HL Deb 11 October 2000 vol 617 cc422-8 (" .—(1) It shall be the duty of the local highway authority to maintain, and provide adequate signage for, any public way under this Part. (2) The local highway authority may contract with the relevant land manager for the performance of such works as may be necessary in discharging the authority's duties under subsection (1).").

The noble Lord said: The amendment does not seek to extend the rights laid down in the Bill or to restrict any rights. It seeks simply to improve in a modest way some of the Bill's provisions; namely, to require the local highways authority to provide adequate signage and maintenance of rights of way. The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, mentioned bridleways and I intend the amendment to include bridleways, footpaths, cycle-ways and all other rights of way.

The present situation seems slightly unsatisfactory. The highways authorities are required under Section 27 of the Countryside Act 1968 to erect signposts where rights of way leave a metalled road, but they merely have the power, not the duty, to provide way-marks along that path. That seems slightly absurd. We have a position whereby one can come off a road and there is a way-mark, a signpost, stating that there is a right of way. You can then follow that sign and you find to your dismay, if your are a walker, a rider or cyclist, that it is perfectly possible that there are no way marks guiding you further along the route after the sign that you first followed.

I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Rotherwick for reminding me that the signs in Switzerland and France, for example, where I have walked for many years are very much better than in this country. It seems a great pity that it is not a statutory requirement that local authorities should have a duty, and not simply a power, to make sure that all rights of way are properly marked. That leads to frustration on the part of walkers and riders, and for farmers and landowners, who are irritated by repeated, if unintentional, acts of trespass. Getting lost is a major disincentive to people using the rights of way.

I have several rights of way and bridlepaths on my farm and I am sent small way-marks by the local authority. I go out with a bag of nails and a hammer and put them up, and that is fine. But I could be bolshy about it, or lazy, or were I to spend too much time in the House of Lords, I could become so. Would I then be liable to prosecution? I do not think that is the case, but it is not helpful unless someone puts these signs up. At present there seems to be no requirement on anyone in particular to make sure that rights of way are properly way-marked. My amendment seeks to introduce such a requirement.

It seems to me entirely appropriate at this stage of the Bill, when the Government are planning to rationalise the law on rights of way, that the relevant authority should have a "duty" to place way-marks throughout the length of a right of way and not only where the right of way begins.

The same rationale should apply to the maintenance of rights of way. Again, the present position is unsatisfactory. In theory, rights of way are maintainable at public expense by the highways authority, save, of course, where farmers have ploughed up the land for cultivation, in which case they have a perfectly proper duty to reinstate them. Otherwise, the lines of responsibility are blurred. It is uncertain who is responsible for maintenance of rights of way. The result is often rights of way or bridleways that are inadequately marked or sometimes impassable—I have had that experience when I have used bridleways. I hope that the Government will take that part of my amendment in the spirit in which it is intended as it will improve the Bill for both users and landowners.

The second subsection of my amendment is intended to encourage local authorities to contract with land managers, as we have become used to calling them—farmers, landowners or tenants—to maintain rights of way. I believe that that would be an advantage because local authorities would then know for certain that the rights of way were being properly maintained. It would save them a good deal of time and trouble. They would not constantly be pestered by people who want to know where the rights of way are and why they are not being properly maintained. After all, they will have plenty of other things to do under the rights of access provisions in the Bill.

There are perfectly good precedents for such arrangements. I have been in touch with Hampshire District Council and Surrey County Council, both of which have these sort of agreements with landowners; for example, to keep field-edge paths, foot bridges, stiles or gate-ways clear of brambles and thistles. I believe that this sort of provision is now necessary. I pray in aid a short section from the publication by the then Countryside Commission, Rights of Way in the 21st Century, which, after all, is what we are talking about. In connection with the duties of highway authorities, it says: The Commission believes there can be few, if any other statutory duties which local government, taken as a whole, carries out so poorly".

I believe that my amendment would put the matter right. When he responds, I hope that the Minister will look favourably on my proposal. I beg to move.

