Countryside Commission (Wolds Way)

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 19th June 1975.

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9.52 p.m.

Photo of Mr Kevin McNamara Mr Kevin McNamara , Kingston upon Hull Central

I start the debate on the Countryside Commission and the Wolds Way by first declaring my interest. I am president of the East Riding and Derwent Ramblers' Association.

Any country lover must be concerned with the protection of the countryside and access to it—the two purposes enshrined in the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949 and the Countryside Act 1968. I rise to assert that the power of the Countryside Commission, the guardian of these two purposes, has declined, is declining and should increase. Dangers to the countryside have never been greater, and the power to defend it has become correspondingly weaker.

More people than even before want access to this part of the national heritage, and quite rightly. The threats from mines, industry, the Armed Forces, reservoirs—although in many ways reservoirs can improve the nature of the landscape—alien installations on the coastline, television masts, roads and the unregulated cars of visitors are stark and obvious.

We condemn the way in which our Victorian forebears scarred the face of Britain. With much less excuse, but just as irredeemably, we are doing the same thing. It is not simply posterity which will condemn our failure to act. It is the articulate and growing amenity lobby, and the less articulate millions who visit the countryside and deplore the deterioration of its quality. They seek to ensure the retention of its many virtues.

These sombre reflections are the background to my comments on the Countryside Commission, a body which has uncomplainingly seen its own plans for coastal national heritage areas gravely weakened, which has faced both ways—at some potential risk—over the issue of bulls on public paths—which has allowed long-distance footpaths to be opened when still in an unfinished and unacceptable state, and which has compromised over the control and administration of national parks. In an article in the Observer on 9th February, Christopher Brasher, one of the best known figures in the outdoor world, wrote angrily about a proposed road in the heart of the Snowdonia National Park. Brasher commented: The Countryside Commission never challenged the basic concept of a road but merely confined itself, at officer level, to 'alleviating its visual impact' … One might imagine that the Countryside Commission is charged with the task of preserving natural beauty, but it has never had any bite and it is known not to use its bark. A debate took place in another place on 15th May 1973 on the commission's work and its rôle. All the peers who spoke, with the exception of the Minister, Lord Sandford, deplored the commission's lack of independence vis-à-vis the Government. The noble Lord, Lord Chorley put his finger on the crux of the matter when he commented that the commission saw its work as being primarily "advisory and promotional". The noble Lord, Lord Kennet, who had been instrumental in setting up the commission in 1968, stressed that the intention of the Government had been to create an independent body with real power, while Lord Henley, chairman of the Council for the Protection of Rural England, pointed out that even under its existing powers the commission was able, if it wished, to adopt a forceful public rôle as guardian of the countryside.

Replying to that debate, the Minister made an important pronouncement. He declared: The Commission has an independent voice of its own which it is entirely at liberty to use and which is entirely right for it to use whenever it sees fit."—[Official Report, House of Lords, 15th May 1973; c. 800.] The problem was then one of subservience of the commision to the Government, and this problem remains. It is vitally important that the commission should remain an independent body.

I welcome what my right hon. Friend the Minister for Planning and Local Government said when he opened the commission's new premises and repeated Lord Sandford's assurance. This is not only a question, as my right hon. Friend has said, of the commission being an independent body. It is necessary that that message should also get home to the commission. But in many cases, and in the present case, which I shall use to illustrate my point shortly, the problem is one of subservience to landowners, a potentially even more alarming situation.

The failures of the Countryside Commission are all too typical, not only in its rôle as protector of the countryside but as guardian of access to it. The commission has recently spoken about our footpath network—a cherished amenity of our countryside—in a way totally inconsistent with its duty to improve access. In its publication "New Agricultural Landscapes", a report which it published last autumn concerning changing land usage in lowland areas. the commission went out of its way to ask farmers whether they were bothered by trespass and whether they wanted "reorganisation" of the footpaths. Does that mean what I fear in this case it means—reduction? Again, the Assistant Director of the commission, Mr. J. M. Davidson, speaking to a conference on the future of the countryside last December, replied to a speaker who complained about the ploughing up of footpaths that in his view not all footpaths were essential. What kind of friend of the countrygoer is this?

