem is compounded because mortgage companies will not grant mortgages until access rights are settled, but sellers at the lower end of the market cannot raise the necessary money without selling their property and are therefore being "boxed in". Much of the land is, however, owned as common land by parish, district or county councils. In such cases people expect to be able to purchase their easement at either zero or cost price—but again councils are enjoined by the Local Government Act 1972 not to dispose of such land,for a consideration less than the best that can reasonably be obtained".The current situation is most unsatisfactory. In some cases private landlords are asking extortionate prices. Then there is a variation among the public landlords: some of the district councils in Surrey charge no cost at all; others, including Surrey County Council, ask what they regard as a reasonable price.
The Secretary of State was not unsympathetic in principle to the amendments that were moved in the other place designed to bring some clarity to the law, although he saw problems with the specific form of words being proposed. I very much hope that, before the Bill is passed, it will have been possible to bring forward amendments to solve this problem. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say.
§ 9.15 p.m.
§ Lord Luke
My Lords, this has been a long and fascinating debate. I shall not detain your Lordships for long.
I have been fortunate in that I have lived most of my life in the country. I love the countryside, and, like all my colleagues on these Benches, I am keen to encourage as many people as possible to visit the countryside, enjoy it, and benefit from some of the eternal truths of life which are sometimes easier to appreciate away from towns and cities. So I support the main stated aim of the Bill.
Many discussions took place between the Government and bodies interested in this subject. The discussions were fruitful, and agreement on many issues and problems regarding voluntary access was nigh on achieved. Then, bang! —the Minister, Mr Meacher, announced that voluntary arrangements were no good, little progress was being made in local access agreements and he intended to introduce this Bill. Why? Because, of course, voluntary arrangements did not quite add up to the "right to roam" so loudly trumpeted in the manifesto. "Right to roam" has the authentic ring—as does banning hunting with dogs and banning fur farms. All three of them seem to be coming up at rather an extraordinary time, your Lordships might think—in the run-up to a general election. No matter that "right to roam" is 724 really rather restricted and circumscribed in the Bill; it is fundamentally an attack on property and rights of ownership.
What about the needs of those looking for recreational access, the needs of riders, carriage drivers and other traditional users? I have a particular interest in motor sport. I hasten to stress that I do not mean the indiscriminate riding of motorcycles and four-wheel drive vehicles everywhere. I am talking about regulated motor sport. The Motor Sports Association, which has briefed me, is worried about a number of provisions in the Bill. It is mainly worried about weekends, when most motor sport takes place. The sport can be dangerous; therefore, it really would not be possible to have members of the public at constant risk of being run down.
It is understood that motor sport comes under the general heading of "land management", so weekend closures could be sought under the provisions of Clause 22. However, some of the authorities to which landowners would have to apply in order to obtain permission for motor sports are not known to be sympathetic to motoring issues. Will the Minister kindly reassure me on this matter? It is a question of restricted byways. These will not, of course, be for motorists, but they could possibly be used for motor sport. That could be achieved by means of the statutory instrument which, I understand, is likely to be used. Will the Government support motor sport in this?
How do you gain access to the access land when a great deal of it is approachable only by means of rudimentary, narrow roads, with few parking areas and certainly no public transport? Bicycles?
The farming community, which is in such dire straits, is continually urged by the Government to diversify. Some of the provisions of this Bill may very well be a deterrent to diversification. Is not the timing of the Government just marvellous? Surely, the last thing that hard-pressed farmers want is a whole new set of regulations to learn, plus probably heavy cost implications.
The framing of many of the provisions of the Bill shows the Government's complete lack of knowledge of the countryside. Lambs are to emerge in accordance with the law, not at weekends; birds are to nest by numbers. Night time roaming is bound to lead to unfortunate accidents—horrific accidents according to one noble Lord, whose name I have forgotten—increased poaching and, worst of all, will make it easier for the burglar and thief.
The Prime Minister said in an interview with the magazine Country Living:We have always said that the right to access open land comes with responsibilities. So we are preparing codes of practice that will include do's and don'ts such as when to shut farm gates and when to leave them open".There are not many gates in open moorland. If that is all that is meant by codes of practice, presumably without the force of law, they will not be of much help, particularly with the kinds of people described by the noble Lord, Lord Hardy of Wath, who I see is not in his place.
725 This is a bad Bill with some goods parts. A lot of this legislation is unnecessary. We on these Benches will try to modify the Bill so that at least some of it becomes worth while.
§ 9.21 p.m.
§ The Earl of Shrewsbury
My Lords, I declare an interest as a landowner, sheep farmer and enthusiastic field sports participant. I cannot say that I thoroughly welcome the Bill because I believe that in parts it is heavy-handed, unnecessary and damaging to the proper functioning of the countryside and those of us who work in that environment. I refer to the so-called right to roam proposals.
However, I give a cautious welcome to the parts of the Bill which seek to ensure the protection of rare flora and fauna and ancient woodland. I welcome the proposals to tighten up SSSIs, but I must flag up that sometimes the authorities get it wrong. Those authorities should practise a much greater spirit of understanding and co-operation with farmers and landowners. After all, it is they who know best about the land that they work and own. The authorities should pay greater attention to, and work closely with, such august bodies as the Game Conservancy Trust and the Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group, to name but two.
The authorities must practise care and diplomacy in their dealings with farmers and landowners. Many times one hears of situations which could so easily have been avoided.
My main concerns arise from the provisions of Part I of the Bill. I shall be as brief as possible. Most of it has already been said in this debate. There are some 800,000 acres of heather moorland in England and Wales, and I believe that it is that land which is under threat from the Bill. On much of that land grouse shooting is practised. First-class moorland management is required to ensure the survival and proliferation of both grouse and many other varieties of ground-nesting birds. Both the RSPB and Game Conservancy Trust have established through painstaking research that ground-nesting waders are particularly abundant on grouse moors. As my noble friend Lord Peel said earlier this afternoon, there are twice as many curlews, five times as many lapwings and five times as many golden plovers on grouse moors as there are on unmanaged moors.
One has only to look at much of the Welsh heather moorland to see how quickly a moor can be sterilised through lack of good management. Predators and vermin move in, sheep numbers rise dramatically and white grass and bracken invade the moor. Very soon the grouse all but disappear along with a very serious decline in the numbers of other ground-nesting birds.
Good moor management requires heather burning to promote the growth of young heather which is the staple diet of the grouse. It requires the careful control of predators, vermin and sheep numbers, the spraying of bracken and the harvesting of game in a controlled manner. The latter is important as it reduces the 726 incidence of disease and the pressure on food during the winter. Without man's involvement in the management of such upland areas the grouse would die out from disease, lack of adequate food supply and pressure from vermin and other predators. Man manages the balance of nature and improves it to the benefit of many species whose habitat is to be found on these uplands. Through careful management man sustains benefits to the fragile local economies of such areas. Good moorland management means good conservation. It is vital, therefore, that the provisions of the Bill should not compromise this delicate balance.
Schedule 2 requires dogs to be on leads between 1st March and 30th June and when in the vicinity of livestock. But experience has shown that requirements for dogs to be on leads is largely ignored. On heather moorland areas where there exists an abundance of ground-nesting birds, surely it would be good sensible practice to ensure that dogs are prohibited, with the exception of guide dogs. Even the most controllable dog can suddenly, like mine, develop selective deafness when its blood is up and a bird or a hare springs from the surroundings.
Secondly, I refer to access at night. For the life of me, I cannot understand for what reason a rambler would wish to walk on an upland moor after dark. Moors are by their very nature wild areas. Previous mining over past centuries has left unprotected shafts and quarries. Peat hags exist. The terrain is rough and changeable. Weather can come down within a few minutes. In short, to walk on a moor at night is to court disaster; and because moors are in secluded areas and are usually vast in size the chances of finding assistance should disaster occur are very limited indeed. I believe that to wander on a moor at night is completely irresponsible and, at the very least, foolhardy. In addition, the highly effective and necessary method of shooting foxes at night on moorland with lamp and rifle by gamekeepers would create a further danger for walkers after dark, especially as expanding ammunition is not appreciated.
Furthermore, access at night would provide a charter for poachers, longdogs, terrier men and lamping. It would provide a charter for criminals who wish to approach dwellings in remote moorland areas after dark in order to burgle. I am aware that the Association of Chief Police Officers is completely against the provision for access after dark. I believe that access must be restricted to daylight hours or, at the very least, by prior arrangement with the owner or his appointed agent.
Thirdly, I refer to the 28-day closure rule and access on weekends and bank holidays. Will the 28-day closure provision give enough time in practice for proper management purposes? I doubt it. Much depends on weather regarding burning of heather, for example. I agree entirely with the noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, as do many people involved in moorland management, that 40 days is a more realistic figure. Although Clause 22 allows application to the relevant authority for additional closure, there is no guarantee that consent will be forthcoming. Will other persons 727 with interests apart from the owner be able to exercise the 28-day provision? How will those interests be defined? I believe that the provision as drafted is not satisfactory.
