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New Clause 1

Volume 171: debated on Friday 27 April 1990

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Temporary Restriction Of Motor Vehicles On Byways

`After section 14 of the Act there shall be inserted—

"14A.—(1) The power to make an order under section 14 of this Act shall, where the road is a byway open to all traffic, be exercisable for the purpose of restricting use of the road by motor vehicles, or by motor vehicles of any class, if the authority is satisfied that it is expedient so to restrict that use in order to avoid disturbance to the surface of the road or annoyance or inconvenience to other traffic using the road, including in particular pedestrians and equestrians.
(2) The power to make regulations under section 16 shall include a power to make regulations providing that objections to an order proposed to be made under section 14 for the purposes set out in subsection (1) above may be considered at a public inquiry or hearing held to consider objections to an order under section 53 or section 54 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 which would have the effect of showing that road as a byway open to all traffic in a definitive map and statement of public rights of way.
(3) In this section "byway open to all traffic" has the same meaning as in section 127 of this Act.".'—[Mr. Andrew F. Bennett.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

9.38 am

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

We have ahead of us a useful day's debate on road traffic matters. By tradition, if a statement is forthcoming, it will be made at 11 am. It would be far more helpful for the Government to ensure that there was a proper statement at 11 am so that we knew what was happening on the poll tax, rather than for some of us to have to raise the matter on points of order at 11 am, which I am sure that you would feel to be unhelpful, Mr Speaker. I hope that you will use your good offices between now and 11 am to persuade the Government that they must make a clear statement so that there is no continued speculation.

That is especially important as there are local elections and the poll tax is a key issue at those local elections. After the local elections, voters should have the first opportunity to know the Government's proposals. It would be grossly unfair to the general public if there were hints about changes that might influence their votes and they were disappointed. I hope that you will use your good offices, Mr. Speaker, to ensure that there is a statement at 11 o'clock.

I understand the problems for the hon. Member for Nottingham, South (Mr. Brandon-Bravo), being ninth in the ballot. It is a bit like losing £5 and finding 5p—one is not sure whether one has had success. Ninth in the ballot is not the best position. I do not blame him totally for choosing a Bill that came from the Department of Transport, but I am a little disappointed that he did not find out whether the whole country or merely the Department of Transport and local authorities would benefit from it. It is rather a pity that he chose a Bill whose sole aim is to help bureaucrats in the Department of Transport and in local authorities and is not designed to help the general public. In fact, it makes life much worse for the general public.

The National Farmers Union, the Automobile Association and the Ramblers Association are upset about the Bill. I make it clear that, although I have no financial interest, I am a member of the Ramblers Association and I often speak on its behalf. I shall say some things on behalf of the association this morning. The Ramblers Association gives me considerable assistance.

The ramblers are upset about one point in particular. There is a useful group called the rights of way review committee, which is chaired by the hon. Member for Saffron Walden (Mr. Haselhurst). It is sad that when the Department of Transport was bringing forward the Bill it made no attempt to consult the rights of way review committee to discover its views on the matter. I am a little unhappy about the way in which the Bill has come about.

As the proceedings continue, we may be able to negotiate some compromises, but it would have been far better if all the negotiations had taken place before the Bill was introduced for Second Reading. It would have been much more helpful for me if the hon. Member for Nottingham, South had got on with the negotiations before Easter, when I suggested that he should negotiate with the ramblers rather than leave it until the past day or two.

The problem is that, as Friday approaches and one must speak on a Bill on that day, one must do quite a bit of work. As one starts to dig into most pieces of legislation, one often finds that there is rather more in them than was thought and one begins to think, "Perhaps we should press this point and that point." The purpose of the new clause is to do that very thing.

The hon. Member for Nottingham, South should have put into the package something for the Department of Transport, something for local authorities to reduce bureaucracy, and something for the many people who walk in the countryside. He should have put in something for the farmers who look after the countryside, and he should have at least consulted major groups such as the AA.