This brings me to the significant story which I wish to lay before the House, concerning the problem of the Wolds Way, the 70-mile long-distance footpath which, continuing the Cleveland Way in North Yorkshire, will one day run the length of the former East Riding of Yorkshire. The Yorkshire Wolds in my part of the country are attractive and unspoiled countryside, civilised by man over the ages, with a peculiar charm of their own, which are cherished by many walkers in my constituency and surrounding parts of Yorkshire and Humberside, but which are seriously deficient in footpaths and bridleways.

Creation of the Wolds Way is more than a minor matter. It is of more than considerable local importance, and it raises questions of principle affecting national policy as a whole. It is not too strong to say that the creation of the Wolds Way has been delayed and betrayed by the Countryside Commission, the body charged with bringing it into existence.

The plan for a long-distance footpath across the Yorkshire Wolds is an old one, and a famous Yorkshire writer, A. J. Brown, wrote more than 40 years ago of his own pilgrimage along the paths of the "Wolds Way". Its modern history began in 1968, when the Ramblers' Association, which has all along been the driving force behind the scheme, put forward a detailed plan for a Wolds Way. It found immediate favour with the public and the media and was given widespread publicity. The Ramblers' Association, the East Riding County Council and its successors in Humberside and North Yorkshire have received many requests for information about a plan which continues to excite a lively interest, outside as well as inside Yorkshire and Humberside—

It being Ten o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Miss Margaret Jackson.]

Photo of Mr Kevin McNamara Mr Kevin McNamara , Kingston upon Hull Central

It is, however, worth pointing out that even in 1968 there were voices warning that, attractive as the plan was, the long delays characteristic of the creation of other log-distance paths might well also afflict the Wolds Way. The Guardian was one of these. Welcoming the scheme in January, 1968, it feared "a long trek ahead", and pessimistically but accurately, predicted that it might be ready about 1980. However, at the start, everything began well. In July 1968 the East Riding County Council approved the Wolds Way "in principle", and the following October the Countryside Commission did the same. For over two years the rights of way staff of the county council carried out laborious negotiations with interested parties, notably the Country Landowners' Association and the National Farmers' Union, both of which showed masterly powers of obstruction and delay. Finally, in February 1971 the county council put forward its preferred route for the Wolds Way. In effect it was no more than a discussion document, and it was by no means an ideal walking route. But the Ramblers' Association accepted it as a good basis for discussion and received it in that spirit.

The Countryside Commission, faced with the unpleasant fact of disagreement between interested parties, itself resorted to delay. Both public and private representations were required before, in October 1972, it prepared its own route, which it circulated for comments early in 1973. It had taken five years to get so far, but the route published was a good one. My fellow-members of the Ramblers' Association, while critical of details, were on the whole delighted. The National Farmers' Union resorted to its usual delaying antics, while sections of the Country Landowners' Association set out to neutralise the commission's work.

Over a year passed with no discernible progress. Inquiries revealed that the nub of the problem lay in what is probably the most beautiful section of the whole of the Wolds Way, a central stretch of nearly a dozen miles between Thixendale and Wintringham. In this area, because of the determined and effective opposition of landowners, there are relatively few legally secure rights of way, though many are claimed by ramblers. Under pressure from three landowners, a party of commissioners, led by their chairman, Mr. John Cripps, travelled up to the Yorkshire Wolds about a year ago to view alternative routes for the Way along this particularly beautiful central section.

The commission's own original route, much preferred by ramblers, travels both through valleys and along hill slopes, providing a contrasting countryside of tremendous charm. The alternative, put forward by the landowners, keeps to metalled roads and earth tracks on higher ground, some of the roads being busy, unpleasant and dangerous. The higher ground, being a kind of plateau, completely lacks tthe interest and charm of the commission's own route.

