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Countryside And Rights Of Way Bill

Volume 346: debated on Monday 20 March 2000

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

[Relevant documents: The Thirteenth Report from the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Committee, Session 1997–98, on The Protection of Field Boundaries, HC 969–I, and the Government's response thereto, Cm 4200.]

Order for Second Reading read.

I have selected the amendment which stands in the name of the Leader of the Opposition.

3.31 pm

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

Order. I had forgotten to mention the fact that there will be a 10-minute limit on the speeches of Back Benchers. [HON. MEMBERS: "And the Minister."] I am afraid that I cannot do that.

The length of my speech will depend on the number of interventions, but I shall try to keep my remarks within a reasonable compass to enable everyone else to speak.

This is an historic Bill. It finally achieves the aims and aspirations of the great post-war Labour legislation, the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949, and it fulfils the yearnings of the British people, expressed often dramatically over the past century, for full rights of access to the beauties of our countryside to which we are all heir. It fulfils the Government's manifesto commitments not only to offer all people greater freedom to explore the open countryside, but—and just as importantly—to strengthen protection of our national heritage. It finally brings to reality the dream of Lloyd George that nobody should be a trespasser in the land of their birth.

There have, I recognise, been several worthy previous attempts to legislate, most notably the Law of Property Act 1925, which granted access rights to urban commons, and the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949. Yet extensive areas of open countryside remain out of bounds to the public. Despite some commendable individual initiatives, the key fact remains that the voluntary approach has delivered relatively little new access over the past 50 years. Indeed, at the rate of expansion by voluntary means over the past 50 years, it would take something of the order of 1,000 years to achieve what we shall achieve through this Bill.

I remind the House that our decision to legislate has been supported by very substantial majorities in the responses to extensive consultations and opinion polls.

The Bill will give the public the right of access to private property. When the right hon. Gentleman was framing the legislation, was he aware of any precedent for giving the public access to privately owned property and land?

The hon. Gentleman, unusually, was not listening. I said that there are precedents, most notably the Law of Property Act 1925, which granted access rights to urban commons. That was taken further in the 1949 Act passed by the post-war Labour Government, but that Act did not succeed in extending the right of access to all the land that it intended to cover, because it relied on the voluntary method. There are plenty of precedents for what is being achieved today, but the difference today is that we are ensuring that the aspirations behind those earlier Acts will now be brought to fruition.

The Bill is not only about access; we also recognise that it is time to bring our public rights of way system up to date for the first time in many years and to legislate for increased protection of our sites of special scientific interest. We want to prevent further damage to those sites and to redress the effects of the Tory legacy, which has left a large proportion of SSSIs in a serious and degraded condition. We do not intend to stop there. We are also increasing penalties for people who deliberately damage special sites, and we will be introducing the first custodial penalties for wildlife crimes.

On the broader front, we are taking the first step towards the designation of two new national parks, in the south downs and the new forest. They will be the first new national parks in England for over 40 years. We are taking steps to provide better management and protection for our designated areas of outstanding natural beauty, which cover twice the area of the national parks in England. I have already announced that I am more than doubling the funding available for those areas, and soon I will be making a further statement about measures to conserve and enhance those beautiful and important areas.

I share the right hon. Gentleman's concern to preserve these areas, but has he been to the New forest recently and seen the amount of litter and detritus produced by many visitors? Is he sure that his provisions for greater access to the countryside are compatible with the protection of the countryside?

I have a lot of sympathy with the hon. Gentleman's view that the amount of litter in our country is intolerable. That is not a recent development, and since the former Prime Minister, Baroness Thatcher, went around St. James's park putting carefully selected pieces of paper into a plastic bag, the nation has not noticed much improvement in the litter problem. I entirely accept that we need much tighter litter provisions and more stringent application of the law. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we intend to include those measures in the rural and urban White Papers which we shall publish later this year.

The right hon. Gentleman referred to the setting up of new national park authorities. Will they include parish council representatives, who were included in national park authorities by the previous Government—a measure that Labour then opposed?

The composition of the authorities for the two new parks has of course to be decided. This is a long process; it will take two or three years to consider planning issues, the parameters of the parks' coverage and the composition of the authorities. I have much sympathy for the idea of parish council representatives on those bodies, but the decision has not yet been taken.

Does my right hon. Friend recognise the huge welcome that has been given to the Bill in the northern part of England because of access and the resulting enhancement of areas of outstanding natural beauty? Does he also recognise that many landscape features are an essential part of such areas? Will he consider granting features such as dry stone walls special protection under the Bill?

I have a great deal of sympathy with my hon. Friend, too. Although the matter is not specifically in the Bill, we can consider it in Committee. I accept that the landscape of many areas would be greatly improved if dry stone walls, particularly in the north, the dales and elsewhere, were restored. They are an essential part of the beauty of the countryside and have been neglected for too long.

If the hon. Gentleman wants me to give way on the same point, I shall move on because I am not devoting any more of my speech to dry stone walls. [HON. MEMBERS: "Why not?"] This subject is very wide and I intend to cover all its main aspects.

I turn to one such main aspect: greater protection for commons. We are consulting on that issue, too, and we shall be considering responses before deciding whether legislation might be needed. Nor are we ignoring the concerns of those who live and work in our rural areas—indeed, far from it. Our rural White Paper, which is being developed in tandem with our urban White Paper, will be published later this year. It will set out the range of our vision for rural areas and how objectives will be delivered. The Bill is of course a key element in that vision, but it is only one part of our overall strategy.

What exactly will the Bill do?

Will the Minister give way on the point about common land?

I shall be coming to the subject of common land, so I suggest that the hon. Gentleman restrain himself until I get there.

Part I will deliver permanent public access to the countryside on a scale never before seen. We will grant a right of access on foot to 4 million acres of mountain, moor, heath, down and registered common land—much of which will be opened to the public for the first time in centuries. That amounts to about one ninth of the total land of this country.

I will give way to the hon. Gentleman. I have a strong impression that he will keep bouncing up and down every few sentences until I do so, and it is better to get his intervention over with quickly.

If nothing else, the Minister is always concerned about my welfare. He will know that considerable numbers of sheep graze on common land. Does he accept that people unwittingly damage sheep by allowing their dogs to roam free? What steps is he taking to ensure that there will not be increased savaging of sheep by dogs? Has he considered raising the penalties for that terrible crime?

We are extremely aware of the problems that dogs can cause. That is why we are proposing that dogs will have to be on a lead whenever they are in the presence of livestock, and at all times on all land during the March to June lambing and nesting season. If that is still insufficient, there is flexibility for amendment of regulations to extend further restrictions on dogs.

The issue is primarily about access on foot. I am not against dogs, but I intend full protection of wildlife in the open countryside.

How close to livestock would a dog have to be in order to be considered in the presence of that livestock?

I hope that the hon. Gentleman can exercise a little common sense. [Interruption.] Perhaps my hope is misplaced, however. It is perfectly clear that if one is approaching a field in which there are livestock, one's dog must be put on a lead. We are talking not about precise measurement, but about common sense. I am sure that if such arrangements do not work, the local access forum, on which landowners and farmers will be fully represented, will raise the issue. If further tighter restrictions are needed, I shall be perfectly happy to sanction them.

Through part I, we shall deliver for walkers and landowners alike greater certainty, clarity and permanence of access. We shall promote inclusiveness, not exclusiveness, by giving everyone the opportunity to enjoy and appreciate our natural heritage. Together with our proposals for modernising the rights of way system, the Bill's provisions represent the most far-reaching—yet, I would insist, balanced—package of measures on recreational public access for decades.

Let me explode a few myths. Rights of access will not apply to developed land, cultivated land or gardens: there is no question of people being allowed to trample over fields of flax, or beds of begonias. Landowners will continue to be able to use and develop their land as they wish—the land remains theirs. Landowners will have the automatic right to close their land or otherwise restrict access for up to 28 days a year for any reason, although they do not have to give a reason; and they will be able to apply for further closures or restrictions for land management reasons.

I understand that there are no rights of access allowed in respect of land that is farmed or gardened, but what about areas of, say, moorland, that are especially sensitive in terms of the wildlife they support—for example, bird breeding sites? Is there any statutory protection that will prevent people from roaming over such land and disturbing the wildlife at sensitive times of the year? The Bill, as drafted, appears to give no firm statutory protection to such areas.

I disagree: the Bill makes it perfectly clear that closures can be imposed. It does not specify the length of such closures, but to protect wildlife, they might well be expected to last the three months from March to June inclusive. There are powers to close land, probably temporarily; however, if it is recommended by the conservation agencies, agreed by the local access forum and supported by the Countryside Agency, a closure could be made permanent. There is no question but that wildlife will be protected. My priority is, through the Bill, to extend rights of access on foot, provided that such access does not damage the interests of wildlife, which must prevail.

The Minister is being most generous in giving way. I believe that my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) is right. Clause 21 states that exemptions are not allowed on Saturday, Sunday, Christmas day or Good Friday, but how are we to tell that to a ground-nesting bird such as a merlin or curlew?

The hon. Gentleman has completely misunderstood. Clause 21 relates to a landowner's capacity to determine days on which there will be closures, and the weekend is excluded precisely because that is the time when most people are able to visit the countryside. The right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) was speaking of closing land that is otherwise open, the restrictions being imposed to protect wildlife. I insist that those powers are comprehensive and complete within the Bill.

The right of access will be limited. I repeat, access is on foot only, and it is subject to sensible restrictions to avoid damage or harm being done. If people engage in other, damaging activities or breach any of the restrictions, they will forfeit their right to be on the land. I have already explained the provisions relating to dogs.

Another issue of great concern to landowners is occupier's liability—indeed, it was one of the matters pressed most strongly by the Country Landowners Association. We have ensured that occupiers of access land will benefit from a reduction in liability. Their liability towards walkers will be removed in relation to the natural features of the landscape—in other words, if a walker sprains an ankle or breaks a leg, it will be his responsibility, not the landowner's. Landowners' liability will be reduced to that of trespassers in relation to man-made features and activities. That is important for the protection of the landowners' legitimate rights.

Would an old mine shaft that has been disused for a century and a half be considered natural or man-made?

There is already legislation requiring the landowner to protect the top of the mine shaft by fencing it off or capping it, or both. It is essential that that be now done. In respect of mine shafts and also quarries, landowners owe a liability which they must meet.

I must make progress. [Interruption.] I will give way to the hon. Gentleman later; I see that that is well supported.

We intend that access rights should be managed overwhelmingly by voluntary agreement, through local access forums, which do not appear in the Bill. All the main parties, including of course landowners, will be represented on the local access forums.

I insist that, collectively, the provisions will amount to a substantial and commonsense restriction on the right of access to ensure a proper balance with the interests of landowners, whose interests deserve to be equally respected.

The speed with which people will benefit from the new right of access—that is, when it will come into operation—will rightly depend on how quickly access land is mapped by the Countryside Agencies in England and Wales. Mapping must be done carefully. The Bill provides for a comprehensive procedure but some land, especially registered common land and land above the 600 m contour, can be identified easily. Taking the provisions together, I expect substantial areas of access land to be available within the next two to three years.

The Minister says that access will be available immediately to land over the 600 m contour. Is he aware that access to most land above 600 m will be across other land, which will not yet be mapped? Will he delay access to land over 600 m until the mapping exercise has been completed?

I did not say that access to mountain land over 600 m would be available immediately. I said that that land is most easily mapped, but the hon. Gentleman is right—one must take account of accessibility, which might require a further delay, depending on the circumstances.

No, I must get on.

The Bill contains two provisions to extend rights of access beyond mountain, moor, heath, down and registered common land. First, clause 3 permits the Secretary of State and the Welsh Assembly to extend the right by order to coastal land. That reflects a recommendation from the Countryside Agency. I give an undertaking to the House that any order of the Secretary of State to that end will be subject to approval by each House of Parliament, and that no order will be laid until a full public consultation has been carried out and a regulatory impact statement has been prepared.

Secondly, clause 16 is a new power for landowners to dedicate their land to permanent public access in accordance with the Bill's provisions. That is voluntary; there is no question of any compulsion. That power will be available to both public and private sector owners and may be used, for example, to permit access to woodlands.

The Minister mentioned the role of the Welsh Assembly with regard to access to land adjacent to the sea coast. Does he accept that in Wales circumstances are somewhat different from those in England, not only with regard to the management function, but with tourism, agriculture, leisure and environment all coming under the National Assembly, and a different body of subordinate legislation developing? Will he re-examine the Bill before Third Reading to see whether it is possible to insert a clause—in line with the commitment given by the Secretary of State for Wales when he addressed the National Assembly before Christmas—to enable us to make modifications to the Bill, as may be deemed necessary from our own experience and needs in Wales?

I am happy to consider the Bill further for that purpose, but I am not sure that it is necessary. It is clearly right for the National Assembly for Wales to exercise powers in Wales similar to those that Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions Ministers exercise in England. The National Assembly will be able to exercise all regulation-making powers. I believe that the Bill achieves the right hon. Gentleman's aim; if it does not, I will consider the matter further.

Part II deals with rights of way. Modernising the administration and management of the rights of way system is a natural complement to our proposals for more access to the open countryside. We are proposing radical improvements; we want the system strengthened, developed and brought up to date to respond to the modern-day needs of users and land managers.

There is a growing demand for safe and quiet recreational routes away from busy roads. We want to encourage the creation of new routes and changes to existing routes when there are good reasons for that.

I shall give way in a moment.

We want to extend the opportunities for linear access to users, such as horse riders and cyclists, who would not benefit from our proposals for more access on foot. Local highway authorities will be required to draw up and publish plans to improve their rights of way networks. They will have to take account of the needs of local residents and visitors, including people who experience mobility difficulties. We shall ask those authorities to report to us on their progress.

Has the Minister considered who will be liable for any accidents that happen on the regular access routes? Will the landowner be solely responsible or will the Government make some contribution?

If the hon. Lady is referring to access land, I have made it abundantly clear that the landowner will not be liable for accidents. However, public rights of way are different. Any accidents are a matter for the person who had the accident and the local highway authority. Responsibility depends on the circumstances of the accident.

Is my right hon. Friend happy that the provisions for footpaths are in good shape at this stage, or does he hope that changes will be made as the Bill progresses through the two Houses?

My hon. Friend knows me well. I do not believe that the Bill is simply a cosmetic exercise. Part II, which deals with rights of way, was the last of the four parts to be settled. The matter is complex, and we held an extensive consultation exercise on it. We have already changed our proposals significantly in the light of the consultation to take account of what we genuinely believed to be the good case that was made to us. If others continue to press the case for change in an acceptable way, I am prepared for further changes to be made to the Bill.

Are bridleways included in the provisions for protecting rights of way? They are used by motor cyclists to create mayhem in my constituency, following court cases in which the definitive map has not been treated as definitive by the courts. Can the Bill include a provision to close that gap and to ensure that bridleways are used for the purpose that Parliament originally intended?

My hon. Friend anticipates my next point. We are worried about the matter. We do not want to discriminate against scrambler and motor bikes, but we propose to close the legal loophole and prevent the unauthorised use of off-road vehicles on land away from roads. They cause substantial damage and I am concerned—

I must make progress, particularly as I want to deal with the point referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes).

Roads used as public paths—RUPPs, as they are known in the jargon—will be designated as an entirely new class of public highway called restricted byways. Those will offer a public right of way for walkers, cyclists, horse riders and horse-drawn vehicles and will be without prejudice to any pre-existing vehicular rights. Anyone with evidence of those rights will be able to apply, as now, to have a restricted byway reclassified as a byway open to all traffic—which is rather curiously known as a BOAT—with motor vehicular rights. Such evidence will have to be provided, and what I told my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire will apply. Most people do not want the quietness and tranquillity of the countryside torn apart by noisy and extremely obtrusive off-road vehicles being used in a manner for which I believe they were never intended.

Can the Minister explain why the Government have moved away from the consultation paper proposal that all RUPPs should become restricted byways?

We have not moved away from our proposal—the hon. Gentleman does not recount that quite correctly. The original proposal was that RUPPs would remain as bridleways, although in a limited way. We changed our mind only as a result of the consultation and decided to introduce restricted byways. At present, bridleways can be ploughed up by the landowner and can be gated off, and there were strong objections from cyclists, horse riders and drivers of horse-drawn vehicles that that would limit their access. We believe that that view is reasonable, which is why we made a change to introduce restricted byways. That should assist cyclists and horse riders.

We are also tackling the long-term problem—

This must be the last intervention I take for a long time, but the hon. Gentleman has been trying to intervene for a while.

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way—if only because of my perseverance. May I pursue him on the business of RUPPs, BOATs and, in particular, the restricted byways? He said that it would be open to anyone with historical vehicular use of what will be a restricted byway to have it converted to a byway open to all traffic, but is there not a significant difference between a right of access used to gain access to land further up a restricted byway and its free-for-all use by the four-wheel-drive vehicles that he rightly denigrates? Should there not be protection for the person who wants to take a vehicle up such a route for access purposes; and would not the change to a BOAT create full open-to-all-traffic access and open the route up to the disturbance that he described?

I very much agree. I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman caught my words, but I did not say that a person could require that a restricted byway be reclassified as a BOAT. I simply said that he could apply for reclassification. He would have to provide good reasons—it would certainly not be automatic. I very much support what the hon. Gentleman says: there is a great deal of difference between the need for vehicular access further up the byway and charging up and down on motor bikes—all the difference in the world. That would be reflected in the manner in which such an application was taken.

We are also tackling the long-term problem of obstructions to public rights of way. There will be a new right for people to serve notice on local highway authorities to have certain obstructions removed from public rights of way. If the local highway authority ignores the notice, the person can apply to the magistrates court for an order requiring the authority to remove the obstruction. Where someone has been convicted of wilfully obstructing a highway, magistrates will be able to order him to remove the obstruction. That is very important because at present magistrates only have the power to fine offenders, which does not directly address the problem. We are addressing that longstanding problem.

In addition, landowners and occupiers will have a new right to apply to a council for orders diverting or extinguishing footpaths and bridleways on their land and to appeal against the decision if the council refuses. If the council ignores the application—there are many examples of that—after four months the applicant will be able to ask the Secretary of State to direct the council to make its decision.

During the passage of the Bill through Parliament, we intend to introduce proposals to encourage the completion of the record of historic rights of way within 25 years, subject to the provision of adequate resources to complete the task within that time scale. We will also introduce order-making powers for local authorities to divert rights of way where necessary to protect SSSIs, and a power enabling local authorities to make temporary diversions of rights of way for exceptional land management reasons.

All those complex and constructive suggestions will depend on the expertise in the countryside agencies and in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. Will my right hon. Friend give an undertaking that, before any alterations are made either in MAFF regional offices or in other agricultural civil servant posts, he will closely consult the people most concerned?

Of course. The consultations on the operation of the Bill are interdepartmental. Liaison between DETR and MAFF is much closer than it has been in the past. The joint approach of the Departments on their corporate plans sets a new precedent. They have worked closely on the Bill, on the associated rural development regulation and the agri-environmental measures, and on changing the direction of the common agricultural policy, which is just as important as, if not more important than, the Bill. I certainly intend that joint approach to continue.

Under schedule 6 the landowner, the occupier or certain restricted groups can have changes made to rights of way, such as closure, diversion or creation. As far as I understand it, at present more groups can influence those issues. Will my right hon. Friend give us an assurance that they will not be restricted? If not, can schedule 6 be extended so that users as well as landowners can make applications?

I can certainly assure my hon. Friend that, at present, members of the public can apply for the diversion or restriction of a right of way. It is for the council to decide whether to grant such an application. If the council grants it, there can be an appeal. Up till now that right has not extended to the landowner, and in our view it is right that it should do so. If an application is made, the council can be required to reach a decision and not sit on it indefinitely. We are taking a balanced approach between the two sides.

I assure you, Madam Speaker, that I shall be much shorter on part III and shall take fewer interventions. Part III represents a major contribution to delivering the Government's commitment to giving greater protection to wildlife. It strengthens significantly the powers to prevent damage to sites of special scientific interest, while creating the conditions in which those sites can be positively managed.

The Bill will substantially strengthen the powers of the conservation agencies. They will be able for the first time to refuse consent for damaging activities or to withdraw consents already given when damage is occurring, and to serve management notices requiring action to be taken to combat neglect. It is neglect rather than deliberate harm that does so much damage to SSSIs. The agencies will have new powers to enter land when that is necessary for the proper protection and management of sites, and to purchase land compulsorily if, in the last resort, that is the only way to secure the future of a site.

Increased powers require increased accountability. We have therefore balanced the new powers with a more structured approach to discussions about management, including the preparation of management schemes and new appeal procedures for owners and occupiers where rights are curtailed.

Nevertheless, when deliberate damage occurs—and it still does—it is right that penalties should reflect the site's importance. We will increase fines to up to £20,000 in the magistrates courts, and they will be unlimited in the Crown courts. There will be new court powers to order restoration of the damaged special interest when that is practicable, and there will be a new general offence applying to persons who are not owners and occupiers of the land. The Bill will also place specific duties on public bodies to further the conservation and enhancement of sites of special scientific interest, both in carrying out their operations and in exercising their decision-making functions.

Wildlife crime is a growing problem, and we must and will act to deal with it. The Bill will introduce the option of prison sentences of up to six months for most offences under part I of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, as well as increasing fines for those offences to £5,000. It will also give extra powers to the police and my Department's wildlife inspectors to assist them in the fight against wildlife crime. We are bringing existing legislation up to date by providing stronger powers for enforcers to require tissue samples for DNA analysis. Taken together, the provisions will send a clear message to those who cynically exploit wildlife, or use it for their own personal but selfish enjoyment, that their activities will not be tolerated, and that they will be pursued and punished.

If we wanted proof that the Tory party is still rooted in the squirearchy of the 18th century, its reasoned amendment would provide it. The right of access is described as a "heavy-handed and unjustifiable" infringement of owners' rights, and the compensation as "negligible". In fact, the new right is very carefully limited, as I have made abundantly clear, and there is no significant loss to be compensated. Only an Opposition of this character would think that the environment will be devastated and the rural economy ruined by walking.

Access is claimed to be
in a form which will be damaging to … farmers and will threaten wildlife and conservation sites.
In the tiny handful of cases in which conservation needs will require no access to be permitted, the Bill will enable complete closure of the land.

It is claimed that the improvement to rights of way are insufficient. I can only say that I have heard no sensible proposals for improvements today, or during the extensive consultation period, that are not provided for in the Bill.

The Bill, it is noted, does not include measures relating to areas of outstanding natural beauty. I have already announced additional funding for AONBs, which are now being financed at twice the level that we inherited, and I promise to make a statement soon about further measures.

Finally, the amendment repeats the litany that the Bill does not deal with the so-called real rural problems. The Bill is, of course, only part of our overall policy: we are working on many other aspects, not least the forthcoming rural White Paper.

Unlike the Tories, we believe that the countryside should be an asset for everyone, not just those who happen to own substantial chunks of it. The Bill sets a new, historic foundation for the uniting of the interests of all parties—those who live and work on the land, those who want to enjoy access to some of our finest landscapes, and those who are anxious to strengthen the protection of our biodiversity and natural heritage. The Bill provides the framework for that essential co-operation, and I commend it to the House.

4.14 pm

I beg to move, To leave out from 'That' to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:

'this House declines to give a Second Reading to the Countryside and Rights of Way Bill because, although it contains worthwhile provisions on protection of Sites of Special Scientific Interest and wildlife protection, the provisions on access to the countryside impose heavy-handed and unjustifiable infringements on the rights of private property owners, and provisions for compensation are negligible; because it introduces access to "open country" in a form which will be damaging to the interests of hard-pressed farmers and will threaten wildlife and conservation sites which other parts of the Bill are designed to protect; because it fails to provide sufficient improvements in the Rights of Way network which is a more important mechanism for improving access for most people; and because it gives no extra protection to Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and misses the opportunity to deal with many of the real problems affecting the countryside in England and Wales.'
The Bill is the product of nearly three years of debate and consultation. It is of intense interest and no little concern to the agricultural and conservationist community, coming at a time of crisis in the countryside that is unparalleled this century. It is a source of regret that the Deputy Prime Minister is not participating—I do not know whether he is back from Brazil yet—especially as the Minister for the Environment announced that the Bill was of historic importance.

A few weeks ago, the Deputy Prime Minister accused me of being the silent spokesman for the Opposition. He will doubtless come to regret that remark, but his absence today will be taken by the countryside community as an indication of his priorities and the importance that he attaches to the Bill. That must be particularly so, as environment is one of few briefs that he retains directly within his grasp, unlike transport and the regions. It is also a Bill over which he has no conflict of interest, in so far as the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers has no particular interest in the countryside.

It is a source of regret that no Minister from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is present, reflecting perhaps the detrimental effect that the Bill will have on the agricultural community. However, we recognise that, for the Minister for the Environment, the Bill represents the conclusion of three years of hard work and a longstanding commitment to the countryside and environment. There is no doubting the sincerity of his intentions. I congratulate him on bringing the Bill this far.

We welcome many aspects of the Bill. The first is the protection for sites of special scientific interest. My predecessors as spokesmen are on record as saying that we would support the tightening of restrictions and protection for SSSIs. We will stand by that reassurance. Secondly, we welcome the wildlife protection measures and the greater penalties for wildlife crime, which are much needed. Thirdly, we welcome the provisions on the public rights of way. In some respects, we would like them to be strengthened, but in general we welcome their inclusion.

Despite those welcome elements, overall, it is disappointing legislation. Far from being historic and balanced, it is incomplete, puts forward measures on open access that are heavy-handed and includes aspects that will damage the interests of farmers and conservationists alike: the very people whom it is designed to protect.

The Bill represented a great opportunity to deliver a comprehensive new approach to the rural environment by, for example, introducing a comprehensive framework for protection, including that of areas of outstanding natural beauty. We wait to see what the Minister has to say on that subject, but we see no reason why those protections should not have been included in the Bill.

Does not my hon. Friend find it odd that the Countryside Agency, which is, after all, a Government body, is sending briefing to hon. Members headed: "Countryside Amenity and Conservation Bill: Parliamentary briefing on AONBs"? Apparently, AONBs were included in the Bill until a very recent stage, when the agency printed its briefing.

My hon. Friend makes an important point. It is interesting to note that the Countryside Agency is advocating the inclusion of greater protection for AONBs in the Bill. That protection seems to be conspicuously absent.

The Bill provided an opportunity to shift once and for all the balance of protection from intrusive development, particularly house building on the countryside, and to facilitate new partnerships between farmers and people wanting access. By its draconian measures, it has obviated those partnerships and made it more difficult and less likely for them to happen. By all those measures, the Bill comprehensively fails. It is likely to disappoint and to anger in equal part.