The hon. Gentleman should also have been quite clear in saying that this is not a Bill to save money. The worry in my mind and in the minds of ramblers is that, with all the pressures of the poll tax, the Bill will make it easier for local authorities to defer repairing roads, replacing footbridges over rivers, and so on. Of course it would help if at this stage we knew a little more about the Government's proposals on the poll tax and whether the Government propose to keep the main thrust of their legislation, which is to discourage local expenditure—something that I find extremely worrying.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that not only are the Government endeavouring to dissuade local expenditure but we in the north of Ireland, where there is an entirely different rating system, have discovered that there has been falling expenditure on roads for many years and that central Government expenditure——

Order. I realise that the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) is still on his preamble, but I am sure that he will stick to the new clause.

I appreciate that, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I felt that it was important for the House to realise that it is not a narrow Bill and that there are major implications for expenditure. There is pressure to cut expenditure. I agree with the hon. Member for Antrim, East (Mr. Beggs). In Northern Ireland, and certainly in the north-west of England, expenditure on roads and footpaths has been cut. This measure would allow delay. There should be some opportunity for redress. The substantial problem that walkers and others come across is what is now referred to in horrible initials as BOATS.

BOATS—byways open to all traffic.[Laughter.] The Minister may laugh, but it is causing considerable upset to large numbers of people. Perhaps the most famous person who has been campaigning about the issue is Lord Denning, but I shall refer to that matter later. I hope that the Minister will tell us what the Government will do about the problem.

The aim of the new clause is to give highway authorities—that is to say, county council, metropolitan district councils and London borough councils—enhanced powers to make temporary traffic regulation orders to restrict or prohibit the use by motor vehicles of byways open to all traffic. In other words, we are talking about the green lanes and the ancient trackways which at one time had vehicles—usually horse-drawn vehicles—going over them. In recent years, horse-drawn traffic has ceased to go over such byways and they are now often used by horse riders. There are now people who want to ride motor bikes and drive off-road vehicles on them. The clause achieves its aim by inserting a new section 14A into the Road Traffic Regulation Act 1984. Section 14 is one of the sections to be amended by the Bill. The new clause states that where the authority thinks it expedient, it can put a temporary restriction or prohibition of motor traffic on a byway open to all traffic to
"avoid disturbance to the surface of the road, or annoyance or inconvenience"
being caused by motor vehicles to other users of the way, particularly walkers and horse riders. I am afraid that the measures must be temporary. It would have been much better to table an amendment that would impose a permanant restriction. Therefore, I use the new clause as a vehicle to ask the Government what they will do.

On 23 February, during the Second Reading debate on the Rights of Way (Agricultural Land) Bill, which was introduced by the hon. Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle (Mr. Leigh), there was a useful debate on rights of way. There were many comments about the problem that horse riders and walkers were suffering as a result of some green lanes or byways being used by off-road vehicle drivers and motor bike riders. The hon. Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway), who is a regular attender on Fridays, said:
"I have seen groups of riders"—
by which he means horse riders—
"stampeding along bridleways and fast cars being driven irresponsibly. Drivers rev up their cars and wreck the whole
spirit of the countryside, and the people and animals within it. It should be stopped immediately.—[Official Report, 23 February 1990; Vol. 167, c. 1201.]
I am pleased to see the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Summerson) in his place. He said:
"It is an anomaly that because a footpath or a bridleway has at some time been used by wheeled traffic it can be used for wheeled traffic today. In the past wheeled traffic might have been a horse-drawn wagon, a medieval bullock cart or even Boadicaea's chariot, but now it means that yobs can drive their wretched jeeps and beach buggies up and down the tracks and churn them up, charging into the crops arid shattering the peace and quiet of the countryside. They can ruin the soil structure of those paths all too easily. Especially with clay, once the soil structure gets deflocculated it is very difficult to restore it."—[Official Report, 23 February 1990; Vol. 167, c. 1207.]
The hon. Members for Norfolk, North-West (Mr. Bellingham) and for Torridge and Devon, West (Miss Nicholson) also commented on the problem.

