Countryside and Rights of Way Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:06 pm on 1st November 2000.

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Photo of Lord Whitty Lord Whitty Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions 3:06 pm, 1st November 2000

My Lords, the noble Lord seems to regard this as a bit of a negotiating session; indeed, we have gone down from 10 to 5 and now to 2. I suppose that I should be grateful for that. However, there is a principle involved here. The Government have recognised some of the arguments put forward from various quarters of this House. We have, in total, tabled about 40 amendments, most of which give some further leeway or greater flexibility to landowners. Therefore, most of them reflect the degree to which we have been prepared to listen to arguments in this House.

The amendment now before us, and many that follow, seeks to take those restrictions further. We have provided a flexibility for the countryside bodies to take them further in appropriate circumstances. There seem to be two problems. The first is that there is a mood in some quarters of this House that the restrictions should be greater than the Government have accepted. We believe that we now have a sensible range of amendments, which take account of earlier arguments. However--I say this not necessarily in relation solely to this amendment--we believe that we have gone far enough down that road. Minor alterations may be necessary here and there which we will accept in terms of today's arguments, but, in general, we believe that what we now have is a sensible balance.

We have also provided for a means to adjust that balance in response to factors that become apparent in the administration, in the mapping, or in the experience of operating access. We have given a discretion to the countryside bodies, under Clause 4(5) of the Bill, to decide not to map small areas of open country if it appears impractical or not sensible. That provides a practical and sensible tool, but does not mean the exclusion of all small areas of open countryside, many of which are quite attractive and ought to be open to the general public. That provision will allow bodies to exclude parcels of land that would involve wholly disproportionate effort, wholly disproportionate costs to survey or provide wholly insignificant benefit to the potential users.

In implementing the legislation, the countryside bodies may exclude land greater or less than two hectares. It is a matter for them to resolve in the light of the mapping process and in the light of experience. For example, they may decide to apply different thresholds to some types of land. We do not see any reason to interfere with that discretion. Part of the problem seems to be that some noble Lords, especially from the party opposite, do not trust the Countryside Agency to exercise this discretion fairly and equitably. If we cannot trust our public bodies--there are great public servants who operate within the Countryside Agency--we shall have difficulty in making this Bill work in general. We should not make the situation worse for the agency by imposing on it arbitrary limitations. We should leave such matters to its discretion. I hope that noble Lords, both in respect of this amendment and others, will overcome their paranoia about the Countryside Agency and recognise that that is the way in which flexibility operates under our system of government in this area, as well as in others.

The amendment would not excuse the countryside bodies from the duty to consider including such land; it would simply introduce an arbitrary cut-off point. That seems to me to represent an inhibition as regards achieving equity and common sense in their task, rather than making it easier. The amendment also fails to recognise that open country comes in many shapes and sizes. A small area of wasteland formed by the angle of two roads might genuinely provide a useful recreational area in the vicinity of a village. But a similar sized area would be less significant if it were on the edge of, say, Dartmoor. We are certainly not prepared to assume that it is not worth granting a right of access to all land of a size of less than two hectares. Indeed, it is much better to leave such discretion to the countryside bodies. I hope, therefore, that the noble Earl will not pursue this amendment, and others, that would fetter such discretion and make the job of mapping that much more difficult.