It will also be necessary for shooting purposes to have the ability to close the moor for access on Saturdays and bank holidays. Often those are the only days when shooting can take place on moors due to the time constraints during the week on shooters and staff. Moorland keepers need to plan their diary, especially in seasons of prolific grouse numbers, in order efficiently to cull to reduce the potential spread of disease and to conserve young heather for winter months when foodstocks are low.
Finally, on the question of damage to upland areas from walkers, I believe that a cautionary remark is necessary. On the whole, walkers are wholly responsible people. However, damage through sheer numbers does occur. Anyone who is familiar, as I am, with the Derbyshire Peak District, Ilam and Thorpe Cloud in particular, cannot have failed to notice the serious erosion and associated damage—and litter left behind, as the noble Lord, Lord Hardy of Wath, mentioned—caused by the large numbers of visitors. It goes with the territory.
All these matters and more will need to be scrutinised carefully by your Lordships during the passage of the Bill. The Bill must ensure that a workable, sensible environment for the future is the result, fair to all and especially taking on board the best interests of landowners and those whose incomes are wholly dependent on the efficient and responsible working of these parts of the countryside.
§ 9.30 p.m.
§ Baroness Gibson of Market Rasen
My Lords, only since coming to live permanently in London have I realised how privileged I have been to spend most of my life in our wonderful countryside, which I had taken totally for granted. Before I moved to London I was fortunate enough to live in Suffolk, a beautiful, tranquil county. Before that, I was born and brought up in Lincolnshire, as my title suggests. Corning from Market Rasen, and also being a health and safety commissioner, I want to support the wise words of the noble Lord, Lord Burnham, about the exercising of horses.
Because I love the countryside and believe that all my countrymen and women should also be able to enjoy its glory I am pleased to be able to support almost all of the Bill. I do not believe that the Bill attacks the countryside or those who live in it, but I have two worries. First, it is important that people have a right of entry on to access land. Open air recreation is vital to people's well-being, most especially as regards those who visit the countryside from large conurbations. However, while recognising the advantages of such forays into the countryside, the need for constraint of those who do not respect such advantages must also be recognised.
Therefore, the retraction of right to access for those who break any of the restrictions is a necessity. Landowners should have their rights protected and I, 728 too, believe that the Bill is light in that respect. Currently, the Bill allows for the right of access to be curtailed for the remainder of any day upon which any misdemeanour occurs. I, too, believe that that provision needs reconsideration because I fear that it will prove to be too lax. Surely, if a person is to be banned from land it should be for longer than a few hours.
Secondly, I believe that dogs should be kept firmly under control and not be allowed to attack animals around them. That is my belief whether they are called "dogs" or "hounds".
I now turn to the positive points. The general redesignation of roads used as public paths (RUPPs), which in future will be shown as restricted byways, is a welcome clause. The redefinition will clarify the situation relating to clear rights of way and will relieve surveying authorities of their current obligations to reclassify RUPPs. Likewise, it is particularly important for local authorities to be allowed to divert footpaths, bridleways and so forth where they cross school premises. That has not yet been mentioned and is particularly pertinent after some of the horrifying happenings in our schools during recent years. Local authorities should do everything in their power to protect school pupils and school staff.
Like my noble friend Lady Nicol, I believe that further control of vehicular traffic on unclassified roads and byways is welcome if we are to conserve flora, fauna and the physical features of the landscape. That is of great importance if we want to retain the beauty of our countryside.
I turn from restrictions to expansions. It is a pleasure to see that people with disabilities are specifically considered within the Bill. When in future improvements are made to rights of way in the erection of stiles, bridleways and footpaths, consideration must now be given to those with mobility problems. As someone with a mobility problem, the proposed guidance to be given by the Secretary of State to competent authorities in exercising their powers are particularly welcome. For too long, the needs of people with disabilities have been virtually ignored in much of our legislation. Therefore, this is a welcome step forward. It is to be hoped that many more Bills will contain such references and that disability organisations will be involved in the drawing up of the Bills.
Finally, perhaps I may put the Bill into its historical context. The 1949 Attlee government introduced the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act. At its introduction, it was said:The enjoyment of the countryside is just as much part of our health and wellbeing as are the building of hospitals or insurance against illness. This is not just a Bill. It is a People's Charter for the open air, for everyone who loves to get out and enjoy the countryside. Without it, they are fettered, deprived of their powers of access and the facilities needed to make holidays enjoyable. With it, the countryside is theirs to preserve, to cherish, to enjoy and to make their own".Fifty years later, this countryside Bill is of equal importance, both for those who live permanently in the countryside and for those who do not but who have the same right as anyone else to enjoy it.
§ 9.35 p.m.
§ Lord Reay
My Lords, when one comes to speak after listening to 30 or more expert previous speakers, one begins to wonder whether noble Lords will be willing to listen to one more repetition of half the points one intended to make. Having heard the contrary arguments several times, one starts to lose confidence in the remainder.
I occupy a family home in the north of England. The property consists largely of grass farmland and forestry, with some established rights of way which I do not expect to be affected seriously by the provisions of the Bill.
I join with others who would have preferred the Government to build on all that has been achieved over the years, extending both public access and environmental protection by means of voluntary agreements with landowners and in many cases with compensation being paid. I am not convinced that it was necessary to depart from the route of proceeding by voluntary consensus. However, the Government in their wisdom eventually decided to do so. Plenty of perils lay in that course of action in terms of upsetting the good relations which are necessary on the ground for managing public access, and in this House we must do our best to remove some of the Bill's flaws.
First, the absence of recognition that access could result in a loss of value for the property itself or of rights pertaining to it—for example, shooting rights—in my opinion represents a regrettable departure from most previous practice. It may also contravene the convention on human rights which in October becomes law in this country—an opinion expressed in the brilliant maiden speech of my noble friend Lord Brittan.
Nor is there sufficient recognition of the additional costs with which landowners may be faced as a result of provisions in the Bill. Surely it is unjust that a landowner should now be saddled with liability for those who, in availing themselves of public access, injure themselves on any man-made obstacle. Landowners will find themselves exposed to increased costs in carrying out risk assessments and to higher insurance premiums. At their back will always be the spectre of court action.
I believe that another injustice lies in the lack of balance so far as concerns the rights and responsibilities under the Bill as between landowners and the general public. I was pleased to hear what the noble Baroness has just said on that point. If in that relationship the sanctions on one party are much more severe than on the other, as now they are, surely that is inequitable. Nor does it seem to me that the lightest of taps on the wrist of the trespasser, which at present is all that the Bill allows, reflects adequately the promise contained in the Labour Party manifesto:We will not … permit any abuse of a right to greater access".What guarantee will there be of being able to enforce the restrictions? It seems to me at least necessary that all local authorities with access land within their 730 boundaries should be put under an obligation to appoint wardens and be given funds earmarked for the purpose.
It seems to me that another example of unfairness is the refusal to allow closure at weekends. I can see this issue from the Government's point of view. Having provided access in the way that they have, they do not wish to see it removed at all the times that it will be most prized by the public. However, the same applies to landowners. Why should they be deprived, for example, of the right to shoot at weekends? The rental income from some grouse shoots will be hugely impaired by the removal of such a right. Of course, as we know, birds do not cease to sit on eggs, nor sheep to lamb, at weekends.
Perhaps there will be a chance to accommodate competing interests by limiting the number of weekend days and bank holidays on which access is restricted. In effect, we may see the benefit shared between the landowner and the other users with an interest; for example, the upland lambing farmer on the one hand and on the other the general public. That would be easier if the 28 days were to become 40 days.
Then there are the impracticalities of the Bill. The first is the distinction between natural and man-made obstacles. Quite separate from the unfairness of making the landowner liable for injury caused by any non-natural obstacle of whatever size or antiquity, the introduction of such a distinction creates a huge opening for lawyers. It is also bad law in that it could encourage destructive behaviour. A landowner might be wise to remove any article such as a stile or a bridge that could cause damage to a walker, even though its purpose was to assist them, if that would reduce his exposure to court action.
Another major impracticality of the Bill that the Government have not fully faced up to is how to bring notice of closure to the attention of the public. I agree with everything that my noble friend Lord Peel said about that. Without designated access points and with the public able to access open land from all points of the compass, how can they possibly be informed about whether access land is open or closed? The Government and their agencies talk about the Internet and notices in local shops and pubs, but there is no adequate alternative to on-site information. Without provision for designated access points where such information can be provided, the 28-day closure option for the landlord will have no meaning.
I would also support an attempt to confine access to daylight hours. It is common practice to close urban parks at night to remove a cover for crime. As everyone knows, crime is rampant in the countryside, which is seriously under-policed. We should not give unnecessary new opportunities for criminals.
I shall not say anything about Part II, but Part III, like Part I, removes owners' rights and, unless handled sensitively, risks upsetting the delicately balanced relationship between owners and government agencies. The Bill introduces substantial new powers—draconian powers, as my noble friend 731 Lord Kimball described them—for government agencies on SSSIs. That will reduce the say that owners have in their management.
The noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, was her characteristic sweet, reasonable self. I hope that she is able to ensure that English Nature has an acceptable face and that owners do not have to deal on the ground with a lot of little local autocrats. Magistrates will be able to levy fines of up to £20,000 on owners if they do not carry out the management plans that English Nature will be able to require them to adopt. The fines are unlimited if the case goes to the Crown Court.