More important, the Bill is significant for what it excludes. True conservation depends on the health of the rural economy, which the Bill can only damage. It is a time of crisis for the countryside. It is important that the Bill be seen in the context of what is happening to the rural economy.

Farm incomes have fallen 75 per cent. since the Government came to power. Hill farm incomes are down to an average of £4,500 per annum, which is well below a living income. Moreover, according to the National Farmers Union, the Government are cutting support further by £80 million in the next five years.

The threats to the rural environment are greater than ever. It is ironic that the Bill is being considered within two weeks of the Deputy Prime Minister's announcement that 900,000 new houses will be imposed on the south-east—on the countryside of Sussex, Kent, Surrey and other home counties, which will be irrevocably lost—often on land that is directly adjacent to many areas of outstanding natural beauty and sites of special scientific interest, which the Bill was designed to protect. Independent surveys—it is not only our claim—state that 50 per cent. or more of those 900,000 new houses will be built on green fields. That is the consequence of the Deputy Prime Minister's announcement. The damage to the environment and to conservation in that one stroke—in that one announcement by the Deputy Prime Minister—will be far greater than the damage that the Bill is designed to redress.

The proliferation of visual damage to the countryside is accelerating, unhindered by the Government. Ministers are not providing the necessary support and legislation to restrict the growth of visual intrusion, of which mobile telephone masts are only one example. Although the number of such masts is expected to triple in the next 10 years, the Bill contains no provision to prevent, as Opposition Members have advocated, the unsightly siting of mobile telephone masts. The masts are eroding the countryside and reducing the value of the access that the Bill is designed to introduce.

More broadly, the Bill has been introduced in the context of a failure to deal with the consequences of agricultural intensity and the common agricultural policy. It is significant that, this week, the Prime Minister is going to Lisbon to negotiate at a summit at which agriculture will be conspicuously left off the agenda, despite the fact that we are now contemplating a historic enlargement of the European Union, bringing in the agricultural economies of Hungary and Poland to compete with our own. There are intended to be no changes to the CAP's provisions, which are doing more damage to the countryside than any of the other matters that we have discussed today.

The Bill should be seen against the background of a crisis in the rural economy, which the Bill fails to deal with in any fundamental respect. Nor does it go far enough in the spheres of conservation that really matter. My hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) mentioned AONBs. The Council for the Protection of Rural England stated:
We are concerned that the Bill is a missed opportunity to deliver on numerous Government commitments to secure much needed improvements to the protection and management of England's valuable hedgerows, landscape features and AONBs.
That sentiment has been echoed by the Country Landowners Association, the Countryside Agency and other environmentalist groups.

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that, in seven years under the previous, Conservative Government, 158,000 km of hedgerows were grubbed up? Who was responsible for that?

The hon. Gentleman knows that we are more than fully aware of the problems facing the countryside and the grubbing up of hedgerows. Opposition Members have frequently argued for measures to ensure that that grubbing up ceases.

The Bill not only fails to provide at all for AONBs or protection for hedgerows, but underestimates all the costs of its provisions—the cost to landowners and farmers and that to local authorities, when council tax is already rising at three times the inflation rate. According to the Countryside Agency, it will cost £30 million per annum just to deal with the backlog of work on rights of way. According to English Nature, it will cost £20 million per annum to protect wildlife sites. According to the CLA, it will cost £8 million per annum to operate open access.

If the hon. Gentleman is so concerned about areas of outstanding natural beauty, does he accept that he could strike a deal now across the Chamber that agreed measures could be added to the Bill, which he would facilitate in Committee? He could get his friends in the other place also to facilitate such measures. How about it?

The hon. Gentleman will know that in the past we have offered to include such provisions in a narrower protection Bill. I shall refer to the aspects of the Bill that are a great deal more objectionable than those to which I have referred. I take the opportunity to welcome a representative of MAFF to the Chamber—the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.

Let us not pretend that the Bill solves the problems of conservation or access. It does neither, after three years of waiting. It delivers a little when much is needed. It is swimming against the tide of housing and development that has been unleashed by the Deputy Prime Minister, who is absent from the Chamber. It is a piecemeal attempt to address a systemic problem, and it is a sadly missed opportunity.

I move on to the right to roam and open access. Worse than the absence of true protectionist and conservationist measures, the parts of the Bill that we have welcomed are the sugar coating around the damaging provisions of the right to roam. We believe that the right to roam raises a fundamental issue of principle, which is that the state should not confiscate the property rights of individuals without compensation or without regard to the costs to, or the livelihoods of, those who are affected.

It is easy for the Minister to try to characterise those who will be affected as wealthy landowners. He will know that in reality many of these people are small sheep farmers—they are often tenant farmers, not even landowners—and conservationists. These are people who have worked and saved hard to do the right thing for the countryside, for wildlife and for the farming community.

These people, too, have rights. It is for Conservatives to stand up for minorities, whether rich or poor. Conservation is about providing incentives for all who are involved, and not only introducing regulations for the few.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way, especially as the hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) has skedaddled. Perhaps he did not want to ask a question after all.

My hon. Friend will know that all Conservative Members are accused of being landowners and standing up for the big toffs who are similarly landowners. I own less than 0.1 of an acre of this country, so I do not think that I can be accused of being a big landowner. Does he agree that the right to roam is really the delivery of a promise to the old-style socialists, those who envy the fact that someone might have some property that he wishes to protect? Since the inception of the Labour movement, it has always been argued that we must drive away all property. The Minister accused the Tory party of representing landowners, and in so doing he represented the old-style envy of the socialists.

My hon. Friend makes his point with characteristic potency. I am sure that no one on either side of the House would accuse him of being a toff.

Conservation is about providing incentives for all who are involved and not only regulations for a few. Unrestricted and open access will send a signal to conservationists and landowners alike not to bother, yet it is important to conserve open access land. It includes many SSSIs and other pieces of land that the Bill is designed to protect and preserve. It cuts against the grain of conservation incentives and the desire of owners to manage land with care for successive generations. It works by regulation and punishment that are entirely disproportionate in a system that is skewed against the landowner in favour of the trespasser and the hooligan.

Is not the real problem that this is not the right to roam but a highly qualified right to roam, with a whole lot of detail, which will be a lawyers' paradise? The hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) is right: the Countryside Agency and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food will find it very difficult to have the information at their fingertips. It is a racing certainty that the general public, who will have heard the phrase "right to roam" in relation to the Bill, will be unaware of all the exemptions.

My right hon. Friend makes a powerful point. The sheer complexity of the legislation will make it a lawyers' paradise for years to come.

The Minister could easily have negotiated a voluntary and conservationist outcome before introducing the Bill, but he spurned the opportunity. Contrary to his claim, voluntary access had been increasing steadily and it is clear that, had the right legislation been introduced, that increase would have accelerated, as there was considerable appetite for it in the agricultural and landowning community.

It is no good arguing that the reason for introducing the Bill in this form is that it is popular. The real demand, as demonstrated by Gallup polls organised by the CLA, is for waymarked routes close to where people live. According to Gallup, 63 per cent. preferred waymarked routes to open access; 41 per cent. would use greater access if it were within five miles of where they live; and only 13 per cent. would travel five miles or more to get access to countryside.

It is hard to conclude that the motive for providing open, unfettered access in this form has anything much to do with the countryside or conservation: it has more to do with good old-fashioned, anti-landowners, gut-feel socialist vanity. The Minister once said:
If we don't redistribute wealth from the rich to the poor, what's the point of having a Labour party?
and nobody doubts his sincerity.

As my right hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) suggested, the problem with the Bill and the open access provisions is not just the principle but the fact that they are incredibly complex and unworkable. The Minister has argued that he has introduced adequate protections in the Bill, notably the 28-day closure period—weekdays only—the reduction in owners' liability for natural hazards and the requirement to keep dogs on a lead for four months of the year. In practice, none of those protections is effective or enforceable with open access, as opposed to restricted access or designated points of access. Without greater provision for practical implementation, those protections will prove so superficial as to be scarcely worth having.

Many points of detail in the Bill are unsatisfactory and will be extremely hard to implement and hard for simple farmers, landowners and others in the countryside to grapple with. They are not lawyers: they are people who want to get on with earning a livelihood, which is increasingly difficult.

Fundamental to our concerns are five basic points. The first is simple injustice: the Bill provides for total inequity of enforcement. If a walker gets it wrong, he is trespassing, and leaves for the day; but if a landowner gets it wrong, he is a criminal. If a walker misses a sign, it is bad luck; but if a landowner leaves the wrong sign up, it is a criminal offence. The landowner who abuses his rights could end up with a heavy fine or even in jail; but the hooligan who abuses his rights is at best off the land until tomorrow.

Furthermore, walkers who trip on a stile or hurt themselves on dry stone walls—presumably not natural hazards—can sue; but the landowner whose wall is destroyed has to rebuild it at his own expense. It is no good arguing that the liability is reduced from what currently exists by the provisions to which the Minister referred. At present there is no open access, so the issue of liability applies only in relation to trespassers.

The whole purpose of the Bill is obviously to increase access and the number of people walking across the land, which will enormously increase costs for farmers and landowners. That will be reflected, at the very least, in their insurance premiums, and in all likelihood in their ability to maintain their livelihoods and restore their walls, which is bound to affect their future appetite for conservationist measures.

Secondly, the Bill provides wholly inadequate protection for wild birds and for hill-farming livestock. Many access areas include SSSIs and many involve remote hill farming, where lambing takes place far away from the homesteads and supervision. The result will be that even towards the end of the lambing season, in June and July, lambs and other livestock will be at risk from roaming dogs and walkers crossing the land.

The 28-day closure provisions are wholly inadequate. They are too short and inoperable. How will people know when they apply, given the fact that access will come from all different directions, not one single point at which signage will be available? How will farmers pay for the costs of signage and information? The Bill is opaque on that point. How will the ewes know not to lamb at weekends or when dogs are around? How will the plovers know not to nest where people will tread?

Does not the hon. Gentleman acknowledge, in all the criticisms that he is making of the Bill, the joy, optimism and hope that is felt by thousands of decent people who want nothing more at the weekends than to get out into the wild places and the freedom of open spaces and to get away from the black tarmac of the supermarket car park?

The hon. Gentleman will know that we already have one of the most extensive networks of footpaths in the world. It has always been the intention, on both sides of the House, to find ways to extend voluntary access, but all the evidence is that demand is for access close to where people live and along defined paths and waymarks.

The Bill's provisions in relation to dogs are especially worrying. Hon. Members will know that many farmers have already expressed great concern about the provisions for dogs to roam freely, and those remain a major threat. Whatever the Minister may claim, requests for dogs to be kept on a leash for four months of the year will be flouted. A recent survey on Saddleworth moor—which is near the Minister's constituency and he presumably knows it well—showed that 66 per cent. of dogs on the moor were running off the lead and 8 per cent. were effectively running wild. How will those dogs know where ordinary moor or mountain land ends and where an SSSI starts? What provision is there to ensure that landowners have the effective ability to keep dogs under control?

Does my hon. Friend agree that the best way to get round the question of the nesting and lambing season is to say that for that period no dogs should be allowed on the hill at all?

My hon. Friend makes a powerful point, and it is clear that the provisions on dogs could be greatly strengthened in several respects. The problem is not only that the provisions are loose, but that people coming on to the land will have no way of knowing when the restrictions apply and in what form, because open access means that they will arrive from many different points and the landowners will not be able to provide proper information.

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that similar legislation on access already exists in Germany, Austria, Norway and Sweden. Is he aware of any significant problems in those countries with nature conservation or the impact on wildlife?

The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that it is ludicrous to compare England and Wales with Norway where the population is much sparser and concentrated in the south. [HON. MEMBERS: "Germany."] The land mass of Germany is more than double that of the United Kingdom. At risk of repetition—[Interruption.]

Order. If the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mrs. Organ) is seeking to catch my eye later, she is not going about it the right way.

There is already a much greater provision of footpaths and wayleaves in this country than in any of those that the hon. Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Thomas) mentioned.

I cannot understand the hon. Gentleman's concerns about lambs.

My constituency is in the Lake district, and for thousands of years people have spread across the fells. Hundreds of thousands of people go to the lakes every year, yet we do not hear from farmers about problems with their sheep or loss of lambs. In 20 years, I have never had a letter from a constituent complaining about any of the issues that the hon. Gentleman mentions. I think that he is exaggerating.

I regret that the hon. Gentleman has never had a letter in 20 years from a farmer complaining about damage to lambs. I have managed to break his record in a very short time. One has only to listen to the remarks of the National Farmers Union to realise that this is a credible issue of widespread concern to those who live and work in the countryside at a time of crisis for rural incomes.

Our third major concern about the Bill is that it will be impossible to make any of the protections work without agreed points of access as opposed to open access to the mountain and moorland. Agreed points of entry and exit would at least create a chance to provide marked wayleaves and better information for walkers about how the moor is maintained, its special features, any SSSIs, the wildlife, the behaviour that is expected of them and the enjoyment that they can derive. Such defined points of entry would be better for farmers, conservationists and walkers.

Fourthly, on security and liability, the Minister will be aware of the rising concern about rural crime and the inability of the police, at a time of falling police numbers, to cope. People in the countryside feel helpless when it comes to rural crime and agricultural crime against livestock, horses and equipment. Tighter restrictions on night access and approach to buildings would help address the problem. However, it is a fundamental problem that derives from open and unfettered access, and is of great concern to the agricultural and rural community.

I want to comment on crime and link it to the hon. Gentleman's earlier remarks about dogs on Saddleworth moor. I live very close to Saddleworth moor; I do not know who conducted the survey, but I assure right hon. and hon. Members that it would be impossible to conduct any accurate survey of the number of dogs on a lead.

I endorse the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours). I am one of the people whom my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment mentioned earlier as owning chunks of the countryside. Mine is about 60 sq m, not far from Saddleworth moor, and it has a right of way through it. What does the hon. Gentleman think has caused more damage to conservation over the years—people walking over the countryside or the common agricultural policy?

The hon. Gentleman raises an interesting and important point. There is widespread concern among Opposition Members about the common agricultural policy. I have already said that it is regrettable that, at a time when we are discussing radical changes to the European Union, the CAP is not even on the agenda. The Prime Minister is going to Lisbon this weekend, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be asking him to raise this issue, and so he should.

Finally, the fundamental problem in the practical operation of the Bill is cost. The Bill comprehensively fails to provide for the cost of implementation for local authorities or farmers. Most of the cost will undoubtedly fall on the farming community, the landowners and the conservationists. Those costs include maintenance of dry stone walls, restoration of stiles, provision of information on access, provision of car parks by the local authorities, the prevention of parking on land, signage to provide information for the enjoyment of individuals coming on to the moorland, repairs to damage, loss of livestock and the extra labour required in supervision to protect the wildlife species or lambs at sensitive times of year. The £2.2 million annual cost estimated in the Bill falls wildly short of any sensible estimate, such as those provided by the National Farmers Union and other bodies.

It is hard to avoid the impression that the Bill is being pushed through to meet the political agenda of the Labour party and the sincere socialist instincts of the Minister, despite the fact that the Treasury is not prepared to pay the price. Conservation costs money. The cost of the Bill will not fall on the Government. In practice, it will fall on the council tax payer, on the agricultural community, which can scarcely afford it, and on the well-intentioned conservationist.

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point about the cost of the measure. Does he realise that one third of the land involved lies in Wales? If the Bill is passed, what will his party do to ensure that adequate payment is made to the Welsh Assembly to cover those costs?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for making that point about Wales. I do not want to make any unwarranted commitments, but if we introduce a measure of such fiendish impracticality and complexity, I share his sentiment that it must be paid for properly. In the five critical respects that I outlined, the access provisions are inequitable, inadequate and unenforceable.

Some aspects of the Bill are welcome, but it represents a great missed opportunity. Worse than that, it contains provisions that are objectionable in principle and will undermine its own objective of bringing about greater access and enjoyment of the countryside. It will bring intrusive regulation and division to the countryside rather than partnership and unity. It will deal another body blow to the hill farmer, who can ill afford it. It tries to achieve conservation on the cheap, without proper funding from the Treasury. It will do precious little to address the real problems of the countryside and the rural economy at present.

I remind hon. Members that there is a 10-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches.

4.48 pm

The House can rarely have heard a meaner speech than the one made by the hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Mr. Norman). It seems so sad, because it was the Conservatives who gave us the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. There was some controversy over that measure at the time, but it was a landmark. It would have been much nicer if the Opposition had wanted to build on that achievement to make the Bill a success. I am disappointed.

However, I rejoice in the fact that the Government have introduced the Bill. The access provisions will give much pleasure to a large number of people. Vast areas of forbidden Britain, such as the Berwyns and the Arans in Wales, the eastern Pennines around Sheffield and the forest of Bowland will be opened up for many people to walk in and enjoy. There might not be so much extra access for rock climbers, but I am sure that many of them will enjoy being able to climb on Bamford edge or Sype Land above Ranskill. The Bill will give people greater access.

The measure will not just give people access to areas of moorland where they are currently not allowed to go; it will give them confidence when they walk on footpaths where there are existing rights. Many people are frightened that, if they stray off the path, they will be in difficulty. Once the Bill becomes law, they will be able to use rights of way confidently, knowing that if they deviate slightly, they will not get into trouble. Let us welcome the Bill for providing extra access, and let us welcome it for giving people greater confidence to go out and enjoy themselves.

Let us also welcome the Bill for the fact that it will do something to reduce the overcrowding that occurs at so many of the honeypots in our countryside. As a result, there will be slightly fewer people on Snowdon, on the Old Man of Coniston and on Pen-y-ghent, and places such as Stanedge will not be quite as crowded with climbers. The Bill will give people a chance to spread out into the countryside, and ensure that, when they visit it, they can enjoy peace and quiet.

We should not only welcome the access provisions but very firmly welcome the protection that the Bill will give sites of special scientific interest. The destruction of SSSIs in recent years has been a scandal. I firmly congratulate my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment; he has done extremely well to get the Bill so far, and I look forward to its being law by the end of the year.

The Opposition and the Country Landowners Association have come up with a myth. First, they make the perfectly tenable argument that very few people want the right of access. However, they then say, "Ah, but it will cost a great deal because so many people will go out into the countryside." They cannot have it both ways. If very few people will take advantage of the new provision, there is no problem. If lots of people will, there is very good reason for introducing it. We should make it absolutely clear that a lot of people will want to enjoy access, and that we must facilitate it. The idea that there is no demand for it is rubbish.

The CLA has started working on the idea that the new legislation will be in breach of the Human Rights Act 1998, and that the passage of the legislation will in some way take away property rights. I suggest that the CLA should not try to reignite a conflict in the countryside. We want peace and harmony, not conflict, in the countryside. However, if members of the CLA want to develop that conflict, there will be lots of other people who will start to say, "We should question their rights of ownership," because for many people who own big estates in the countryside, their ownership actually came about as a result of successful war crimes. They were the people who benefited from the destruction of the monasteries. They often benefited from the destruction of a previous king, and they gained their ownership. We do not want to go back into that, but I would suggest that, if they question the rights of individuals to go out and enjoy themselves, other people will want to question the way in which some of those big estates were established.

It is, of course, nonsense to suggest that Conservative Members do not want people to go out and enjoy themselves. However, the hon. Gentleman is president of the Ramblers Association, which for a long time has lobbied for the right to roam in its full sense. Will he therefore say whether he is disappointed by the provisions in the Bill?

I believe that the Bill has the makings of a very good compromise. It will allow people into the countryside in large numbers. I am amazed that Opposition Members do not want to encourage it, because, as I was about to say, if there is a demand for payment, there is a payment. The more people go out into the countryside and understand it, the more they will be willing, as taxpayers, to subsidise the agriculture that must continue there. It is obviously in everyone's interests to encourage people to go into the countryside and to understand it; keeping people out will simply increase misunderstanding.

Not only do farmers benefit when people visit the countryside and gain an understanding of it, but many farmers have diversified into tourism, which is an important part of the economy of many rural areas. However, we must find ways to compensate farmers where there are very real costs, such as the costs of creating footpaths to enable people to get up to access land, of building stiles and of putting in necessary features. I believe that there are the makings of a very good working compromise in the legislation.

I want to voice one or two concerns in the brief time that I have in which to speak. First, there is nothing in the Bill about marine nature reserves. One of the tragedies from 1981 is the fact that a provision that was put into the Wildlife and Countryside Act has hardly ever been used. The Bill should mention marine nature reserves.

Then there is the question of field boundaries. The report of the Select Committee on the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs leaves us in no doubt that hedgerows and walls need better protection. When he came to the Select Committee, the Minister for the Environment conceded that the present legislation was not adequate. We need to do something about that.

Headlands are another problem. It is useful that many landowners have been able to have wide headlands so that field birds and wild flowers can flourish. It is regrettable, however, that European Union auditors have said that a headland should be a narrow strip. That matter needs to be dealt with quickly.

I wish to make a couple of brief constituency points. Inland cormorants take fish from fishermen's ponds and there is the problem of raptors killing homing pigeons. Both those issues need to be examined.

I have described what I would like to have seen in the Bill, but I would not be too disappointed if the Government dropped the footpath provisions, which I do not think are ideal. The Government were sold a pup at some stage. They were told that footpath legislation would be easy, and that everybody would be pleased with it.

I am afraid that it is not easy and I do not think that this Bill's provisions on footpaths will last for the next 50 years. I hope that we can find time in Committee and in the House of Lords to improve those provisions and to make them workable. However, if the Government are worried about the number of provisions in the Bill, they should drop the footpaths provisions and deal with issues such as field boundaries and marine nature reserves.

I welcome the provisions on the obstruction of footpaths, but it is important to record that footpaths are part of our history. Just as no one would believe in destroying stocks or any other artefact from the past, we should destroy or divert the footpath pattern of a village only for very good reason. We should be clear that footpaths are part of our history and we should cherish them.

I hope that the Bill will enable us to get on with mapping and that the appeals will be even-handed. I ask the Minister to consider the issues of high-level camping and bivouacking. The provisions for them need to be clear in the Bill.

For many years, the countryside has been subject to intensive farming activity. As a by-product, it has also offered sport for the aristocracy. We should pay tribute to all those people who have nurtured our countryside and made it a green pleasant land, with neat fields, vast heather moorlands, mile upon mile of stone walls, beautiful hedges, banks of wild flowers and a vast array of small animals and insects.

We must ensure that we protect the countryside and that it continues. I believe that the Bill will provide the opportunity to protect the countryside and to ensure that many people can get out and enjoy access to it.

4.58 pm

Before I came to the Chamber, I looked up the definition of the word "roam" in the "Concise Oxford English Dictionary". It defines it in three ways. First, it defines it as to

travel aimlessly over a wide area.
Secondly, it is defined as to
wander over, through or about;
and, finally, as "an aimless walk".

We will all be greatly helped if we drop the expression "right to roam" from the debate, because I am sure that the Minister does not intend "roam" in any of those definitions of the word. Instead, we should talk increasingly about managed access or—even better—contractual access. That would convey the idea that we intend people who have access to the countryside to take on obligations and, equally, that we expect those who concede access to assume obligations—that is a matter of definition—and to receive some benefit as well. The more we talk in terms of a form of contract between the people who own the countryside and the other people whom they need to make a livelihood from it, the more we can put the debate on to a sensible footing.

We could argue about the Bill in principle or in practice. I am a realist. With the Government's majority, the sensible thing is to argue the practicalities of the Bill. If the notion of management or a contract is to prevail, the existence of a set of rules, effectively policed, is essential. We should debate the nature of those rules and the policing of them.

I represent a large constituency in upland Britain, and clearly the proposals will apply to that area. The Yorkshire dales national park is one of the management agencies that will have responsibility under the legislation. I want therefore to talk about the countryside not in an abstract way but in terms of the practical problems that are brought to me every day in my capacity as a Member of Parliament.

I note that much of the debate is about the pressure on the countryside. In Yorkshire, access to the national park and the management of traffic into the park are live and important issues. We have also realised that there are pressures on physical access, including the ability to move hardcore up to certain areas to reinforce footpaths.

I represent many people for whom the countryside is a working rather than a recreational environment, as it is for others. One group does not exclude the other. I represent a significant number of gamekeepers. I realise that the nearest that many members of new Labour have come to a gamekeeper is reading "Lady Chatterley's Lover"—and they might wish that all gamekeeping were as romantic and exciting as that—but in reality it is much more humdrum. Gamekeepers' livelihoods depend on the maintenance of the open spaces. The sport of the rich is the livelihood of the ordinary countryman. We should be careful about assuming that such sport is exclusively for the rich, and recognise that many people's livelihoods depend, even in an ancillary way, on access to the countryside. One form of access may occasionally be at odds with others. Even the sporting activity to which the Minister referred is a form of access.

I am conscious of the number of small and tenant farmers, to whom my hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Mr. Norman) referred, who have a vested interest because their livestock graze the moorland and common land. They are already facing pressures as a result of the proposals to change from a headage basis to an area basis the arrangements for payments under the common agricultural policy—rightly in my view. They find that some of their support is taxed to help the rural development proposals with which the Minister will be familiar. All that adds to uncertainty and pressure.

It is important that in passing the legislation we should try to iron out the most obvious problems about which people have concerns. The Minister may say that those concerns are not justified or that they have been dealt with, but they come up repeatedly, so it is important that, in Committee, the Government demonstrate a willingness to try to deal with uncertainty or legitimate concerns about how the rules will work in practice. For example, who will man the local access forums? Will the local culture be dominant in those forums, or will pressure group appointees be nominated? It is important that people feel confident that the forums are manned by people who understand the environment for which they are responsible.

The local authorities have only a discretionary responsibility for management; for example, they must provide wardens and access points. It is difficult to understand how, in the present financial circumstances, many local authorities will find the money to make that provision, even though most of us think that it would be beneficial.

I am bothered about the Minister's apparent lack of interest in access points, which are important. In my constituency, roads across the moor become ribbon parking lots at certain times of the year, as people park on the edge of the moor. The landscape that we enjoy is visually compromised by the volume of people who come to benefit from it.

There is particular concern about the fact that the Bill permits closures. How does one notify the public of a closure for a particular reason? If there is no central access point, how do people who come to the area know that the closure is in effect? That is a practical difficulty. It is a small issue, but it is important for the sensible operation of the legislation.

I see no objection to dawn-to-dusk access, but I am conscious of problems of rural crime—not just the wildlife crime to which the Minister referred. I know that stone and slate are stolen from barns in my constituency; we know that there is poaching. The incidental, collateral damage resulting from such activities often causes difficulty.