Baroness Scott of Needham Market

I should appreciate a little clarification on the amendment. As written, it seems to me that it relates to the signing of rights of way, whereas the noble Lord seemed to be referring to the problem of maintenance. In terms of the signage of rights of way, local authorities already have quite adequate powers. In fact, quite stringent targets were originally set by the Countryside Commission on how they should be signed. It may be helpful to share with the Committee a phenomenon that I observed as chair of rights of way in Suffolk. A wooden public footpath sign erected by the local authority seemed to last about five or six days, while a similar sign that said "Keep Out" seemed to last for about 20 years. I never did understand why.

Lord Willoughby de Broke

My amendment does deal with the maintenance as well as the signage for rights of way. Perhaps the Minister could clarify who has the duty to way-mark. I am not talking about signs off the metalled road where rights of way begin; I am talking about signs in the area through which people pass. There is no clarity at present as regards who is responsible for marking those rights of way.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer

I echo the points made by my noble friend about the frustration experienced by many local authorities in this respect. Although they may erect these signs, for one reason or another they are either vandalised, with the posts being taken out so that they fall over and people cannot see them, or, alternatively, in some particular trails where an effort is made to mark these rights of way with very nice, attractive way-markings, they are taken away by souvenir hunters who walk the trail—and the tops of the screws may even have been drilled off!

There may be a few local authorities which do not worry too much about signage. They need to be reminded that they should be undertaking this task. Indeed, I can understand why the noble Lord referred to this as a "duty". However, the difficulty here is that the reason why such rights of way are not properly marked is that the signs disappear.

As regards the second part of the amendment, I was under the impression that highway authorities already have the ability to contract with local landowners. Indeed, some of the more successful ways of keeping rights of ways open—for example, as under the parish paths partnership, which is probably the shining beacon in rights of way work at present—have worked on that exact premise.

Baroness Byford

I rise to express my support for the thrust of the amendment moved by my noble friend Lord Willoughby de Broke. I have three quick points to make. First, the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, said that there were already adequate powers. My question to the Minister is: are they being used? If they are not, can he say what further powers we should be considering to ensure that they are used?

Secondly, as regards the responsibility for land management, I assume that some authorities already ask landowners to undertake that task. Perhaps the Minister could assist in that respect. Thirdly, I should declare and interest: like many noble Lords in the Chamber, I am a member of the National Trust. I suspect that the trust is one of the organisations that has more signage than anyone. The trust does not seem to lose its signs to the same degree as local authorities. Of course, it may happen but I am unaware of it. I do not know whether this situation is a reflection of the fact that quite a few local authorities cover both villages and urban areas. However, it is a thought. Alternatively, it may be that the trust is so good at replacing its signs as soon as they are lost—

Lord Greaves

The point that my noble friends were hinting at but which they were too delicate to state is the fact that, in my experience, the people who remove these signs are the landowners and the farmers who do not want people traipsing over their land.

Baroness Byford

All I can say is: "Shame on you, Sir!" That is totally unacceptable and untrue. The noble Lord and I will enter into great clashes as our debates continue if he wants to take that view. Indeed, it is not even a party political point, and I would not suggest that it is.

Lord Greaves

I am sorry if the noble Baroness did not like what I said. However, it is an accurate reflection of what happened in our area. The local authority put up several green footpath signs. They all mysteriously disappeared; and we all know where they went. In one classic case the landowner actually painted over it with a sign indicating his own premises.

Lord Willoughby de Broke

I agree with my noble friend Lady Byford. I take exception to the remarks made by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves. He may have had an unfortunate experience. Indeed, it may be true that he knows what happened to those signs. That may or may not be the case. I do not know. My own experience is that I put up the signs myself; I do not take them down.

The Earl of Mar and Kellie

It may be worth taking some steam out of the debate by reflecting on my holiday in Brittany this summer; indeed, our debates have become a bit of a travelogue. I noticed that the authorities in Brittany had wisely painted the way marks on to existing features, which seemed to get around all these problems.

Baroness Byford

Perhaps I may finish the remarks that I intended to make before I was so nobly interrupted. I issue a challenge to the noble Lord. He can certainly return to this matter at a further stage of our proceedings. If he has facts and figures to show which landowners have been doing this, he ought to put forward such figures to back up his suggestions. I also suggest to him that unfortunately—and this is not something of which I am proud—signs within urban areas, which are nothing to do with landlords, also get defaced. The poor authorities concerned are also having to put that matter right.

