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Land Access

Volume 228: debated on Thursday 8 July 1993

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5.

To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if she will make a statement about improving access to set-aside and country stewardship land.

We have issued proposals for a scheme to open up new areas of suitable set-aside land for public access to the countryside. Strictly speaking, as I think the hon. Gentleman will know, the countryside stewardship scheme, which makes provision for access to a significant proportion of sites, is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment.

I thank the Minister for that answer. Does she agree that, if land is not used for intensive farming, it is important that it is used for the community at large and that giving people an opportunity to walk peacefully across the land is important? Will she confirm that it is possible for farmers to receive income from the schemes in exchange for supposed access, but that the general public do not know that they have rights of access to that land?

Mistakes have been made in the countryside stewardship scheme, some of which were about giving adequate publicity. We will certainly learn lessons from the way in which the scheme has worked. However, there is no question of forcing farmers to allow access to land beyond public rights of way, as there are costs involved. The meadowland scheme, which is a new scheme proposed under the agri-environment regulation will provide an incentive and, as the hon. Gentleman has said, the public will benefit.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that most farmers are perfectly reasonable when it comes to people requesting access to their land so long as their behaviour is legitimate? Does she further agree that when people invade their land, farmers have far too few powers under the law to remove people who disrupt lawful activity? Will she therefore undertake to liaise with the Home Secretary to improve the powers of farmers to remove new age travellers and those who wish to disrupt a lawful hunt?

I agree with the examples that my hon. Friend gave to illustrate his point. I am happy to liaise with the Home Secretary on that and other points about law and order in the countryside. Most farmers are reasonable about allowing public access to their land. It is a two-way process. Those who seek access should treat it as though they were going, for example, to a place of work. They should be expected to behave responsibly and in return we would expect farmers to be reasonable.

Is not it an indictment of our society that the set-aside schemes were set up by the Common Market in order to destroy food and to allow farmers to watch the grass grow at £100 an acre while millions of people in the Sahara, other parts of Africa and other countries are starving to death? Is not it a fact that the royal family, including the Queen and the Prince of Wales, have had more than a quarter of a million pounds out of those tax avoidance schemes? It is no wonder that the Queen has offered to pay tax; she is using taxpayers' money to do it.

The fun was quickly over. Far from it being a case of a barrel of lard, it is one of sour milk. The hon. Gentleman has been second to none in requiring surpluses and intervention to be tackled firmly by the EC and set-aside and the CAP reforms do just that. I am amazed that the hon. Gentleman is not welcoming this move forward.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that farmers in my home village of Whimple in the constituency of Tiverton have been refused permission to hold fund-raising public events on set-aside land, the money from which would go to registered charities and the local church, for the sole reason that it is set-aside land? Will my right hon. Friend look at that case?

While the Secretary of State is considering the question of public access, I draw attention to the review group considering the possible privatisation of Forestry Enterprise and the Forestry Commission, on which her Department is represented. Is the right hon. Lady aware that the Countryside Commission's submission to that review group stated that public ownership has been an effective means of achieving public benefits? It went on to say that the disposal of some or all of the freehold estate, which comprises 40 per cent. of all forested land in Britain, is likely to lead to the loss of unrestricted, free of charge public access to the land in question. Does the right hon. Lady agree that public access to woodlands is best preserved by public ownership and will she ensure that her Department makes representations to the review group to that effect?

I was aware of those views and I think that the hon. Gentleman is aware that the review will consider forest land from the point of view of its commercial management, public access—which is important—and the protection of our heritage. Those three aspects are at the heart of the review and I keep an open mind about its findings.