The agency's powers of entry and compulsory purchase are also increased. Is that what the Minister means when he says that the Government have sought to legislate with a light touch? On the contrary, it sounds as though, if we are not careful, the day of big brother and his big sister may have arrived.
The Bill also creates a new offence of recklessly—that is unintentionally—disturbing wildlife. That has alarming implications for all those pursuing their normal economic and professional activities on the land, such as farmers and game keepers, given the excessive zealotry often demonstrated these days in the pursuit of people suspected of such offences. My noble friend Lord Buxton of Alsa gave a vivid example of that earlier. We need to consider that carefully in Committee.
New powers are created for wildlife inspectors and for sending our hard-pressed police officers to the scene of so-called wildlife crime. I am afraid that it will be widely felt to be a measure of this Government's priorities that at a time when the police in rural areas are unable to protect citizens and their property in their own homes, the Government are telling courts and police forces that they must spend more of their time investigating what happens to birds' eggs, to wild flowers that are accidentally dead-headed and to birds that are inadvertently disturbed.
My noble friend Lord Buxton of Alsa made a most powerful case for, in the present situation, not providing custodial sentences in the Bill to deal with wildlife offences.
In Committee, we shall have an opportunity to try to persuade the Government that they should secure the willing co-operation of landowners and other land users, which has always hitherto been a feature of the implementation of countryside policies, and that they should remove some of those elements likely to cause the most resentment, as well as those most likely to lead to unnecessary confrontation between members of the public and those who are trying to make their living from the land, often in very difficult circumstances. This Bill requires many changes.
I believe that it should be possible to reach that position without compromising the Bill's achievement of making the substantial addition which it does to land with open access. I do not wish to see the Bill obstructed, as some noble Lords opposite may fear. 732 I do not believe that in this House we have a right to do so. But I just hope that the Government will be listening.
§ 9.46 p.m.
§ Baroness Thornton
My Lords, at a late hour and following many noble Lords who have covered almost every imaginable aspect of the Bill, I feel that it is incumbent upon me to be brief and not too repetitive. So I shall do my best.
I felt moved to contribute to this debate and add my heartfelt welcome for the Bill to that of many other noble Lords for two reasons which may be described as both personal and political. I come from a long line of urban dwellers who have always walked in, loved and respected the countryside. I learnt the country code from my father and from a youth club group, the Woodcraft Folk, as I grew up being taken on hikes on the moors and hills of Yorkshire, near my home town of Bradford.
I suppose that I could claim to be a descendant of a line of the Kinder scout working class walkers, as mentioned by my noble friend Lord Dubs—a great tradition of people who worked in mills and other places in our towns and cities to whom access to the countryside was vital for their well-being and who felt deeply about the sometimes unwarranted restrictions placed on their walking by landowners who sometimes stopped those innocent pleasures. Those battles may be in the past, but I hope that your Lordships will forgive me for saying that I believe I can hear the cheers of those thousands of walkers throughout history and they are all saying, "It is about time too". Therefore, I very much welcome the access which Part I provides, with a statutory right of public access to more than 4 million acres of land in England and Wales which will be open to the public for the first time.
Secondly, in common with many other noble Lords, I welcome Part III, which is designed to improve nature conservation and wildlife protection. Many noble Lords, my noble friends Lady Young of Old Scone and Lady Nicol in particular, are much more expert in those matters than I am, as the record will show. But last year I was privileged to work under the expert and inspirational chairmanship of Lord Cranbrook on Sub-Committee D of the European Communities Committee when we undertook our inquiry into biodiversity in the European Union. We came to the conclusion that statutory underpinning of the biodiversity action plan process would place a duty on all public bodies to further the objective of biodiversity action plans. Like the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, who is now the chairman of that subcommittee, I too am pleased that the Government are seriously considering that recommendation because I believe that it will give a much-needed boost to that work.
In common with other noble Lords, I have been overwhelmed, if not swamped, with briefings and literature about this Bill, for which I am grateful. I am also grateful for the meetings that have been 733 organised. I believe that the size, the eloquence and the loudness of the debate show the importance of the Bill. I believe that the Government have listened to what people have said and that they have struck the right balance between the interests expressed. I wish the Bill well.
§ 9.49 p.m.
§ Lord Mancroft
My Lords, owing to the lateness of the hour and the length of the speakers' list, I believe that your Lordships would appreciate an abridged version of my speech. If any noble Lords feel short-changed, I shall be delighted to deliver the full text later in the bar, but I shall not be surprised if there are not many takers. I never intended to say a great deal because, listening to the debate, it is clear that there are noble Lords present with far greater expertise in these issues. I shall keep my remarks to the bare minimum and make only one or two general comments.
I have not often taken part in a debate in this House in which there has been so much consensus. Although there are different views on a number of the smaller issues, it appears to me that overall the House welcomes the Bill, as I do.
I declare an interest as a board member of the Countryside Alliance, but I do not speak for that large membership. I speak for myself as someone who has a great love of the British countryside and who has derived enormous pleasure from the time I have spent in it. I have also been privileged to enjoy access to large parts of it. Therefore, I am in great sympathy with the objects of the Bill. Anything that we can do to allow as many people as possible to enjoy what I and so many other noble Lords have enjoyed seems to be a good idea.
On the other hand, while I do not own a single acre of land, and never have, my knowledge of landowners, farmers and land managers, both large and small, allows me to understand some of the problems that access creates. Some years ago, as a master of hounds, I was responsible for negotiating the access required to allow up to 120 horses to cross over 600 different parcels of land in Wiltshire and Gloucestershire, covering 450 square miles, four days a week, seven months a year. Quite rightly, at all times the wishes of the farmers and landowners had to be taken into account, which included temporary restrictions to take account of farming and other sporting interests.
I mention this only to draw attention to the fact that that level of access is achievable and, for many years, has been achieved on an entirely voluntary basis on the vast majority of available land with the minimum of disruption and disagreement, but without any legislation. On that subject, I could not help noticing, as I am sure some of your Lordships did as well, that Members in another place even tried to use this Bill to prohibit that particular form of access, successful though it is. I expect that noble Lords will agree that, on the face of it, that really is a little bizarre.
Near my home is a large private park that has been open to visitors voluntarily for over 200 years. Unfortunately, in recent years, the privilege—it is a 734 privilege—to visit that beautiful place has been so abused that the owner, for the first time in over 200 years, has been obliged to limit access. Gates had been left open; deer had escaped and had then to be shot; people had held barbecues and set up camps on the old turf; dogs had been allowed to chase the deer that roam unrestricted through the woods; and on more than one occasion staff have been abused while trying to do their jobs.
I am sure that only a minority of visitors abuse the places they visit, and I suspect that it is more out of ignorance than anything else, but there are far too many examples to be ignored. Therefore, whether we like it or not, within the Bill there is the capacity to do immense harm to the countryside unless we tread carefully. I am not certain that the Government are yet treading carefully enough.
There seem to me to be two important criteria that must be observed in the granting of access. First, access must not be allowed to damage the very environment that visitors wish to enjoy, and that obviously includes the wildlife. Secondly, it should not be allowed to prohibit the landowner or manager's ability to earn a living from agricultural or sporting activities or lead to extra costs.
Although it would appear that the criteria I have mentioned are recognised in the Bill, as my noble friend Lord Peel said, the devil is in the detail. It appears to me, on the face of it, that the Bill fails both tests. Clearly, as my noble friend Lord Kimball said, there is a contradiction in allowing greater access to fragile habitats such as moorland, while at the same time increasing the obligations on landowners in respect of SSSIs. That is obvious. That is the dichotomy we face.
I suspect that practically every noble Lord who has spoken raised the issue of night access and dogs. I believe I am right in saying—noble Lords will correct me if I am wrong—that nowhere else in the world is there a right of access at night, and I can think of few legitimate reasons for granting such a right, though quite a number of illegitimate ones come to mind without difficulty. Only recently I saw for myself the problem of dogs running loose among ground-nesting birds at the height of the breeding season. Clearly, the owners had no idea of the potential harm their dogs were doing. That is certainly another issue we shall want to examine closely during the progress of the Bill. It is one that I believe, upon reflection, the Government will have to accept is fraught with difficulty.
The whole area of closures and restrictions to access, mentioned by many noble Lords, looks at the moment to be an unworkable muddle and will need sorting out. Similarly, definitions within the Bill, not only in this Bill but in relation to other Acts, are sloppy and imprecise. They will need to be radically improved before this Bill returns to the Commons.
I take the opportunity to ally myself with the words of my noble friend Lady Trumpington and the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, in respect of horses in two specific areas. Certainly the concept of access to 735 gallops, particularly in places like Lambourn and Newmarket, is ridiculous. We must sort that out. Similarly, the Bill touches upon increased access for horses. It is not the moment now but I hope that we can look further at that. To miss the opportunity would be a great pity.
