HL Deb 18 December 2001 vol 630 cc134-6

2.53 p.m.

Lord Greaves asked Her Majesty's Government: Whether they intend to open up open country and registered common land under Section 2(1) of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 by way of commencement orders on a regional basis as and when the conclusive maps have been published for each region.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Whitty)

My Lords, we are carefully considering whether to proceed by way of commencement orders on a regional basis. We expect to announce our intentions soon after the consultation on the draft maps in the first two mapping regions is completed in February next year.

Lord Greaves

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that half encouraging Answer. Will he pass on congratulations from these Benches to the Countryside Agency on the way in which, so far, it is adhering to its fairly rigid timetable? It has issued the first two draft maps for the South East and what is somewhat oddly called the lower North West regions on time. That is extremely encouraging. Would it not cause problems if conclusive maps for those first two regions were published perhaps more than two years ahead of the conclusive maps for other parts of the country, so that everybody knew where the new access land was to be during a long period when access was still not possible? Would that not he a recipe for confusion and confrontation?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I am happy to pass on the noble Lord's thanks to the Countryside Agency, which has a difficult task but has completed those draft maps. Clearly, we need to consider from the reaction to those draft maps what problems may follow in other regions before we take a definitive decision on whether producing conclusive maps should lead to the commencement orders applying to those two regions or a slightly larger number of regions, or whether we should wait until the full mapping process has been completed. We shall consider that next spring.

Earl Peel

My Lords, is the Minister aware that in the two areas where mapping has started—the South East and the North West—considerable areas of land have been mapped that have no bearing whatever on open country? That is causing considerable distress to those involved. For example, in Kent, I know of at least two private parks that have been designated.

Parks are exempt under the Act. In the north-west of England, much in-bye land, which has nothing to do with open access, has been designated. Will the Minister tell his department to inform the Countryside Agency to inform the mapping authority that it must withdraw its horns and go back to designating open country and leaving land that is totally unsuitable under the Act?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, there are exceptions to the designation of open countryside, but the noble Earl will recall, from long hours of discussion, that the Act includes two processes: one is the mapping of open countryside and the other is the exceptions to the mapping. It may well be that land has been mistakenly designated—no doubt comments on the draft maps will make that clea—but, within open countryside, parks, gardens and in-bye land may be designated, some of which may subsequently be exempted under the provision to which the noble Earl refers. Parkland and gardens are exempted, but we are only at the first stage of a two-stage process.

Lord Bridges

My Lords, has the Minister's attention been drawn to an article in a Sunday newspaper that reveals an extraordinary case of an internationally known botanical garden that has been classified as open countryside, which it manifestly is not? Will he urge the Countryside Agency to consider the maps with extreme care and to take into account objections to them? If the Countryside Agency turns a deaf ear to such complaints, will it be possible to proceed to judicial review?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, it is wrong to start talking about judicial review when we are at an early stage of a process on which we spent much time during the passage of the Act. The draft maps are for comment. Exceptions are then made to areas designated as open country or common land. That process will continue as set out in the time-scale announced by the Countryside Agency. Most of the problems with the two regional maps produced so far and subsequent maps should be resolved during that process. The issue of judicial review therefore does not arise.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer

My Lords, I am sure that the Minister will recall our discussion during the passage of the Act about the need for adequate resources to be given to the local authorities in the areas in which much open land will fall to provide access—stiles, information points and so on. What assessment is his department carrying out in order to recommend to the Department of Transport, Local Government and the Regions what extra resources will be needed?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, we committed ourselves in the Act fully to fund the additional duties that it imposes. We identified the appropriate allocation for local authorities at this point in the process as being between £12 million and £19 million. That is necessary if we are to achieve the rapid enactment of the process.

Baroness Gibson of Market Rasen

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the Countryside Agency has done well in the way that it has produced its maps—in particular, by consulting widely? Wide consultation is under way at present. Does he agree that the consultation and the mapping process should produce something that will enable more people to gain great pleasure from our countryside?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, yes, and the passing of the Act provides that possibility. However, the process under which it is being implemented gives to those who want to use the right of access and to those who are land owners or managers the right to comment on the draft maps. At the end of that process, when a provisional map is introduced, landowners have a right of appeal against it.

I believe that safeguards have been built in for everyone and that the final result will be of great benefit to those who want to use our countryside.

Baroness Byford

My Lords, first, I want to press the Minister on the early introduction of land. Secondly, will he reconsider the definitions of mountain, moor, heath and down, which we were unable to establish? The lack of definition is leading to the inclusion on the maps of areas of land which were never intended for inclusion.

Furthermore, why, as I understand it, are farmers to be charged £15 and £5 respectively for obtaining the maps when previously Ordnance Survey maps were provided free of charge? I cannot overemphasise the disquiet that that situation is causing in the countryside.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I do not believe that to be the case. People have recognised that the process is open and will give landowners in particular rights to object or to suggest modifications to the maps.

As we noted during the passage of the Bill, the Countryside Agency has a difficult job to identify precisely where the land concerned begins and ends. It may be, therefore, that modification will be necessary during the process. That is the nature of the process. It is difficult to give too tight a definition.

Access to the maps will be available. However, the provision of free maps is a different matter and one to which we did not commit ourselves during the passage of the Bill. That was never the case previously.

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