Nobody was surprised when soon afterwards the commission reversed its position and opted for the landowner's route. Yet the commission admitted in accepting the landowner's route that this alternative contained more metalled roads and more well-known countryside and country paths than it first suggested. The commissioners arrogated to themselves—strangers to the district—the right and ability to prefer the revised route for its visual qualities, contradicting the view of every person who had walked the two routes. I have walked both, and the first route is far preferable to the plateau route.

I must point out that it is not merely attractive countryside which has been abandoned in favour of the dull plateau, important though this is. The deserted village of Wharram Percy with its poignant half-ruined church, North Grimston with its public house, accommodation and bus route, and the charming village of Settrington, with a village stream running in front of the houses, one of the most attractive villages in this part of Yorkshire, with its shop and bus route—all stand to be lost.

The real walker, as opposed to the armchair planner, would indeed be in difficulties, for in a country where buses and beds for travellers are few and cherished there would be no bus route for about a dozen miles and no overnight accommodation for about 18. What the Countryside Commission now wants to do would not only gravely impair the quality of the Wolds Way but make the problems of access, food, drink and accommodation extremely and unnecessarily difficult. Local ramblers feel that with the amended central section of the Wolds Way the integrity of the whole of the Way is now in question.

Earlier this year, in May, the commission circulated its revised route for the whole Way to interested parties for comment. In ignoring the considerable stretches where agreement has not been reached and the talent of the farmers for masterly inactivity, the commission hopes to submit this revision to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment for designation during the course of this summer. I should add that even after designation opportunities will remain for further alteration and delay.

A word is in order about the landowner at whose request the commissioners made their pilgrimage to Canossa, as a result of which it was able to change its minds about its original route. One landowner owns three adjoining parishes on the Yorkshire Wolds with 12,000 acres and 30 farms. He has objected to all rights of way across his land with the exception of one which forms the southern boundary of his estate. In the peculiarly medieval conditions of parts of the former East Riding, landowners were able to keep all other rights of way off the map, although the status of many of them still remains to be decided. A reporter of The Sunday Times, in the course of writing an article on East Riding footpaths in 1973, concluded that the attitude of one of the landowners—namely, Lord Middleton—was that there should be a few well-established walks which begin from the premise that there are at present no rights of way in the estate, apart from the one exception quoted above. That is the man whose part the Countryside Commission has taken.

Following the commission's startling volte-face, the secretary of East Riding area of the Ramblers' Association, Dr. Geoffrey Eastwood, issued a statement. The statement, which was dated November 1974, used strong words which in the circumstances seem entirely appropriate. The key passage reads: We charge the Commission with weakness and accuse it of failing in its plain duty to provide facilities where they are badly needed for the enjoyment of the countryside. We assert that in parts of the countryside the power of determined landowners to thwart progress is, as far as access is concerned, virtually as great as it was the last century. The Countryside Commission should be the watchdog of the rights of the public. Dr. Eastwood then went on to suggest in an adaptation of Lloyd George's words that the commission is little more than a landowners' poodle. Later he said: It is up now to the Government itself to reform it or to begin again. What we must have is an agency with real power, not merely a weak benevolence which is the obdurate landowners' best friend… When will the Government act? That is the indictment of the Countryside Commission over the issue of the Wolds Way. I now turn to the question of reform. Under its present leadership the commission appears too often to side with whoever has more powerful weapons and better ammunition. It seeks to avoid controversy and appears to reserve its anger for those who criticise, such as the East Riding Ramblers' Association.

However, it is not entirely the commission's fault. Successive Governments have created the National Parks Commission and its successor, the Countryside Commission, but they have failed to endow either of them with real power. Accordingly, its lack of bark, let alone bite, is not entirely surprising. It is afraid to annoy the Government, who have, against the commission's will, sent it to the Botany Bay of Cheltenham. It is afraid to annoy landowners and it has fallen back on advice, interpretation and research. Those are important functions but they are not its real job. In all fairness to the commission, I approve of Government agencies being moved outwards, but I wonder whether the ideal place has been found.