Sheep theft is not very frequent at the moment—one would have to be economically illiterate to want to steal a sheep at present—but such theft has been a problem. People enjoying such illegal access have left gates open, and policing at night is difficult. I hope that the Minister will be open to persuasion that there should be dawn-to-dusk rather than 24-hour permits.

I know that the issue of dogs is emotive. The Bill sets out a period in which they are required to be on a leash in the vicinity of livestock. It is easy to make fun of those who ask what "vicinity" or "being close to" sheep means, but the problem is a practical one, particularly if dogs are not well trained and difficult to bring under control once off the leash. The Minister must again address himself to a practical concern because the sanction throughout the Bill is extraordinarily weak. The law of trespass in the United Kingdom is a weak instrument, which would put the fear of God or of the law court into nobody's mind.

There is the question of liability. As my hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells said, it is closely defined. There are manmade features of the landscape that are tantamount to being natural features because, in a sense, almost all the countryside is man-made. We are trying to preserve stone walls, which are under threat because of difficulty of maintenance, but if people stand on them, they become unstable. A dry stone wall is just that, and the danger of accident is real.

On the 28-day closed period, I know that the Bill provides for people to apply to a designated authority—in my constituency, the national park will probably be the main one—for an extension. We need to know that the procedure will be rapid and clear and that the response will be rapid, too. We all know of difficulties experienced by those who have had to apply to some official body—28 days later, they are still waiting for an answer because the next committee meeting is umpteen weeks away. Will the Minister ensure that there is a mechanism for rapid response and evaluation at short notice of such applications? In the light of circumstances, that would be very helpful.

I welcome the provision for rights of way improvement plans; they do need to be amended more rapidly. I welcome particularly the banning of vehicles from green lanes. Vehicles cause enormous damage on such lanes; when the snow comes, great potholes fill up—

5.8 pm

I have been a hill walker ever since my boyhood in Cumbria, so I suppose I must declare an interest in what I have to say. First, however, I very much congratulate my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment on a magnificent achievement in getting the Bill thus far. I also congratulate my hon. Friends the Members for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett), for Sherwood (Mr. Tipping) and for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) on their long crusade on this issue.

Part of the pleasure of hill walking lies in seeking a different route every time one is out, and in the map and compass work that that often involves. Even in the Lake district national park, where access is about as free as it can be, it is still possible to be trapped by private land, deer fences or wire. In my experience of fell walking over 45 years or so, very few walkers have wanted to invade private property. The vast majority of the time, especially in poor weather, they want to stick to well-trodden paths.

I take enormous pleasure not only in walking myself, but in seeing others walking, many of them trekking up hills and along ridges: they are not sitting in front of television screens or on cosy football terraces, but exercising body and spirit, and many of them become addicted. Walking plays an essential part in maintaining the nation's health and its sanity. The ability to visit the countryside on foot is vital to those who do not live in the country. Walkers tend to be observant and careful; for the most part, they help to take care of the countryside through which they pass. Hill walking is one of the few occupations that is available to people regardless of age and almost regardless of income.

By contrast, the attitude of some landowners—not all, thank God—and their spokesmen is often marked by extraordinary snobbery. The Country Landowners Association regional secretary for Leicestershire, Rutland, Northamptonshire and Warwickshire wrote:
We don't want all and sundry roaming our land, especially not criminals, drug pushers and vandals.
I am sure the House can imagine a drug pusher on top of the trough of Bowland, waiting for the walkers in woolly hats to come up and buy his illegal goods.

The CLA regional secretary for the east midlands wrote that the freedom to roam
would apply to everyone, including the minority of vandals, sheep stealers, badger baiters, horse slashers, illegal hare coursers, poaching gangs, birds eggs thieves and those responsible for a rising tide of crime in rural areas.
Picture those people, staggering around the mountains looking for a horse to slash. The hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Mr. Norman) summed up walkers as trespassers and hooligans.

One does not need to read many such comments to get a clear idea of what landowners think of the citizens of this country. They appear to hold the extraordinary belief that walkers are all from the towns. Writing in The Daily Telegraph, Quentin Letts refers to my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment as "Minister for Townie Ramblers", as though those of us who live in the countryside never put one foot in front of the other.

Another argument advanced is that the Bill represents the thin end of the wedge. Such an argument could be used to negate every piece of legislation ever proposed.

Jolyon Dodgson, the CLA regional secretary for the north-west—a fine man, pleasant company and an old friend of mine—writes that the Government's decision
is nothing more than the expropriation of private land rights and we would advise other owners of private property to take note.
Next, Parliament will legislate to allow people to wander through other people's gardens.

A third argument that is often advanced has already been put by the right hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King)—the people will not understand the legislation. Apparently, we are all too thick to understand such complicated legislation, so we should not do anything about it. A hint of that attitude has been heard in suggestions made this afternoon about the right people not being put on the access forums, and the need to choose carefully people who can understand the legislation—and, no doubt, who own a lot of land as well.

The key to the Bill is balance: it not only extends rights of access, but provides the means to protect wildlife from disturbance at sensitive times of the year and allows for the protection of the land itself from hazards such as fire. In the existing national parks—in the Lake district, the Peak district, north wales and so on—the most serious problem caused by walkers is erosion of footpaths, as continuous overuse grinds them down to gravel. One need only visit the Old Man of Coniston or Kinder Scout to see that that is a problem. However, better access in other parts of the country might help to prevent such problems by diverting walkers elsewhere.

My hon. Friend the Member for Pendle and I had an interesting meeting a short time ago with representatives of the CLA in the north-west. They told us that they did not expect a vast mushrooming in the number of walkers—such as the total population of Greater Manchester and Merseyside suddenly wandering out into the trough of Bowland. However, existing walkers and their families and new walkers—we hope that there will be more, for all the reasons given by my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish—will be given a wider choice and greater access closer to their homes, involving less travelling. For me, the trough of Bowland, most of which is out of bounds, will become accessible and it is only a short drive away.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Minister on clause 65, which deals with the danger to limestone pavement, which has exercised me for some years. It is appalling that limestone pavement in south Cumbria, north Lancashire and the Pennines has been quarried for gardens and for massive export to Japan. It is therefore reassuring to see the clause.

The problem of dogs has been mentioned. I understand the restrictions contained in the Bill, but I ask my right hon. Friend to consider further restrictions. Human beings, as well as sheep and birds, are in danger from unleashed dogs in mountainous country and country where there are quarries. My two daughters and I have been knocked flying in the mountains by other people's dogs racing ahead of their owners. It is a problem that needs addressing.

In the last couple of minutes available to me, I shall deal with the provisions on footpaths. The CLA is right to argue that most people want to use footpaths in their neighbourhood—the footpaths that connect or ramble round villages and hamlets, such as those in my constituency of West Lancashire, which are often under threat from development as well as from farming. The Government are right to be impatient with the slow progress in producing definitive maps in some areas and the huge delays in sorting out disputes and diversions.

The footpath network in this country is one of our greatest national assets. The fairly frequent creation of new paths, both long-distance and short-distance ones, proves that local authorities and other agencies are aware of their popularity and the fact that they will be used. The footpath system has even spawned its own literature, as can be seen in every book shop.

However, there are persistent attempts by some landowners to block or plough up paths. That has naturally led to equally bloody-minded resistance from walkers organisations, such as ramblers organisations and local footpath groups. The Bill's provision for local authorities to produce right of way improvement plans, to be prepared and published within five years, is to be welcomed. Will my right hon. Friend tell us what mechanisms there will be to deal with authorities that fail to produce such plans, or afterwards fail to publish the 10-yearly reviews that are provided for?

5.18 pm

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for West Lancashire (Mr. Pickthall) and, in particular, the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry). I found myself in agreement with so many of the points that the right hon. Gentleman made during his speech. He juxtaposed the two positions of opposing in principle and opposing on practicalities, and rightly said that it was the practicalities that mattered.

I am at a loss to understand the position of the right hon. Gentleman's colleagues on the Front Bench, who want to oppose Second Reading in principle. Leaving aside the irony—which will be lost on no farmer—of the hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Mr. Norman), with his business history, now purporting to speak for farmers who are finding it difficult to make an economic living, I fail to understand how the Conservatives can oppose in principle a Bill that has not been opposed in principle by the vast majority of people in this country, including those who speak for countryside and agricultural interests, who all find parts of the Bill that they can support, but nevertheless have serious doubts about some of the practical applications of the legislation and want those explored in Committee.

If the hon. Gentleman reads our reasoned amendment, he will realise that while we object in principle to parts of the Bill, we welcome other parts. I recommend that he reads the amendment.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman does not believe that I would come to the debate without reading the amendment. I question the position that Conservative Members have adopted of opposing parts of the Bill in principle. The detailed briefings from the many interests that have examined the Bill oppose not the principle but its detail. Those interests include the National Farmers Union, the Country Landowners Association and the Countryside Alliance. If we accepted the amendment tabled by Conservative Members, we could not amend the details in Committee; we would not have the opportunity of clarifying the access provisions, extending environmental protection or reforming rights of way. That would do the country a disservice.

I am indebted to the hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Green) for the concept of the blue-green dimension of Conservative policy. That was included in a recent press release. However, the response from the hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells was reminiscent not so much of cyan as of the purple of the grouse moor. That is unfortunate because we have an opportunity greatly to strengthen legislation on the environment and rights of access. We do not oppose the principle of the Bill; we welcome the principles that underlie much of the measure.

A succession of "buts" will now follow. The Bill does not tackle some practicalities properly and we will have to explore them in Committee. The Bill is disappointing in many ways, and its lack of aspiration is sad—[Interruption.] Hon. Members mumble from a sedentary position that it is overdue and overhyped; it is over the hill and far away in terms of the aspirations of many people who wanted environmental legislation to be strengthened during this Parliament. We want to explore the Bill's limitations.

The right hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) was right when he said that one of the key anxieties was about definition. It is important that we all understand how the Bill will work. Even our brightest and best educated constituents will not understand several definitions and some of the working practices in the Bill because they will not be on public display or in a digestible form. That will cause confusion and create tensions where none previously existed. That is sad and should be tackled.

Our second major concern is the scope of the Bill and some of the missed opportunities, which we hope to remedy in Committee. That applies especially to environmental protection and to reforming the rights of way system. The latter needs reforming and the Government have ducked the issue. They may want to revert to the matter; perhaps the Bill is half written and they will table a plethora of amendments in Committee. However, the measure is currently undercooked.

Our third major anxiety is about resources. For the Bill's intentions to be realised, it must be backed by a substantial amount of money. I have my doubts about that. My hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Mr. Brake) and I wrote to the Minister about that very issue on 1 March, but I have not yet received a reply, nor has my hon. Friend. That is not surprising from this Government, but what worries me is that the collusion between the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food may mean that the contagion that has overcome MAFF for the past three years may have spread to DETR. We may have to wait months.

The success or otherwise of the Bill ultimately depends on adequate resourcing. The Secretary of State started the process of consideration by saying that the cost would "not be significant", but that is belied even by the explanatory notes and all informed commentators say that the likely cost will be more than the Government estimate. There will be significant costs for supporting the mapping process, the administration, the appeals and the new procedures—that is all self-evident—but there will also be a significant cost for creating the liaison structures, which will underpin its functioning on the ground. We need firm commitments not only to produce the resources required at this stage, but to continue that resourcing for a considerable number of years. There will be not only start-up costs but a continuing need, and meeting it will be critical to the success of the countryside bodies, local authorities and farmers themselves if they are to meet the Bill's requirements.

I want to deal with the access provisions. We welcome public access to uncultivated countryside. That is the basis of the Bill and we support it. However, we have concerns. First, the regional forums will be critical to its success, but their structure, the way in which they will operate and their existence are not dealt with by the Bill. The forums simply will not work unless the various interests with a direct concern in this matter are properly represented. We have always said that the forums represent a local matter that needs to be dealt with locally.

The definition of what land falls into what category is a problem, as is the fact that the mapping procedure is not yet complete—the cart has been put before the horse. We have to recognise and quantify the associated environmental costs and the Government have to meet them. I am concerned about restricted access because it will cause a lot of difficulties. The provisions are not workable and, for example, 28 days of restricted access is not sufficient for a double lambing. That has to be addressed, as does the exclusion of high days and holidays and the nonsensical idea that the farming calendar can somehow be put on hold during such periods. Is not it possible to encompass partial restrictions on a general area to establish sequential use of land for a particular purpose in 28-day periods—or whatever limit is prescribed—to achieve proper economic land use without restricting public access?

I am also concerned about night-time access and the more I think about it the more I question whether it is necessary. Will not it produce more access problems than it solves? The proper security of individuals is an issue, as are liabilities, and perhaps the Minister needs to reconsider that provision. I am worried that the code of conduct may not have the force of law. Where possible, codes of conduct should be transformed into byelaws so that everybody is absolutely clear about the way in which they apply.

I listened carefully to what the Minister said about liability and compensation, but still was not persuaded. How is a natural feature defined? Is a tree a natural feature? Is a tree doing what trees do—dropping a branch every now and again in a high wind, acting as a natural feature?

The hon. Gentleman says, "Of course it is," but is that the landowner's responsibility? There is a lack of definition and that is precisely what we need to explore in Committee.

I do not believe that the Government have gone nearly far enough in reforming this country's rickety rights of way system and they probably recognise that their proposals are incoherent and represent unfinished business. Local authorities are being given a new duty, but it is a duty to provide plans, with no duty to implement them. I have some experience of local authorities and they are always producing plans. The question is whether they ever bring them to fruition and whether they have the resources to do so. We cannot have a coherent and definitive—that is perhaps an unfortunate word to use in this context—rights of way system until we address that issue.

We should reconsider signposting, so that the public know exactly what they can and cannot do. We also need to address the issues of freedom from obstruction and bridleways, and establish a hierarchy to make the position clear when access through rights of way and conservation interests clash. My view is that conservation interests must take precedence, but that is by no means clear at the moment.

I listened carefully to the comments about RUPPS and their transition to restricted byways, and about the fact that there could be a challenge on vehicular use. I hope that it will not be all or nothing—either a restricted byway closed to vehicular traffic or a BOAT and open to all vehicular traffic—because that is nonsense. People may have proper rights of access because they need to use a particular restricted byway, but it should not be opened up to general vehicular use. It would be nonsense if local authorities had to go through the process of a road traffic order and had to put up a plethora of signs on the top of hillsides to stop what everyone knows should not be happening.

We welcome the strengthening of the current framework of conservation and wildlife protection as far as it goes. We regret the fact that there is no statutory underpinning of what was developed as a result of the Rio conference. Biodiversity action plans are not to be put on a statutory basis, as I believe they should be. We regret that there is no provision in the Bill for making good existing damage to SSSIs, but perhaps there will be provision elsewhere. Protection of SSSIs over the past few years and the amount that has been lost has been a disgrace.

We regret the fact that there is nothing about species protection outside SSSIs. I understand how difficult it is to produce definitions in that area, but the Government must address that problem if they are to take wildlife protection seriously. To echo an earlier point, we regret that the Bill contains nothing on marine conservation. Many years ago I was involved from outside the House in producing the amendments to the Environmental Protection Bill—as the right hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) will recall—which has never made a great difference. We need to address that issue. We should also consider the position of interim development orders. That applies particularly to peat moors and the effect that they can have on mineral workings. The Bill does not contain provisions for areas of outstanding natural beauty. They should be included, and we must address that issue in Committee.

My hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Livsey) hopes to catch your eye later, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to talk about Wales. My view and that of our party is that the Bill should not cover Wales, because this is a devolved matter for the Welsh Assembly and for the conservation and countryside bodies in Wales to deal with. It is wrong for the United Kingdom Parliament to retain this matter under a devolved system, because what happens in Wales has no effect outside the Principality.

The principal point is that it is possible to have environmental and societal benefits at the same time as agricultural sustainability: the two are not mutually inimical. Sustainability in environmental terms is not only compatible with but essential to the development of our rural communities, the rural economy and agricultural interests. There is a synergy between offering better protection and redirecting the present price support to farming through the CAP, which is wasteful and wholly indefensible. The Bill can go only a little way in that direction. It is for the Government to argue elsewhere how they achieve that.

Paradoxically, although the Government are making progress, there is limited progress on the common agricultural policy. We have the nonsense of the new IACS—integrated administration and control system—regulations and their effect on our hedgerows. The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food should be arguing with Brussels about that. We have the nonsense of environmental support for agriculture being effectively capped, and certainly not meeting the aspirations of the industry.

We need joined-up government. We need improvements in the Bill during its passage. However, we also need the underwriting of environmental support for rural areas by the Government, through the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions and through MAFF. We understand that the Bill is no more than a platform in terms of some of those developments, but it is a good platform. We shall not oppose it in principle, although we shall seek to improve it during its passage.

5.35 pm

I congratulate the Minister and his colleagues on the Bill. We have waited a long time for it, but it is good to have it now.

This afternoon's sideshow was provided by, in a sense, two Conservative parties. I felt that what the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) said about managing society and the countryside—it was echoed by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath)—formed the kernel of the debate. I find it sad that Opposition Front Benchers have not yet grasped that we should be trying to manage our countryside for both environmentalists and farmers. That is possible and practicable, but sad to say, it is not the official Conservative line. It is sad that the Conservatives do not appreciate the needs and aspirations of our citizens, who are demanding today what they have demanded for many years.

I have been examining the history. When I looked at the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, introduced by a Conservative Government, I realised that its hallmark was the wish for conciliation and consensus. We have heard no conciliation or consensus from the Opposition today; they simply do not understand.

I digress, however. I want to thank the Government for realising the aspirations of many people, including many Members of Parliament, throughout the decades, who have tried to secure the right to roam in Britain, and to extend people's rights to enjoy our beautiful countryside for the purposes of air and exercise.

The first legislation was introduced in, I believe, 1888—even before old Labour—by James Bryce, a Liberal. Thereafter, the point was taken up repeatedly by MPs—mainly, ironically enough unless we think about it, MPs representing the older industrial areas. I am thinking of people such as Charles Trevelyan, who gave Wallington to the nation and represented Newcastle upon Tyne, Ellen Wilkinson, who represented Jarrow, Hugh Dalton, who represented Bishop Auckland, and Chuter Ede and Arthur Blenkinsop, who both represented my constituency.

Indeed, I find that back in 1980–20 years ago, almost to the day—I introduced a private Member's Bill in an attempt to effect the purposes of this Bill. I am surprised and encouraged to discover that at least two of the likely suspects, my hon. Friends the Members for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) and for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours), sponsored my Bill. As I have said, we have waited a long time for this legislation, but it is good to see it now. As for the accusation that it is political, I thought that that was why we were here. We are honouring a manifesto pledge to our citizens.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Workington said, the hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Mr. Norman), the Conservative spokesman, built his case on exaggeration, myth and half-truths.

Let me try to reassure the House. The Lake district national park is one of the two oldest national parks. By a quirk of history, under the National Trust Act 1907 and the Law of Property Act 1925, almost all the commons in the national park have a right of access along the lines that the Bill proposes; in fact, it is far more liberal than is proposed in the Bill. That has been the position since 1925.

Over the years, that has caused problems, but as someone who was born within sight of the lake district national park and who grew up there, I see those problems diminishing as the years go by, with farmers realising that their business opportunities increase as more people are attracted to the national park. We should try to develop and to build on that. The Opposition have to build their case on practical experience, not on half-truths and myths.

The Government could be on weaker ground in respect of the public rights of way. Some forces argue that that part of the Bill weakens and reduces our network of registered public footpaths. A definitive numbered footpath is the Queen's highway; it is not a concession, but a right. One has as much right to walk along a registered public footpath as a registered road, but there is a fear that the network will be reduced under the Government's proposals. I hope that the Minister will make it clear that, although there may be cases where footpaths are redirected or, indeed, closed, that is not the general purpose of the Bill. Incidentally, I take the point that, in certain urban areas where footpaths encourage crime or vandalism—clause 68 recognises it—diversions may be a better way forward.

I make one suggestion to the Minister on footpaths. Will he consider the possibility of each local authority area creating a footpaths panel that represents all interested groups: country landowners, the National Farmers Union, ramblers, the Open Spaces Society—whoever it may be? In the early 1970s, we tried that as an experiment in the Kirklees district. I sat on the forum for a number of years. Although at the beginning there was much suspicion between the opposing sides, on no occasion did the council refuse the panel's recommendations. It was a good way in which to build consensus and understanding. It was the right way forward.

I ask the Minister to address certain other issues: for example, marine nature reserves. I thought that they had already been covered by the Wildlife and Countryside (Amendment) Act 1985, which I introduced and got on the statute book. I was surprised to learn that so little progress had been made. Equally, I was surprised that there had been so much discussion, deliberation and confusion about mapping of open land in the national parks—I emphasise, in the national parks. The national park authorities were required to do that under the 1985 Act.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) said, we are losing hundreds of thousands of kilometres of hedgerows. It looks as if the pace of their removal is still quickening. However, they are part and parcel of the fabric of our countryside. It is very important that the Government should take this opportunity—if they cannot provide another one in the near future—to try to deal with the problem.

I end where I began, by thanking the Government for their action on the right to roam. So many people in the United Kingdom would feel better—one cannot describe it in words or in literature—if they could get out into the countryside. When they do get out there—on the mountains, the moors or the downs—aspects of life will become much more meaningful for them. The more we encourage people to get out into the countryside, to exercise their legs and their lungs, the closer we will be to having a much more balanced society. I should have thought that both sides of the House are trying to achieve that objective.

5.45 pm

I declare an interest which is in the Register of Members' Interests: I am a consultant to the Countryside Alliance. I should also say that I am a member of the Country Landowners Association and the National Farmers Union, so that the House will have no doubt about where I am coming from in the debate.

In countryside debates, it is always a pleasure to follow my north-east neighbour, the right hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark). He has a very detailed and deep knowledge of the countryside, and I respect him for that. However, he was completely wrong when he said that Conservative Members should not object to the Bill on principle. Of course we should object to it on principle. My right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) said that there is not much point in arguing about principle today because the Government's majority will force the Bill through. In his speech, he therefore wanted to address management issues.

A fundamental point of principle is raised by the Bill: it will take away the central right of property owners to say who may or may not come on to their land. It is a matter of profound principle. However, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon said, it is not worth arguing that particular point of principle today, because Ministers will not listen to such arguments.

My main criticism of the Bill is that it is a wasted opportunity, particularly to provide for reform of the rights of way network. Proper reform of the United Kingdom's rights of way network is one quid pro quo that would have gone a long way to pacifying landowning and farming interests. It is not—as the right hon. Member for South Shields said—a matter of diminishing the number of public rights of way, but a matter of making rights of way more suitable for modern recreational use. I should have liked the Bill to contain a far tougher and more detailed section on rights of way.

The Bill does effectively nothing on rights of way. It simply says that it will give local authorities a duty to produce a plan on how to improve the rights of way network in their area. In most country areas, county councils will produce such plans. However, county councils have for years been fiddling on about rights of way. They have neither the money, nor the will, nor—in many cases—the resources properly to improve rights of way.

Farmers, particularly, wanted the Bill to make it far easier to divert unsuitable rights of way, making a right of way not only more sensible for their agricultural purposes, but more user friendly for those who want to walk it. However, the Bill does absolutely nothing about that.

Currently, farmers who want to divert a footpath have a right to apply to the local highways authority to that end. If the highways authority refuses to make a diversion order, the farmer has a right to appeal against the decision. However, even if the authority agrees to a diversion, the usual mechanisms for making the diversion will apply. We have an incredibly cumbersome and expensive system to divert a right of way. Once again, that system is being enshrined in legislation.

The Government should have done something much braver, by giving parish councils, for example, the right to draw up plans to provide people with proper recreational footpaths through the countryside. That is what people want. The right to roam is an old-fashioned socialist idea—dating back to the Kinder Scout trespass, in the 1930s, at the thought of which old socialist ramblers go jelly-eyed. They should go and see how much wildlife there is now on Kinder Scout. There is an awful lot less now than there was when it was private. Most people who live in towns want proper reform of rights of way, and that is what the Bill will signally fail to do.

My constituency probably contains some of the largest areas that will be affected by the Bill. It includes some of the best heather moors in the country, in the north Pennines. There is an area of de facto right to roam around Hadrian's wall, and the problems that stem from that right are well known to farmers. Any pretence that the Bill will cause no difficulty to farmers is pie in the sky.

There is first-hand evidence. Farmers who try to farm along Hadrian's wall and in that area know only too well about the problems that an unrestricted right to roam causes. Inevitably it leads to gates being left open, which cause flocks of sheep to be mixed up and cattle to wander into areas where they should not be. There are also the usual problems of litter and disturbance. These are serious management problems for farmers on Hadrian's wall.

If it is discovered that, through the workings of the Bill once it is enacted, there is damage to the environment—let us suppose that the right to roam causes damage to a well-managed grouse moor, which substantially reduces its value—is there provision for the farmer or landowner to seek compensation? The answer is that there is none. That is entirely wrong.

There are important detailed questions that have not been answered. Perhaps the Minister will respond to them when he replies. For example, who will sit on the access forums? It is vital that local people be involved. When the previous Government were setting up new national parks committees, we insisted that parish councils elected representatives to them. That made a substantial difference to the respect in which national park authorities are held by the local population. I hope that there will be room for parish council representatives to be on the access forums. Without that, townies will be seen as imposing their demands once more on the countryside.

I reinforce what has been said about resources. Northumberland county council, which is my local highways authority, is chronically short of cash. It is never short on criticising Ministers of both parties for not providing sufficient funding. If it receives no additional funding after the Bill is enacted, there is not a chance that it will be able to put in place some of the things that will be required of it.

Landowners are asking—no doubt these questions will be asked of Ministers time and time again during consideration of the Bill—how they are to close a grouse moor to public access. The Minister said that they could close it for 28 days without permission, except on weekends and bank holidays. That means that anyone who wants to close a grouse moor or an upland area because of lambing will have to apply for permission. The area will have to be closed for more than 28 days, and there will have to be 28 unbroken days. How will they tell people that the moor is open or closed on a particular day?

What of common land? There is common land in upland areas that will be affected by the Bill, and in parts of East Anglia where there are shooting interests. How is that common land to be closed on shooting days? Who will come out from the Countryside Agency? Will its representatives have to stand round the common and say, "You can't go on there today because it is a shooting day"? Will it be necessary to put fences round common land bearing notices stating, for example, "No access today"? Farmers, landowners and those who look after commons have a right to know how these things will be done and whether it will be to their cost or someone else's.