There are two areas in respect of enforcement that give me great concern. First, the changes to enforcement provisions of the Wildlife and Countryside Act, while broadly speaking desirable, are incredibly complex and time consuming. They need to be undertaken by experts. As we all know and many noble Lords have mentioned, including my noble friend Lord Reay, the police in the countryside are stretched to the limit and are clearly unable to cope with their existing responsibilities. To expect them to take on more duties without adequate resources is, frankly, absurd. Unless adequate provision is made, this part of the legislation will end up being completely pointless.
Secondly, the responsibilities of land occupiers in respect of a number of provisions in the Bill are considerably increased. It is not clear to me how hard-pressed farmers, in this day and age, can take on these extra responsibilities. The Bill is curiously silent on the issue. I imagine therefore that the Minister will bring forward his own amendments to address the matter at a later stage.
In fact, I imagine that the Minister will be bringing forward a large number of amendments at some stage. That is partly because the Government push so much sloppy legislation through the other place that we have got used to seeing flagship Bills being completely rewritten in your Lordships' House; it is also partly because if he does not produce amendments himself he will spend many long summer and autumn nights on the Front Bench listening to what I suspect will be many amendments from every quarter of this House. And it will be every quarter. As I said earlier and do not mind repeating, there is consensus on these issues from all sides.
In spite of my many reservations, I wish the Bill well, and I wish the Minister well. But I fear that there is an awful lot of work to do if we are to turn this particular pig's ear into a silk purse.
§ 9.59 p.m.
§ Baroness Hamwee
My Lords, judging by the amount of briefing or perhaps "lobbying" that we have received, as mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, the interest in this Bill is considerable. I was struck by the amount of briefing compared with that received for the Transport Bill, which received its Second Reading a few days ago. That is a very much bigger Bill but, interestingly, far less briefing was received from outside this place. We also had more speakers in this debate than was the case for the Second Reading of the Transport Bill, especially, as has been said, from the Conservative Benches. Indeed, the mix of speakers is interesting. We have heard from seven Earls and one Duke and about 40 per cent of the speakers are, I believe, hereditary Peers. However, that 736 is no reason at all to suggest that they do not have very important points to contribute to the debate. I hope that they do not think that I am in any way being pejorative in making that comment—
§ Baroness Byford
My Lords, I hesitate to interrupt the noble Baroness, but some of my colleagues on these Benches are somewhat concerned. I am sure that the noble Baroness did not mean to sound offensive. Therefore, I am not suggesting that she did. But the number of people who spoke in this debate reflects the tremendous experience and expertise that is to be found among those on the Benches behind me.
§ Baroness Hamwee
My Lords, if the noble Baroness had allowed me to reach the end of the sentence, she would have heard me say that that fact gave a particular flavour to the debate and that I was particularly not being pejorative. However, it is a matter of note: we had a different mix of speakers today from that which we have been accustomed to hear on other matters—
§ Earl Ferrers
My Lords, does the noble Baroness agree that all these Dukes, Earls, and so forth, are the ones who have actually been elected to the House, as opposed to the noble Baroness, and all those on the other side, who have not been?
§ Baroness Hamwee
My Lords, that is a fair point but one made from a narrow, electoral college.
The other point I was about to make on the mix of speakers is also notable. I have in mind the number of noble Lords who referred to their own experience of enjoyment of the countryside; for example, walking in the countryside. Indeed—this is the end of my paragraph and I hope the noble Baroness will agree, when I reach the end, that I have given it some balance—it shows that we have produced an interesting cross-section and that this House has something to contribute to the debate.
The Bill is called a "countryside Bill". I believe that that has raised expectations about its scope which are, inevitably, not satisfied. We are awaiting the rural White Paper and we should recognise that this is a relatively narrow Bill. I do not believe that it should be attacked on the ground that it does not cover every countryside matter; nor should we fail to support it because it does not address what I recognise are the very real issues of crisis in the rural economy.
The Bill is about rights and responsibilities and raises very interesting philosophical questions. It is a notable point in the development of British society—or English and Welsh society, at any rate, as it does not extend to Scotland. I agree with other speakers, including the noble Baroness, Lady Gale, that the Welsh aspects should have been left to the National Assembly for Wales, which has been properly devolved.
The noble Earl, Lord Arran, and others commented on the increasing split between town and country dwellers. My noble friend Lord Redesdale told me that 737 when he showed some children from Newcastle around his land, one of them said, "I have just seen a rabbit. Where's its hutch?" That indicates the huge gap in people's experience.
I turn to the question of access. As the Minister said, this is not about the right to roam; it is about managed access. As the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, said, one needs to experience the countryside in order to understand it. My noble friend Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer talked about the Bill building on the National Parks movement. I believe that the legislation rightly seeks a balance of interests of the urban and rural populations. The balance that we seek requires management. I agree with many of the comments that have been made about dogs and about closures. I regard taking 28 days as if weekends do not count as completely batty. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, and other speakers about the proposal for a 40-day period.
I was interested in the reference by the noble Lord, Lord Bridges, to the effect of set-aside and, indeed, have begun to wonder whether the Bill could in some way disqualify land from subsidy. I should like to receive some reassurances on that issue at a later stage. We shall need to consider the definitions of "livestock" and "access land".
There has been much debate about information, education and a country code. My noble friend Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer talked of the need for local fora and the need for access to information. I believe that the issue is less about drawing up a code than about enforcement. I share the concerns that have been expressed about enforcement and about sanctions, including the exclusion from a locality until midnight on the day when one has committed an offence. I do not believe that that constitutes any real sanction at all.
One cannot criticise offenders too much if the restrictions are not clear. I agree with the comments of the noble Earl, Lord Peel, on the need for statutory access points. I also agree with the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Denham, on the need for clarity and for avoiding confusion, particularly if dogs are sometimes to be allowed to be off the leash but at other times must be on it.
Some noble Lords seemed to take the view that those who will be allowed access through the Bill will instantly become vandals. I take a less pessimistic view. It seems to me that if people are inclined to behave badly, they will cause damage now without any effective sanction.
The issue of night access made me pause when I read the provisions of the Bill. At first I thought that it would be wrong to allow night access. However, I have been persuaded by comments made during the debate. The noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, mentioned the night sky. My noble friend Lord Addington rightly pointed out that there should be access to footpaths at all times. It is clear that many noble Lords agree with my noble friend Lord Greaves as regards the need for local by-laws on this and other matters.
738 The noble Lord, Lord Reay, said that urban parks close at night to reduce the incidence of crime. I believe that that crime is often related to drugs. It seems to me unlikely that criminals would travel deep into the countryside to pursue such activity.
§ Baroness Hamwee
My Lords, I do not know whether the laughter that I hear from behind me is cynical or not. The difficulty I am discussing is particularly urban. I do not think that one can compare an urban park with an area of moorland in that connection.
The question of liability is an interesting one. The difference between manmade and natural features has been mentioned by several noble Lords including the noble Lord, Lord Brittan, in his welcome maiden speech. I believe that it is right to address the question of injury to visitors. I risk arousing further ire on the Conservative Benches with my next comment. As the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, used the term "nonsense" in regard to a comment of my noble friend Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, perhaps I may apply a similar comment in regard to his comment that if one moves a stone and then falls over it one would have the right to claim against the landowner involved. I believe that the difficulties we are discussing are a little more complicated than that. That is a distraction from the rights that we welcome in the Bill.
I have mentioned local access fora and the need for information and informed consensus, as my noble friend Lord Greaves mentioned. Finally, I refer to the significant costs associated with the Bill. I have noted the substantial differences between the estimates prepared by the Government and those prepared by the Country Landowners' Association. The Local Government Association, which has also contributed its two pennyworth on this matter, points out that local authority costs will be mainly discretionary but—I agree with this comment—the investment in access infrastructure, in the provision of information and in wardening will be key to the success of the Bill. We should also bear in mind that rural councils will bear the brunt of that.
I turn to rights of way. My experience in my local area is that these are highly contentious and that disputes surrounding them often give rise to enormous expense. I hope that this Bill will reduce the scope for lawyers' fees; there is certainly as much in this part of the Bill as there is in Part I. We need to ensure that members of the public and landowners are fully involved from the outset and consulted at every stage in order, one hopes, to reduce the number of appeals. At later stages of the Bill we shall seek assurances about signposting, about access for disabled people and, again, about resources.
Referring again to the estimates of the Local Government Association, it believes that the Government's figures of £12 million to £19 million per year are "a little light". I was happy to hear the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, call from her Benches for 739 resources. This is very welcome as my noble friends and I have spent a number years arguing against the Conservatives' care of resources.
It is perhaps harder to be eloquent about rights of way than it is about wildlife and nature conservation. We welcome the additional powers in the Bill to protect SSSIs. We regret that there is no provision for making good the damage incurred previously, but at least we are starting positively from here.
The noble Lord, Lord Moran, referred to local wildlife sites. We should have preferred to see support of wildlife sites given a statutory position in the face of potential development. Like my noble friend Lady Sharp of Guildford I look forward to the Government amendments on areas of outstanding natural beauty. They, too, need better funding and better management. There may be an opportunity to look at the purposes of AONBs in the context of this Bill in order to reflect the modern environmental agenda and the wider sustainability agenda.