The present commission is hardly better than no commission. Perhaps that is putting the matter a little too strongly in that I want to preserve the commission, but it must be a strong and independent body. How can a real watchdog be provided?

I put forward four proposals which would go far to protect the countryside and the interests of those who resort to it for recreation and peace. The tentative proposals merit attention. First, the commission, which now has rather colour- less functions, should be given real power to wield both against Government and against private individuals. Secondly—and I lay equal stress on both points—its power should be wielded specifically and primarily towards the preservation of and access to the countryside. Thirdly, and perhaps most important, in choosing the commission's membership, apart from token membership, due regard should be paid to the interests of countrygoers—principally walkers, pedal cyclists and nature lovers.

Finally, the commission's annual report should be made direct to Parliament rather than to my right hon. Friend. In this way if any of the commission's actions to save the countryside from a motorway, or a mine, or to create a long-distance footpath were unacceptable, they would have to be declared so openly in this House. A decision to countermand the commission would have to be made by a Minister answerable to Parliament—surely the proper body to censure a Minister.

This matter which I have raised tonight does not shake the fate of nations. It is neither sensational nor revolutionary. It concerns the quality of the countryside, the quiet valleys and hills of England and Wales, as well as the wild and lonely uplands. It also concerns the access of ordinary citizens to those areas and their ability to enjoy them. They should no longer be the preserve of the wealthy landowner. Rightly, this is recognised to be a subject of increasing importance in the modern world.

I call on the Minister to declare that the apparent disaster which has struck the Wolds Way—and particularly the approach to Wharran Percy—will be closely re-examined with a view to putting forward a route preferable to those who will use it and more in keeping with the suggestions of the Countryside Commission. Secondly, I hope that the whole of the Wolds Way will speedily be brought to vigorous life.

Finally, and most important, I hope that the rôle of the Countryside Commission will be submitted to searching scrutiny so that it can perform its vital tasks effectively and successfully. I hope that there will be an independent spokesman for the country lover who is able to mediate between various claims and able to ensure that our national heritage will be shared by us all and wasted by none.

10.13 p.m.

Photo of Mr Andrew Bennett Mr Andrew Bennett , Stockport North

My hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, Central (Mr. McNamara) has illustrated the growing concern in the country and the public's impatience at the fact that the Government have not yet announced their decision on the Sandford Report—the Report of the National Park Policies Review Committee—and declared their strategy for leisure in the countryside. We have waited a long time for that answer. I hope that the wait will be worth while. Until the Government announce their decision, it is difficult for the Countryside Commission to co-ordinate its research rôle in the national parks or to take new initiatives.

The Sandford Report amply illustrated that during the last 10 years the demand to use the countryside for leisure has expanded rapidly. Yet, sadly, during that period the commission has worked slowly, and we have seen not one single new national park designated.

The commission has recognised that on many occasions too many people go to too few areas and destroy the very things for which people go to the countryside. There have been a few small experiments to see whether such conflicts can be eliminated, but the commission has done useful work in the marking of footpaths and has been involved in the drawing up of national park plans, which the parks have to prepare by 1st April 1977.

Almost all this work is out of scale with the size of the problem. The Sandford Report suggested that we needed more national parks, particularly in the South of England and areas where there are substantial populations. That report was produced before the oil crisis. Surely the need for more of these facilities closer to the areas where people live is even greater nowadays, but at the moment I understand that the Countryside Commission has no proposals for new national parks.