How do we define cultivated land? Is Newmarket heath, for example, uncultivated land? The House will know that it is used by trainers for exercising their horses. There are gallops that are used by other training establishments. Will these areas be regarded as cultivated land? What will happen if a farmer decides to plough some uncultivated land? That is frequently done these days before re-seeding. Would that uncultivated land with a right of access become cultivated land with no right of access? How will that be shown on a map that the Countryside Agency will produce?

I reinforce what others have said about the problems of night access. It seems nonsensical that there should be 24-hour access each day to certain land. It will be impossible for many management tasks to be undertaken if there is access at night. The Minister will be aware that a great deal of predator control—for example, the shooting of foxes with the use of lamps—is done during the night in upland areas. If people have a right to roam at that time, there could be serious danger to them and to those who are engaged in the control operation. There is no reason why moorland should be open during the evening.

Finally, when the Bill is considered in Committee, I plead with the Minister to accept amendments to the definition of common land, which will be helpful if the—

5.56 pm

I welcome the Bill, and I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment on bringing it forward when all about him were ranged the forces of conservatism. What a glittering speech he made. What a tonic it was, compared with the dire contribution of the hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Mr. Norman), who spoke from the Opposition Front Bench. The speech of the hon. Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) was not much better.

Whenever Conservative Members speak on issues such as this, they bang on about compensation. They want compensation for this and compensation for that. In effect, they are saying, "Hand it out, give us the money." What happened during the previous Parliament? I note that the hon. Member for Hexham is disappearing. I believe that a head deboning firm in your constituency, Mr. Deputy Speaker, went out of business without compensation. We must understand that, under the Conservatives, there is compensation only when it suits them.

The Conservatives come to the House with spurious arguments from, for example, the Country Landowners Association and the so-called shooting and conservation lobby. They will do anything to keep out the great unwashed. That is what it is all about. It is their countryside, not ours. That was exemplified by my parliamentary neighbour, the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry), when he talked about those who owned the countryside.

This may sound like a revolutionary sentiment to the House, but the land belongs to us all. [Interruption.] It does. Conservative Members may laugh, but the last laugh will be on them because the Bill will give millions of people the chance to enjoy countryside that is now out of bounds.

My chief recreation is walking. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that over 25 years of doing it I have trespassed on innumerable occasions on other people's land. On no occasion do I remember having been ordered off the land or objection being taken to my activities. However, the keeping of the law of trespass is a residual power to the landowner that is vital to prevent abuse.

I hope that the Bar Council was listening to the hon. Gentleman's intervention. There is a practising barrister who is a lawbreaker in the House.

We have heard about what is and is not principle. My principle is that there are good reasons for keeping people off open land, but ownership is not one of them. Was it last year that someone was going to buy Snowdon? Sir Anthony Hopkins, with his Welsh antecedents, came forward. He said that he would put up the money to ensure public access to Snowdon. Are Conservative Members seriously suggesting that if someone has a pot of money and wants to buy a tract of beautiful countryside in this country, he can do so and keep people off it? If that is not what they are saying, let one of them intervene now, because that has always been my understanding.

I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) that the Bill has been a long time coming. The Countryside Agency is busily mapping the country, and I understand that the exercise will be completed by the end of 2003, which will be six and a half years after the general election that brought Labour to office. Why is it taking such a long time? Because my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister likes to bring people with him.

The Countryside Agency is doing a good, enthusiastic job and showing tremendous commitment. We must ensure that it is properly resourced. We must also ensure that we listen to the arguments and reservations expressed by people such as the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath). The Prime Minister does not want to be ideological about this. He is a hugely pragmatic politician. If there are problems about exercising the right to roam and the farmers and landowners have legitimate grievances, he will want to listen to them. He is a Prime Minister who consults like mad. No Bill has ever been consulted on more than this one. I think that we have consulted 60 million people in the United Kingdom.

The Bill is a good Bill, and should be welcomed, but—there is always a but—it can be improved in Committee. Inexplicably, it contains nothing about areas of outstanding natural beauty. I listened carefully to my right hon. Friend the Minister, and I think that he said that there would be a ministerial statement on AONBs at a later date; but why not have it now? We pass countryside legislation about once every 10 or 15 years. The Bill should be the vehicle. I would appreciate a response to that in the winding-up speech.

We all know that the Prime Minister wants to ban fox hunting, as all Labour Members here do. He said as much on television. The Bill could be a vehicle for that. I have an amendment in mind—when the Whips put me on the Standing Committee—that will allow us to ban fox hunting painlessly by saying that no hunt can take place within a mile of a public footpath. I am sure that that will be in order. It will be very effective when the entire country is criss-crossed with public footpaths.

There is a power to extend the right of access to coastal areas such as beaches, but why stop there? Why not extend the right of access to lake shores, river banks and canal tow paths? Why not go the whole hog? We have come a very long way from what the Country Landowners Association said a couple of years ago, just after the general election. I have used this quotation many times, because I just love it. They wanted a "right of visual access". I do not want a right of visual access. I do not want to look at the hills. I want to walk on them. That is what the Bill is for.

I want the landscape to be improved. What incredible hypocrisy we see in the reasoned amendment, as if we had inherited a glittering legacy of a thriving countryside and it all went dreadfully wrong in May 1997. The Tories left the landscape in a terrible state. Much of it was derelict. I have already referred to the 158,000 km of hedgerows that were ripped out. Walls were left to fall down: almost a third of dry stone walls are derelict. That is the great legacy. Every time I walk up Boulsworth hill, I pass a rusting tractor graveyard. The planning system has never tackled the piles of rusting machinery, and it should.

The right to roam is central to the Bill and I welcome it. The opponents who regularly go over the top do their arguments a disservice. People have stopped listening. The National Farmers Union has given a briefing to Members of Parliament. It says:
Much of the upland area that is to be mapped as open country also play an important role as water gathering grounds. As a result the risk of pollution must be increased by allowing increased public access to it.
That is just ridiculous; it is farcical. In the forest of Bowland, North West Water has a catchment area that is open to the public. Why does the NFU still peddle that rubbish and ask us to give weight to it?

Nicholas van Hoogstraten has been our greatest ally. The Ramblers described him as a bullying millionaire. I can think of a choicer description, Mr. Deputy Speaker, which you would—

6.6 pm

The hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) spoke with great passion. I cannot understand why he is not sitting on the Front Bench, considering the way in which he spoke about the Prime Minister. I remember him well from the year that we spent together on the Channel Tunnel Rail Link Bill. He spoke with passion then, too.

There is a certain irony about the Bill. Part III is about endangered species. Following the Ayr by-election, when I look across the Chamber I see about 200 endangered species. The probability is that many Labour Members will lose their seats. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Bradford, North (Mr. Rooney) may yawn, but that is the fact.

I declare an interest in that I come from a farming background. My father farmed. I do not own any land, so it is not a registrable interest, but I love the countryside and I am very concerned about conservation and access. I resent the idea that all Conservative Members are against the principle of people enjoying the countryside. There is much to be done to improve access to the countryside but the Bill contains a lot that needs changing, and it will probably spend a very long time in Committee.

Farmers will feel threatened by the Bill as it stands. If we are to have a happy compromise, with the constituents of the hon. Member for Pendle and others enjoying the countryside, the farmers' fears must be allayed. I was taken by what the right hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) said about our needing conciliation and consensus to manage the countryside. In fairness to Conservative Members, he referred to the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, which was a triumph of our Government. It was a great Act, and much care went into it.

Those who live in the countryside feel under threat in many respects, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) said. Rural communities are desperately concerned. Their livelihoods are under threat. We have lost many small farmers in Leicestershire recently, and there are problems with transport costs, planning and countryside sports. I attended the countryside march and rally in London. If ever there was an example of country people expressing their worries about the future of their way of life, that was it. It was not just about hunting.

One of the major bones of contention will be clause 21(6), about when landowners can exclude the public and whether they can do so on weekends, Christmas day and other holidays. The Minister for the Environment avoided the issue, which is crucial. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon said, how on earth are we supposed to deal with the problem of nesting birds and other breeding animals if there is an automatic right of access and the land cannot be closed off for more than four or five days at a time?

The message from the countryside march was, "Listen to us." I say to the Opposition—I still think of the Government as the Opposition—

The hon. Gentleman is three years out of date.

We were in power for a very long time—a lot longer than this Government. To make the Bill work, the Government must seek the co-operation of the rural communities. At the moment, they are on a collision course, and that is regrettable. The Wildlife and Countryside Act was steered through the House with great care and consensus. New Labour has demolished much of the old structures of the other place, but many of the hereditary peers spent hours pondering that legislation to try to get it right. I do not claim that this Bill will not be carefully considered, but the 1981 Act certainly was.

What are the other issues of concern? Unrestricted access to sites of special scientific interest is bound to lead to damage. It takes only one careless or negligent person to do tremendous damage. As for dogs, I get the feeling that Labour Members have never walked a dog. If dogs are taken out into open countryside, they do not want to stay on the lead. Once they are off their lead, many owners find it difficult to get them back on the lead. That will lead to sheep worrying and other problems.

I am also concerned about the effect of clause 21(6) on ground-nesting birds and lambing. However, a devolution issue arises, which most people have missed, in connection with wildlife and nature conservation provisions. The improvements in management and enforcement envisaged in the Bill must be accompanied by adequate funding for the conservation agencies. The Minister can deal with English Nature in that respect, but the Countryside Council for Wales comes under the auspices of the Welsh Assembly. I wonder how the hon. Member for Cardiff, West (Mr. Morgan) will look at those issues. The hon. Members for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Livsey) and for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) also raised that issue.

Other problems include statutory rights of access to village greens if they have not already been registered. What will happen if a disgruntled person decides to disrupt a cricket match? Will he in future have a statutory right to interfere with the match? The requirement for the mapping of all-access land will, I suspect, cause much repetition and should be closely monitored. The Ordnance Survey has, over the years, produced copious maps of the countryside.

I welcome the exclusion of woodland from the scope of the Bill. If it had been included, even more wildlife damage would have been likely, especially for nesting birds and other animals. I am sure that Labour Members believe that they understand the damage that can be done by a dog or one person walking in the wrong place at a particular time of year, but it is not unless one has lived in the countryside on a farm that one is truly aware of just how much damage can be done. I hope that that problem will be thoroughly addressed in Committee.

What appeal mechanism will exist for access points to the new open areas? "Local access forums" is a lovely phrase, but who will hear an appeal if that is necessary? How many wardens will be needed to enforce the measures and where will the money come from? The Bill provides no statutory protection for areas of outstanding natural beauty nor any duty on local authorities to maintain wildlife sites. That is another weakness.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) mentioned a greater role for parish councils. I agree with him. For example, they could examine the possibilities of exchanging footpaths and creating new ones. That could be one way to provide the access that Labour Members want. I approve the safeguard in clause 74, which allows an appeal to the Secretary of State if a local authority refuses to act on a request for a diversion. It often happens that responsible landowners and other parties request a diversion—for example, for a housing estate—and the requests are refused or ducked.

The report "The state of the countryside 1999" found that the three main concerns of people living in the countryside were development, pollution and the removal of hedges and woods. The removal of hedges is a legitimate concern, and I have always hated the idea that the countryside could lose all its hedges. I confess that I think that the previous Government should have done something about that, and the Minister should do something now to ensure that we do not experience the mass removal of hedges when economic circumstances change.

Farmers face a desperately serious situation. We need co-operation, not confrontation, and I look to Ministers and my Front-Bench colleagues to make the Bill what it should be—an excellent Bill.

6.16 pm

I am very pleased to be able to take part in this debate, and I am proud to represent a constituency and a county known throughout the world for their great natural beauty. I welcome the Bill because many of its elements relate to causes and issues that are close to my heart.

I shall begin with a personal perspective. Like many other hon. Members, I am a keen birdwatcher. For me, a great day is a day spent watching little egrets feeding in the Exe estuary, or red kites in Wales. My interest in wildlife conservation grew out of my love of birds, and it is obvious that if we do not take care of the landscape, wildlife cannot thrive. In that context, SSSIs are rightly described as the jewel in the crown, and it was for that reason that I introduced a ten-minute Bill last year, which was supported by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and many other countryside and wildlife organisations, in which I sought to place obligations on landowners and users of land to repair damage sustained on SSSIs. The then Minister kindly agreed to adopt my Bill as part of the consultation. I am delighted to see that this Bill will enable conservation bodies such as English Nature to serve management notices on those landowners or occupiers who persist in refusing to co-operate in the best interests of the land.

I have at the moment a SSSI in my constituency which many feel could be under threat from development at Swanpool in Falmouth. Like many other hon. Members, I could give some of the worst horror stories chapter and verse, but we are all too well aware of the problems. I propose instead to look at the answers that the Bill provides.

When I introduced my Bill, I met local conservation bodies, including English Nature, which knew and made it quite clear that, while I wished the wrath of God to fall on the heads of transgressors, co-operation was the preferred way forward. They argued that, in the first instance at least, they wanted to work in partnership with landowners to seek agreement and find common ground. The Bill offers that possibility, and should be commended for the sensible path that it treads. The support that it has received from a wide spectrum of sources is testament to its skilled approach to this issue. It is right, for example, that compensation can be paid to those severely inconvenienced by a management scheme.

Of course, the sad reality is that a few would rather hinder this process than move it forward. The provision in this Bill for compulsory purchase where agreement proves impossible may be a last resort, but it is a necessary resort. Equally, while the Government are dangling the carrot of financial support, those found guilty of damaging SSSIs will rightly face a fine of up to £20,000 and—perhaps more important—will be forced to reinstate the land.

Compulsory restoration may prove far more effective than the fine as a preventive measure. The costs of repairing land where it has been deliberately despoiled could amount to hundreds of thousands of pounds, and the threat of financial repercussions must be the most powerful of disincentives.

I now turn to another part of the Bill that I particularly welcome—the protection of wild birds. To me, the egg collector and nest stealer represents the lowest form of life. I once visited a warden working for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds on a remote Scottish island.

He described coming across a peregrine nest thief hanging by his fingernails after slipping in pursuit of a nest. He graphically described the internal conflicts that swept through him as he pondered whether to rescue that sad individual. That may sound unduly harsh, but that warden saw the effects of such crimes all too often—the distraught parent birds and the depleted numbers the following season. Perhaps most disturbing of all, he saw birds deliberately poisoned by a sick minority of people—a practice that is thankfully in decline.

It will come as no surprise to the House to hear that I welcome the increased penalties and enforcements provided in the Bill. Those who seek to deceive by snatching birds from the wild and rearing their chicks will face their comeuppance. The ancestry of birds will be traced. Inspectors will have greater powers—and quite right too. If we cannot protect these birds, who will? I hope that some exemplary sentences will be meted out to those who hoard and steal wild bird eggs. They make big money from those birds—they should face big sentences.

Access and rights of way have received more attention than most aspects of the Bill—both during its preparation and since its publication. We have heard some excellent speeches. I have little to add to the comments of the majority, to the effect that these provisions are overdue and are to be applauded. They will open up vast tracts of our countryside and will enrich the relationship between the public and our natural heritage.

I have had many letters from constituents outraged by blocked footpaths, and I take this opportunity to pay tribute to my constituent Hazel Perham from Treverva, who has led the campaign in Cornwall for a number of years. Hazel is very supportive of the Bill, and for her, as for many like her, its successful passage through Parliament will be the realisation of a dream.

I believe and hope that landowners and farmers who oppose such measures will stop to consider the opportunities that they offer. The Bill is another key step in the creation of a living, breathing countryside, protected and embellished for the enjoyment of us all. What attracts people to living or visiting the countryside is its beauty, its landscape and its serenity. The more people experience the joys of the countryside, the more they will appreciate its value and value its existence. Alternative forms of income may be sought by those who maintain this natural heritage, through farm tourism and the sale of local produce. Our natural heritage will increasingly become a recognised label of quality—whether for the life style that it embodies or the produce that it supplies. To use the parlance of the time, this is a fine example of joined-up thinking and should be encouraged within the rural economy as well as within government.

It is partly in that context that I suggest that the omission of measures providing for the improved management of areas of outstanding natural beauty is disappointing, although I am heartened to hear that there may be an announcement. Again, I choose to focus more on the opportunities such measures would offer rather than on the supposed problems that they would cause.

Cornwall has a high proportion of areas of outstanding natural beauty. Some 20 per cent. of England's heritage coastline is in our county and is enjoyed by the whole nation. Unfortunately, existing legislation does not provide for its proper management, and there are not sufficient resources to handle the task. By making management a statutory duty of local authorities, that deficiency could be addressed. This is not simply a question of landscape management, but of integrating the economic management of rural areas and building local partnerships that include landowners, local interests and national agencies.

It is my belief that that would benefit the rural economy. The potential would exist for the improved marketing of local produce and for the sensitive development of tourism. Such areas would be given an enhanced identity, to be used to their advantage in a number of ways. I encourage Ministers to give the question some thought. I also make a plea for Cornish hedges to be debated in Committee.

Notwithstanding those suggestions, I believe that the Bill represents an important step forward. It contributes to the creation of a living, breathing and working countryside. It facilitates an improved relationship between the public and the countryside, and it is with pleasure that I give it my enthusiastic support.

6.24 pm

In opening the debate, the Minister for the Environment said that changing the workings of the common agricultural policy was more important than the Bill. I agree with that, and I believe that there will be widespread disappointment in the countryside at the Government's choice of priorities. There is a fear that by the time the Government get round to tackling the real problems in the countryside, many involved in agriculture and the allied industries will have gone to the wall. That process will not be arrested or obviated by the prospect of the much-vaunted rural White Paper.

My hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Mr. Norman) pointed out, quite rightly, that there is a fundamental issue of principle at stake in this debate. That view was not shared by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), who seemed to cast aspersions on us for raising a point of principle in the debate. Second Reading debates are traditionally the right time at which to voice reservations about the principle of the Bill under discussion: if we do not raise matters of principle at this stage of the Bill's passage, it will be inappropriate to raise them at a later stage.

The point of principle is an important one. It has to do with the fact that we are increasingly a property-owning democracy. Ownership of property in this country is protected by the law of property. Millions of homeowners will appreciate and understand that an important principle is at stake. They want someone to defend the principle that if one owns a property, one has full rights over that property, which should not be encumbered by the public or anybody else. The Bill, of course, seeks to change that principle in a fundamental way.

When I intervened on the Minister and asked what precedent there was for this departure from what has previously been the case—the sacrosanct right of ownership over property—my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) said, from a sedentary position, "Soviet Russia." That opinion would not be shared by my constituent Mr. Parish of Lydbury North, who wrote in respect of the statutory right of access:
this is an infringement of the basic rights of free and unfettered possession of one's property… Not even in the thankfully-departed Soviet Union was the public allowed access at will…
It is no defence for the Government to say that a majority of the 2,000 responses to their consultation paper supported the statutory right of access. There are potentially far more users of rights of way or rights of access than landowners. At the risk of appearing somewhat trite, it is like asking the general populace whether they are in favour of free beer when there are more beer drinkers than brewers, or asking whether they want lower taxes when there are more taxpayers than tax collectors.

I have a very lovely constituency in the south of Shropshire. It has notable landmarks such as the Clee hills, the Stiperstones, Long Mynd, Caer Caradoc. Some of them are in private ownership, some are in the ownership of the National Trust. I have never, in my 13 years in the House, had complaints from constituents about access to the countryside. Indeed, the access provided is adequate—certainly in my county—and that is praiseworthy.

Furthermore, as a lifelong recreational walker I have never, in any part of the country—whether in the south-west, in Wales, Scotland, or the Pennines—

In normal circumstances, I would, but as the hon. Gentleman knows, there is a 10-minute limit on speeches.

I have never experienced any problems when walking anywhere in the country. When I walk in those places, I accept that I do so at my own risk—on that matter, my views might differ from those of Labour Members. In Committee, it is important that we thrash out the limits of the liability of landowners. In a moment, I shall expand on that point in relation to one of my constituents.

There is already a huge network of rights of way. I have never received any complaints about the extent of that network, or about access to it. The hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) is a keen walker, who is dedicated to achieving the aims and objects of the Bill. He pointed out that footpath legislation is not an easy matter. That is an understatement: as we know, the matter is fraught with difficulty. If time had permitted, I should have liked to give the House many examples from my constituency to demonstrate that point.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) was correct to point out that, if the Bill receives its Second Reading, we must be careful to get the detail right in Committee. If we do not, there will be many disputes—possibly leading to litigation. I appeal to Ministers to bear in mind the increasing needs of recreational horse riders, who sometimes experience difficulty in finding paths that they can use. We must ensure that we take their requirements into account before the Bill is enacted.

Will the Minister consider the legal position of my constituent Mr. Hunter of Beckbury, who told me that three sides of his three-acre garden are bounded by a footpath and agricultural land? The whole area was fenced with chain-link fencing. His letter stated:
Over the last few years, people have broken down my fencing, allowed dogs to foul my land, and dumped their cans and rubbish. The last straw was when some men dumped an old three piece suite of furniture.
To protect my property I have had part of my boundary fence replaced with a four strand barbed wire fence.
Mr. Hunter asks what risk he runs of being taken to court for any injury that ramblers might do themselves on his barbed-wire fence. He rightly points out:
Surely, if people are allowed to roam over other people's land. they should do so at their own risk.
That is also my view.

As the hon. Member for West Lancashire (Mr. Pickthall) said, the footpath network is a national asset. I agree. However, it is important to understand how and why that national asset came into being. As most Members will be aware, footpaths were established because in previous centuries, families living on farms used those routes to go to church, to the pub, to their neighbours, to the mill to get their corn milled, and so on. I am keen that the legislation should offer a suitable and simple means whereby those historical paths are rationalised sensibly for both landowners and walkers.

I caution against the law of unintended consequences—

6.35 pm

It is always a great privilege for hon. Members to speak in the Chamber on an issue of major importance—locally and nationally—to their own constituents. This is just such an occasion.

I wholeheartedly support my constituents' demand for a right of access to local moorland and heath from which they have been banned for centuries. Furthermore, I wholly support the national campaign for access to the 4 million acres of mountain, moor, heath, down and registered common land, denied by so few to so many.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment on introducing the Bill. I also acknowledge the inspiration of lifelong campaigners whom it is a privilege to know and to call friends. Benny Rothman, now 88 years old, is one of the six campaigners who were sent to jail for leading the mass trespass on Kinder Scout in 1932. He did so much to raise awareness and interest in access issues. Local campaigners, Alan and Elsie Gaskell, have been involved in the struggle for the past 50 years. Alan is now retired, but his mere presence at the local authority rights of way committee is still enough to give any ill-informed councillor pause for thought.

In my constituency of Calder Valley, much of the upland has been designated an area of outstanding natural beauty. Significant areas have been designated sites of special scientific interest. Always wild, always beautiful and sometimes unforgiving, there are secret places that calm the brain, expand the mind and make the spirits soar.

Regrettably, the wildest and most beautiful places are often the most inaccessible; not because of the selfishness and perversity of nature, but—sadly—because of our fellow man. One such place is known locally as Boulsworth moor. Lad Law is its summit; at 1700 ft, it is the highest point in the south Pennines. That is the very landscape that inspired the Brontë sisters, who lived nearby.

As long ago as the 1950s, a public inquiry found in favour of access to Boulsworth, but nothing was done to achieve it. Attempts to negotiate access have been continuous since the 1970s, but with no success at all. The land on the Yorkshire side still cannot be walked on without the prior consent of the landowner.

In 1977, a three-mile concessionary path was allowed by the North West water authority on the Lancashire side of Boulsworth. At present, North West Water does not object—to its credit—to walkers on its land. Unfortunately, most of the area is in Yorkshire.

There are five landowners on Boulsworth. Four are opposed to access for walkers, although they encourage numerous groups with shooting rights; only one does not object to walkers. When Tom Stephenson, who was responsible for establishing the Pennine way, wanted the route to cross Boulsworth, he was stopped by a local landowner—Lord Savile—and was forced to devise a route that passed over lower ground. Why?

Of course, it is true that SSSI land in an area of outstanding natural beauty deserves and needs special protection. I look forward to the Minister's statement on that aspect of the Bill. It is right that access to open country is linked to care and respect for farming, landowning, shooting and nature conservation interests. It is important that the Bill provides a duty of care on all who use the countryside to respect the country code and the needs of a working landscape. For the majority, walking is an innocent and harmless activity, but we must protect the countryside against the destructive minority, whoever and wherever they are.

Ironically, when it comes to harming the countryside, it is not walkers who are the main culprits. It is not walkers who have rooted up 100,000 miles of hedgerows in the past decade, and it is certainly not walkers who have polluted our rivers and aquifers with pesticides and chemical fertilisers.

No farmer, landowner or conservationist has anything to fear from the Bill, which provides the proper protection that their crops and livestock and the natural habitats on their land require. It would be wrong, and indeed foolish, to offer anything less.

We have heard many prophets of doom today, especially from the Opposition Benches, claiming that the countryside will be irrevocably changed for the worse if the Government grant access to the countryside. We have heard the same arguments used in connection with the banning of hunting with dogs. Yes, the countryside would be irrevocably changed, but I believe for the better—and not just for visitors to the countryside.

My constituents live in a semi-rural community, often working in the countryside, yet they are powerful advocates for change. How can that be? Well, we might say that it is because they are bloody-minded, proud, pernickety and independent, as they have been recently described in a book about the area, and perhaps our character is formed by the landscape and the weather, but I would add that it is because they are also canny Yorkshire men and women, with a generosity of spirit, who are proud of their heritage and happy to share it with others. They acknowledge a common interest in the natural beauty and special qualities of the uplands, and the need to work together for their protection and enhancement. They recognise that improved access will require better local public transport, so that everyone can access the countryside without using their cars. That would be good for visitors, and even better for the local community. They would welcome the increased revenue that sensitively managed tourism will bring to the area, and they recognise that the interests of walkers and of people who work and live in the country can, and do, coincide.

The Bill is the most significant piece of legislation in 50 years, and it marks the pinnacle of a 116-year campaign by countryside lovers everywhere. It fulfils Labour's manifesto commitment to give people greater freedom to explore our countryside. It dramatically increases access to open space and it modernises our rights of way for the first time in 100 years. It provides for a balance between the rights and the responsibilities of people enjoying the countryside, and will give a major boost to everyone who wants greater access.

I believe that the new rights and responsibilities in the Bill will produce a countryside partnership that benefits everyone. We shall all be better off. That is why we need to change the law. That is why I am supporting the Bill, and that is why all Members of the House should support it.

6.43 pm

It is a great shame that the Government have decided to combine in the same Bill a considerable amount of legislation to protect the countryside and further protect sites of special scientific interest—legislation on which there is cross-party consensus, and with which the vast majority of the House will concur except on matters of detail—and measures dealing with the right of access, on which it is well known that there is huge disagreement on principle. It is an even greater shame that the Government have decided to do so at this late stage in the parliamentary timetable, when only a third or so of the parliamentary year remains for the Bill to complete its stages. As a result, there is a risk that the Government will lose the whole thing because of discussions on one aspect, or that, in order to keep to a timetable, they will be forced to introduce unfair guillotine motions and so risk damaging the good bits of the Bill by cutting short debate.

