Countryside and Rights of Way Bill
Lord McIntosh of Haringey (Deputy Chief Whip (House of Lords), HM Household; Labour)
One thing the Minister must say relates to time limits. The noble Baroness, Lady Byford, mentioned her slight concern but her amendments, which have been ungrouped and must be considered separately, go entirely in the opposite direction from those tabled by Liberal Democrat Members. I wanted to talk to them altogether but they are not reconcilable.
I shall begin by talking to Amendments Nos. 368A and 380A, because I understand the motives behind them. They relate to the power to confirm orders under Sections 118 and 119 of the Highways Act 1980 closing or diverting footpaths and bridleways. In the first instance, the order would have to be considered in the light of the strategies in the relevant rights of way improvement plan prepared under Clause 56 of the Bill.
The second element of the amendment would set a more difficult test for a confirming authority to assess and it is difficult to see how it would work in practice. First, a detailed balance sheet would have to be kept of all the changes made to the rights of way in a particular area and then the authority would have to evaluate the effect of all those changes and how that might affect an individual proposal.
This could be an impossible task as the decision would have to take into account not only rights of way which could be many miles away from the footpath or bridleway in question--for instance, at the opposite end of a large county--but also any applications for orders in the pipeline and the effects of the previous five years'-worth of public path orders in any area, including creations, diversions and extinguishments for planning and development purposes.
However, I acknowledge the fact that the amendments seek to ensure that decisions on individual changes to rights of way are made within the context of the wider local network of which each right of way is a part. The Government are not prepared to accept both the amendments, which in our view go too far, but we are prepared to consider the first element which would expressly confirm that the objectives of an authority's plan should be a material consideration in decisions on confirming public path orders. I hope that on that basis the amendment will not be pressed.
I turn to Amendments Nos. 368B, 369A and 380B. I should have liked to talk at the same time to Amendments Nos. 381A and 402B, which are the Liberal Democrat amendments, but the grouping does not allow that. However, I hope that I shall be able to cut short my comments on the later group.
We have already debated Amendment No. 381A, which relates to the issues in these amendments. We have thought very carefully about who should have a right to apply for public path orders. Those who depend on their land for an income need to be able to manage their land productively to gain a reasonable economic return. Generally, the public's use of rights of way should not prevent a landowner from managing his land successfully, but we are aware that circumstances arise in which, for example, the diversion of a path is in the land manager's interests and has no significant adverse effect on the interests of the public. More rarely, there may be instances in which a path is no longer needed by the public and may, therefore, be considered for closure. The proposals in the Bill are meant to be used in just those circumstances, in recognition of reports of the difficulty that some landowners have experienced in obtaining such orders. In such cases, proposals will be considered on their merits. The public will still be able to object to closure and diversion orders and have their views heard by an inspector.
We, therefore, believe that there is a case for making an exception to the general rule that decisions on changes to highway networks, whether footpaths and bridleways or other highways, should be for public authorities to promote. Local authorities will in any case have to consult publicly on their strategic decisions about rights of way during the preparation of the improvement plans required by Clauses 56 and 57, so there will be ample opportunity for members of the public to contribute views on changes to their local rights of way networks in addition to the opportunities which they already have under Schedule 6 to the Highways Act. I hope that on that basis this amendment will not be pressed.
I turn to Amendments Nos. 370 and 382. These amendments relate to the period which must elapse before an applicant for a stopping up or diversion order can apply for a direction requiring the relevant council to determine the application. The amendment would apply both to applications by land managers for orders under Sections 118 and 119 and by schools for orders made under the new Sections 118B and 119B. I acknowledge that there is a difference between the four-month period for applications for public path orders and the 12-month period which applies to applications made under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 for orders modifying the definitive map. However, the Government believe that four months is an appropriate starting point within which decisions may be arrived at as to whether to make a closure or a diversion order.
I heard the observations of the noble Baroness about consulting parish councils. In some counties there may be problems in consulting district councils. Surely, all of these matters can be done concurrently rather than consecutively. I would have thought that four months was a reasonable period. The issues to be considered are substantially different from the complex task of assessing evidence submitted in support of an application for a definitive map order. In many cases the authority may have to undertake additional research through old archives before it is in a position to decide whether there is sufficient evidence to justify adding a right of way to the map. I do not accept that local authorities will be diverted from their duty to record rights of way on definitive maps by the new provisions in Schedule 6. They should have no reason to claim lack of funds because the Government will provide additional funding for these new responsibilities. I have already given that response in answer to separate questions.
Although we have listened carefully to the arguments, we are not convinced that the four-month period set out in the Bill is unreasonable. I hope that, on the basis of the positive answers that I have been able to give to some of the proposals in this group, the amendments will not be pressed.