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Dartmoor National Park (Access)

Volume 731: debated on Wednesday 19 April 2023

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require the Secretary of State to publish proposals for a scheme to incentivise owners of land within Dartmoor National Park to allow enhanced access to that land in certain circumstances; and for connected purposes.

I declare my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, and also the fact that as a Member of Parliament I represent part of Dartmoor. Let me also point out that the Bill focuses specifically on Dartmoor national park, and should not be viewed as being applicable to other national parks or areas of land across the country.

The unquestionable beauty of Dartmoor has been a draw for millennia. For more than 10,000 years, mankind has shaped and cultivated this landscape into what it is today—from the hunter-gatherer approach of the mesolithic and neolithic ages, to the farmed landscapes of the bronze and iron age periods, to the Saxon defences of Lydford and the prosperity of the late middle ages and the early modern era, coupled with the development of industry. It is no wonder that the rich and varied history of Dartmoor has proved to be a draw to resident and visitor alike.

This decamillennial landscape is a working environment that has been created from the outset of our beginnings. Today, it is a space in which agricultural, environmental and recreational endeavours have flourished to create jobs, conservation programmes, charitable projects, food and even industry. As a result, livelihoods have been created, experiences gained, and traditions passed down. Those three areas are not just important to the practitioners, but essential to the fabric of Dartmoor. They must work with one another, not in competition but in co-operation. The Bill seeks to protect and even enhance the rights attached to recreational activities on Dartmoor, while also mitigating the environmental and agricultural damage that has been known to take place within the national park.

We are fortunate that Dartmoor’s recreational pull attracts thousands of visitors each year. From the Duke of Edinburgh award to the Ten Tors to sleeping under the stars to simply walking along the national park trails, there is a draw that allows people to connect with nature, explore historic landscapes and witness the beauty of traditional moorland farming. It is precious, it is appreciated, and following the pandemic it is all the more needed. However, there are some issues that I hope the Bill will help to address.

First, recreational activity is critically important to human health, but it should not come at the expense of, or above, the environmental and agricultural activities that take place on the moorland. Unfortunately, in recent years the fine balance between those three areas has fallen out of kilter. Under the Dartmoor Commons Act 1985, the public have the rights and the Dartmoor national park authority has the responsibilities, although those are discretionary. However, the introduction and implementation of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 has created confusion and opaqueness in the law. It is rapidly becoming apparent that the national park authority needs to be responsible for access management, and that for this to be successful there needs to be an appropriate level of resourcing.

Our success yesterday in calling for an independent inquiry into the management of the moor—a call to which the Minister for Food, Farming and Fisheries, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mark Spencer) graciously responded—could well serve as a vehicle for the consideration of this matter and many others that affect those who work and live on the moorland, and thus end the confusion between successive laws and bring about clarification and simplification. However, this will also require the national park authority to engage with all stakeholders on the moorland and ensure that its own composition is inclusive. It is no good attempting to hold the balance between these three important areas if various groups are excluded from the decision-making process. For instance, the fact that landowners have no representation on the Dartmoor management committee should be a cause for concern and should be rectified immediately.

Secondly, while the allocation of £440,000 to the national park authority for 2023-2024 is particularly welcome—it will play a significant role in helping to attract people to the national park and to ensure that facilities are up to scratch, as well as developing communication and understanding about Dartmoor—if the national park authority is to be able to support the agricultural, environmental and recreational interests, an upgrading of those resources will be necessary. The national park cannot serve society’s recreational, environmental and agricultural demands without the appropriate level of support. Additional support should come in the form of helping new rangers or wardens to look after the land, promoting the countryside code and preventing fly-camping—a form of camping whereby peripheral areas are camped on and then left in a state of untidiness—and working to engage the numerous land managers and various stakeholders.

I have learned during my short time in this place that it is helpful not just to point out problems but to bring solutions. I therefore suggest that, as outlined in chapter 2 of the Glover review, if we are to continue to preserve Dartmoor as a working environment that caters to multiple sectors and continues to be a welcoming environment for residents and visitors, including tourists from around the country and indeed the world, we should observe the following recommendations. We should create a stronger mission to connect all people with our national parks; we should use these landscapes to address the nation’s health and wellbeing; we should expand volunteering in our national landscapes; we should educate and provide better information on the workings of national parks for the stakeholders that operate within them; and we should develop a range of services to operate alongside all groups and organisations to promote the national park and protect it from damage and degradation.

Those suggestions have already been in the public domain for some time, and I understand that the Government are assessing their viability, but it is important that while we are asking the Government to act, the Dartmoor national park authority engages with the stakeholders and takes on that responsibility. Implementing those proposals in a speedy manner to the benefit of the public—which would see them introduced before any wider legislation or reform—would be an effective way of taking people on board, and we should also aim to speed up the environmental land management scheme proposals.

Already, in the recently agreed agricultural transition update regarding ELMS under the heading of access and engagement, the countryside stewardship scheme is encouraging the following courses of action: farmers hosting tours of their farms for school pupils and care farm visitors, supplying access maps and signage and preparing sites for access by providing the necessary facilities; accreditation for staff carrying out countryside educational access visits; and a supplement to enable permissive access across woodland where access is currently limited.

It is also welcome that the Government are looking to provide new, long-term permissive access for recreation, and that, through the farming in protected landscapes programme, additional support will be provided in national parks. The Government have set the right tone by exploring how this can expand beyond permissive access, managing existing access pressures on land and water and education access. These are all welcome steps, but at present the information and understanding around those rights is hazy at best and opaque at worst.