As I have said previously in the House, I oppose the idea of the right to roam or the right to access. I oppose it because, as is abundantly clear from many of the sedentary remarks made by Labour Members during the debate and from one or two speeches, it is based on what I believe to be that most ignoble of human traits—envy. It is an anti-landowner, anti-property and anti-privacy aspect of their Bill. [Interruption.] It is all very well for Labour Members to laugh; they were not sitting here listening to comments of the type that were made throughout the opening speeches, which showed an unwillingness to accept the rights and responsibilities that go with land ownership.

I believe that the Government would have achieved their objectives, which I wholly support, of allowing people to walk in the countryside, enjoy the countryside and, let us hope, learn a bit more about the countryside—especially agriculture—as they walk in the countryside, far more effectively and for far more people if they had chosen to develop a comprehensive network of footpaths. For the Minister for the Environment to use the argument that the voluntary approach has not been wholly successful as a reason for introducing the right to roam is of course—

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions
(Mr. Chris Mullin)

It has been tried and does not work.

The fact is that, under the voluntary approach, there has been an increase in access to footpaths. It may not have been as big an increase as we might like, but it is a red herring for the Minister to use that as a justification, because I would be quite happy if there were some element of statutory—

No; I will not.

I would be quite happy if there were some statutory basis for that comprehensive network of footpaths, but the Government have made no attempt to create it. As a result, for the vast majority of people in the south-east of England, including my constituents, the right of access provided by the Bill is relatively immaterial. Most would need to drive considerable distances to reach the open land to which the Bill applies, whereas a comprehensive network of footpaths would apply to them near their homes.

However, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) said, we must accept the parliamentary arithmetic. Therefore I want to make some constructive comments about the Bill and about measures that I hope that the Government will accept in Committee.

The Government have identified all the key issues of concern on the access issues, but I fear that they have fallen down on the solutions. I hope that that is because the Minister does not fully understand the implications of what he proposes. I fear that perhaps he does understand and has dismissed the concerns on several issues.

Such issues include the potential damage to heathland and moorland. They also include the inadequacy of 28 days' temporary closure, the impact of access on nesting and sporting activities, and the absurdity of ignoring that closure at weekends and on bank holidays—as though the birds would understand that. The issues surrounding temporary closure were raised by many of my hon. Friends. There are also problems relating to dogs on the lead.

There are problems of liability relating not to natural features, but to man-made features even if they were made millennia ago, which is quite possible on some of our moors. There are ancient man-made structures, very ancient mine workings or quarries. What about gates and those dry stone walls that we have heard so much about? What about ancient peat cuttings? All present hazards and yet they are not natural features.

There is also the issue of the penalties in the Bill, which are simply to ban an individual for the rest of the day or to declare that they cease to have the rights under the Bill and therefore become a trespasser under common law. Wowee! The latter will not strike fear into the average walker, because we all know that the law of trespass is highly ineffective; whereas the landowner is, as my hon. Friends have said, at risk of incurring much greater cost and liability as a result of the Bill. As several hon. Members have said, there is no justification for the right of access during the night, for all the reasons that have been stated.

The proposals will require landowners to police the legislation. At present, people understand the position on access, but they are not necessarily able to recall, for every piece of land, all the constraints that will be put on them. Simply maintaining the status quo on liability or on trespass is not enough. That fails to take on the purpose of the Bill, which is to increase access and to encourage more people to walk in the countryside and to range over much greater areas of land. The dry stone wall that they could not go near on a footpath is one that they might be able to clamber over as part of the right to roam.

In the few minutes left to me, I wish to consider other aspects of the Bill. I welcome, as far as they go, the changes on public rights of way and road traffic. In particular, I welcome the constraints on the use of cross-country vehicles on green lanes. As the Minister knows, the British Horse Society is concerned about the implications of those proposals for horse users, and I hope that that issue will be addressed.

I also welcome the concept of restricted byways. However, as I said in an intervention on the Minister for the Environment and as the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) made clear, some people need to use vehicles—and perhaps agricultural vehicles—to access property along such byways, but they do not want the byways to become open to all traffic. The two options in the Bill are not enough and I hope that the Government will consider this issue.

The Bill's provisions for the creation of stopping-up and diversionary powers move in the right direction. I particularly welcome schedule 7, which allows for stopping up where footpaths cross school grounds. In my constituency, a footpath crosses the campus of a large secondary school which was once two schools. The school had to spend a large sum of money to put up security fencing on both sides of the footpath to salve its own conscience and to do what it thought right to protect children. The proposals in the Bill would have prevented that.

Clause 56 refers to obstructions to the carriageway. I note that it does not include provisions for temporary buildings, and my constituency faces serious problems with travellers' caravans obstructing the byways. I hope that we can consider that issue.

There is a need to upgrade the protection of sites of special scientific interest. However, I emphasise that the damage that we all know is taking place is not, as Labour Members have implied, just the result of the activities of farm owners and landowners. Often, the damage is caused by developers, sometimes with the Government's compliance. For example, the Cardiff bay scheme, which was the result of a Government-sponsored Bill, and the Newbury bypass are among many developments to which the Government agreed, but which damaged SSSIs.

Missing in the provisions is a consideration of cost. Nothing in the Bill will enable landowners to be provided with the money to carry out the management notices that are submitted. I do not advocate that they should receive every penny for every minor improvement, but some management programmes are costly to develop and resources should be made available for them. As others have said, it goes without saying that, given the current state of agriculture, landowners cannot afford to undertake such developments.

6.53 pm

My speech will be largely congratulatory in tone. First, I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment and the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin), on having secured a slot for the Bill in the legislative timetable. Over the past year or so, their approach has drawn together all the appropriate organisations with an interest in the related issues of access and protection. They have listened to the concerns and fears of those organisations, and this Bill is the result.

The approach of bringing people together is reflected in the national countryside access forum. In advance of the Bill, it brought landowners, farmers, ramblers and local authorities together to consider some of the detailed problems that might arise and the practicalities of putting the proposals into action. How different that is from the approach of Conservative Members. Divisiveness has characterised every one of their speeches. The hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Mr. Norman) seemed to make the longest speech that I have heard in my three years in the House. He managed not only to patronise people whom he described as simple farmers, but to characterise ramblers as hooligans. Similarly, Nicholas van Hoogstraten, to whom my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) referred, and about whom I shall say more shortly, described ramblers as riff-raff. That divisive approach has been most regrettable.

However, I welcome the speeches of Opposition Members. If they are widely publicised, they will put new heart into Labour voters throughout the country. The Opposition criticise us often enough for not implementing our manifesto promises, so it is a bit rich for them to criticise us for implementing two of them—on wildlife protection and the right to roam.

I have congratulated Ministers, but I wish also to congratulate those Back Benchers who, in the life of this Parliament, have kept the issues of wildlife protection and access to the countryside high on the parliamentary agenda. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle for his Right to Roam Bill, of which I was pleased to be a sponsor. In this Parliament, there have been 22 debates in the House of Commons on wildlife protection; nine private Members' Bills including, in 1998, my own Wildlife Bill; 62 early-day motions on related issues, including my own—let me congratulate myself—which received the backing of 349 Members from all the parties in the House; and eight Select Committee reports on wildlife protection.

I also congratulate the non-governmental organisations which have helped to keep these issues high on the political agenda. It would take me all my 10 minutes to list them all—I am sure that I would forget some even if I did—so I shall pay tribute to the Wildlife and Countryside Link, which has brought so many organisations together, and to the Ramblers Association. Those organisations have made careful and well-argued points, lobbied individual Members and Ministers and have kept the issue alive with members of the public. The campaign that they have waged is already seen, and will continue to be seen, as a model of its kind. Those organisations secured 250,000 petitions nationally on the issue of wildlife protection. People from town and country called for exactly the type of legislation that we have in the Bill. To be inclusive, I add that the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Mr. Brake), who is not present at the moment, and I presented those signatures to No. 10 Downing street about a year ago.

The Bill is welcome and much needed. I first became aware of problems facing sites of special scientific interests three years ago, when a farmer ploughed up part of Offham down near Lewes, close to my constituency. When in opposition, my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment went with me to that site and his intervention helped to secure action to prevent damage to it. That site, which is on the Clayton and Offham escarpment, is now subject to a long-term, managed restoration programme, and far too many sites have had to become subject to such programmes.

The need for protection has been well argued, but this Bill shifts the emphasis from preventing damage to positive management for important SSSIs. I welcome the proposals that allow for the formulation and, if necessary, the imposition of management plans; an increase in the penalties for damage to those sites; the power to order restoration of damaged sites; and an increase in the penalties for damage to sites other than SSSIs. I also welcome the proposals for greater access. It has always seemed to me that access goes hand in hand with environmental protection, rather than being at odds with it. Other hon. Members have mentioned measures that could have been included in the Bill, and I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister will address those in his reply.

I come now to two issues of particular local concern. I represent a Sussex constituency that includes part of the south downs. I did not know until recently that, taking East and West Sussex together, Sussex is the second most wooded county in England. Unlike the hon. Member for Bosworth (Mr. Tredinnick), who welcomed the exclusion of woodland from the Bill, I ask the Minister to think again about that exclusion—otherwise, parts of the south downs that should be open to access will be excluded.

No, I regret that time is too short.

Finally, I return to the subject of Nicholas von Hoogstraten and his company, Rarebargain Ltd., which was, thanks to the Ramblers Association, recently fined £1,600 and required to pay costs because of the obstruction of a footpath on his estate near Uckfield, where the building of his mausoleum is in progress. I am concerned that the Bill might not prevent obstruction such as that perpetrated by Mr. van Hoogstraten because it does not provide a right to require the removal of buildings that obstruct rights of way. It is a building that obstructs part of the right of way on the van Hoogstraten estate.

That is a point of detail, but it is of local concern to me, to my constituents and, I am sure, to Mr. van Hoogstraten. I believe that he was once one of my constituents, but thankfully he is one no longer.

I hope, as I am sure my constituents do, that he is incarcerated in his mausoleum.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will address those two points of detail in his wind-up speech. I end as I began, by congratulating all those who have brought the Bill before us and by welcoming it.

7.3 pm

When the Minister for the Environment announced these proposals on 8 March last year, I questioned the wisdom of allowing a general right to roam over extensively grazed land because that is the very environment that is under the greatest ecological threat. Typically, the areas that we are referring to are moorland, heath and heather uplands. They are delicately balanced areas, and I warned against putting them under ever-greater pressure with the inevitable further decline in upland ground-laying species of birds. I was greeted with howls of derision and even anger from Labour Members. I repeat that warning.

I was born and brought up in a rural environment, and I would welcome more access to it, but access that is managed and does not destroy the very environment that we all seek to enjoy. I am not rowing a boat for any landowner or sectional interest, but we must ensure that the environment is not destroyed as a direct result of ill-thought-out measures.

I hope that the debate will not descend to howls of derision. There are basic truths that need to be repeated. I do not object to increased access at all. The hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) mentioned the Berwyn and the Aran mountains. As a lawyer, I was directly responsible for opening up the Aran mountains and negotiating voluntary agreements between ramblers and local landowners. Those agreements stood the test of time and still operate 20 years later. No one should say that the voluntary approach has utterly failed; in some areas it has succeeded rather well. The Berwyn mountains is another example, and there are others in England and Wales.

It has been said that some 12,000 miles of footpaths have fallen into disrepair because local authorities are not taking their responsibilities seriously or, more likely, do not have the money to maintain them. Reintroducing those paths to the UK network would make a considerable difference. I note that the Countryside Commission has said that £30 million would be required annually for five years to reinstate those paths. That would be money well spent.

The hon. Gentleman, who I will not allow to intervene—I do not insult him, but time is short— rightly said that most land in the UK is within a short distance of the footpath network. That is fine, if it is true, and I want there to be more footpaths in the network, but it begs the question whether we need the Bill at all. Should we not have started on the footpath network first? The Government may be ducking that issue so that they can provide access on the cheap.

I may be wrong about that, but I am sure that we need a careful balance in the Bill between the expectations of ramblers and walkers and those of the occupiers of land. We need a balance between the needs of walkers and the need to nurture the birds and wildlife on the uplands. There must also be a balance between the legitimate right to use the land for animal husbandry and the right of access. I do not see that balance in the Bill. On the one hand, the occupier who damages a site of special scientific interest will be fined £20,000, but a person who trespasses and does the same damage will be told to go away for a day. That is not the balance that I seek, and any sensible, right-thinking person would agree with me.

In any event, as other hon. Members have said, the law of trespass is in complete disarray and has been for centuries. As any law student will know, the old wooden lie is that "Trespassers will be prosecuted." They cannot be prosecuted, apart from under limited provisions on criminal trespass. It is no use saying that the law exists to back up the occupier—it is of no use at all.

We need to consider fragile habitats and to ensure that there are sufficient conservation safeguards. Again, the Bill appears to be deficient. Commentators far more informed than I am will tell the House that the merlin, golden plover and others would be at great risk from unrestricted access during the breeding season. The Bill does not allow only for linear access; people will be able to walk side by side across a heath and cause destruction. Again, I say let us have access but we should be careful about how we allow that access. Clause 1(1)(d) says that "access land" includes any land which
is situated more than 600 metres above sea level.
Does that make sense? That environment is very delicate.

I appreciate that this is a Second Reading debate, but I ask the Minister whether the definition of "cultivated land" refers only to land used for crops or whether it covers grassland that is cultivated regularly. That is an important point. The devaluation of land with no compensation may well breach human rights legislation, and that will be a live issue. I hope that the Government will think again about that, despite the section 19 statement at the start of the Bill.

Common land is vital to the smaller farmer because he or she will graze animals on that land. That is especially true in Wales. Even at this late stage, I echo the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) in asking for that matter to be left to the National Assembly for Wales because it is a local matter for Wales and Wales only. It is only right that we should do so. There are particular strains on the Welsh uplands. The lambing season is extended owing to inclement weather and the need to try to vary it in order to capture the market. Twenty-eight days is of no use whatever.

I shall hurriedly refer to one or two comments from my constituents. Mrs. Rogers, a keen horse rider, asked me to raise the following points:

Any plans to improve rights of way must carry total commitment.
Section 56 needs to be amended to allow diversionary routes to be arranged.
A sitting Justice of the Peace refers to the climbing of Cader Idris by about 80,000 visitors a year. That leads to erosion but, as he says,
I am not against…Open Access.
He continues:
I do believe that if we are not careful in a National Park the visitors will destroy the uniqueness and the charm of what they have come to see. Also in livestock areas like Meirionnydd it would ignore the public's need for way-marked routes because most of them are fortunately sensible to the dangers to livestock that their rambling can bring.
He says finally:
there…seem to be double standards…here. On the one hand Landowners face criminal prosecution"
and on the other, trespassers will be subject to the archaic law of trespass. I agree with him.

The steward of the internationally renowned Aberdovey golf club refers to many people in the area walking their dogs on the common. He asks that we ensure that dogs will be on leads, as the Bill stipulates, and that there will be some financial support to assist landowners with the erection of notices to inform the public of their duties.

I heard the Minister's comments on liability for injury with regard to clause 13, but we need to consider the matter further. I agree with what has been said about the doctrine of volenti non fit injuria—one enters at one's own risk. That would be entirely reasonable in the circumstances. I know that farmers are concerned about the matter.

I am speaking not on behalf of large farmers, but those who are struggling to make a living in the present economic climate. They are desperately worried about the cost of insurance and of compliance. Thus I return to my original premise—I am not against access per se, quite the reverse, but the Bill has many grey and potentially problematic areas which must be clarified and amended. Above all, such matters should be left to the National Assembly for Wales.

I warmly welcome the excellent provisions in parts II and III on public rights of way and road traffic and nature conservation and wildlife protection. It is very good to see them; I am pleased that they are in the Bill. However, for the reasons that I gave earlier, I and my party cannot support Second Reading and will reserve our opinion on Third Reading.

7.13 pm

It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd). I did not agree with many of his reservations about access, but until this evening, I was not aware of the part that he played in opening up the Aran mountains to the public. As someone who has benefited from that, I take this opportunity to thank him.

Like all my hon. Friends, I celebrate the introduction of the Bill. I join my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) in rejoicing at it. It is a major piece of legislation that moves us forward considerably in the right direction. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment and his Front-Bench team. Their understanding that the future of our countryside—the way in which we use it, value it and protect it—is all about balance shines through the Bill.

The Bill balances the legitimate claims of landowners and land managers and their need and right to produce food and other goods from that land, with, first, the equally valid claim of the public to enjoy the freedom of the countryside and its precious and varied qualities, especially those of our least tamed areas, and secondly, the claim of the countryside itself—the flora, fauna, landscape and high-quality natural and man-made environments. The Bill is about striking the right balance for this first century of the new millennium. I am sure that that was the Government's objective, and that is how we should measure the Bill's success.

On the whole, the Government have been remarkably successful. In the value of its separate measures, I believe that the Bill will work. It also provides a new framework for considering that balance between agricultural production, freedom of access and environmental protection—a framework in which we may stop regarding such claims as competing or even conflicting, and instead recognise that, in future, we must, for the benefit of all three interests, make them increasingly complementary.

In these few minutes, I want to say something about the countryside and wildlife protection parts of the Bill. Before doing so, I put on record my full support for the creation of the new rights of access to mountain, moor, heath, down and common land. That should not be underestimated or downplayed. It is a significant extension to the freedom of the people of this country. It is motivated not by envy but by a desire to improve quality of life. The extension is made without in any way endangering the livelihood of the farming community, contrary to what some of the scaremongers on the Opposition Benches have suggested.

I welcome the modernisation of our rights of way laws, although I hear some of my hon. Friends' reservations. I look forward to hearing those arguments developed in Committee. I also welcome the requirement on councils to improve the network and to take into account the needs of disabled people and others with mobility problems in considering applications for new stiles and gates.

The target for completion of the historic record of rights of way—25 years—sounds a long time, but I know from my council that to deliver on that will probably require a doubling of the activity rate in the department responsible—and I do not think that my council is the furthest behind in England and Wales by any means.

On the countryside protection arm of the Bill, one need only look at what has happened to so many of our sites of special scientific interest over the years to realise that the way we treat them must change and that the penalties for damaging them must increase to constitute a real deterrent. The Bill deals with current deficiencies and I am sure will result in much better protection for those special sites, but new legislation is also required for another group of special countryside areas: our areas of outstanding natural beauty.

I declare my enthusiastic interest: I represent the first designated AONB in the country. Gower, like all the 40 other AONBs in England and Wales, was designated under the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949, which in many ways the Bill succeeds. The 1949 Act was flawed in its provisions on AONBs. It granted power to designate, but did not make anyone responsible for the areas' management. That was in marked contrast to provisions on national parks.

Over the decades, Ministers of various Governments, including this one, have assured us that AONBs, in terms of landscape quality and wildlife conservation, are equal in their value to the nation to our national parks. Yet over that same time, we have seen very different approaches, failures of approach and enormous variation of approach to individual AONBs.

The lack of any requirement for anyone to take responsibility for managing AONBs has resulted in a loss of some quality landscape features and valuable natural habitats. We can put that right by a straightforward and simple amendment that would give local authorities statutory responsibility for the management of AONBs, including a requirement to draw up management plans. That would be building on best practice. We should grab the opportunity to provide better protection. It would be totally in line with the approach in other parts of the Bill and with the philosophy underlying it.

I hope that, during the passage of this important piece of legislation, Ministers will be prepared to look again at the subject of AONBs. I heard what my right hon. Friend the Minister said about resourcing, and those changes are welcome, but we must reconsider the way in which we look after such areas and not just think about the amount of money involved. The Bill is excellent, but it would be better if it also tackled the management of AONBs.

The Bill would also be improved by amendments to provide better protection for hedgerows, other field boundaries and landscape features. Ministers have acknowledged the damaging consequences of the loss of many of our hedgerows in the past half century—indeed, they set up the hedgerows review, which made several recommendations in 1998. As my right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) says, the Bill provides no opportunity to implement some of those recommendations, especially the provision whereby local authorities identify important local hedgerows in consultation with the communities they serve.

It might also be useful to investigate whether the protection we provide for hedgerows could be extended to cover features that are often regarded locally as hedges, but are not defined as such in legislation. I have in mind the cloddiau found in Wales: they are often valuable in terms of their antiquity, the wildlife habitat they provide and their landscape quality, but they are really banks covered with grass, ground-cover plants and gorse or bracken.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice), I suspect that it will be some time before another major countryside Bill is introduced. It is vital that we use the vehicle now available to us to improve the prospects for our rural areas, the people who live and work in those areas, visitors and the quality of the countryside itself.

7.21 pm

I support the principle of Bill, as I did that of the private Member's Bill introduced by the hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) almost exactly a year ago, which is to allow access to those areas of the greatest beauty in England and Wales, which, until now, has been denied to our constituents. As a hiker and a mountaineer, I have always shared the anger of those who complain that there remain mountains and moors, heath and downland, coasts and beaches that can never be seen by the public, except with special permission. That denial is a legacy of feudalism, persisting rather like those ancient covenants that prevent our constituents from building a swimming pool in their back garden—as remains the case in parts of my constituency today.

Of course I accept that the legitimate interests of the owners of such land must be protected, and the Government claim to have recognised that in their proposals. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Mr. Norman) and others have said, some of the proposed protection for landowners falls short of that which is required and there remains inadequate protection for wildlife, especially native plant life. I share some of those concerns and I expressed them in relation to the Right to Roam Bill last year.

It is right that we now proceed with the right legislation to enable access, as the Bill would provide. A voluntary approach, as advocated by representatives of landowners, will never deliver the degree of access required. In that respect, the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949, which attempted to improve access, has failed, the comments of the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) notwithstanding.

Moreover, there has always been a misunderstanding on the part of some landowners and farmers of the protection that legislation would afford them. My constituency is predominantly urban, but there remains open rural space that is farmed, although it continues to be threatened by development. When I participated in the Second Reading of the Right to Roam Bill last year, I received a letter from a farmer constituent who noted that I was advocating the notion of the public having the freedom to trample over his ploughed fields; he had not appreciated that that Bill contained protection against such intrusion. Today's Bill, while providing for and protecting rights of access, certainly makes clear the responsibilities, obligations and restrictions on those who seek such access to protect the rights of farmers and landowners.

I have several reservations about the Bill, the first of which relates to clause 13, which addresses the fundamental issue of occupiers' liability. Everyone exercising the right to roam has to assume responsibility for his or her own actions; thus I welcome clause 13, which amends the Occupiers' Liability Acts of 1957 and 1984. However, I remain concerned about the wording of the amendment to the 1984 Act, mainly the use of the word "natural" in respect of obstacles. That term does not include reasonable and necessary land management measures which, although essential to the good of the land and to access, provide an obstacle or hazard. It would be better to distinguish between obstacles that are intentionally placed so as to create a hazard and those that are either natural or the consequence of legitimate land management. I hope that that can be clarified in Committee.

My second reservation relates to the access provisions contained in clause 21, which deals with exclusion or restriction of access by the landowner. Under the clause, the "entitled person" can apply for access to the land to be restricted, but such restrictions are limited to 28 days a year and cannot include Saturdays, Sundays, Christmas day, Good Friday or a bank holiday. However, without harbouring any malicious desire to deny others enjoyment, a landowner may have good reasons to restrict access on a weekend. Would it not be more sensible for the access authority to make a reasoned judgment on the merits of each case?

The question of who should bear financial responsibility for access concerns many of my right hon. and hon. Friends. The Bill is vague on that point. The owner bears the responsibility, in agreement with the access authority, for carrying out work to provide reasonable access, and the authority is to provide a contribution to the cost of that work—but what constitutes an appropriate contribution? Is the landowner expected to shoulder 50 per cent. of the costs, or 10 per cent? What happens if the relevant parties do not agree on the issue?

Under the Bill, local authorities have an option to employ wardens, but the cost of employing them is not covered. What is to be the source of funding for such wardens? Moreover, is it wrong for the owner of the land to have to pay for signposts to guide members of the public on to his land? I look forward to hearing the Minister's response to those points.

Last year's Right to Roam Bill was withdrawn because of the Government's commitment to introduce a more comprehensive Bill which would also provide greater protection for wildlife. There can be no one who does not welcome greater protection for wildlife; there is more awareness than ever before of the need to protect what is left of our completely natural environment and our endangered species. However, the Bill does not provide adequate protection from those who abuse access and threaten wildlife.

First, abuses under schedule 2 that are not already covered by legislation on criminal damage fall under the civil law. That prevents the authority, the landowner or any legitimate user of the countryside from taking action necessary to deal with an immediate problem. Irreversible damage could be done in minutes to the habitat of creatures such as the great crested newt, but all the police could do is take names and apply for a court injunction. The punishment imposed on a trespasser who fails to conform with schedule 2 is that his or her right of access to that land is removed for the remainder of the day; even if it were possible to enforce such a restriction, it is hardly a disincentive to offending.

Secondly, on a more general point, the Bill does not appear to make provision adequate to meet the need to protect species that are ecologically vulnerable and declining, especially those that spend half the year in hibernation. Such species include the great crested newt, the natterjack toad, the smooth snake and, most endangered of all, the sand lizard. Those living in SSSIs are the best protected, those living in farm ponds, which are rapidly becoming obsolete, are less protected, and those in the way of development have no future.

Despite the general protection called for in the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, it strikes me that more positive management is needed in respect of such rare and endangered species. The location of such species should be registered and the owners of the land informed. That would be a role for nature conservation agencies which, until now, have been administratively preoccupied with SSSIs. Such measures would answer representations that I have received from the Herpetological Conservation Trust, which is located in my constituency.

In anticipation of the Bill's introduction, I consulted interested organisations such as the Ramblers Association and the British Mountaineering Council. In calling for rights of access, those organisations are genuinely committed to the protection of the rights of the landowner. They understand that the interests of their members are best served by a co-operative and productive relationship.

It is therefore in the interests of both parties that the obligations imposed upon them in the Bill are clear and do not prejudice the landowner. I hope that in Committee the Bill will be clarified to enable all relevant parties to move forward together and ensure that greater access to our beautiful countryside is a success.

7.30 pm

I am pleased to take part, however briefly, in the debate. I am conscious of all those who have spoken, especially my hon. Friends, who support the Bill, and all those who have gone before, instigating, organising and continuing the fight for the right of access, improved rights of way and countryside protection.