We, too, regret that there is no reference to the UK biodiversity action plan. As noble Lords have said, a statutory underpinning of that would be important both symbolically and politically.
Biodiversity, of course, is not only a rural matter. Whether or not this is an early success on the part of the Greater London Authority, I do not know, but I heard last week that the Environment Agency held a meeting in the GLA building and that people came into the meeting saying "I must be going mad; I thought I heard a black redstart"—which, I understand, has a very distinctive call. Apparently those at the meeting ended up trooping around the building. They eventually found themselves in the gents loo on the third floor, where they pinned down the noise to a nest of these birds on the windowsill. So we are making a bit of progress in London.
The noble Lord, Lord Monro of Langholm, suggested that my noble friend Lady Miller had announced a team of opponents to the Bill, as if we were taking part in Euro 2000. We welcome the Bill, as I hope we have made clear. I hope that our team's efforts to improve it will be more successful and more sustained than those of the England team. As my noble friend Lord Bradshaw said, legislation is one thing, the resources for delivery are another.
§ 10.13 p.m.
§ Lord Glentoran
My Lords, I find myself in almost total agreement with at least 90 per cent of what the noble Baroness. Lady Hamwee, has said. I feel rather humble at the Dispatch Box because for almost seven hours we have had a fantastic debate in which an enormous number of knowledgeable speeches were made—from all sides of the House—by very experienced and well versed speakers on different parts of this subject. I have enjoyed it. I found it difficult to concentrate for seven hours—it is not something to which I have been used in recent years—but it has been a very interesting experience and I should like to thank all my noble friends and everyone else for their contributions.
740 In principle, we support the Bill. However, we would have preferred the voluntary approach. I declare an interest as a landowner in Northern Ireland, which does not come under the Bill. It is, I hope, separate and will stay that way. At one stage in my life I was involved in taking young soldiers into the countryside. I was an instructor in rock climbing, mountaineering, canoeing and all the other activities associated with outward bound. In order to do that I had to make private arrangements and private agreements for access virtually all over the kingdom. We operated in Snowdonia in North Wales and in the Berwyns. We climbed on the Edges in the Peak District, we potholed in Castletown, we went down to Dartmoor and so on. Throughout my military lire I found that voluntary agreements with local landowners and farmers worked exceptional well. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Dubs. In the well-trodden areas of the Lakes, Snowdonia and the other national parks, the standard of care and behaviour is immaculate. But that comes from years of use. In my day, if we saw someone behaving wrongly or badly, we would tell him so. If it appeared that he was a novice in that part of the world, we would take him on one side and explain the right way. We would have preferred the voluntary approach.
Part I of the Bill could be a fertile ground for division and long-lasting battles between landowners, managements and would-be visitor organisations. For the Bill to be successful, there cannot be divisions and running battles between various parties. My noble friend Lord Denham said that compulsory access means that the Government have responsibility for the management of that access. As the noble Earl, Lord Peel, said earlier, Mr Meacher, the Minister of State, agreed with that concept. In general, we believe that. Part I of the Bill is poorly conceived and thought through, and is clearly a piece of dogma following through manifesto commitments. However, having said that, the Bill is not past redemption. I have listened to speeches from around the House. There is much agreement about what needs to be done. The House and the Minister face a serious challenge over the coming weeks to make the Bill acceptable, functional and as good as it can be.
At the moment, Part I flies in the face of European human rights legislation, particularly in the area of non-compensation. We shall return to that point at the Committee stage. The Bill takes serious risks with the countryside and its management, a point made excellently by my noble friend Lord Arran. Traditional land management is being seriously distorted. After the passing of the Bill the landowner will no longer be in total control of his land. While land managers as a whole understand the requirements of further access to the countryside, the Bill is feared and the rural population is tending towards defensiveness and all that goes with that. We have a duty to remove that fear and to make people see that what comes out of the Bill will lead to harmony, albeit with change in the countryside.
741 A few specific points have been made by speakers on all sides of the House. The noble Earl, Lord Peel, and the noble Lord, Lord Brittan, in his maiden speech, which was great to hear, referred to the problem of night-time access. I have spent many nights outdoors in the mountains and on the moors around this country. Those are not welcome places except for experts and specialists. It is easy to get into trouble and to put oneself at serious risk. Aside from that, arguments have been clearly put forward as regards increasing crime and increasing opportunities for poaching and so forth. We shall need to return to those arguments when we debate this issue in Committee.
The topic of dogs was mentioned by many speakers. My personal view is that dogs, if allowed into the countryside at all, should be kept on leads at all times, with no exceptions. I understand that people wish to walk their dogs. I am a dog lover and have owned working dogs of one kind or another all my life. However, nothing is more depressing for a sheep farmer—I am a sheep farmer—than finding someone's dog up on the hillside, harassing the flock. There is only one alternative; that is, to go out and shoot it. That is not what we want.
Perhaps I may turn to an equally sensitive subject; that of liability insurance. This has been mentioned by several speakers, including my noble friends Lord Peel, Lord Denham, Lord Caithness and Lady Byford. They have spoken eloquently about the need to improve the Bill in relation to personal and owners' liability insurance. It is clear from the debate tonight that the balance is not yet right. I do not say that it cannot be corrected; I hope that it will be.
Many noble Lords spoke of the need for clarity, referring in particular to the definitions of "cultivated land", "land management", "downlands", where margins are sited and so forth. The point has been made forcefully that clarity is needed for the comfort of the rambler so that he or she is equipped with sufficient knowledge of the area to relax and enjoy the countryside.
Closures and restrictions were touched on many times. We have heard the arguments turn both ways. In the end it appears that the notion of "weekends" is simply a joke. I do not know which civil servant came up with the idea of weekends, but clearly that term should not appear in a Bill about nature and the countryside. As we all know, wildlife does not observe weekends. Whether the restrictions should run for 28 days or 48 days can be decided later.
Mapping is a topic to which we shall return, because it is clear that more detailed work is needed here. Modern satellite technology offers tremendous potential for wonderfully accurate mapping. Let us not make excuses along the lines that not enough money can be found to utilise such resources. If the job is to be done at all, it should be done properly. Let us get it right.
As regards the safety of horse gallops, the matter was considered in great detail by my noble friends Lady Trumpington, Lord Burnham and the noble 742 Lord, Lord Donoughue. Those speakers are all experts in that field. I am sure that the Minister will attend to what was said on this point.
I shall mention briefly the linked and detailed issues of education, communication, understanding and greater clarity. All these phrases have been used to underline a general message that the Bill does not offer sufficient clarity for all those who will need to work with it. The Government will need to promote a thorough process of education, both to give confidence to rural communities and to ensure that the aspirations and expectations of the general public are not overstated. As regards balance, my noble friend Lord Brittan and others expressed their anxiety that the balance is not yet right in the Bill. At this stage we do not feel that the needs of landowners and those who will gain extra access to land is correct.
There has been a suggestion about common by-laws, and there is something in that. There are a number of issues here that might well be covered by a common set of by-laws across the country, which have flexibility for different communities and different types of terrain. The night problem may be covered in that way.
The noble Lord, Lord Dubs, mentioned camping. The Bill, in Schedule 2, paragraph 1(q), states that camping is not allowed.
My noble friend Lady Masham mentioned the difficulty, worries and fears of challenging wrongdoers. That raises the warden problem. How are we to manage and protect the people, the countryside and so on? Another set of problems.
Sanctions seemed to be a common denominator, and in that regard noble Lords have spoken strongly from all sides of the House. There is a feeling that sanctions for wrongdoing by visitors to the countryside are useless; they are too weak and need strengthening. I am not an expert on sanctions, but there must be such experts within the Government. We would ask the noble Lord the Minister to come back to us with suggestions for strengthened sanctions for wrongdoing in the countryside.
We do not have too many problems with Part II. I understand from friends and colleagues—although we do not have rights of way in Northern Ireland—the problems of the Rights of Way Acts, the bridle paths and so on. As many have said, total confusion has developed. We welcome the task undertaken by the Government to ensure that local authorities tackle and clarify, once and for all, the rights of way processes and the legislation that goes with that.
There is no reason why a footpath map for the 21st century, mentioned by my noble friend Lord Caithness should not be included in the present expectations of local authorities.
This is perhaps the time to turn to funding, which has been mentioned on all sides. It seems to me that the funding is between £150 million for five years and about five times £7 million—£35 million. I really have no feel, from the Bill or from what we have heard, for what is the Government's expectation of the funding. From what has been said this afternoon, however, if 743 the job is to be done properly, if we are to have a good Act and a good set-up in the countryside, we will certainly need £150 million for a start. I hope that the Minister will he able to tell us something about that.
Provided that the funding is made available, Part III is largely welcomed on these Benches. We have some reservations, and one area about which there is concern is the land next to SSSIs. Greater access to such land will inevitably endanger SSSIs because they cannot take an overload of visitors. I do not suppose the conservationists want that. I would not like to think that the Government will go in for compulsory purchase. That would be draconian and unlike a modern British government in the 21st century. It is a very old-fashioned process and there must be better ways.