As my Bill suggests, a publication setting out the extensive measures that are on offer while also informing and working together with Dartmoor stakeholders would not only show the collaborative approach the Government are taking but add further emphasis to the encouragement of diversification. It would also raise awareness of the extensive and often privately funded conservation and environmental programmes across the area that are working on landscape recovery, biodiversity improvements and improving the maintenance of the moorlands, whether through rewetting programmes, peatland maintenance, leaky dams or the reintroduction of long-lost species. There is a long list of things for us to be positive about.

This Bill seeks to protect the balance of activity on Dartmoor between the recreational, environmental and agricultural sectors. It looks to inform, to educate and to promote the work being done by the Government, by the Dartmoor national park authority and by stakeholders to ensure that all those who enjoy the benefits of Dartmoor national park can continue to do so. If implemented, my proposals will see public rights, permissive rights and property rights upheld. That is an important balance and an important factor to consider. It will also encourage continued co-operation and indeed occasional compromise for all those who love this historic and sacred space. I commend this Bill to the House.

I do not intend to divide the House this afternoon, but I wish to speak against leave being given to bring forward such a Bill. I will set out my strong opposition to the terms set out by the hon. Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall), relating first to so-called enhanced access, secondly to land ownership and thirdly to incentives. I also refer Members to my entry in the Register of Member’s Financial Interests. They will see that I do not have any interests with a bearing on Dartmoor, but as a child I took part in the Dartmoor Ten Tors. I also did the Duke of Edinburgh award on Dartmoor, and I would like to pay tribute to the young people from across east and mid-Devon who will take part in that gruelling exercise at the end of next week and to the others who will participate in the jubilee challenge.

John Dower wrote in 1945 in a report arguing for the creation of national parks such as Dartmoor that

“there can be few national purposes which, at so modest a cost, offer so large a prospect of health-giving happiness for the people”.

With that in mind, I wish to outline why a Bill such as the one the hon. Gentleman has outlined is not the route that we should be taking. First, on enhanced access, the Dartmoor Commons Act 1985 already confers on the public a right to walk or ride a horse on the commons. There are around 450 miles of public rights of way on Dartmoor and many miles of permitted footpaths and bridleways. I am sure that most Members would agree that in addition to rights we should also think about responsibilities. Rather than talking solely about public rights of way, we might like to think about public responsibilities of way. The people I know who walk on Dartmoor and other farmlands certainly think in those terms and have nothing but disdain for the small proportion of visitors who leave litter or cause fires through the irresponsible use of disposable barbecues.

The hon. Member for Totnes’s proposal refers to enhanced access, yet much of Dartmoor is already designated as access land. This means that it remains privately owned but has no restrictions on where walkers can explore. To put this into context, it is worth looking at some examples of who owns land on Dartmoor. Fifteen landowners own nearly half of the land on Dartmoor. Only 1.4% of the land is owned directly by the Dartmoor national park Authority, while around 37% of Dartmoor is designated as common land.

South West Water owns more than 5,000 acres of land on Dartmoor. This is a company that paid £45 million in dividends in 2022 and whose chief executive has a remuneration package worth £1.6 million, all while sewage continues to be discharged into our rivers, including the River Dart. South West Water has not been short of incentives from this Government, but for many of the wrong behaviours.

Another part of the moor, Brent moor, in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, is currently up for sale. It was reported in the press earlier this year that Brent moor was owned by the Saudi businessman Sheikh Khalid bin Ibrahim Al Ibrahim. The estate agent Knight Frank lists Brent Moor as

“2,763 acres of freehold land, with sporting rights in hand, sold subject to various rights, including common grazing rights and public rights of way”.

More than a third of the Dartmoor national park is private land owned by the Duchy of Cornwall. The current Prince of Wales, whom I admire sincerely, chooses to use a substantial proportion of his income from the Duchy estate to meet the cost of his public and charitable work. I do not suppose that he would want to be subject to so-called incentives to permit enhanced access on the Duchy estate.

Lastly, on this principle of proposed incentives, I am concerned that there is a suggestion here that the public should continue to enjoy the rugged beauty of Dartmoor in exchange for incentives, and specifically incentives for some of the landowners I have referred to. I worry about the precedent that this might set for other national parks. The Glover report recommended that the number of visitors should be only one criterion for how core funding should be delivered through a national landscapes service.

I also worry about other examples of where this Government have sought to incentivise landowners with respect to public goods. Look at the glacial roll-out of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs’ environmental land management scheme. I would not even trust this Government to properly incentivise young farmers with a knees-up in a brewery. Farmers were promised a more generous and far less cumbersome, less bureaucratic set of incentives than those that the Government have landed on them. It is little wonder that sign-up to some tiers of ELMS is currently running at about 10%.

The right hon. Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice) said in 2020:

“It makes no sense to subsidise land ownership and tenure where the largest subsidy payments too often go to the wealthiest landowners.”

But then last autumn he said in relation to the Australia and New Zealand trade deal negotiated by the Government of which he had been a part that it

“gave away far too much for far too little in return.”—[Official Report, 14 November 2022; Vol. 722, c. 424.]

I think we might expect the Government to do the same in any new scheme for so-called enhanced access.

For all these reasons, I urge that leave should not be given to bring in such a Bill. In 1909, Liberals sang “The Land”. I will save the House from a rendition with the melody, but it included words that remain true today, more than a century later:

“ ’Twas God who gave the land. God gave the land to the people.”

Question put (Standing Order No. 23) and agreed to.


That Anthony Mangnall, Kevin Foster, Simon Jupp, Sir Gary Streeter, Sir Geoffrey Cox, Anne Marie Morris, Luke Pollard and Selaine Saxby present the Bill.

Anthony Mangnall accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time Friday 24 November, and to be printed (Bill 293).