My right hon. Friend the Minister, who is not with us in the Chamber, can be especially pleased with his unique part in the great step forward that we are taking today. I acknowledge his understanding, persistence and consensus-building, which have helped to bring the Bill to its present stage.

We have cause for celebration. Over the years many people have believed in and worked for the Bill, including those who are present and people who may be following proceedings at home. Above all, we have a Government who said in opposition that they would legislate, and who have taken the minimum time necessary to set in motion the consultation processes required to introduce the draft legislation. We should celebrate the fact that we have done what we said we would do.

I am aware of those who were fellow travellers over the years, who pressed for the Bill, who were pilgrims to Kinder Scout and went on other rallies, and who were involved in the Ramblers Association and the Open Spaces Society, and those who are no longer with us. The campaign has transcended generations. All those who campaigned must celebrate this evening.

As on any long-distance walk, just as we reach the summit and get to where we intended, the horizon changes and we see things from a different perspective. Having reached where we are today, those of us who can see the next stage of the journey know that, above all, we must promote environmental integration. There is still a distance for us to travel to get access and protection for the countryside and wildlife on to the statute book and to make that workable, so that people in our cities, towns and countryside can responsibly enjoy the new rights that they will gain as a result of the Bill.

Ahead of us is an altered destination—sustainability. That needs to be firmly in our sights and mapped out in detail in the Bill. I noted earlier contributions, such as that of my hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Mr. Caton), whose beautiful constituency I know well, as I lived there for part of my time in south Wales. He and others suggested topics that should be included in the Bill.

We are all time-poor. We must take account of the speed of change and the devastation caused to our wildlife over the past two decades. We have a greater awareness and understanding of climate change, and we know how speedily we must tackle it. We cannot afford to wait another generation and certainly not another century to legislate for further sustainability. We must manage wildlife in the context of the acceleration of global warming.

Gone are the days when we could afford to manage for the status quo. We must recognise the speed with which some species are dying out and the implications of global warming. Butterflies can, perhaps, move from place to place, but other animals and plants cannot do so. We must make sure that we provide stepping stones to survival and corridors that will lead them to the habitat in which they can survive. We must not only give enhanced protection to sites of special scientific interest, but build into the legislation ways of managing change.

As spectacular as our progress has been, if we are to cover the necessary distance, the Government must consider going the extra mile. My right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment has brought us this far. Only once in a lifetime does such a legislative opportunity arise. I hope that he will steer us still further.

In my remaining time, I shall speak about what I should like to see in the Bill. As always, my starting point is north Staffordshire, where I grew up. As a child, I always knew where to go for the first celandines and coltsfoot. I knew where the lanes and open fields were and where the foxes went. I knew the meadows where we had marsh marigolds and ladysmock, ponds full of frogspawn, woods where the wood sorrel and bluebells grew, before the new housebuilding. Back then, the abundance of wildlife was part of my life—something that we all took for granted.

The wildflower meadows were uprooted for new housing. I knew then that if we were to value, save and protect our countryside, we would have to go about it differently. That is why I am so grateful for the work of Staffordshire Wildlife Trust, along with many other local and national organisations that welcome the stricter protection that the Bill gives to SSSIs. They are right to point out that too many of our top wildlife sites have been degraded in the past two decades. They recognise that the Bill offers them a more secure future.

However, wildlife is not found only in SSSIs. In Stoke-on-Trent, we have a multitude of wildlife sites and open spaces, many of which exist because of the long-standing policies and vision of the city council, which reclaimed former colliery and industrial sites. Those are important for all kinds of wildlife, not just protected species. The open spaces are valued by the local community. It is important that we have in our towns and cities places where people can be part of nature. It is good for our sense of well-being to be side by side with nature.

A further consideration is that on such land, animals and plants are not subject to pesticides. It is increasingly important that birds and animals that were once found only in open countryside can find refuge in city centres, and that we can prevent some of the problems that Rachel Carson outlined in "Silent Spring". I should like urban wildlife sites to benefit from the protection afforded by the Bill.

In Staffordshire, as in most counties, we are fortunate to have partnerships for implementing our biodiversity plans. As in the rest of the UK, we have systems in place locally to identify, assess and protect wildlife sites. The partnerships have grown out of the biodiversity action plans that originated from the Rio summit of 1992, and we owe a great deal to them.

The problem remains that there is still no legislative base for sites of lesser importance than SSSIs, and no national standards for them—just a mass of ambiguity about their status. I am not suggesting an inflexible national standard. Much discussion is going on behind the scenes, in English Nature, about how the forthcoming urban White Paper can ensure minimum standards for accessible green space in urban areas.

I hope that the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions will recognise the need for a national framework that could offer local authorities guidance on individual targets, adapted to each local situation, and linked to indicators of sustainability.

The Bill should be made a vehicle for that. It could offer a means of delivering joined-up government, by extending the concept of species protection and enhanced SSSI protection, both of which are well covered in the Bill, to a third type of protection—protection through designation of wildlife and open spaces, linked to stronger planning guidance, such as a revised planning guidance note 9.

7.40 pm

It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms Walley). Whatever our perspective, a great love of the countryside enlightens all the participants in the debate. We are all trying to do our best to ensure that the Bill is appropriate in that context.

In his opening speech, the Minister for the Environment referred to Lloyd George's words that no one should be a trespasser in the land of his birth. No one is in Wales; Lloyd George saw to that by fiscal measures. There are not many big landowners left.

He did for part of the time.

We build stone walls, plant and go hedging to maintain our hedges, not to pull them out. I have been an instructor in those skills. In my constituency, there are three separate styles of hedging: south Breconshire, north Breconshire and Radnorshire. We protect our hedges.

However, the Bill does not deal with enclosed land but with open countryside, mountain, moorland and common land. We must concentrate on that. There is a cultural difference in people's attitude to access to land in Wales. It is replicated to some extent in Scotland.

The Government's proposals have not gone down well in Wales, and not only in rural Wales. As the Minister for the Environment and the Under-Secretary know, Wales has three national parks and much of the rest of upland Wales is owned or managed by public bodies such as the National Trust, the Ministry of Defence and Crown Estates. Mynydd Eppynt in my constituency comprises 32,000 acres, which are owned by the Ministry of Defence. The families who lived there were uprooted in 1940 and given six weeks to quit. They have never been allowed back.

The Forestry Commission owns a great deal of land in Wales. It is badly managed. It is almost impossible to get on to it because trees are blown down all over the place. My constituency includes such land.

In theory, rural Wales qualifies for inclusion in the Tir Gofal agri-environment scheme. It would qualify in practice if the Welsh Assembly were given sufficient funds to finance it properly. Tir Gofal covers a public form of conservation and environmental designation. More than two thirds of Wales is covered by such designation. The Bill would have a disproportionate impact on Wales because one third of the new statutory access areas that the Bill creates are in Wales. The cost of implementation will therefore fall disproportionately on Welsh people and Welsh public bodies and councils.

As a native of Wales, I have travelled to almost every square kilometre of the country, and I have a good understanding of the people. My constituency is in the county of Powys where 86 per cent. of the land is designated as severely disadvantaged. Indeed, 96 per cent. of the county is in the less-favoured area category. From that statistic, the Minister can visualise the sort of place that Brecon and Radnorshire is, and the huge expanse of open countryside that dominates it. He will also understand that the Bill could have a major impact on my constituency, which consists of 382,000 hectares or 750,000 acres. It is the third biggest constituency in Great Britain.

The Brecon Beacons national park is in part of my constituency. It is the jewel in the crown. It is an outstanding area of countryside, but my constituency is among the most beautiful places in Britain.

I cannot think of another measure whose application to Wales is so suspect. Landowners in Wales have traditionally taken a far more relaxed attitude to the public's use of open land than their counterparts in some areas of England. Other than the large areas owned by the Ministry of Defence or the Forestry Commission, I cannot think of a hill or mountain in the country to which the public does not have access. I have received only one complaint in approximately 15 years about denial of access. That is why we favour a policy of voluntary access. It is a slight on Welsh people to assume that they will deny access to anyone. I have experienced no trouble, nor have my friends—or, indeed, my acquaintances—in open countryside in Wales.

We do not have statutory access to those vast open tracts but we have de facto access. The Bill puts that pragmatic arrangement at risk. I am in favour of access, but if we are not careful, we could walk into a legal minefield. In some cases, landowners have allowed the local and visiting population to walk over their land without hindrance for centuries. The behaviour of those Welsh landowners has traditionally been in stark contrast to that of some of their more confrontational English counterparts, whose unreasonable actions have precipitated some aspects of the Bill.

It is essential that the Welsh Assembly deals with the Bill. I shall explain the reasons for that. In parts of Wales, there is land between open hills and enclosed land. It is known as coed cae in south Wales and ffrydd land in north Wales. Ewes and lambs are put there in spring before going up the hill. There are problems with access to that land, and the Countryside Council for Wales has been reasonable about it. I held a recent meeting of 85 commoners in the upper Swansea valley. The commoners were heard and the designation of the map, which is in a pilot area, was changed to exclude the land that I described. The Bill has to tackle such matters of detail.

We must consider the Bill's impact on family farms, which are economic units only because of their common grazing. What will happen to common land legislation? What will happen to graziers associations, which are based on democratic principles, and have elected chairs and often include as many as 100 graziers on various commons? Those problems must be sorted out.

I support the protection of SSSIs and the exclusion of four-wheel-drive vehicles, which are an utter menace in many upland areas. We should consider the 600-m rules carefully. Plynlimon is 3,000 ft high and has fences on the summit. The Bill must deal with that. Much land of that height is fanned well.

In my constituency, there are a million sheep. They constitute the livelihood of many farmers. The impact of the Bill has to be carefully framed so that fanners can continue to make a living. They are not currently making a living for other reasons such as the great pressure of global markets.

The Bill should be amended to take account of the fact that Wales is different from England. It should provide for the Welsh Assembly to make sense of the issues for Wales. The Assembly should decide whether it wants such a measure. If the Government insist on applying the Bill to Wales as well as England, they must amend it to allow the Assembly to make major changes. The Liberal Democrats will table amendments to that effect. The Minister must show that he is prepared to listen to the many representations that urged such a course of action. The Bill should contain a clause that specifically covers Wales.

7.49 pm

I was born in the west riding of Yorkshire and have lived for the past 25 years in Lancashire. I have become acutely aware of the extent to which working-class communities in industrial towns and cities in Lancashire and Yorkshire were the early pioneers of greater access to the countryside, particularly the uplands, in the first half of the last century. The tribute to them came with the establishment of the national parks in the dales, the peak district, the lake district, Snowdonia and the north Yorkshire moors. As this century begins, the Bill represents another major step forward. The people of Lancashire will welcome the opportunity for greater access, not least to the forest of Bowland area of outstanding natural beauty—and I support a number of my hon. Friends who have urged the Government to examine whether it is possible further to strengthen those areas through the Bill. If that is not possible, we would welcome Ministers' comments—if not tonight, in the next few weeks—as to what proposals they have on that.

However, in my few minutes I want to discuss a number of unrelated matters. I welcome the provisions for improving the possibility of closing or changing footpaths in urban areas to reduce crime. I spent 10 years as a local councillor in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Preston (Audrey Wise), working with residents in an estate that was built in the early 1980s with five footpaths on to it and one road off it. As a result of several petitions, I spent most of those years pursuing the convoluted process, which still exists, of seeking closure. Under the existing system, one person's objection will virtually stop a closure, and the mechanism does not allow for any objective judgment of the balance of merits between the rights of those who want the footpaths to remain open and those of residents seeking greater security from crime and vandalism.

Many estates of the 1970s and 1980s, and even of the 1990s, were built open-plan and with footpath access—thought at the time to be modern and attractive. Such designs would not be used these days, as we are crime-conscious and seeking to design out of modern developments a lot of the opportunities for crime and vandalism that were built into many of the estates of the 1970s and 1980s. I welcome the provisions on that issue.

I also want to touch on disputes. Before being elected to the House, I spent many years dealing with property taxation appeals, so I have a bit of experience of disputes. Many provisions, whether on access or footpaths, will give rise to disputes, as the decisions will be made by various public bodies—local authorities or whatever—as the process goes ahead. It is crucial that we build into the system a robust appeal mechanism, which must be local, efficient and quick. It must not get bogged down with lengthy consideration of local disputes by civil servants or processes based in Whitehall. It is also important that, as far as possible, hearings should be public, and that there should be a presumption that dispute appeals should be heard in private only in exceptional circumstances. Although there is provision for that to happen, I would like Ministers to consider the dangers of allowing disputes to be considered in private as a matter of course.

There is also an assumption in the appeals process that the only people with the right to appeal against a public body's decision are landowners or the occupiers of land. I see nothing in the Bill that allows those who do not own or occupy land and who disagree with a public body's decision to become involved, make an appeal and challenge that decision. It is important to examine that mechanism to see whether we can ensure that those who want access to land, who dispute provisions to close or amend footpath routes, or who want to open new footpaths have some right in the appeal process and the disputes mechanism.

I note that there is little to do with mediation in the Bill. As there is so much scope for disputes, we need to consider a mediation system and the method by which disputes could be resolved before coming to a formal appeal process. I am also concerned that we should be careful not to restrict the right to appeal against decisions by making it too narrow. I am aware that there is an administrative assumption in the Whitehall machine that the right to appeal against a public body's decision should be narrowed down as much as possible because appeals lead to bureaucracy, more work and more expense. We should be wary of narrowing appeal rights down too much on the basis of saving money or administrative expenses. It is important that the appeal process is properly funded and that those public bodies with a role to play in it are able to do so properly. Sufficient finance must be made available for that to happen.

My final point concerns what I consider to be the worrying aspect of tonight's debate—the extent to which some people want to portray the Bill as an issue between urban and rural England. I represent a constituency that is a mix of urban, suburban and rural areas. The rural areas depend on agriculture. I am aware that, if we are not careful and if we try to polarise rural and urban Britain, rural Britain will lose out. The vast majority of the population live and work in urban Britain and there needs to be a partnership between the two. The extent to which rural Britain depends on support from urban Britain was mentioned earlier: £3.5 billion goes in subsidy to agriculture; there is considerable rate relief in rural areas, as farm buildings and farmland are not rated; and a range of supportive measures has been put in place.

The Bill can bring urban and rural Britain together by dividing rights and responsibilities between the two. If we are to ensure that urban Britain continues to recognise the importance of the countryside, we must allow access to the countryside and emphasise the partnership arrangement that is at the heart of the Bill, which does not provide an unrestricted right to roam across the countryside. It has been carefully drafted to achieve restricted access to certain parts of the countryside. Those with that access must behave responsibly, and there is a clear method of arriving at many of the difficult decisions concerning when people can and cannot have access. That is crucial.

Some Conservative Members go over the top by saying that access to the countryside for people from urban areas is wrong. They speak strongly about the right of landowners to refuse anybody access to their land. They must remember the extent to which we as a nation support the countryside in many ways. That partnership means urban Britain accepting its responsibilities to rural Britain, but it also means rural Britain accepting its responsibilities to urban Britain.

7.59 pm

It is a great pleasure to be called in this debate, and to follow the hon. Member for South Ribble (Mr. Borrow). Coming as I do from a rural constituency, I do not want to fight about the urban-rural divide. However, on the hon. Gentleman's last point, the problem is that those in the Ramblers Association who fought that skilful campaign may be friendly and responsible, but many of the people who will take advantage of the legislation are not.

I am astonished that the Government have introduced the Bill when we have the worst rural crisis of this century. Pig farmers in my constituency are leaving for Saskatchewan after four generations of farming in north Shropshire. Ten to 12 quota holders a week apply to the main agent in Shrewsbury to get out of dairy farming. Welsh sheep farmers who come down from the hills to Oswestry are constantly talking about the crisis in the hills. The increase in the number of buzzards and ravens that I see is a manifestation of the fact that the countryside in the hills is going backwards.

There is so much that the Government could do if they wanted to help the countryside that it is astonishing that they have produced this Bill. The Cabinet Office has stated in a report that Shropshire has been the hardest hit of the west midlands counties, and is one of the poorest in the country, with people there 22 per cent. less wealthy than the average Briton.

The countryside is not a playground. It looks as it does thanks to private landowners. Much of the Bill is a direct assault on the principle of private land ownership. Most landowners are extremely responsible, with a deep understanding and love of the countryside. The Bill legislates with prejudice against the many to catch a tiny few.

For a start, there are already 140,000 miles of footpaths and rights of way with a right to roam. There are 13,000 hectares under the country stewardship scheme; 48,000 hectares of national parks; and 58,000 hectares set aside by exemption on inheritance tax. In a free society, voluntary agreements must be right and compulsion must be wrong.

Landowners understand the countryside. My objection to the right to roam is that the first half of the Bill totally contradicts the second half, as 60 per cent. of heath moorland is SSSI land. Under the Bill, people with dogs, who will not always be well-meaning, will be let loose 24 hours a day. They may not understand where they are going and what they are about. Why do we need access to moorland 24 hours a day? That is a burglars and poachers charter. Labour Members may laugh, but I know a landowner who has had to put half-inch steel plates over the hasps that cover the padlocks to prevent deer poachers from getting down his farm tracks. I can tell the hon. Member for South Ribble that those are the people whom I am worried about, because they will take advantage of the Bill.

The 28-day exclusion is far too short. I have re-read clause 21. How on earth are lambing ewes, merlins and curlews to be told to watch out on public holidays, weekends, Christmas day and Easter day? It is ridiculous. Nature does not work like that.

Heather-burning is vital to keep moorland healthy. That cannot be planned months ahead: it has to be done at the right time according to the weather. Various other such provisions show that the Bill has been drafted by people who do not have practical knowledge of the countryside.

The one question that I would ask the Minister is how he would define "cultivated land". Many crops in the spring look like grass. I have already had reports of members of the public walking on to farms thinking that there is a much wider definition of the right to roam. Is a field of grass that is being grown for silage or hay cultivated land? I should be grateful if the Minister would reply to that question when he winds up the debate.

I am very worried about the liabilities. As I read the Bill, the landowner would be responsible if someone fell off a barbed wire fence or tumbled off a stone wall. In a reply to an intervention from the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd), we were told that the landowner would also be responsible if someone fell down a mine shaft. Land with a mine shaft is probably worthless, but now it will be a cost on the landowner as insurance premiums go up.

Further costs will be imposed on landowners for providing stiles and points of access at a time when most farmers are losing money. The only way in which the Bill could possibly work would be a massive increase in resources to provide wardens. It is not clear in the Bill who would be made to pay for that. Shropshire county council reckons that to establish the legal right to roam in places such as Prees Heath, and others, in my county, more than £200,000 will have to be found. According to the Countryside Agency, the money for the existing rights of way programme will be cut by £50,000.

As I see it, this measure is all cost and pain for the landowner, and the real problem is that there is no incentive—no carrot—to encourage the landowner to co-operate. That is what is so sad: co-operation has been lost as the voluntary approach has been thrown away. That applies particularly to SSSIs. The incentive is now for any landowner of an SSSI quickly to plough it up, because it will become a liability. The countryside is a living place, and cannot be set in aspic. A landowner whom I know had an open field which was ripped up for opencast mining. He has restored it, and now has a lake. A fishing club from the local village uses it, and there are otters and kingfishers. It is a totally admirable environmental programme coming from opencast mining. That site has not yet been spotted by those who designate SSSIs. The danger of this legislation is that the incentive for the landowner will be to fill in the lake, so it will achieve exactly the opposite of what is intended. There must be flexibility. Land use must be allowed to move on: there must be mobility in what people do with their land.

My other fear concerns the power that the Bill gives to those who decide the consequences arising from SSSIs. I am privileged to have a vast moss in my constituency. Whixall moss is part of a huge moss alongside Bettisfield and Fenn's moss, which is in Wales. It has been dedicated as a national nature reserve since 1990, and is a Ramsar site, which is about as high a designation as it can have. It is a site of international importance. It is astonishing. I went round it last spring. About 2,400 acres have been restored by English Nature and the Countryside Council for Wales. No one could fail to admire what has been achieved there: it has 130 species of birds, 1,700 species of invertebrates and numerous extremely rare bog plants. It is a very successful example of restoration of a rare and exceptional site.

The problem is that relations with surrounding farmers will become more fraught. There are already SSSIs in the near boundary, and there is also a 2 km consultation zone around the whole moss. One of my constituents wanted to put up a free-range poultry unit, and had great trouble. There were costly, lengthy negotiations, and the matter was finally resolved when it was agreed that the muck would be carted away at his cost. Dairy farmers nearby are worried that they will be prevented from putting cow muck on the land. There is a delicate balance to be achieved between English Nature carrying out its extremely important work on the moss, which is admired locally, and dairy farmers who are struggling to make a living.

Another danger is that other benefits may be ignored when a site is designated as an SSSI. The Montgomery canal is well worth restoring. It would bring substantial investment to the area, and a possible 570 jobs in trades alongside the canal. The bed of the canal is a dedicated SSSI, so the restoration of the canal could be held up. The biggest restoration project so far has been to build a new SSSI alongside the canal. When designating such areas, we should also consider employment, architecture and historical assets.

On that note, I hope that I shall be called to make further comments in Committee.

8.9 pm

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson), although the only part of his speech that had any substance was his description of the Ramblers Association as skilful, which was somewhat understated praise.

Like my hon. Friends, I warmly welcome the Bill, not least because it locks into law the principle that everyone should have the opportunity to enjoy the countryside at its best. The natural majesty of Britain's mountains and moors should be available to everyone, not off limits to all but an exclusive few. Wealth should not be a bar to people's ability to gain access to some of the most beautiful scenery that our country offers.

James Bryce, who led the first parliamentary effort to protect access rights, said in a debate in 1892:
All I ask to-night is to bring forward the grievance and suffering caused to the people…by their exclusion from their right to enjoy the scenery of their own country, and to seek healthy recreation and exercise on their own mountains and moors.
More than a hundred years on, the debate remains essentially the same, and similarly simple. Do we believe that the citizens of this country should have the ability to enjoy—I accept that responsibility is needed—the scenery and beauty of their own country? There are undoubtedly genuine issues to be resolved, once that principle has been conceded and accepted, regarding the protection of wildlife and the safeguarding of the environment, but those are not, and never have been, reasons for denying legislation on the right to roam.

A remarkable feature of the debate on this subject over the past hundred years is the extent to which a range of issues have been used to create a smokescreen for those opposed to access to hide behind. To be fair to the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Livsey), he came up with a new one today: the idea that the right to roam is an insult to the Welsh is a new one on me. The hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Mr. Norman) repeated the claim in the amendment that wildlife and nature conservation would somehow be threatened by access. Where is the evidence to back up that claim? The hon. Gentleman could cite no evidence from countries that already provide the access that the Bill will deliver.

I do not rule out the idea that increased access could have an impact on wildlife and the environment. Clearly some restrictions and safeguards are needed, and they are included in the Bill. In general, however, I believe that access will have a positive impact on wildlife. The Wildlife and Countryside Link commented:
Enhanced public access to the countryside is an invaluable mechanism for building public understanding and appreciation. In general, access benefits protection of landscape, wildlife and heritage.
The issue of cost to the landowner has long been touted as a reason for denying access. Indeed, the hon. Member for North Shropshire peddled the point. The Country Landowners Association's estimates of the costs of access last year were, to be generous, highly inflated, and were debunked to a considerable extent by the Ramblers Association's investigation. We heard echoes of such claims in the speech of the hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells. Last year, the Government's own independent consultants' cost benefit analysis found that landowners would not suffer significant losses or costs for reasons of access, and I know of no research from Germany, Austria, Norway, Sweden or Switzerland, where access on this scale already exists, that suggests that landowners' costs are higher as a result.

The Bill rightly deals with occupiers' liability. It holds out the possibility of direct and indirect financial assistance for the provision of means of access and warden services.

The right to roam has long been described as a future cause of crime. Speaking at the Tory party conference last October, the hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) described it as a trespassers' charter, and I think that the hon. Member for North Shropshire spoke in the same terms. There is no evidence linking footpaths with a higher incidence of crime. The Dartmoor Commons Act 1985 delivered, effectively, a right to roam over 40 per cent. of land within Dartmoor national park. Voluntary agreements already exist for some 50 per cent. of that land. There is no evidence that the passing of the 1985 Act resulted in a greater increase in crime. One would think that, if anything, the additional eyes and ears of members of the public using their rights of access would be beneficial in preventing crime.

Another argument used to justify opposition to access is that it is not needed—that there is no need for legislation. That claim has passed through several stages. Back in 1892, it was argued that exclusion from mountains or moorlands was exaggerated; in 1938, it was said that landowners would nearly always give permission, and that walkers were seldom stopped. Those obvious fictions have been brought up to date by the argument that we have heard from Opposition Members that voluntary access agreements would somehow deliver high-quality permanent access to our mountains and moors.

Last year, the Country Landowners Association's voluntary access efforts failed spectacularly. Just 18 per cent. of the sites on its register provided proper access. That came nowhere near delivering the permanent right of access to 4 million or so acres of open countryside for which people have been campaigning.

The hon. Gentleman said that there was no evidence that the use of footpaths would have any effect on crime. Perhaps he will he explain to the Minister the purpose of schedule 7, entitled

Stopping up and diversion of footpaths for purposes of crime prevention etc.
There is clearly a real issue here, which the hon. Gentleman's Government recognise.

With respect, I suggest that increasing access will help crime prevention, because there will be more people in the countryside to prevent the crime that Opposition Members fear and hype up to such an extent.

I was talking about the Country Landowners Association's rather desperate efforts to promote voluntary access. The inclusion of land for fox hunting and strawberry-gathering in its register did not help its case at all; but perhaps most telling is the fact that traditional supporters of the voluntary approach, the Peak national park authority and the Countryside Commission, backed legislation when consulted in 1998.

Extending the right of access will present exciting new opportunities to walkers. It will help to improve fitness and health, and it will inevitably benefit the rural economy. I encourage my right hon. Friend the Minister, and those who will serve on the Standing Committee, to consider again the issue of access to woodland. Surely, if the Woodland Trust, with its 16,500 hectares of woodland, can deliver access without concern, we should give serious consideration to the issue, and also to the issue of access to river banks.

I welcome parts II and III, and suggestions made to me about the possibility of a statutory duty on local authorities to maintain local wildlife site systems. I look forward to further clarification of the issue of areas of outstanding natural beauty.