My point to the Minister is as follows. If the National Trust can manage to keep its signs intact with not too much difficulty, perhaps there are some lessons to be learnt.

Earl Peel

I should like to return to the very important point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, about the vandalism of such signs. There is no questioning the fact that this does happen on a fairly extensive basis. However, I am not sure that that is necessarily an excuse for local authorities—or, indeed, landowners—not to carry out their statutory responsibilities. It takes us back to an amendment that I moved under Part I of the Bill, which my noble friend Lord Jopling demolished rather effectively. Nevertheless, I believe that the principle of my amendment stills stands; namely, that removing or defacing signs should be an offence under Schedule 2 to the Bill, as well as being a criminal offence. Quite frankly, that is the only way that this very serious problem will be addressed.

Lord Whitty

As with everything else on the subject of rights of way, this is a complex area. I hope that the sensitivities of landlords, landowners and ramblers can be removed from the debate and that we can discuss the detail of the situation. There are problems both as regards the removal of signs and the abuse of signs. The amendment is not in line with what the noble Lord, Willoughby de Broke, seems to be seeking. It could be interpreted as applying to all highways because certain provisions in Part II—in particular Clauses 55 and 60—apply not just to rights of way but also to highways generally. Therefore there is a problem with the drafting of the amendment.

However, even if that is not the intention, the Government do not believe that there is any good reason for making all rights of way maintainable at public expense. The situation is complicated because many footpaths and bridleways are already maintainable at public expense as that was the situation before 1959. The Highways Act 1959 brought about change but any footpath or bridleway created before that time is publicly maintainable unless that liability has subsequently been extinguished. So there is not even a clear-cut dividing point from 1959. A number of byways and bridleways are therefore maintainable at public expense: others are not.

Many rights of way are privately maintainable. To create a liability for the public purse overnight could have significant resource implications for highway authorities. The Government see no reason why a person who is liable for maintaining a highway should simply have that burden lifted and have it placed on the taxpayer. After all, the landowner knew of the existence of the right of way when he inherited or acquired the land. The provision for him to maintain the right of way should rest with him.

There are, of course, provisions in the Highways Act which enable someone who is responsible for maintaining a highway to apply to the magistrates' court for that highway to be made publicly maintainable and for their private liability to be extinguished. There is no obvious reason why that should be bypassed by the blanket provision which is proposed.

The part of the amendment which relates to signposting of rights of way also seems unnecessary. Section 27 of the Countryside Act 1968 requires a highway authority to erect signs where a footpath, bridleway or byway leaves a metalled road. Highway authorities are also required to erect signposts along a right of way to assist those unfamiliar with the locality. Landowners' consent must be obtained before a signpost may be erected on their land, but the signposting is the public authority's responsibility. We believe these powers are sufficient to ensure that the public know which rights of way are open to them and which are not.

The issues which have been raised about inadequate signing as compared with other countries need to be addressed. They may well be addressed local authority by local authority in the improvement plan for the right of way network. I do not think that we need to transfer the responsibility or to change the powers in the way that the noble Lord's amendment suggests. I therefore hope that he will not press it.

Lord Willoughby de Broke

Before the noble Lord sits down, is he saying that the present power is adequate and that it does not need to be made a duty? That is what I am trying to get at. We heard earlier from Members on all sides of the Committee that signage in this country can be inadequate. To make this provision a duty rather than a power would be comparatively simple. I do not believe that it is a complicated matter. It would clarify the issue for users, the highway authority and landowners.

Lord Whitty

There is a relevant duty in Section 27(4) of the 1968 Act which requires highway authorities to erect such signs as may in the opinion of the highway authority be required to assist persons who are unfamiliar with the locality. This may not be the absolute requirement that I believe the noble Lord seeks. It may vary in its application from area to area. However, as I say, the relevant duty already exists. To seek to transfer responsibility for maintenance and to alter the balance of duty, albeit marginally, is to go too far. If the noble Lord wishes to pursue the matter, he should separate out the two issues.

Lord Willoughby de Broke

I am most grateful to the Minister for that full reply and for trying to clarify the position. I shall return to the matter on Report with an altered amendment. In the meantime I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

The Earl of Selborne moved Amendment No. 442: Before Clause 62, insert the following new clause—