However, there are financial problems regarding SSSIs. It is wrong for the Government to expect landowners to do things and to spend monies that are not there. SSSIs have to be affordable and, if they are not, decisions have to be taken about whether they will be made affordable as a result of public funding or whether something different has to happen to them. Consideration must be given to them in the context of the funds which are available.
I have spoken for long enough. This has been a long debate. I apologise to noble Lords whose contributions I have not covered, and for taking as long as 16 minutes—I do not think that I have ever spoken for 16 minutes in this House before.
I look forward to the Committee stage. I am sure that there will be some long, hard battles. I sincerely wish the Bill well, and I hope that we shall end up with legislation with which we can all live and of which we can be proud.
§ 10.30 p.m.
§ Lord Whitty
My Lords, this has been an interesting debate. We have heard a great many opinions. Everyone has claimed that there is a great deal of consensus, but there also seem to be some fundamental problems, particularly in relation to Part I of the Bill. So I am sure that the Committee and subsequent stages will be interesting.
I should like straight away to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Brittan. He indicated that at present his principal recreation is walking in north Yorkshire. I trust that we shall see some of his recreational activity directed to this House. The noble Lord certainly managed to walk the delicate tightrope of a maiden speech by being non-controversial enough to mention compensation only in passing! He has my congratulations.
Other noble Lords have said that this is not the main issue facing the British countryside. The Government understand that. Indeed, we are developing a whole package of measures to bring forward in the rural policy White Paper. We understand the problems that the agriculture industry presently faces; we understand the consequences of that and of other measures on the countryside and rural dwellers as a whole. I therefore accept that this is very much only a partial picture.
744 I would say in passing, however, that the interests of the countryside and the people who live there are not synonymous with—sometimes they are not entirely in the same direction as—the interests of the large landowners. Part of the debate was in danger of falling into that trap. However, I do not want to be controversial at this point—
§ Baroness Byford
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. I do not think that any of us on these Benches specifically indicated at any stage that we were looking at the Bill from the point of view of the large landowner. There are many tenant farmers and landowners who have only very small holdings. I should hate the noble Lord to go away with the feeling that the contributions from these Benches were made on behalf of big landowners. It would be totally untrue.
§ Lord Whitty
My Lords, we shall return to this point. I do feel that there was a certain bias in some of the contributions. I am happy to concede to the noble Baroness that there are many other interests involved which were referred to by Members on all sides of the House. When I return to the matter of access, I think that we shall see that some of the problems are longstanding problems relating to the structure of ownership, as much as they are—
§ Earl Peel
My Lords, I agree with my noble friend. I hope that the noble Lord will appreciate that land management issues are common to large landowners, small landowners and tenant farmers. The message that we tried to put across related to land management. The size of the holding is, frankly, irrelevant.
§ Lord Whitty
My Lords, I do not entirely accept what the noble Earl says. I believe that in many cases the interests of country people as a whole and of small farmers are at odds with some of the expressions of concern indicated in the debate. I was going on to say —
§ Lord Denham
My Lords, will the noble Lord give way once more? Unless he is prepared to concede that we on this side of the House are genuine, there is no point in us having this debate at all.
§ Lord Whitty
My Lords, I certainly concede that noble Lords who have contributed to the debate are genuine. What I am saying, however, is that, first, some of their concerns are not the concerns of the countryside as a whole and, secondly, many of those concerns are an alarmist and over-exaggerated reaction to the propositions put forward by the Government. Those propositions are balanced in relation to the rights of landowners of all kinds and in relation to the rights of ramblers and others who wish to enjoy the countryside. The points raised suggested that part of that balance should be taken away, or at least that it should be seriously diluted, which in my view would seriously unbalance the Bill.
745 The Bill does a number of things. It seeks to tidy up rights of way, provide a greater degree of protection for wildlife and deal with problems of access. As I have provoked an immediate reaction, it is perhaps appropriate to delay my further comments on those parts of the Bill concerned with access until the end of my remarks. A number of very important points were made on Parts II and III of the Bill to which I want to reply.
§ Earl Ferrers
My Lords, perhaps I may interrupt the noble Lord for one moment. The Minister has been deeply provocative. He appears to be surprised. He said that the Government had produced a wonderfully balanced Bill and that we on this side of the House were unbalanced in our remarks. I believe that the Minister is wrong. The noble Lord must have a more receptive mind to try to understand the problems, which are not just those of the large landowner but of the countryside.
§ Baroness Byford
My Lords, perhaps I may remind the Minister—I do not mean this offensively—that his noble friend Lord Hardy clearly stated his apprehension about some of the points raised this afternoon. Clearly, the noble Lord, Lord Hardy, would not fall into the category of those to whom my noble friend has just responded.
§ Lord Whitty
My Lords, I fully accept that there are a large number of anxieties. However, I have said that those anxieties are exaggerated and do not represent the short-term or long-term interests of the countryside as a whole. The future of rural development depends on our being able to provide a balance between those who want access to the countryside and those who have land management responsibilities in the countryside. There is a real difficulty if noble Lords opposite continue to say that there should be no dilution of the rights of landowners, when we are trying to present a balanced package which provides very limited, modest rights to ramblers compared with the defensive position adopted by many noble Lords this evening.
§ Baroness Byford
My Lords, this is most unlike the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, with whom I have always had great pleasure debating matters across the Chamber. Matters are getting a little out of hand. As I indicated, the noble Lord, Lord Hardy, also had reservations. I suggest that we move forward.
§ Lord Whitty
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness. I would prefer to deal with the detailed points on Parts II and III before I turn to Part I of the Bill. However, there are one or two issues in Part III in particular which cross-relate to other matters. I do not believe that there is a fundamental conflict between access to the countryside and the protection of SSSIs, as a number of noble Lords, including the noble Earls, Lord Caithness and Lord Peel, suggested. Our aim is to provide a balanced approach to the protection of 746 wildlife and develop a constructive partnership with the owners and managers of land who have responsibility for protecting SSSIs and other aspects of wildlife.
One recognises that there may be a particularly fragile area in which there are vulnerable elements of wildlife that need particular provision. We have acknowledged in the Bill the need for exceptional measures to limit or control access in the interests of conservation. There is a balance between access, conservation and management. However, we do not accept that under Part III of the Bill compensation should be paid to those who in effect propose to allow damage to the SSSIs, as has been suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Kimball, and the noble Earl, Lord Peel. That is patently unfair to other landowners who have refrained from what might otherwise have been a profitable exploitation of that land. Therefore, under this Bill there is no obligation to compensate where consent for developments which would damage SSSIs is refused.
However, on the basis of a constructive partnership with landowners, the countryside agencies will be able to direct funding towards positive support for land management practices which achieve conservation and positive management in those important areas. We expect all such new agreements to provide for positive management of that land.
The noble Lord, Lord Kimball, and other noble Lords have objected to what they call draconian powers in relation to conservation agencies. Noble Lords have referred to local autocrats and others who try to represent the need for protection of wildlife. We expect those new powers of entry to be used extremely rarely. We expect the agencies to have taken all reasonable steps to avoid such confrontational situations. The noble Lord, Lord Buxton, referred to custodial sentences, and so on. Again they would be in the extreme circumstances of repeat offences and persistent offenders who are not deterred by financial penalties. The noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, and other noble Lords cited ACPO in support of other aspects of their views on the Bill. It is interesting that ACPO supports custodial sentences in this area.
My noble friend Lady Young, the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, my noble friend Lady David, the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, and others referred to local wildlife sites. Although it is beyond the scope of the Bill as currently drafted, we recognise the importance of local wildlife sites below the level of nationally important SSSIs. We made a commitment in September to set up local sites review groups. A report was presented before Easter and was placed in the Library of the House. There is a great deal of consensus on measures on local wildlife sites but legislative proposals, as a number of noble Lords suggested, are more controversial. For example, the NFU opposes them. Therefore we must ensure consistency with a tiered approach to site protection. There are international sites, nationally important sites and local sites. We need to develop the protection accordingly.
747 There was also reference to biodiversity action plans. At local level the Government intend that local biodiversity action plans should be incorporated into the local council's work and integrated into the wider community strategies which have been put in place under the local government legislation.
My noble friend Lord Dubs and others referred to the consequences of the Bill in relation to the EU habitats directive. We accept that, if passed, the Bill will require amendments to the regulations under those EU provisions.
The noble Earl, Lord Peel, referred to the precautionary principle. The Bill provides for closing or other restrictions to protect nature conservation interests. But it is also true in this area, as in many others, that experience shows that it is possible to combine access with conservation. It is significant that 200 national nature reserves are visited by over 3 million people per year without serious disturbance to wildlife.
§ Earl Peel
My Lords, what the Minister says may be true up to a point. However, does the noble Lord accept that where there is any lack of precise knowledge of this issue scientific research should be carried out? The noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, said that science should drive our decisions on these issues. Does the noble Lord agree that where there is lack of knowledge based on scientific research, such research should be carried out; and that in the meantime the precautionary principle should prevail?