I turn to the question of footpaths. I stress the fact that the Countryside Commission is putting forward only one or two proposals for paths per year. We require one or two of these proposals to be put forword each month. I ask the Minister to put pressure on the Countryside Commission to bring forward scores of new designated routes per year rather than to say that no new proposals are to be put forward this year. I hope that we shall hear in the Minister's reply a major announcement by the Government of their strategy in implementing most of the Sandford Report and in giving the Countryside Commission new powers to get on and manage the countryside for the benefit of vast numbers of people who want to enjoy leisure there.

10.15 p.m.

Photo of Mr Denis Howell Mr Denis Howell , Birmingham Small Heath

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, Central (Mr. McNamara) for raising this matter, as we do not have many opportunities to discuss the work of the Countryside Commission and the related questions of public policy. I am also grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport, North (Mr. Bennett).

I shall first deal with the points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport, North. Since last July, when I was appointed Minister of State with responsibility for sport and recreation, I have spent a great deal of time on these matters. I expect that my White Paper dealing with the future of sport and recreation, and especially leisure in the countryside, to be published within a matter of weeks. It is almost ready.

The Government have concluded their preliminary consideration of the Sandford Report. I hope to announce our views on it before Parliament rises for the recess, or at any rate in the summer. Those will be two important landmarks for country lovers.

Referring to the speech made by my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, Central, I have tremendous sympathy for the essential points about the importance of access to the countryside and public rights of way. The documents to which I have referred will have a great deal to say on those matters.

The Countryside Commission faces many difficulties as it goes about its duties. Its powers may be inadequate, but it can exercise the powers which it has. The question of the ownership of land was also raised. My hon. Friend made vigorous criticisms, which we normally associate with him.

Since I have worked with the Countryside Commission, I have come to appreciate that it is composed of dedicated people of undoubted integrity. I have some sympathy with my hon. Friend's point that the type of membership should be extended. I have that point in mind. I also have in mind the people with environmental and leisure interests, such as the Ramblers Association and the Youth Hostels Association. Those people should be made members of the Countryside Commission, as should representatives from the national parks and similar organisations. I have made changes so as to give added membership to those interests.

The membership of the Countryside Commission does not consist entirely of people who might be regarded as landlords' poodles. My hon. Friend is out of date. The chairman, Mr. John Cripps, is the son of the late Sir Stafford Cripps. I should not expect any member of the Cripps family to fall into the category of anyone's poodle.

Mr. John Cousins, who is a member, could hardly be described as one of the more docile members of the trade union movement. When I had the opportunity to make an additional appointment, I appointed Miss Joan Lipson, Vice-President of APEX, to ensure that there was a further trade union representative on the commission. Many other members of the commission are equally dedicated to the causes which my hon. Friend has at heart. I hope he accepts that we are moving in the right direction, as I feel that some of his strictures on the people I have mentioned were unfair. All the people involved fight zealously on behalf of the countryside situation.

Work on the long-distance route of Wolds Way falls into three catgories. I am not sure that my hon. Friend understands the present situation. The Countryside Commission must initiate or consider the route. It must hold a long series of discussions. Although the process takes a long time it is better to get it right, as we are dealing with a permanent facility for our people. The com- mission must then issue its proposals. After that there must be an opportunity for consultation and representation. That is the position we have now reached.

The matter has not yet been determined. Anyone interested should make representations as soon as possible. They must be received by mid-July. I have no doubt that the Ramblers Association and other interests with a point of view on this matter will make representations to the commission and the Government as soon as possible. I hope that my two hon. Friends will also make any views they have known on this issue.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment is in a somewhat quasi-judicial capacity in this respect because he cannot involve himself. He finally has to make an adjudication and he does not automatically have to accept the plan which is put up to him. I hope that that will be of some comfort to my hon. Friend. My right hon. Friend has to make an adjudication when he has had the opportunity to see the submission of the Countryside Commission, as amended by comments which it will have received, and he must have regard to outside comments.