However, the person who has received the most publicity on this issue is Lord Denning. I believe that he got himself on "Wogan". Lord Denning has been running a substantial battle against Hampshire county council over the use of green lanes. Perhaps it was as a result of Lord Denning's pressure that Hampshire county council called a conference on the subject. About 300 people attended it and put forward a series of recommendations——

I, too, have seen references to Lord Denning and his protest, which I believe was on a fairly narrow subject. My hon. Friend will correct me if I am wrong, but I got the impression that Lord Denning was concerned only about his own little path near his own big house. My hon. Friend's new clause is seeking to deal with places such as the High Peak and the Tissington trail and other such trails in Derbyshire and in the Peak district—not too far from the areas that my hon. Friend knows well from his rambling and mountaineering. Is not my hon. Friend trying to protect such trails and biking areas that have been sponsored and provided by the Labour-controlled Derbyshire county council, and not somebody's private drive?

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. There is some strength in his view, although I am sure that Lord Denning would dispute that he is motivated merely by the problems at the bottom of his own back garden, which is not exactly the sort of back garden that most of us know about. Nevertheless, Lord Denning has identified a substantial group of people throughout the country who have properties on the byways that used to be peaceful lanes but which have not been churned up.

I agree with my hon. Friend that a substantial number of such lanes are to be found in upland Britain and that they have major problems. Over the past 30 or 40 years., many such byways have ceased to carry motor vehicles and have become quiet places for walkers and horse riders. Often in the upland areas stones have fallen off walls and have blocked the road. When horses and carts used to travel along them, people picked up the stones and replaced them on the walls, but more recently that has stopped.

The surfaces of such byways were often composed of crushed or pounded stone or clay. Such surfaces are not suitable for modern motor vehicles and are certainly not suitable for off-road vehicles, which quickly churn up the surface, turning it into mud. It is distressing that an authority such as Derbyshire county council, which has an impressive record of trying to restore footpaths and to ensure that they have good surfaces, should find that the byways are quickly destroyed by vehicles. We need some system by which we can keep vehicles off traditional routeways that are not suitable for them.

Perhaps as a result of Lord Denning's pressure—or perhaps as a result of other people's concern, which has been less well publicised—Hampshire county council and the Countryside Commission held a conference on this matter in Winchester last October, which suggested that there should be Government legislation. That is the motivation behind my new clause.

I could give the Minister a series of other examples and could quote what other people have said about the problems but shall refer briefly to only one example of an old Roman road at Betws-y-coed in north Wales—

Yes, very close to the Swallow falls. It is Sarn Helen. It is supposedly a Roman road but as any old track was attributed to the Romans in the past, I suspect that it is, in fact, medieval. Until the 1950s, it was a metal road that ran from the Miners' bridge at Betws-y-coed to Pont-y-Pant at Dolwyddelan. In the 1950s, a substantial flood severed the road a little less than a mile from its start. As a result, it was impossible for the farmers in the area to reach their farms by that old road, which in the past had been the only way up. They found a simple compromise and used a forest road. However, once people started to use the forest road, which had a much more gentle gradient and was much easier to get up, the county council had no incentive to reinstate the missing section that had been worn away. That saved the county council a lot of money. As half a dozen farmers could still reach their farms. Why reinstate the road? One can see the county council's temptation.

Indeed, my worry about the Bill is that if it gives local authorities the right to defer reinstating a road for 18 months, at the end of that 18 months the authority could say, "We have not had much fuss about people not getting through or about reinstating it. Let's go for permanent closure." That example is worrying. If, as in this case, people can get access from the Forestry Commission, the Forestry Commission might rightly feel that a county council should make some contribution towards the upkeep of the road.

Sam Helen has not been used by vehicles for about 20 years. Tarmac has not been laid since then and the top tarmac surface has gradually been eroded by water. It is a pleasant and fairly safe walk. People taking youngsters out into the countryside to practise their map reading encourage them to use it because it is not a route from which they are likely to be easily diverted. As I have said, it is an attractive walk, but in the past two years one or two people have decided that it is a nice place to drive their jeeps. One or two jeeps can turn what is a pleasant path to walk along in both summer and winter into a muddy path.

I shall not go on for much longer because I should like the Minister at least to give us the assurance that something will be done about byways which were used by horse and cart traffic in the past and which have not been used by motor vehicle traffic. I do not know whether the Minister will be able to see his way to amending the Bill in the House of Lords in an attempt to deal with those byways, but if he cannot do so I hope that he will tell us that, following the initiative taken by Hampshire county council and the others who are concerned about this problem, the Government will bring forward some permanent legislation as soon as they can and will deal with BOATS—byways open to all traffic.