§ Lord Whitty
My Lords, I am not entirely sure that the noble Earl covers all circumstances. There are well established scientific views on the breeding habits of most of the wildlife with which we are concerned. Therefore there is established knowledge. We know the degree of disturbance which cannot be tolerated. Therefore we would make provisions, protections and closures accordingly. I accept that there may be areas where we need further information and where it would be appropriate to adopt the precautionary principle to which he refers. The point I make is that there are many sites with substantial numbers of visitors where there does not appear to be a problem.
A number of points were raised on Part III relating to various wildlife provisions. The noble Lord, Lord Moran—he is no longer in his place—and at least one other noble Lord referred to marine conservation. Essentially, the Bill relates to land-based wildlife, but the penalties would apply to marine life, too.
My noble friend Lady David referred to limestone pavements, on which a working party is due to report soon. My noble friend Lady Young referred to English Nature—that is the Nature Conservancy Council for England—and I can see no reason why the name by which it is more widely known should not be encapsulated in the legislation. I shall write to noble Lords on other aspects relating to Part III of the Bill.
The noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry, and the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, spoke about AONBs. As I indicated, in that regard we shall bring forward 748 detailed amendments in Committee. I confirm the noble Baroness's figures in terms of increasing support from £2.1 million in 1998–99 to £5.8 million this year.
I turn to Part II, which relates to rights of way. There was a greater degree of consensus in that all noble Lords wanted to see the rapid establishment of a 21st century network of pathways based on good maps. They asked for the acceptance of a number of provisions which gave greater flexibility and clarity. A number of issues were raised about the motorised use of rights of way. My noble friend Lord Hardy suggested excluding motorised traffic from some of the pathways that it should not be using. I agree in principle, but empowering courts to confiscate motor vehicles is not for this Bill. In a different context, the Government are examining the penalties for road traffic offences and the Home Office will deal with that soon.
As regards enforcing the offence of driving off road, the Government have already amended the Bill to address several problems relating to the large number of motorbike riders in particular who believe that they may ride with impunity on bridleways and footpaths. Concern has been expressed that that does not go far enough and we will examine the issue.
The noble Lord, Lord Luke, asked about authorised motor sport events. We are aware that the introduction of the new category of highway will require amendments to a wide range of other legislation. Amendments to the Road Traffic Act to permit authorised motor sport on restricted byways could be undertaken under the regulations to be made under Clause 48.
The noble Earl, Lord Selborne, and the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, raised the issue of access over common land. It was raised also in another place. Problems for those whose property borders on common land exist, but they are not as widespread or severe as is sometimes suggested. Although I am not in a position to put forward a general solution tonight, we shall return to the matter in Committee.
My noble friends Lady Nicol and Lord Donoughue, and the noble Baroness, Lady Trumpington, referred to the need for more provision on bridleways for pedestrians. We changed our original approach to bridleways and responded to the concerns by reclassifying RUPPs as restricted byways. That provides more certainty for the users of horses and of horsedrawn vehicles. However, the needs of equestrians should also be addressed in local authorities' rights of way improvement plans
§ Lord Whitty
My Lords, I apologise to the noble Baroness. The word "equestrians" was written next to her name and I realise that it related to the issue raised by my noble friend Lord Donoughue under Part I.
§ Baroness Trumpington
My Lords, I asked the Minister whether he would kindly reply to two specific questions.
§ Lord Whitty
My Lords, if there was a question which relates to an area other than the gallops, I shall 749 return to it when I deal with access provision. There was nothing which related to rights of way and bridleways as such.
I turn now to the main point of contention on the Bill (which has proved even more contentious since I stood up) relating to access. There is obviously a difference of approach on this matter between the Government and a number of noble Lords. Several noble Lords opposite argued that we should have continued with the voluntary arrangement and they regret that we have chosen to legislate in this field.
I believe that it was quite late in the debate when my noble friends Lady Gale and Lady Thornton explained why we were providing these measures. Many people, many of whom live in the countryside as well as in the towns, have found access to the more beautiful parts of our countryside seriously restricted. Voluntary agreements have been in place but the acreage—or hectarage, as we should now say—of land which has been available through those agreements has not increased dramatically over a period of half a century. These provisions will bring another 500,000 hectares into access and, where the provisions are informal, to say the least, will clarify the position in relation to another 600,000 hectares over and above that. That will provide a substantial improvement for the people of this country in accessing their own countryside.
The voluntary approach has not worked. Nevertheless, here, as elsewhere, we recognise a need for balance. The rights to access to land must be balanced by a responsibility. Walkers and others who use the land for open air recreation and who, in particular, use the access provisions on foot must behave themselves. If they do not, they revert immediately to being treated as trespassers.
Therefore, the Bill does not mean that people will be able to trample all over the countryside and that there will be a tidal wave of people accessing the most beautiful areas. Millions of such acres are already open to the public and that has not led to widespread destruction; nor has it interfered seriously with the management of land carried out by organisations such as the National Trust, and of areas which have been turned over voluntarily to access by landlords. We simply wish to generalise the good practice that has been established in those fields.
I understand that a number of—
§ Earl Ferrers
My Lords, will the noble Lord be good enough to explain what happens when someone has access to the countryside and abuses it, either by wrecking a fence or by lighting a fire? The owner may say, "You have wrecked this part of my land. You cannot come on it tomorrow", to which the offender replies, "Yes, I shall because I have a right of access".
§ Lord Whitty
My Lords, that is not the position. If the sole act is one of being on the land and there appears to be abuse, the landlord has the same rights as he has in relation to a trespasser. However, if a 750 criminal act has occurred, such as setting fire to, destroying or defacing property, clearly far more substantial sanctions are available to the landlord, as there are now. That will continue to be the situation under access.
§ Earl Ferrers
My Lords, the offender may still return the next day, not as a trespasser but because he has a right to come back.
§ Lord Whitty
My Lords, he will no more be able to do that than he may at present. An individual who, for example, is caught shoplifting can, theoretically at least, return to the same shop the next day. In other words, the rights and sanctions available to a landowner in the case of access are no different, and in some ways are slightly better, than those available to any landlord or owner of property.
I turn to some of the detailed concerns in this area: first, the 28-day discretionary closure. Perhaps I may make clear that 28 days is not the maximum period for closure; it is the period that is automatically available to the landowner without reference to any of the agencies. That excludes weekends, but the landowner could apply to the agency for weekend closure, giving legitimate reasons.
We shall clearly return to this. A number of anxieties have been expressed about the apparent illogicality of excluding weekends. I have taken those points on board and we shall look at them again in Committee.
§ Lord Whitty
My Lords, in most circumstances it is the landowner, but there will he circumstances in which the occupier—for example, a long-term tenant farmer—will have the right to apply to the Countryside Agency and the authorities.
§ Baroness Byford
My Lords, the Minister is right to say that we shall return to that issue in Committee. Will he confirm that if people apply to the Countryside Agency—or whoever it is—for an extension, they will not automatically get it? That is one of our worries.
§ Lord Whitty
My Lords, that is certainly true. My point was that 28 days, excluding weekends, is not the maximum. Reasonable applications will be taken by the authorities. In many circumstances, weekends could also be covered. However, there are anxieties about the practicalities and we shall return to the issue. If weekend closure is needed for land management purposes, the authorities are obliged to take practical steps to ensure that those objectives are met.
There are particular situations, such as lambing, that need a separate approach. It is not clear that the presence of people poses a serious problem during lambing, although dogs are a different matter.
§ The Earl of Shrewsbury
My Lords, as a sheep farmer, my experience is that people can cause major 751 problems with the lambing cycle. They can also cause problems when the farmer is turning ewes in lamb off the hill into nearby fields. That is a very delicate time. Perhaps the Minister should think about that again.
§ Lord Whitty
My Lords, I was not rejecting the idea of looking at lambing in particular. I am sure that we shall return to that in Committee. I was saying that the situation was not quite the same as certain other aspects of land management and wildlife conservation. I shall talk about dogs in a moment, but we have to take on board some of the points that have been made today.
We have carefully considered the case for restricting access at night. There are already large areas of land to which people have access at night, including land owned by the National Trust and the Forestry Commission. I understand the concerns that have been expressed. My noble friend Lord Hardy and the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, referred to some horrendous stories. However, if people are engaging in criminal activity or devil worshipping—or whatever goes on in the noble Baroness's neighbourhood—they are unlikely to be deterred by the lack of a right to access.
I understand that there might be a secondary problem of whether people would be prepared to tackle those who might be going to such an event or attempting to carry out such a criminal act, but we are not convinced that a blanket ban on night access is appropriate. Many people, including bird watchers, mountaineers, ramblers or scouts, might wish to avail themselves of night-time access.
§ Earl Ferrers
My Lords, will the Minister say why people want to avail themselves of night-time access?
§ Lord Whitty
My Lords, it varies. In the case of bird watchers, I believe that there are birds that one cannot observe except at night time or one has to be there before dawn in order to see them.
§ Lord Whitty
My Lords, I believe that it was my noble friend Lord Hardy or another noble Lord who referred to infra-red lights and so on. Birdwatchers are at the cutting edge of technology these days. The noble Earl may not be entirely familiar with that, but they are.