I can assure the House that my right hon. Friend will weigh very carefully all the comments which have been made here and elsewhere and the representations which are made by the organisations concerned. Such voluntary organisations as the ramblers and the hostelers have to be consulted, as do the landowners and the NFU. Obviously this sometimes leads to a conflict, but I am sure that it is a sensible approach to take a little more time than perhaps some of us would like in order to reach the right answer. For example, do the thousands who now get pleasure from the Pennine Way find their enjoyment any the less because the route took such a long time to bring into operation?

The report of Mr. Brunsden Yapp, who was a former member of the commission, made recommendations about the procedures for long-distance footpaths As a result of his report the procedures are being re-examined to see whether we can speed them up and eliminate some of the delays.

We must not forget what the commission has achieved. Its overall achievements are quite impressive. It has already produced 12 routes covering about 1,500 miles and progress is being made on another five routes covering an additional 600 miles. That is perhaps part of the answer to my hon. Friend. New proposals are being produced this year and five more major routes are under consideration.

I have some sympathy with my hon. Friend's views about the membership of the Countryside Commission and we would seek to enlarge it and extend it in the areas I have suggested. One should pay tribute, too, to the commission's proposals for heritage coasts which have met with universal acceptance and acclaim.

Perhaps I could deal with the other examples that my hon. Friend gave. I am grateful to him for giving me advance notice of the points he intended to raise.

In recent years there have been greatly improved arrangements for the administration of our national parks, and each park is run by one authority with a national park officer. Each has to prepare a national park plan. This has greatly increased the resources devoted to national parks and has produced a significant involvement by the commission. For example, more than 250 country parks and picnic sites have been designated, and these are a tremendous boon to our town dwellers. The number speaks well of the Countryside Commission and the local authorities.

The commission has not been backward in defending the interests of the countryside against the proposals of others. For example, there was a fight over the route of the A66 through the Lake District. That issue has been determined in a way which the Countryside Commission did not want, but the commission put up a very vigorous fight for its point of view in that respect, and since that decision had nothing to do with this Government I can say that I have a lot of sympathy with the view the commission took in that matter.

My hon. Friend has already made a number of suggestions for the future. The first was that the commission should be given real power to be wielded against the Government and private individuals. It is a little difficult to comment specifically on that because the powers for which he was asking were not spelled out by him. I hope that my White Paper will initiate a debate on these very matters. That is one of its main purposes, so that we can get Government policy right. We need to strengthen the commission and to get right what additional powers are needed. The purpose of the White Paper more than anything else is to generate public discussion on that aspect.

Secondly, my hon. Friend says that powers should be wielded towards preservation of and access to the countryside. In a large measure it is true that the accent is more towards preservation than towards access. I think the commission already has such statutory functions. They are, Conservation and enhancement of the natural beauty and amenity of the countryside, and encouraging the provision and improvement for persons resorting to the countryside of facilities for the enjoyment of the countryside and of open air recreation in the countryside. The powers and obligations my hon. Friend is seeking are there, and we have to ensure that they are fully used.

I have already dealt with the third of my hon. Friend's points, which is that membership of the commission should reflect the interests of countrygoers.

His fourth point was that there should be an annual report direct to Parliament. I do not quite see the point of that. The commission's report now has to be laid before Parliament. It can be debated if hon. Members wish to debate it. I wish that more hon. Members would take the initiative, as my hon. Friends have done tonight, to see that it is debated. We all know the difficulties of parliamentary time, but the more these things are debated the greater help it is to the Government and to keen Ministers such as myself. Remarks such as have been made are sometimes embarrassing, but it is a welcome embarrassment, enabling us to maintain our fights with the Treasury and others, and to wage battle for access to the countryside.

I hope, therefore, that my hon. Friends will accept that the question of Wolds Way is a long and difficult one, but that it is by no means settled. There are opportunities for every point of view to be expressed. I hope that my hon. Friends will accept my assurance, having listened to what has been said. As and when I can, I shall broaden the membership of the National Parks Commission and of the Countryside Commission.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-seven minutes past Ten o'clock.