I shall listen to the Minister with interest. I hope that he will start the day by making some helpful comments that may speed our progress.

10 am

I am genuinely grateful to the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) for airing several issues that interest ramblers, people who ride horses and anyone interested in the open countryside. However, this modest measure is not a natural place for his new clause. As he said, I was ninth in the ballot for private Members' Bills. There is a golden rule that if one is outside the first seven, one should choose a very modest measure—I underline very modest—to have the remotest chance of successfully steering a Bill through the House. The House knows that one is not guaranteed a Second Reading. Indeed, it is most unusual, when one comes lower than seventh, to choose a measure that does not have cross-party agreement. One should choose, not a major measure, but a Bill to deal with a gap in existing legislation or a matter that everyone views as modest and uncontentious but which cannot find its way into the Government's programme of legislation.

The hon. Gentleman's monetary analogy was not quite right. I suppose that I was not sure whether I had a west mark or an east mark. The hon. Gentleman spoke about uncertainty. Having listened to him, I have a funny feeling that I have picked up an east mark this morning.

The hon. Gentleman has been less than fair to my hon. Friend the Minister and the staff of the Department of Transport. Having looked around for a modest measure, I was given their absolute assurance that all the relevant parties had been consulted. Much of the consultation was done in the middle 80s—in 1987 and 1988. The delay was in finding an hon. Member such as myself with an interest in transport who was prepared to adopt not a new Bill but an amendment to an existing measure because a gap in that legislation had been identified.

While it is true that the rights of way committee has not been consulted recently, it was consulted some time ago and there was no reason to believe that what was being done was contrary to its general wish.

If the hon. Gentleman will allow me, I shall continue for a moment. It also worries me that the hon. Gentleman spoke of local authorities in such a pejorative tone. The House is always being accused of imposing decisions on local authorities or not treating them with the respect that they deserve. We are told that we should give them the right to make their own decisions as far as possible. About 15,000 orders are made on this matter every year and it would be bureaucratic nonsense to involve the Department of Transport and the Secretary of State even in a minor way in matters that rightly come within the remit of local democratically elected authorities.

All that the Bill seeks to do is to tidy up sections 14 and 15 of the Road Traffic Regulation Act 1984. However desirable it would be to deal with the other matters that the hon. Gentleman outlined, what he described in his opening remarks would need a major piece of legislation. I agree with him that over the coming 15 or 20 years, our children and grandchildren will look for a much greener approach to politics and life in general. All the matters that he described will undoubtedly be part of a wider group of green issues, whether they come under the Department of Transport or the Department of the Environment. However, if the hon. Gentleman considers my Bill carefully, he will see that it simply seeks to clean up the present bureaucratic process of repetitious notices and applications. In no way do I seek to give local authorities powers that would undermine the hon. Gentleman's proposals, with which I assure him that I agree.

The Ramblers Association was not consulted and it is not happy with the proposals. It was disappointed that although it got in touch with the hon. Gentleman before Easter, he did not feel that negotiations could start then. He said that we shall have to worry about green lanes for the next 15 or 20 years. That is true, but some green lanes have been crossed by 20 or 30 people on motor bikes or in jeeps or other vehicles and have had their surfaces destroyed. The surface had probably been there for 1,000 years. When that surface has gone it cannot be restored. It is not a problem that we can put off for ever.

I am not in dispute with the hon. Gentleman on that. However, the problem that he describes does not sit well in this amending legislation. The type of anti-social behaviour that he describes is indulged in not only by motor cyclists crossing bridlepaths or footpaths. I represent what is technically described as an inner city seat. Anti-social behaviour of motor cyclists unlawfully using footpaths is a well known and is a major problem for the police. We shall have to address it, but it does not sit properly with this legislation.

My hon. Friend the Minister may wish briefly to comment on the wider implications of the hon. Gentleman's remarks. I should be most unhappy if my modest amending legislation were widened into what would clearly be a major piece of legislation.