An unintended function of this excellent Bill will be to throw into stark relief the problems that remain in regard to access to water. As a canoeist, I must point out that, although 10,400-odd miles of rivers are suitable for canoeists, only 2.8 per cent. of that—376 miles—is accessible. As the agreements do not cover 365 days a year, the figure is actually less than 1 per cent. I canoe on the River Dart, and some 12,000 canoeists annually take advantage of the access agreements there. Not one complaint has been received about the impact of canoeists on wildlife. Canoes cause no erosion, no noise and no pollution, and leave no trace of their passing—not even footprints. I simply ask, is there a more sustainable form of transport?

This is an excellent Bill, and I warmly welcome it.

8.18 pm

I oppose the right to roam part of the Bill in principle, for two overriding reasons. First, it is an infringement by the state of the fundamental rights of ownership, and, as such, is illiberal and dangerous. Secondly, nothing in my experience of nearly 17 years as a Member of Parliament leads me to believe that a right to roam is necessary. Countryside access exists: it is a reality which my constituents, for example, enjoy, as do visitors to the borough of Basingstoke and Deane. The north of Hampshire, like the rest of the country, is criss-crossed with paths. I do not accept that the case for a right to roam has been made.

Because time is short, I will concentrate on just one aspect of the Bill: the reclassification of RUPPs. I have raised my concerns with successive Governments, not least in two Adjournment debates. The basic problem, as I see it, is that the reclassification process under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 has failed to provide protection, and has proved to be a legal minefield. I greatly fear that, despite its best intentions, the Bill in its present form will not resolve matters.

As hon. Members know, vast tracts of the country's green lanes are extensively damaged through misuse by modern motorised vehicles. Without doubt, some of the damage is caused by agricultural vehicles, but much of it is caused by 4x4s and other recreational vehicles. The root cause of much of the misuse by vehicles of green lanes remains the reclassification process under the 1981 Act.

The problem is inadequately addressed in the Bill. It is a tragedy that the Government have retreated on what is an important and environmentally sensitive issue.

I understand that the aim of part II is to remove the burden on local authorities of reclassifying each road that is used as a public path individually. I applaud that objective. It is right. The requirement for individual reclassification has created a backlog of cases. It has given rise to some extraordinary inconsistencies and created some bizarre rulings, so the move away from individual reclassification is the right way to approach the matter.

In so far as it goes, I welcome the new category of right of way: the restricted byway. It is right that there should be byways that allow access only on foot, horse and by non-mechanically propelled vehicles, but the Bill fails badly when it comes to RUPPs and existing vehicle rights.

As hon. Members know, the Bill provides that, where vehicle rights exist on a RUPP, there will be an option for reclassification as a byway open to all traffic, but that is a modification of the proposal in the consultation paper. That suggested reclassification of all RUPPs as bridleways, not restricted byways—as I mistakenly said in an intervention to the Minister. That would have excluded all types of vehicles. It is regrettable that the Government have not stood their ground on that issue. Hon. Members should be in no doubt that the Government's approach will leave the difficult issue of vehicle rights unresolved. They will still have to be proved on a case-by-case basis.

The Bill does not tackle the problem of enforcing existing driving regulations. As the Minister may be aware, magistrates have been declining to convict motorists who drive on bridleways where the defence is offered that there is doubt as to whether the rights are limited to bridleway rights, even though the way is shown on the definitive map as a bridleway. I understand that that is a reflection of the criminal test, the "beyond reasonable doubt" requirement, being influenced by civil matters—establishing rights "on the balance of probability"—and is thwarting the operation of the law. Magistrates are increasingly taking the view that they have to assess the probability factor of rights existing, not to make an absolute judgment. That is the core of the problem under the 1981 Act.

As I read it, the Bill does not change the situation. Clauses 44(4) and 44(5) restate, rather than resolve, the "no other rights problem." I fear that the Bill fails to recognise the weakness in the Road Traffic Act 1988 and the discrepancy between that Act and the Wildlife and Countryside Act.

Our ancient green lanes are a rich part of our environmental and natural heritage. Under existing legislation, we are not looking after them properly. Unfortunately, the Bill does not completely redress the position. The ambiguity of the Stevens judgment remains. The difficult issue of vehicle rights is unresolved. As the Bill stands, they must still be resolved on an individual basis. Those are matters that must be revisited in Committee.

The Bill does not address an issue of which I have only recently become aware; perhaps it is a new development. It involves common land. The situation has arisen in my constituency. I have heard about it in newspapers elsewhere. Common owners are adopting the custom of charging residents for access to their homes if driveways pass over common ground.

I know of three or four instances of that arising within recent months. I hope that the Minister will be open to amendments in Committee that will allow the matter to be explored to establish precisely what rights residents adjacent to common land have to free-of-charge driving along driveways over common land.

8.25 pm

Like all Labour Members and, indeed, many more individuals and groups outside this place, I was enormously relieved and delighted to hear in the Queen's Speech that the legislation would be introduced in the current Session, 50 years after the first major wildlife Act—the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act—which was introduced by a previous excellent Labour Government in 1949. I was equally pleased when the Bill was published earlier this month.

I pay tribute, as so many other Members have, to all the people who have worked so hard to bring the Bill to its present form. They include non-governmental organisations, which, coming from different perspectives and having different ideas, have worked together through the Wildlife and Countryside Link, representatives of which are here; the Government agencies; the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, which has more or less succeeded in translating the recommendations of such organisations and groups into workable legislation; the Deputy Prime Minister and the Minister for the Environment, whose personal commitment has given vital impetus to the whole process; and last but not least, the many Back Benchers on—despite the tone of the debate—both sides of the House who have campaigned to such effect.

I personally have been most concerned with the aspects in part III—wildlife protection and conservation—but I am equally glad to welcome the mostly complementary proposals in part I, which I have seen described as the culmination of 150 years of attempts to legislate effectively to provide widespread permanent access to the countryside.

I understand that the Bill is by and large consistent with the advice of the many agencies concerned and that it will ensure that all people have the right to enjoy and, thus, to learn better to conserve and to appreciate the countryside. However, access should be sensitive to certain times of the year: for example, the breeding and nesting period for birds. Additionally, care must be taken to protect the wider public interest concerning water quality. No one would want that compromised by unrestricted access.

Part II on rights of way should ensure much needed rationalisation and modernisation of the law and form an essential accompaniment to the provision of greater access. There may be a need for considerable clarification of some of the provisions in that part. It seems essential, for example, that there should be no arbitrary time limit to completing the legal record of rights of way. Rather, a prescribed number of steps should be taken in every case. Funding will be key if local authorities are to fulfil their duties and the legitimate interests of landowners must be respected.

Part III on nature conservation and wildlife protection proposes fundamental changes to the way in which SSSIs are protected and managed. They have been described as the crown jewels of our wildlife heritage. They must be protected from damage, whether wilful or, more frequently, due to neglect. That part is urgently needed.

As we have heard in debates of all types in both Houses, almost one SSSI a day is lost or damaged. On the Government's own figures, up to 45 per cent. are reported as in an "unfavourable" condition. The Bill will provide conservation agencies with new powers to prevent damaging activities in SSSIs.

The Bill also makes much stronger provision to halt—with higher penalties and custodial sentences—the increase in wildlife crime that we have heard described in this debate. I very much welcome the introduction of those increased penalties and custodial sentences. Very importantly, the Bill will also make it an offence "recklessly" to disturb a nest site or shelter. However, it is very difficult to prove an intent to damage or disturb. Overall, the legislation should ensure a better balance—a word that has been used often in today's debate—between the rights and responsibilities of people enjoying the countryside and the greater protection and conservation of the countryside.

Nevertheless, nothing is perfect, and the Bill has omitted some provisions that I believe should be considered in our subsequent consideration of the Bill. In some cases, the omissions serve mainly to highlight the need for further legislation, or even for non-legislative action. As hon. Members know, much could be done in this place to address those issues in other ways and on other occasions. I hope that it will be possible to amend the Bill to address those issues without impeding its successful passage.

Areas of outstanding natural beauty are the first issue. Many hon. Members have spoken today about AONBs, which comprise 15 per cent. of our land. In the 1949 Act, it was intended that AONBs would receive treatment equal to that provided for national parks. However, legal protection for AONBs has not been developed, and no one has the legal duty to protect and look after them. Consequently, there is no effective long-term planning for those areas and there is no sound basis for local managerial partnerships between agencies, landowners and communities. The Bill could be the only opportunity for some time to give AONBs the protection that they so urgently need. Such provision would certainly complement the Bill's provision for wildlife protection and improved access.

Habitat beyond SSSIs is the second issue. It is another issue about which hon. Members have expressed their concern today. I believe that very simple changes to the Bill could give essential protection to very important species of plant and animal life that are being threatened by habitat destruction. I also understand that only last Friday, the Joint Nature Conservation Council published various recommendations to the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions on how agencies could be enabled, when they identify the need, to extend their management agreements beyond SSSIs.

The third—but no less vital—issue is the fact that the legislation could be greatly strengthened by underpinning in law the United Kingdom's biodiversity action plan, which was developed as a consequence of the United Kingdom's commitment to the 1992 Rio earth summit's convention on biological diversity. The Government strongly support the convention. As I understand it, the problem in developing species and habitat biodiversity action plans is that they require the voluntary involvement of many stakeholders. Although voluntary involvement is good—it helps to build the partnerships necessary for the plans delivery—without a foundation in law, long-term commitment and planning is vulnerable to changing political priorities and administrations, whether at local, regional or national level. I believe that we should explore the extent to which the legislation might not only protect species and habitat, but actively promote their recovery, as happens in other countries. The United States's Endangered Species Act provides an example of that.

The lack of legal protection for marine wildlife is the final issue, which is addressed also in my ten-minute Bill on marine conservation. My Bill is part of the campaign—to which I was alerted by The Sunday Times campaign—to develop better control over use of personal leisure craft, such as jet skis. As I said, I was very pleased to see the offence of recklessness included in the Countryside and Rights of Way Bill—as it was in my very much smaller Bill.

I was very disappointed that in the Bill, as defined, the offence of recklessness does not seem to be appropriate for application in the marine environment. Dolphins and porpoises do not nest and they also do not have easily definable places of shelter. I hope that something can be done to change the definition. The scenes around our coast and elsewhere are urgently in need of protection and recovery. Many marine species are threatened by very inappropriate international policies and economic activity. I wonder whether, in the Bill, we could not make at least a little progress towards taking the much wider action that is so urgently needed, so that the greater protection that the Bill will deliver on land and in other terrestrial habitats could be extended also to our seas.

Overall, I give a very big welcome to the Bill. However, I hope that we recognise that we have to get as much as we can right now if we are to make wildlife protection as comprehensive as possible. I hope that we also recognise that we act in a wider global context, in which factors beyond the simple scope of national legislation are most powerful. As the Minister for the Environment will know, climate change is the most general demonstration of that fact. Climate change is already happening, and it is affecting wildlife and wildlife habitats—not tomorrow, but now. The sooner that we do as much as we can, the better.

8.36 pm

It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Peterborough (Mrs. Brinton), who is an acknowledged expert on many countryside and wildlife issues. She will be concerned to hear that I agree with much of what she had to say, with the exception of her comments on the right to roam. I shall return to that issue in a moment.

I felt uneasy about the beginning of the hon. Lady's speech—which sounded like the beginning of most of today's speeches by Labour Members—as it seemed to express a type of triumphalism and class war. They seemed to be saying that, after 50 or 100 years of campaigning, they have finally given birth to this shabby and thin little piece of paper that we are debating today. The triumphalism is based on some idea that Labour Members are the champions of the cause of freedom of access to the countryside, and that Opposition Members are ideologically and fundamentally opposed to such access. However, nothing could be further from the truth.

I am very much a grammar school educated non-landowner. However, as guardians of the countryside for many hundreds of years, my colleagues who are landowners, and people in the countryside whom I represent, have always gone to great lengths to ensure that they make as much of their own land and the countryside available as they possibly can to all types and classes of people across the nation, so that they may have some pleasure in it. Labour Members seem to be suggesting that Mr. van Hoogstraten—whom various Labour Members have prayed in aid—is typical of landowners, but that is an absurdity. To create law based on one such example is to create extremely bad law.

The reality is that across this great nation of ours, all of us—people from all towns, cities and elsewhere—have been ramblers. I am a strong supporter of the Ramblers Association in Chippenham, although I have not yet been able to go out with it as it tends to go out on Sundays. I wish that it would change its outing to Saturdays, and I shall certainly send it a copy of today's Hansard to ensure that it does.

We are all strong supporters of the rights of people in cities, in towns and in the countryside to walk, to ramble and to enjoy the countryside. Of course we are. The issue is not whether the principle is a good one but the means by which we implement it. We must ensure that the countryside, which we all enjoy, remains the fine place that it has always been. I rather resent the hon. Lady's implication that somehow Conservatives have kept people out of the countryside.

The hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett), whom I respect greatly on this issue as the president of the Ramblers Association, said, "They are trying to keep them out." We will be able to check the record tomorrow. Others have said that access to the countryside should not depend on wealth. What marvellous old Labour rhetoric. "It is those Tories who kept people out of the countryside for 18 years because they look after wealth. We new Labour people look after the ramblers." What tosh. It is nonsense, and it is important that we lay the ghost to rest before we do anything else.

We all support safe and secure access to the countryside. I pray in aid a fine landlord who is just outside my constituency on the Marlborough downs, who over 20 or 30 years has gradually changed rights of way. He has gradually improved rights of access, pathways, walkways and bridleways. His estate is now acknowledged as being one of the finest in England for access to the countryside. That is acknowledged by the Ramblers Association in Swindon, Chippenham and elsewhere. It is an example of what can be done with proper, voluntarily managed access.

Will the hon. Gentleman explain how it is that the Duke of Westminster has stopped the regular walking over Bousland that took place in the 1930s, and has been extremely obstructive in letting people get on to that area of high mountain?

I am not in a position to comment on that example. I am not certain whether the Duke of Westminster is necessarily an hon. Friend of mine any more. If the hon. Gentleman writes to him care of the House of Lords—that is if the duke is still a Member of it—the matter will be clarified.

Labour Members are talking about the right of people—the extreme ramblers as I would call them, the really keen people—to get out into remote areas where they are now not allowed to go, while we Conservatives would prefer the managed access approach. There is a conundrum because I am not aware of any huge demand for access to most of the areas of the countryside about which Labour Members have been talking. I spend my holidays in north Cornwall on the National Trust cliffs. Even in mid August, during the peak of the walking season, one rarely sees a walker. North Wiltshire is a key walking area, but the people of Swindon do not come out in their hordes. Many Labour Members have talked about opening up great areas of woodland or farmland. The idea that many of my constituents would go out to them seems misplaced.

I do not believe that there is any demand for what is being proposed. It is an imaginary demand that is based on the notion that something is being denied to the public and therefore the Labour party must find a way of making it available to them. There are a few odd characters like Mr. van Hoogstraten, but I am not aware of landowners and farmers who deny access. Perhaps there are a few exceptions such as the Duke of Westminster. I find that surprising because I know of his love for the countryside. I suspect that we may be talking about that one example. I am not aware of any more than one or two isolated examples of farmers who are not perfectly happy for people to walk across their land in a properly managed way. Many of them, as in the example to which I referred, go to great lengths to provide ways to enable the public to get on to their land. They adopt a systematic approach to giving them proper access to the countryside.

There is no evidence of any demand and there is no evidence of any obstruction. I am not convinced of the need for the Bill and I suspect that we might be setting the country against the town, although Labour Members have used new Labour expressions such as, "We are seeking a partnership between town and country". Of course that is what we are seeking, but we will not achieve it by requiring people in the countryside to do things that they currently do not do and do not wish to do. The partnership will be achieved by saying, "Together we will provide access for all to the countryside. We shall allow you as landowners and farmers to prosper. We shall allow you also to do the things that you have always done in the countryside. However, people from the towns also want access to it." That is the right approach. By doing otherwise, people will be set one against another.

I am not convinced about the right to roam and the principle behind it. I am also concerned about specific problems that arise from the Bill. We are told that cultivated land will be exempt from the right to roam, but what is that land? If the extensive grassland in my constituency were ploughed one year—much of it has not been ploughed for many years and has probably been extensive grassland for 100 years—would it become exempt? There are many definitions and words in the Bill that need to clarified, and I hope that the Minister will consider doing so.

There have been references to the 28-day rule and exemptions for weekends and public holidays. That is all absurd. No shooting estates could possibly operate on the basis of a 28-day exemption. The prerequisite of a shooting estate is to make it pay, and the exemption would have to be many more days than 28. I shall be interested to hear what the Minister has to say about that and subsequent clauses.

The multiple points of entry argument is crucial and unanswerable. How can one say whether an estate is open on a particular day when there could be 100 or 1,000 points of access? This is a licence to trespass, because no one will know whether a place is open.

The Government have not thought about night access. Why are nearly all urban parks—other than unfenced ones—closed at sundown? It is thought that it would be bad for people to walk in them at night, but apparently people are to have the right of access to estates and farms at all hours of the day and night, regardless of whether, for example, lamping of foxes is being conducted—it is normal to keep foxes down by shooting them at night. How are we to stop the roamers from getting in the way? They cannot go into the park in London, so they will decide to go out into the countryside and do a bit of roaming there.

The great question of owners' liability has not been properly answered, despite what has been said about clauses 14 and 15. Clause 13 does not address what happens if a rambler falls off a dry stone wall and damages himself. People should enter at their own risk, as the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) rightly said.

A lot of the details have been badly thought out. It is important for the Government to accept a significant number of amendments in Committee. Of course, bits of the Bill are worth having, and we all support much of it. We all support increased access to the countryside, but that must not be—

8.46 pm

It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray). I am not sure whether I could be described as an extreme rambler, but I have certainly rambled at great length over many stretches of the Pennines and the lake district over many years. He commented on the language of new Labour, but he speaks the new Tory language that says that if the Bill is enacted it will be a charter for poachers, burglars, trespassers, drug addicts and hooligans of all kinds. I will tell my constituents with great pleasure this weekend how ramblers have been described by the official Opposition.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment and his ministerial colleagues: the Bill will bring enormous pleasure to many millions of people. My constituents and members of our party and of the ramblers movement will all welcome it. I see it primarily not as a piece of legislation with huge symbolic importance but as one with great practical importance, because it will open up the pleasures of the countryside, over time, to more and more people, at the same time as enhancing wildlife protection.

I want to reassure Opposition Members. I live in an area on the edge of the Pennines where we already have a well-established rights of way network and the right to roam over many thousands of acres, and in all the years I have lived there, I have experienced very little difficulty, other than with the occasional stray mountain biker or motorcyclist.

Every day of the week, ramblers walk past my front door and through the little bit of land at my back door, and I find great pleasure in seeing them enjoying the countryside. They are not urban hooligans. Most of the ramblers in the mid-Pennines are entirely responsible people who care for the countryside. With the additional access that the Bill will bring, they will continue to care for it and to promote conservation.

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that pretty much everywhere—and certainly in Wales—landowners, too, behave in a responsible way and that they may regard the Bill as something of a sledgehammer to crack a nut?

That may be so, but what is interesting about the official Opposition line is that it is in fact two lines. The Conservatives argue that there is no pent-up demand for access and that the Bill is unnecessary for that reason, and then they say that there is huge pent-up demand by drug dealers from the inner city to get into the landowners' estates and do their evil deeds. That is a completely contradictory argument from the Conservatives. We should not take any lessons on the countryside from the party which introduced BSE to the nation and enabled four supermarkets to control the nation's food supply and drive down the prices paid to farmers for milk and meat. The Conservatives cannot teach us any lessons about conserving or protecting the countryside.

My constituency is largely urban and suburban, although it contains some of the most attractive landscape in Greater Manchester and some very environmentally sensitive areas. I shall address one issue that is not in the Bill but which I passionately believe should be added to it. I welcome the extra protection given to SSSIs, but most people never visit one and do not know where their nearest one is. What we need to do is increase the attraction and the pleasure of the countryside and the quality of the environment for urban and suburban dwellers, so the Bill should include some protection for local wildlife sites. The vast majority of urban and suburban dwellers are unlikely to flood out into the countryside in hugely increasing numbers, now or in the future, but they need more access to green space and more experience of wildlife locally, in the towns and cities.

I pay tribute to the work of the wild life trusts across the country, especially the Lancashire wild life trusts. I pay special tribute to groups in my constituency which have worked hard to preserve important wildlife centres, such as Barracks Lodge, which is a large, important stretch of water that a local developer unfortunately wished to drain and build houses on. I pay tribute to the work of people campaigning for the preservation of Chesham woods, a site that could easily have been turned into a golf course. I mention the work of the Holcombe Society, which has protected the landscape around Holcombe hill which, with its famous tower, is one of the most important landscapes in south-east Lancashire. I also pay tribute to those working to protect sites in the Hollins area of my constituency.

We must understand that most of our population—the 59 million now living in the United Kingdom—are urban and suburban dwellers, which is why we need better protection of the wildlife in the last green oases in our towns and suburbs. I also pay special tribute to three people in my constituency of Bury, North—Mr. Michael Wellock, Mr. Martin Prescott and Mr. David Bentley—who have campaigned vigorously in the past few years to preserve the last remaining green sites in the centre and fringes of the towns.

I understand that within the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions a review group has examined the issue of local wildlife sites. I understand that the group's report may be published in the near future, and I urge Ministers to consider seriously the recommendations that may be made and the possibility of giving statutory protection to local wildlife sites. That would mean giving local authorities the duty and responsibility to establish a network of local wildlife sites. It would also mean giving advice and information to owners of such sites about how best to preserve them, and it would mean protecting those sites through the unitary development plans and the planning process. And yes, it would also mean some investment in the preservation of wildlife in those areas.

As an adjunct, it is important, in the context of strengthening the statutory basis of wildlife protection, that statutory force be given to the UK biodiversity action plan, a point also made by my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Mrs. Brinton) and by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath). Not many hon. Members will have taken their copies of the biodiversity action plan from the Vote Office, but I have and I commend it to all hon. Members as a fascinating and invaluable document, especially if they have children currently studying GCSE or A-level biology or geography. If the marvellous work that went into the production of the biodiversity action plan is to have its full reward, it must have statutory force.

In the time remaining to me, I should like to mention another concern that needs addressing more fully by the Bill. I refer to invasive species. I am all in favour of letting 1,000 flowers bloom. The difficulty is that two or three of them then tend to take over the rest. A remarkable feature of suburban areas in recent years has been the huge developments in gardens—the rapid growth of small ponds and water courses, the massive increase in all things aquatic and the growth of garden centres. People's understandable desire to increase and improve the biodiversity in their own back yards has led, unfortunately, to the import of a large number of invasive species. I should like to mention the 10 most dangerous species, which threaten the biodiversity of other species. They are—and as time is short, I shall not mention the full Latin botanical names—the Australian swamp stonecrop, also known as the New Zealand pigmyweed, parrot's feather, floating pennywort, Indian balsam, water fern, water lettuce, giant salvinia, water hyacinth and water chestnut.

This is not a trivial issue. The current estimate for controlling floating pennywort, for example, is about—

8.56 pm

I am delighted to speak in the debate, and it is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor), although I shall not be mentioning the list of weeds to which he referred.

I wish to speak in favour of the reasoned amendment in the name of the Leader of the Opposition, and to commend it to the House. The amendment puts a new light on "roaming in the gloaming". I believe that the amendment, rather than the Bill, sums up the delicate balance that must be reached between the various interest groups. In doing so, I wish to declare an interest. I am the half owner of a smallholding—and when I say smallholding, I mean a small holding—with two fields in Teesdale, County Durham. My brother is the co-owner. It is opposite and across the river from the Pennine way, the part of the country where I was brought up, so I am very aware of the problems of access to such popular walks as the Pennine way.

I was amazed, a number of years ago, that Teesdale district council chose to use local residents' money, through the community charge—as it then was—to tarmac part of the Pennine way, accessing one of the area's well-known beauty spots, High Force. My husband and I chose to marry and hold our reception at High Force hotel. I should have thought that the money could have been better used building a swimming pool for the use of all those living in Middleton and Teesdale and in the villages up and down the dale. We all wish to improve access to the countryside, but I argue, as the reasoned amendment argues, that there are other and better ways of doing so than those set out in the Bill.

I am proud to say that we have at least two sites of special scientific interest in the Vale of York which I am going to visit in the next month. I am sure that Yorkshire wildlife trust would welcome ways of improving access to and protection of such sites. I believe, however, that a better and more appropriate way forward would have been through a voluntary, non-legislative and non-binding approach. Positive co-operation could be encouraged between all those involved, such as the wildlife trusts, English Nature and the landowners, whom Labour Members seem often to forget. The Bill does not adequately fund, on the basis of positive management agreements, adequate access to and protection of such sites of special scientific interest.

The House should consider the consequences of opening up, in the comparatively densely populated region of England and Wales, the blanket access over 4 million acres that the Bill proposes. The Minister and I are becoming familiar to one another; he gave a courteous response to my Adjournment debate in Westminster Hall last week. Will he explain the extent to which rural development grants, under the revised EU structural funds, could be allocated to reimburse the costs to landowners of meeting the Bill's requirements for open access to the countryside? I realise that the matter may not be one for his Department; it might be more appropriately dealt with by the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.

It is right and proper that landowners should be encouraged to diversify and to move away from food production. That has been agreed and strengthened under the Agenda 2000 provisions. Will the Government consider whether they could properly apply rural development funds for those purposes?

It is important for the Government to address the question of costs, because they will inevitably increase for landowners. I offer the House a local example, from my constituency, in which rights of way have not been properly resolved under the present arrangements. I was contacted by a lady who had recently been widowed and who felt especially vulnerable when she wrote to me. She and her husband bought their field and property in 1953; they lived and worked there for 45 years. On 1 October last year, she wrote:
I have learnt recently that the proposed path goes by my back door, by the garage, then a further few yards by the workshop, then a few more yards past a free-range poultry house to the adjoining farmer's land.
I live outside the main residential area of the village. Walkers would have to come some distance to even begin the path. Many people walk their dogs on the quiet bye lanes of Asenby.
In the present climate this problem is causing me great distress, knowing of local burglaries, vandalism, etc. I have recently been widowed and feel very, very vulnerable.
Please consider my peace of mind and look fully into this case: To have the "path" stopped; To have the "path" rerouted.
The lady's neighbour, happily, was minded to agree to reroute the path through her own property. That neighbour is Mrs. Blair—I assure the House that she is no relation to the parliamentarian of the same name. The land at Asenby, near Thirsk, has been farmed by her husband for several years. He discovered that 11 of the 13 fields have footpaths running through them.

The Blairs farm corn and keep a suckler herd; the farm is wholly managed by Mr. Blair. He is personally responsible for erecting stiles in 11 fields, for which he receives no help or financial support. In Mrs. Blair's view, that makes it extremely difficult for him to continue farming—especially at certain times of the year, such as just before and after calving, when the animals need to be undisturbed. I am sure that I do not need to tell you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, how upset a cow can be when she has a young calf.

