HL Deb 07 November 2000 vol 618 cc1416-35

(" . —(1) Where any land which is open country is overgrown to the extent that its condition is likely to deter the use of that land by any person for the purposes of open air recreation, a competent authority may carry out such remedial work on that land as it considers necessary or expedient to restore that land to a condition suitable for such use.

(2) In the exercise of the power conferred by subsection (1), a duly authorised officer of a competent authority may enter on the land and may take with him such vehicles, machinery and other equipment as may be requisite.

(3) Before entering on any land, a competent authority shall give the owner of the land not less than twenty-four hours notice of their intention to do so or, where it is not practicable to ascertain the name and address of the owner, shall affix a notice at a conspicuous position at the boundary of that land.

(4) A notice under subsection (3) shall specify—

  1. (a) the land to which it relates;
  2. (b) the work to be carried out; and
  3. (c) the date and time when the power to enter on the land will be exercised.

(5) A competent authority may recover from the owner of any land the amount of any expenses reasonably incurred by the authority in carrying out works on that land to the extent that the owner has received or is entitled to receive any grant or other money from public funds for such works.

(6) The power under subsection (1) shall not be exercised in respect of the same land by any competent authority more than once in any period of five years.

(7) In this section "competent authority" means a local authority or—

  1. (a) in respect of land in England, the Countryside Agency; and
  2. (b) in respect of land in Wales, the Countryside Council for Wales.").

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, Amendment No. 83 is tabled in my name. The new clause seeks to deal with a problem that I hope would not be a common one, but nevertheless is difficult and not easily resolved. I refer to the position where access land becomes overgrown to the point where those who have the right of access cannot, in practice, use it. In other words, the land would have to be in a very bad state indeed.

If that point was reached, as far as I can see in the Bill as it stands, no redress is possible. If that is not the case, I should be glad to be advised. I am not imputing to any landowner any malicious or evil intent in that regard. There may well be perfectly understandable reasons why the land goes to pot. However, if that does arise, there is the practical difficulty of resolving it.

The suggestion is that, having given proper notice, competent authorities—that is, local authorities, the Countryside Agency or the equivalent body in Wales—would be allowed to move in and deal with the land in the appropriate fashion, whatever that might be. It has been suggested to me that this is a draconian type of power. However, I suggest that it would not need to be used often. In any case, there are certain brakes on the procedure: first, through the competent authorities which are not likely to move in an unreasonable way; secondly, notice has to be given; and, thirdly, one cannot go onto the same land over and over again. There is a five-year limit on the time when one might enter the land for the purpose of clearing it.

After listening to the debates on the local access fora—or, as I believe we now must call them, forums—it occurred to me that if people are still concerned, that might be an additional filter. It might be useful to place before them for consideration the problem of neglected land before the procedure which I outline kicks in. Obviously, that cannot be done now. However, if the Government were minded to accept the purpose of the clause in principle, I have no doubt that that could be amended at a later stage.

The amendment attempts to deal with the problem of neglected land where it prevents those who have the right of access from so doing. In that spirit, I beg to move.

Baroness Nicol

My Lords, I see the point of the amendment moved by the noble Baroness. However, I have one concern. The land to which she refers as "neglected land" could, in the mean time, have developed considerable conservation value. There is nothing in the amendment which would protect that value. If the land has developed its value to such an extent that it becomes a site of special scientific interest, there is not a problem because the rest of the Bill looks after it. However, if it has simply become valuable in terms of its local biodiversity and therefore needs to be at least considered before it is destroyed, I would be worried that her amendment would prevent that happening. Apart from that, I can see what the noble Baroness is aiming at. In essence, I approve of what she is trying to do.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour

My Lords, can my noble friend tell us what she means by "overgrown"? Does she mean, for example, bracken? Very often that is combined with the sort of circumstances to which the noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, referred. Is she thinking of bracken or scrub of some kind? I would have thought that those are the kind of conditions which ramblers would enjoy. That is part of the fun of rambling. I cannot understand the concern of those who suggest that the amendment is important.

6.30 p.m.

Baroness Young of Old Scone

My Lords, I add my concerns to those of my noble friend Lady Nicol. I can understand the purpose behind the amendment but feel that it is rather too wholesale in its application.

The sorts of powers described to clear overgrown land are fairly unfettered. Scrubbing up of land is not always a bad thing. Scrub is a natural part of the landscape and may well be enjoyed by walkers. Areas of scrub, tall herbs and young trees are developed when grazing is reduced and it is often very good for birds. It provides shelter and food sources for butterflies and other invertebrates. I would be concerned that the wholesale powers to clean up scrub could well go beyond what is the intent of the amendment, which is simply to clear paths for access. That could be interpreted to mean the wholesale tidying up of access land, which could be had for the diversity of the landscape and the wildlife it contains. It is a tenet that is true, and often misunderstood, that tidiness in the countryside is almost always a vice and not a virtue.

Lord Bridges

My Lords, can the noble Baroness explain what is meant by the phrase, "a competent authority"? It seems to be somewhat imprecise. I can imagine circumstances in which there might be more than one authority which thought itself competent to deal with such a matter.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I have limited sympathy with this amendment, to the extent that, as a child, I used to get scratched and have my clothes torn by going through scrub. My children have done it too and I confess that there have been times when I have done it as a grown-up. But that is part of being in the countryside. I would not like our countryside to be cleaned up too much. What is the fun of picking brambles unless one gets scratched at times; indeed, would there be any brambles if the scrub of which they are part was destroyed?

Although the amendment is clearly well meant and has been carefully thought out, it produces too many difficulties. We have been at pains to reassure landowners and farmers that the right of access will not interfere with their freedom to manage the land, subject to existing constraints. But this amendment would interfere with that freedom. It would not place any burden on landowners. But it would give local authorities the power to say, "We believe your land management is interfering with public access and intend to do something about it". There is a hint of the municipal park in that which does not make me happy.

Of course, lack of active land management is a bad thing. But that does not mean that land management has to be universal all over the landowner's land. My noble friends Lady Nicol and Lady Young made the point about conservation of wildlife. I agree with that point and do not need to repeat it. I just do not believe it is right for local authorities to interfere with matters like this and I hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Fookes, on reflection, will think so as well.

Baroness Fookes

My Lords, I am sorry that this amendment met such a lukewarm, if not hostile, response. But I shall take it as friendly criticism. I have no intention of creating municipal parks. I enjoy the countryside sufficiently to know that brambles and bracken are desirable rather than otherwise.

As I indicated at the beginning, I am concerned with the small minority of cases where the countryside is overgrown to such an extent that it is impossible to walk. It was only in those circumstances that I wanted this clause to bite.

I was asked who the competent authority would be. It is set out in the amendment that it would be a local authority, the Countryside Agency, or the Countryside Council for Wales. I would hope that at least the Countryside Agency could be absolved from any desire to sanitise or make municipal parks out of the natural countryside. However, I suggested that if people were unhappy about the nature of the powers in the amendment, it might be possible to use the local access forum before any decision is made. That is not in the amendment as it stands because I was not thinking about those forums at the time. But that might provide the kind of break which noble Lords would consider salutary.

I hoped to receive a more enthusiastic response. I must read the debate and see whether or not I can obtain further support. I doubt it. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

The Earl of Caithness moved Amendment No. 84: After Clause 16, insert the following new clause—

  1. Visitor Management facilities 7,785 words