First, I wish to address the points made about consultation. The hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) referred to the AA. I have checked and I understand that the Tapwork report—which has nothing to do with the water industry or dancing, but is the traffic and parking consultative working party—consulted a wide variety of people, including the AA. The AA expressed no anxieties. I wonder where the hon. Gentleman obtained his information.

In general, I support the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, South (Mr. Brandon-Bravo) in support of his Bill. The new clause would extend the temporary restriction powers to matters which would not be proper for a temporary traffic order. The Bill already provides for temporary action to prevent serious damage to the road. Judgments about what constitutes disturbance to the surface or annoyance and inconvenience to others are highly subjective and would take us into different territory.

The hon. Member for Denton and Reddish and my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, South will be pleased to hear that I share deeply their respective anxieties about the activities of certain people in vehicles in rural areas. I represent a rural constituency and live in a rural area. I resent most strongly some of the activities of some of those people. I cannot be more firm in my response.

However, as my hon. Friend says, the Bill is not the place to deal with such behaviour. I appreciate the anxieties expressed about protecting the character of byways. Traffic regulation powers can already be exercised to address such problems permanently. Rightly, they involve the normal processes of consultation—public advertisements and so on—which apply to all permanent traffic regulation orders. There is no justification for allowing the more expeditious temporary order procedure to be applied.

I understand that there are procedures available, but they do not seem to work. I am sure that the Minister is aware of how many green lanes are being destroyed. It seems that no action is being taken to protect them. Virtually everyone who has spoken has given examples of the problem. What does the Department intend to do about it?

The hon. Gentleman is right to press me. I cannot be specific at this stage except to say that I hope that he understood from my view, which in this instance i s purely a personal view, that I am endeavouring to do something about the problem.

The hon. Gentleman must wait and see, as my grandmother used to say to me years ago. I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has been approached——

I did not realise that Asquith was the Minister's grandmother.

Perhaps my grandmother copied what Asquith used to say years ago.

I have sympathy with what the hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend have said, but it is not right to include the matter dealt with in the new clause in what my hon. Friend correctly, but unusually described as a modest Bill.

I accept in principle the merits of considering traffic regulation powers when the status of a byway is to be conferred under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. That makes sense. It would be wrong to confuse what are distinct statutory procedures. We are looking at the possibilities of operating the two procedures more closely for administrative convenience. To handle them jointly may require changes in legislation. It would be wrong simply to overlap them as the amendment proposes.

Although the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish has not achieved all that he wants—he made a fair case which my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, South and I are trying to recognise—I hope that——

Like the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett), I have many green lanes in my constituency. I came to the House in the hope of hearing that the Bill would deal with the motorway that runs through my constituency and the temporary orders on it. Surely the two do not lie well together. Am I right on that?

As usual, my hon. Friend has hit the nail smack on the head. I am delighted that he has found the time to leave his constituency today to come and make that point, if no other. He is absolutely correct.

For the reasons that I have given, I hope that the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish will understand that we cannot support the new clause and that he will withdraw the motion. I hope to assist the hon. Gentleman when we debate a later amendment because some of his remarks are more relevant to it.

I am a little disappointed, but not surprised that the Government cannot even tell us what they are thinking about in terms of BOATs. The Minister could at least have explored some of the possibilities. I am sure that many people who are concerned about these green lanes would have liked to hear that the Government were trying to take a step forward. The Minister might have told us that the rights of way review committee was looking at the issue. I hope that the matter will be raised with it.

The debate has offered a market to their Lordships. Although we are not sure whether Lord Denning was speaking for his own or for others' interests, I hope that one or two of their Lordships may feel that they can return to this issue, if not to include the new clause in the legislation, at least to press the Government harder on what they will do about green lanes. As I said when I intervened, they are being eroded steadily. When the top surface of such a road is ripped away, the result is mud for years to come. Then the local authority must spend money putting down hardcore, and we know about the problems of priorities for local authorities and their reluctance to spend money on that.

In view of the Minister's comments and his suggestion that at least on one of the later amendments he can be, as he said, helpful—it may be better to say slightly helpful—I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.