If we added that example to the many others that hon. Members could cite from their constituencies, we would regrettably realise that such rights of way problems are not resolved by the measure. Indeed, the Bill would make the situation worse; it would be much more harmful to the farming community. The Government give the impression that they have no understanding of farming, or of the continuous crisis in the countryside. The Bill fails to provide sufficient improvements to the rights of way network. It brings no hope to people such as my constituents, the Blairs, in the Vale of York.

The rights of way network is an important and appropriate vehicle for improving access for most people, and I believe that the Government will have the opportunity in Committee to resolve that situation. I urgently beg them to do so.

The Bill is equally remarkable for its omissions. The Government plead their commitment, as they did tonight, to greater protection for hedgerow features and areas of outstanding natural beauty, yet the Bill omits any provision to assist those areas and is silent on living up to the Government's stated commitment to protect hedgerows, landscape features and areas of outstanding natural beauty. It is therefore defective in that regard. I believe that the Government have the opportunity in Committee to reverse that omission.

For all those reasons, I invite the Government to keep an open mind, with a view to amending the Bill in Committee. I am nevertheless minded to oppose Second Reading tonight, and I commend to the House the reasoned amendment in the name of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition.

9.5 pm

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to speak in this important debate. I am happy to give the Bill my total support.

Some 45 million people walk for pleasure at least once a month. I represent a London constituency so, as some Opposition Members might say, we are townie ramblers as opposed to extreme ramblers—but why not? It is vital that people who have to put up with the stresses and strains of urban life should be able to escape into the countryside to recharge their batteries and breathe some fresh air. Many of my constituents have written to me supporting the Bill. With greater access, people will have more choice and freedom to walk in our wonderful countryside, on our moors, downs and mountains.

I believe that a side effect of that greater freedom will be a boost to the rural economy—which I am sure that all MPs representing rural constituencies would welcome—bringing more people to small village shops, shops that sell outdoor gear, hotels, bed and breakfast places and, for some, the local pub at the end of a long walk. The British Mountaineering Council says that tourism is the largest industry in the English countryside, generating some £13.6 billion in spending annually. In 1996, a survey by Highlands and Islands Enterprise estimated that mountaineering activities brought income of £162 million into the HIE area alone—more than double that attracted by shooting and salmon fishing in the whole of Scotland. Tourism is a very important part of the rural economy, and I believe that it will grow with greater access to the countryside.

I should like to raise two points. First, my constituent, Neil Brindley, a keen rock climber and hill walker, is worried about access to coastal land. Part I states that the Secretary of State "may" extend access to coastal land. I heard what my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment said on that issue earlier. Climbers such as Neil have managed to arrange access by agreement with several bodies, including the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, to climb sea cliffs at Swanage, in Cornwall and on the Gower peninsula.

Rock climbers are a responsible bunch of people—they have to be because they are very aware of their own safety—and have great respect for wildlife and the environment. It would be contrary to the spirit of the Bill if that present access was lost as a result of the Bill. I hope that my right hon. Friend will consider changing that "may" to "shall" in Committee. I am sure that the British Mountaineering Council would give the Government plenty of advice on the best way of doing so, and on current best practice.

My second point concerns the right of appeal. It appears from the Bill that if access is granted, the landowner will be able to appeal, yet if access to a certain area is withdrawn, the public will not have the same right. I hope that the Minister will confirm or deny that, because if access can be taken away without appeal, walkers may unwittingly find themselves being treated as trespassers.

I will not say much more, as I know that other hon. Members wish to speak. I very much welcome the Bill, including the right of way reform and extensions, although I am concerned, as are some of my fellow Members, about the already stretched resources of local authorities to implement the recommendations. I am worried that they will not see that as a priority when their budgets are stretched to breaking point. Therefore, I raise the issue of extra cost.

Bills have to be fairly complex to cover all eventualities, but I hope that the implementation of this Bill will be as streamlined, simple and transparent as possible. It would be wrong if too much regulation and restriction resulted in little more real access. However, I look forward to the Bill making speedy progress through the House.

Finally, on his performance today, the hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Mr. Norman) has definitely qualified to be added to my sad people list. In fact, I think that he has gone right to the top.

9.10 pm

Like many other Members, I wish to congratulate the individuals and organisations that have played their part in delivering this historic Bill. All three parts—on access to the open countryside, on the modernisation of rights of way and on the improvement of wildlife protection and sites of special scientific interest—are much welcomed.

SSSIs are the gems in our landscape, but many other areas of the countryside are equally as precious and need protection. I would like to press for an amendment which, as my hon. Friends the Members for Gower (Mr. Caton) and for Peterborough (Mrs. Brinton) have mentioned, would enhance the Bill and would provide protection and better management for some of our finest landscapes. Such an amendment would do something about the status of, and provision for, areas of outstanding natural beauty.

The Countryside Agency, the 37 AONBs, including the Wye valley in my constituency, and the Council for the Protection of Rural England all feel that a trick has been missed. They want to add to the Bill an AONB package to improve them and give them proper management arrangements and adequate resources. We very much welcome the doubling of the funding that the Government have put into AONBs, but such areas need much more.

Existing AONBs and other fine landscapes, such as the forest of Dean, that do not have any protection need better management and protection now. There is no legal responsibility for protection and insufficient funding for their full management needs. The Government suggested that they wanted to review AONB status and Ministers have given the impression that they were sympathetic to that. I understand that certain difficulties between the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, the Treasury and the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, which had caused problems in the past, have been sorted out, but there is no clause to cover it in the Bill.

The Countryside Agency wants to work for a new model for other landscapes. The Bill would be the best opportunity to take that aim forward in the near future. That is particularly important for the forest of Dean, which is an exceptional landscape. It missed out on the Hobhouse recommendations of 1949 and on being made an AONB in 1974. I have raised that point in an Adjournment debate and in other debates on AONBs.

Parts of the forest of Dean are a national forest. In the past, it was felt that the Forestry Commission and now Forest Enterprise, as the major landlord, would be the guardian of this wonderful landscape. That has been shown not to be so, because such a body is wholly inadequate for such an important task. The area is an important limestone escarpment covered in trees—mainly oaks—but with a wealth of distinct historical sites. It has rich cultural heritage; it is a rural area with a mining and industrial history and it needs rural regeneration.

Four years ago, the area was threatened with plans for large extensions of quarrying activity—mainly for the carboniferous limestone—that would ruin this wonderful landscape, threaten the tranquillity of the local community and distract from the tourist industry. Before the 1997 general election, Labour promised to consider protecting that landscape and offered plans for a special status for the forest of Dean that was much needed. Since then, the Government and the Countryside Agency have commissioned a full-scale land use consultants survey, which has resulted in the area being recognised as a landscape of national importance.

The Countryside Agency board then made a landmark decision that it was committed to that status, which was reflected in a commitment to social and economic issues as well as landscape and recreational matters. It would embark on a major project acknowledging the connections between landscape, culture and the industrial past, as well as present social and economic issues. It decided not to proceed with AONB designation, since it felt that it was correct to evolve a tailor-made approach for the Dean.

In the meantime, however, the agency asked for an undertaking that the Government and local planning authorities, such as the county council and the district council, would act as though it were an AONB and that the Minister would give a clear steer to Gloucestershire county council's minerals working party to recognise that the landscape is of national importance and needs protection. Has the Minister agreed to that, and has he made it clear to the minerals planning authority that the landscape must have protection?

The Countryside Agency wanted to create a large-scale, integrated rural regeneration and development project while offering landscape management and protection, particularly with regard to the local minerals plan. It was widely agreed that simply designating the area an AONB as those areas are constructed at present was not enough.

It was hoped that the Bill would provide an opportunity to develop AONB mark II, which would offer a new integrated approach to solving local environmental, social and economic issues. There may be a chance to develop that idea in the forthcoming rural White Paper, and landscapes such as the forest of Dean could be the location to pilot that innovative approach.

In the meantime, I urge that the Bill is amended to give AONBs—the forest of Dean is nominally considered an AONB—a body with a statutory duty to protect their landscape and the resources for effective long-term planning and care so that their scenic and other environmental qualities are not damaged or lost. The Bill should also give AONBs the potential to deliver a wide range of linked environmental, social and economic benefits. The Bill is the only opportunity in the foreseeable future to give the forest of Dean and similar landscapes the protection that they urgently require. Before Labour was elected, it promised to give that protection, and we could achieve it by being innovative and delivering the new status of different, strengthened AONBs.

I understand that there are substantial ancient woodlands in the forest of Dean. Does my hon. Friend accept that 85 per cent. of ancient woodlands are not covered by SSSI or AONB status and deserve particular attention in the Bill or in other legislation shortly afterwards?

My hon. Friend is right. He represents a constituency that is part of a new national park, so he has a particular interest in conserving and protecting important woodlands.

We should not miss the opportunity in the Bill, as we have missed opportunities in the past, to preserve landscapes that are much prized by the local community and recognised nationally as needing extra management, care and protection. The Government are sympathetic, and I hope to see the Bill amended in Committee.

9.18 pm

I shall be brief because of the lateness of the hour. I am privileged to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mrs. Organ), who is such a doughty fighter for her constituency and who loses no opportunity to tell the world about the uniqueness of the landscape that she has the honour to represent.

My constituency is rather different because it is urban and suburban, but like many other constituencies it has many sites that are sensitive, unique and important. I very much welcome the measures to strengthen protection for sites of special scientific interest, but I join colleagues, in particular my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor), in calling for the designation of urban wildlife sites. It is important to preserve the diversity of our habitats, and the Bill gives us a long-awaited opportunity to do so.

On Friday, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, whom I was pleased to see in the Chamber earlier, visited my constituency to open the splendidly refurbished Victorian town hall and museum. While there, he took the opportunity to see displays about a unique geological feature of part of my constituency known as Emmer Green, after the emmer wheat that has been grown there. I am told that the area is unique in the south of England as an earthquake zone—owing not to mine workings or anything of the sort, but to the geological formation of a finger of London clay that extends a long way west to abut the Berkshire downs. The unique geology has been studied over the years.

I cite that feature as an example of the special areas everywhere in the country, whether urban, rural, suburban, moorland, woodland, beach or coastal. I highlight it because, in an urban area such as the one that I represent, it is arguably more important for people to be able to experience a variety of habitats.

Otters are beginning to return to the Thames and the Kennet. My constituents who walk along the riverside—where it is not closed off to them—are reporting sightings of otters or evidence of them. Sometimes, that is the only way we know that such wildlife is returning. There is no evidence that such sightings cause any difficulty for otters or represent any disincentive for them to take up residence. If the land is closed off, there will be no way to find whether otters remain or have been driven out by mink—as can happen, because the habitats are similar.

This is a Bill whose time has come. There have been campaigns for access, mass trespass and so on over many decades. We all acknowledge that the law on trespass is a bit of a mess. The Bill is about more than that. It is about our changing attitudes to the countryside and the land on which we live.

I grew up in Bedfordshire—I apologise to the area because I am sure that it has since changed—and remember the south Bedfordshire countryside as a monoculture of chemical-soaked onion fields. I remember the poisonous green foam that got into the brooks as they flowed past the brickwork outfalls. That was in the 1960s, when agriculture was somewhat different from today. There was then perhaps less of a conscience about the use of chemicals.

The Berkshire countryside around my constituency is much softer and, in many ways, more accessible to the rambler and bird watcher than the arable prairies of eastern England. There too, however, diversity is decreasing and the protection of species and habitats is insufficient.

It is only a few years ago that the late and unlamented Berkshire county council thought that it would be a good idea to build a dual carriageway across the mouth of the Kennet, where it flows into the Thames. That is one of the few places where the loddon lily, a rare and endangered plant, flourishes. A dual carriageway would clearly have not allowed it to do so. The then Secretary of State for the Environment, the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) took the right decision in squashing the plan. It has gone and I trust that it will not return.

Measures that allow access to the countryside must be linked with wildlife conservation measures so that we can experience diverse habitats and so that seemingly insignificant life forms—whether butterflies, plants or larger animals—can continue to flourish.

I shall not take up any more of the House's time except to congratulate all hon. Members who have had the opportunity to speak in this debate. I welcome the Bill wholeheartedly, I know that my constituents do, and I wish it success in its progress through the House.

9.24 pm

The Bill comes during the Government's phase of delivery, as I believe this period is called. I welcome the opportunity to speak briefly on Second Reading.

My Derbyshire constituency contains large areas of open access land, as much of it opened by voluntary agreement as is part of the Peak national park. About 60 per cent. of England's voluntary open access areas are in the national park and a large proportion of those areas are in my constituency. The Pennine way starts in my constituency, and many areas that are not currently covered by open access agreements are crossed by footpaths and rights of way.

I receive a great deal of correspondence on the subject of people using motorised vehicles where they should not, thereby making a nuisance of themselves and a mess of the landscape. My constituents and I therefore welcome the provisions to tighten up restrictions on the unauthorised off-road use of motorised vehicles.

I am told that, especially on Sundays, there are more mountaineers in my constituency than in any other English constituency. I am therefore pleased by the indications that the Bill will not only encourage and foster mountaineering opportunities, but will allow no ambiguity about the fact that those who want to climb or clamber over Stanedge and similar features should be able to reach such sites without let or hindrance.

The activities of mountaineers, climbers, ramblers and traditional users of the peak park and the open access areas will be facilitated by the Bill. Walking is one of the most common pastimes enjoyed by the people of this country, and millions of people participate in the activity every weekend. They respect the countryside and, by and large, they want to use it in a positive way. They respect this country's wildlife and landscape, acknowledge the legitimate needs of landowners and respect crops and livestock.

The Bill provides opportunities to enhance our use of the countryside for leisure, pleasure and study, and it gets the balance right by allowing nature to take its course in rural areas. I welcome the Bill and I wish it godspeed.

9.28 pm

The debate has proved what a sad waste of opportunity the Bill is. It need not have been so. Every Member of Parliament wants better protection for wildlife and wants to promote responsible enjoyment of the countryside. If the Government had been both competent and sensible, they could have achieved what they and we want. Instead, they have produced a Bill whose welcome aspects are dragged down by anti-farmer ideology, ignorance of the workings of the countryside and sheer risible incompetence. The parade of complacency combined with an undertone of spite that has passed for argument among Government Members tonight shows why the Government are an object of derision in the English and Welsh countryside. I shall deal first with what is in the Bill but should not be, and then with what should be in the Bill but is not.

I am pleased to understand that the hon. Gentleman is broadly in favour of the Bill and thinks that it presents us with a great opportunity. He decries the Government's proposals, but does he acknowledge that, although the Conservatives were in power for 18 years, they never made any attempt to introduce constructive legislation dealing with these matters?

The hon. Gentleman may have forgotten the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. Some of the best provisions in the Bill update and improve the 1981 Act. If he can contain himself for a few minutes, he will learn that, although I welcome the wildlife protection parts of the Bill, I think that too many of the measures on access are wrong both in principle and in practice.

To help the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends, I shall start with the access provisions, which have been so well dissected by my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry), and my hon. Friends the Members for Ludlow (Mr. Gill), for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson) and for Bosworth (Mr. Tredinnick). I am in favour of greater access to the countryside, but I want it to be introduced in a workable form and in co-operation with those who live, work and farm in the countryside.

The access provided in the Bill is perverse. The Bill creates most access on the land that is least accessible to most people. When the vast majority of people say that they want the right to roam, they mean that they want well-signed footpaths in green areas near the towns in which 80 per cent. of us live. What they do not want is people wandering around land that may contain endangered species of birds or plant life, where one act by a single thoughtless person could create an environmental disaster. That is where the Bill focuses, however.

Even in its own terms, the Bill is inconsistent. For instance, the exceptions that it introduces to access land are limited and inconsistent. Access is banned in quarries, but allowed when the former quarry is being filled with waste. It is banned in buildings, but allowed in mobile homes. It is banned around mobile telephone transmitters, but allowed around television transmitters.

Access land is not shown on maps at present. Landowners and walkers will have to try to apply exceptions as they come to land. For example, a walker will have to work out what the curtilage of a building is. Last month there was a case in the Court of Appeal in which it was admitted that even lawyers often do not understand what a curtilage is. If the walker gets it wrong, he is a trespasser. If the landowner gets it wrong and puts a notice in the wrong place, he commits a criminal offence.

There are worse inconsistencies in the activities that are allowed or forbidden on access land. The activities allowed are anomalous. Paragliding is banned, but hot air ballooning is allowed. It is against the law for a person to swim in a lake, but letting a dog swim in a lake is allowed by the law. Playing football is banned; holding a political demonstration is allowed. Camping is banned, but holding a religious service at a stone circle to mark the spring equinox is allowed.

The Bill is full of such anomalies. We are in the third year of the Parliament. The Minister said in his opening remarks that this is an historic Bill, for which many Government Members have been waiting for most of the century. One would have thought that when the Government produce such an historic Bill, they might try to produce a half-way competent historic Bill.

The ludicrous 28-day exemption introduced by the Bill was referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray)—that is, the 28 days during which access may be denied. The Minister quoted Lloyd George in one of the oratorical flourishes in his speech. I shall quote back at him a real live Welsh farmer, farming in Caernarfon, Mrs. Karen Jones, who sent me a long letter pointing out a large number of anomalies and idiocies in the Bill.

Mrs. Jones notes, as many of my hon. Friends pointed out, that the right to roam would be allowed over the weekends and bank holidays, even inside the 28 days allowed for the owner. As she puts it,
I must tell the ewes not to lamb at the weekends.
It is not just lambing that will be affected. Presumably, the agencies that will be involved in taking the decisions can decide what forms of activity they will permit. I dare say that in different areas of the country, different kinds of activity will be allowed.

I am not clear whether the Minister is aware that if he gets the wrong kind of bureaucrats in some areas, he will threaten not just a few landowners, but gymkhanas, village fetes, occasional friendly cricket matches and other activities that many people who once thought of themselves as new Labour supporters will not want to be banned.

The Government claim that local people judge how access works, but Government agencies rather than elected local councillors will decide about exclusions and restrictions. The Government need to tell us what they mean by land management; they should publicise exclusions and restrictions at public expense.

Land management is central to the Bill, yet there is no attempt to define it. Such a definition is essential if the Bill is to be workable. For example, most of the heather moorlands are managed for and funded by sporting interests. Many are designated sites of special scientific interest because of the careful management they receive. Unless shooting, burning bracken, spraying, gamekeeping and related activities are recognised as land management, the Bill will render vast areas of moorland unsustainable. It must therefore fully define land management.

The Bill fails to explain in detail how notification will be managed, or the source of funding for the wardens who will be needed to police the new restrictions. The Bill currently states that local authorities "may" appoint access wardens. They must appoint such officers to make the Bill remotely enforceable and to minimise the burden and potential loss inflicted on landowners and managers of access land.

The access provisions include further absurdities. Many of my hon. Friends have commented on the curiosity of the provision for 24-hour access. All hon. Members agree that one of the glories of living in this country is the ability to enjoy the scenery and views of the English countryside. How many people want to enjoy them in the dark? The Association of Chief Police Officers supports the case for restricting access to daylight hours, simply because of the likely effect on crime.

Last night, there was an extremely good moon. Many people would have enjoyed walking in the moonlight. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that some measure is required for ensuring that mountain walkers get off the mountains safely? If those walkers had to be off the mountain by dusk, it would substantially limit the time that they could spend there.

It is interesting that the hon. Gentleman wants the pleasure of walking in the countryside by moonlight when the Government ban doing so in urban parks. I know that he cares about that because we debated the matter in Westminster Hall last week. It is anomalous to claim that people can walk in the countryside in the dark, but not in urban parks.

The Association of Chief Police Officers believes that the provision is bad for crime prevention. The Government acknowledge the need to tackle crime, and threats to schools in urban areas, by providing for stopping up or diverting rights of way by night. They seem far less interested in preventing crime in rural areas. That is characteristic of them.

We must also consider the wider human rights element. I know that many Labour Members do not believe that human rights apply to landowners, but I should be interested to hear the advice that the Minister received on whether refusing compensation is legal under the Human Rights Act 1998. The statement on the front of the Bill claims that the provisions comply with that Act. The Government know that, according to many legal opinions, it does not.

Beyond the basic problem with human rights legislation, there is severe disparity in the enforcement of the access provisions. Any walker who does something wrong can be required politely to leave for a few hours, yet a landowner who does something wrong faces heavy fines and potential imprisonment. Labour Members believe that landowners deserve to be treated in that way. I would simply point out that in many areas where allowing access will prove most controversial, the landowners will be upland farmers. The average income of an upland farmer in England this year will be £4,600. In Wales, it will be £2,700. The Government are not attacking fat cats, but struggling upland farmers.

The final key point about access is that there should be well-signposted access points. That represents possibly the single biggest necessary improvement to the Bill. Those access areas need to be planned, practical and funded, but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth (Mr. Tredinnick) said, the access provisions will achieve none of that.

Rights of way provisions form a large section of the Bill, and the Minister, with the characteristic honesty for which we all respect him, gave the game away at the start of the debate by saying that they are very complex and that he would accept any changes made in Committee. That ministerial code is easy to crack. His words meant, "The legislation is a complete mess; we haven't got a clue how to proceed; and we hope that someone tells us in Committee." Roads used as public paths were meant to be replaced by footpaths, bridleways or byways open to all traffic. Some local authorities have reclassified in that way and some have not, but, rather than a simple and complete reclassification, the Government propose to create a further type of right of way. Why do they insist on making an already complicated system more complicated? There are already at least six ways to stop up or divert highways under the highways and planning legislation: the Bill simply provides four new ones, making a bad situation worse.

We heard from the hon. Member for Gower (Mr. Caton) that 25 years is too brief a time in which to do proper mapping, but it is far too long for many people in the countryside who seek some certainty in those maps. I think that the Minister used the words, "25 years, as resources allow," which is not jam today or even tomorrow, but jam at no time this side of the event—jam never, that is.

The nature conservation and wildlife protection measures have some merit. We support the improvements to the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, which strengthen the protection of SSSIs, but the Government should do more. My hon. Friend the Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) made that point, as have many others. The Woodland Trust says that the Bill should protect important sites outside the SSSI framework if it is to make a lasting contribution to protecting our native woodland heritage—85 per cent. of all ancient woodland lies outside the SSSI designation.

The Council for the Protection of Rural England points out that the Bill
fails…to deliver promised improvements to the protection of…hedgerows, landscape features and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
The Wildlife Trusts wants
greater recognition and protection to…wildlife areas…outside SSSIs;
legal underpinning to the UK biodiversity process; and
better protection for species.
The organisation Plantlife says that the Bill fails to safeguard
wild plants from non-native invasive species;
protection of the habitats of species which are in danger of extinction…
I am sure that the Minister will recognise that much more needs to be done—even to the wildlife protection provisions—in Committee. I do not wish to be churlish, but even the good parts of the Bill are inadequate and they are heavily outweighed by the badly thought out ones.

The Government have missed their opportunity to make practical improvements to access and rights of way. Instead, they are luxuriating in an ideological spasm. Labour Members may enjoy that short-term pleasure, but they are putting at risk the very countryside about which they care. I fear that, in 10 years' time, we shall look back on the Bill and say, "They should not have tried to protect wildlife with one hand while allowing a thoughtless few to endanger it with the other." Those genuine concerns about the countryside are not confined to a privileged few, but are shared by millions who care for our countryside and our wildlife. If the Government continue to get it wrong, they will stand condemned by the many, not the few. I commend our amendment to the House.

9.44 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions
(Mr. Chris Mullin)

We have had a wide-ranging debate.

I am the Minister of many things: today I am a countryside Minister—tomorrow, who knows?

Many sensible points have been made, and some not so sensible. I am sorry to say that quite a few of the not so sensible points came from members of the Opposition Front Bench. The contribution from the hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Mr. Norman) was a little disappointing. I felt that his heart was not entirely in it—I shall put it no higher than that. I know that he is a reasonable man, and I suspect that he knows that much of what is in the Bill, including the access provisions, are good, common sense.

I commend the views of the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Atkinson) to his Conservative colleagues. He described the present access arrangements as a legacy of feudalism. That sentiment will find widespread support in the House. I felt that the Opposition's heart was not entirely in their opposition: they were just going through the motions. I take heart from the fact that the squirearchy has been virtually unrepresented in the debate. There have been contributions from one or two aspirant toffs, but with the exception of a fleeting visit from the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) we never got a real toff. It has probably dawned on the more sensible and perceptive Tory Members that many of their supporters are likely to be in favour of the Bill.

There were one or two predictable contributions, including, I am sorry to say, the ideological spasm that we have just heard from the hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Green). There has been a cynical attempt to piggyback on the undoubted crisis in the farming industry so as to extract some cheap mileage. There is no basis for that.

The hon. Member for Bosworth (Mr. Tredinnick) said that we were on a collision course with the countryside. That is absolute nonsense. The Bill has widespread support in the countryside. As he may have noticed, these days we represent rather a lot of it.

The hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) accused the Bill of being anti-landowner. Many sensible and enlightened landowners would not recognise that description, and have long allowed access to their land. I predict that they will enter into the spirit of the Bill and will extend access.

The hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr. Gill), with characteristic understatement, compared the confiscation of property rights that he thinks are entailed in the Bill with those that occurred in Soviet Russia some years ago. He did not rest his case there. He went on to say that the situation was even worse than in Soviet Russia. I feel that he failed to carry the House with him on that point.

We have, by and large, had a sensible debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) made it clear that one of the reasons for that was because the Government have gone to great lengths to consult those whose interests are directly affected. The result is a balanced Bill. The Government have bent over backwards to be reasonable and to enter into a constructive dialogue with the Country Landowners Association, the National Farmers Union and others whose legitimate interests are affected. When the huffing and puffing dies down, most reasonable people will realise that this legislation is inherently sensible.

After all, the right to roam already exists in millions of acres of our countryside. I have already referred to enlightened landowners who have allowed it for many years. My right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) referred to Sir Charles Trevelyan. There was an enlightened landowner, if ever there was one: I have spent many hours enjoying the rights of access on his magnificent estate at Wallington in Northumberland.

The right to roam has been conceded for years on most Forestry Commission land, and on most National Trust land. There is a de facto right to roam in Scotland. None of that has had any of the dire effects that have been alleged. My hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours)—who is not quite in his place—knocked a lot of this nonsense on the head. He represents some of the most beautiful countryside in England, containing numerous sheep farmers and hill farmers. He said that, in 20 years of representing his constituency, he had never received a complaint from a farmer who had been adversely affected by the right to roam, which exists throughout his constituency.