As regards mountaineers, clearly, if you are going to climb a mountain which is in the middle of access land, you need some time to approach it and come back down which, in some cases at certain times of the year, will require access after the hours of darkness or before dawn. So there are many legitimate reasons for wanting to have night-time access.
However, we accept that we shall need to look at this matter to see whether anything needs to be done. I believe that the best way forward is, as suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, to use local agreements and perhaps approach the matter through the by-law system.
752 The same argument about local agreements applies also to the identification of means of access and points of entry. I should disabuse the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, of something that I believe she was implying; namely, that the cost of providing means of access would fall on the landowners. The cost is likely to fall mainly or wholly on the local authorities. The landowner would have a right of appeal against any notice concerning a means of access. So it is not by any means the case that landowners would be required to provide that means of access; indeed, quite the opposite.
Of course, in many cases, it would be better if there were clearly designated points of access. But there are many places where that is not appropriate. There are great swathes of countryside where access from the road or other parts of the countryside should be quite open. We have adopted a light touch in this Bill, including in relation to means of access. In general, users would not be obliged to enter land at designated points but local agreements might help if they identified the most appropriate points of access.
§ Baroness Byford
My Lords, perhaps I should give the noble Lord the opportunity to have a glass of water because, like me, he is suffering a little. Does the Minister not accept that while people will have the right to access the countryside within those areas at any point, as regards knowing how they gain access and whether there are any restrictions, it is better to have access points within the framework in which we have been debating this Bill?
§ Lord Whitty
My Lords, in my case, it is not laryngitis. Excessive access to the Dorset countryside over the weekend has given me hay fever—and I was with my dog!
The noble Baroness may be right in certain circumstances but not in others. There will be areas of moorland, for example, where it is not sensible to have a single or designated point of access. But there will be others in relation to which the local access forums may be able to identify the optimum sites of access. That is one of the extremely important contributions which those forums may be able to make in relation to the proper management of access.
§ Earl Peel
My Lords, I am sorry to pursue this point but it is absolutely fundamental to the wellbeing and success of the Bill. Access forums can produce what they like. They can put up all the signs in the world. But unless there is a statutory obligation on the visitor to visit that site and read what is going on in order to know whether any closure orders are in place, then, quite frankly, it will not work because people will not know whether a closure order is in place or not.
§ Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer
My Lords, I accept that I am a relative newcomer to your Lordships' House but speaking from these Benches, it seems that the number of interventions from the Conservative Benches is not helping our understanding of the Minister's reply. It seems to me 753 that some of the points raised would be better dealt with in Committee. The number of interventions do not prove which party is the guardian of the countryside.
§ Lord Whitty
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for that intervention. In our different ways, we all have the concerns of the countryside at heart. It is important that we maximise the consensus and I feel that we are in danger of failing to do so.
For an access provision to work I do not believe that it is necessary to require every rambler to have read notices of access, orders and so on. We have to develop an education and information system that may well incorporate, as the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, suggested earlier, a countryside code. However, it is not reasonable to expect everyone who wishes to have access to our countryside to know in advance where and when access is provided. Of course, it is important that access is clearly signposted. The recommended access point should be clearly indicated and if there is a closure, or an impending closure, that should be indicated. It is not reasonable to require total knowledge on behalf of the rambler; that would cut across the general right of access for which we intend to legislate.
I now turn to the issue of dogs and horses. I recognise that there is considerable concern about dogs. We have already taken advice from English Nature and others in relation to the requirement that all dogs should be on leashes during the nesting season. We have already decided that we should table an amendment to extend that period until July, so that it would run from March to July. That would also need to apply when stock was in the vicinity. I recognise that other noble Lords would want the provision to go further than that. Undoubtedly that will form an area of interest in Committee. I seem to be the only person here who has a good word to say for dogs.
§ Lord Northbrook
My Lords, can the Minister tell the House what compensation there will be for livestock killed by the unfortunate incidence of dogs let off leashes? Is there anything in the Bill to cover that?
§ Lord Whitty
My Lords, if stock is damaged by a dog acting irresponsibly, and if the owner can be caught, there is already provision for compensation and, if necessary, for criminal charges. That will remain the case. I shall mention in a moment the more general issues of compensation and I shall return to the issue of dogs.
In relation to gallops and to horses in that context, I turn to the points raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Trumpington, and my noble friend Lord Donoughue. The areas where this issue arises may not be as widespread as they suggest. Nevertheless, we need to consider the matter. My noble friend Lord Donoughue advised me not to mention Epsom, but it was mentioned subsequently. There is a local Act in place that would not be overridden by this provision.
754 In other words, there would be co-existence of a right to access and respect for the rights of the trainer and those in charge of the horses. Once again, we may need to make local agreements in order for that to be the case in relation to other gallops. I need to ensure that the department looks at the number of cases where that may arise, and where there is a conflict between walking and other activities, in particular, in this context, horse gallops. I shall look at that further and no doubt we shall return to that subject in Committee.
§ Baroness Masham of Ilton
My Lords, perhaps I may remind the Minister that those noble Lords who have spoken have mentioned only the gallops in the south of England. Middleham in the north is just as important as Newmarket.
§ Lord Whitty
My Lords, I would never cross swords with the noble Baroness to suggest that the north of England was any less important than the south. The number of such sites needs to be clearly identified. We need to see whether different arrangements apply and we must try to reconcile the right of access with the provisions for gallops. Clearly, we need to face up to that situation.
The noble Earl, Lord Mar and Kellie, raised a number of points in relation to water. The Bill primarily concerns access on foot and therefore does not deal with issues relating to water.
The issue of wardens and rangers was raised. Local authorities will be able to appoint wardens to help manage access, where appropriate. It is not the case that they will be needed everywhere. The Government's impact assessment suggested that the extra cost of wardens could be of the order of £1.5 million to £2 million per year. That cost will fall on local authorities, but they will receive increased funding to take account of the additional burden. It is difficult to forecast how many extra wardens will be needed. But we expect the provision to be targeted at those areas which are most in need of coverage.
§ The Duke of Montrose
My Lords, I thank the Minister for giving way. I asked in my speech whether legislation exists to allow the Government to ring-fence the money they give to local authorities so that they cannot use it for other purposes which they may feel are equally deserving.
§ Lord Whitty
My Lords, I have already indicated that local authorities will receive additional resources. It is our general philosophy, usually supported throughout the Chamber, not to ring-fence money to local authorities but to allow them some discretion in making their own decisions. In the passage of the Local Government Bill, certainly in England—the noble Duke may have a different experience—there was general all-party support for more discretion for local authorities in that regard. But additional resources will be provided to cover that point.
755 The issue of overall costs was referred to. I indicated the amount of money we estimate will be necessary for wardens in the first instance. Other costs clearly arise. We estimated that the annual cost to the public sector—both local and central government—will be around £2 million, with a one-off expenditure of around £6 million to set up the operation of the access provisions. That is for England. It will be for the National Assembly for Wales to allocate funding within Wales and not for me. Clearly the countryside agencies will receive part of that additional funding.
Questions of compensation were raised. It is not our general view that it is appropriate to pay compensation to landlords simply for the limited interference which access will give in relation to their landowner's rights. A range of features has been built into this system to minimise the potential adverse effects. The statutory rights will be confined in the way I described. Landowners and farmers will continue to be able to use their land as they see fit. They will have a minimum of 28 days each year for complete closure and more should they need it for land management purposes. There is not an obvious loss of income or additional expenditure which falls to landowners as a result of this access provision.
The noble Earl, Lord Peel, referred to the provisions under the 1949 Act. But that is not exactly the same. That Act deals with specific landlords affected by specific issues and clearly there was discrimination between landowners in that respect. In this Bill the new rights apply to all landowners and there is therefore no differentiation or any human rights case on that front.
Clearly a person who damages property—to go back to the point of the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers—commits both a criminal offence and a civil wrong. There is therefore available under the existing criminal law damages in both the civil and criminal courts. But to repeat my point, the fears expressed are exaggerated 756 or alarmist. We have already an example, as my noble friend Lord Dubs indicated, in the Lake District. It has been open to access and it has equally extensive stone walls and all the other features to which reference has been made and the presence of a large number of walkers throughout the year, particularly in the holiday season. Likewise, the National Trust has extensive experience of managing nearly 1,000 square miles of open countryside. Yet the number of incidents of criminal damage in those areas is very small. There is no reason to presume that this would be any different in the areas—admittedly, very substantial areas—of additional private land that we are opening to access by these provisions.
I believe that that is enough from me tonight. We have opened up a few problems on this Bill and there will be some interesting developments during the Committee stage. Some amendments will be brought forward by the Government and no doubt other noble Lords will wish to table amendments, which I look forward with interest to reading.
§ Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton
My Lords, I trust that the noble Lord will listen to what I have to say. I believe that my noble friend the Minister has had an exceptionally high number of interventions during his response. If the noble Lord is willing, I feel that it is reasonable at this stage for us to allow the Minister to finish. After all, this is Second Reading and we have the Committee and Report stages before us in which such points may be pursued. I am certain that my noble friend will respond in writing should any question be put by the noble Lord.
On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.
House adjourned at sixteen minutes past eleven o'clock.