Moved by Lord Addington
6: Clause 1, page 2, line 9, at end insert “and people’s access to it;”Member’s explanatory statementThis amendment seeks to ensure that where financial assistance is provided for the protection or improvement of the environment, public access enhancements are, where appropriate, incorporated so that people can experience and benefit from the actions taken.
My Lords, we come to a rather more honed group of amendments. We are talking about access, inspired by
“supporting … access to and enjoyment of the countryside” in Clause 1(1)(b). It is a pretty fundamental change here that you are getting finance for that purpose, and I believe we should take quite a long and hard look at this. It is changing everything that goes on inside the countryside, but it cannot sit by itself in agriculture. If you are talking about access, you are talking about getting access to activity going out there. We are going through a crisis caused by a disease which does not affect people with decent cardiovascular systems as badly. There is a public health element. There is a sports and recreation policy element here—it affects everything else. There is a tourism element here. If you have good footpaths, you can sell that weekend in a cottage. You can go on and on here, but I will not insult the intelligence of this Chamber by doing so at any great length. The fact is that access matters, both as a principle, as being of practical value to the rural economy and, I hope, to farmers directly now as well. If they are providing this access—the point I was trying to make earlier on—they deserve to get some payment, but we deserve something back for that activity. It is a two-way street. I hope that these amendments will open up a discussion that goes through.
I should also mention that these amendments were created in conjunction with the ramblers and the canoeists. There is a huge amount of activity on waterways which hits all those targets we are talking about: public health, access, enjoyment—it is all connected with the waterways. There are the canoeists—the paddlers—and the wild swimmers can be included here as well. That group’s activity probably becomes more attractive for most of us during the summer months, but it happens. We could have gone to other groups. I have some sympathy with the Minister, because these groups have a reputation for squabbling with each other. Anglers and canoeists are not traditionally the best of friends but they should get on together, and the defence of reasonableness that runs through British law should be applied to all of them. Those on scrambler bikes and those who might occasionally use a byway or a bridle path rather annoy those on horses. I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Hodgson, and my noble friend Lord Greaves on Amendment 100, as somebody who has, shall we say, a strong equestrian influence in my household—it was rather remiss of me not to bring them in. All these groups slightly compete for access, but they all have to get in there. However, to draw the Minister’s attention to some of the other amendments here, the idea of enhancing access runs through many of these amendments.
If you start talking about footpaths, you get the vision that a footpath is a path that runs across some countryside, often following a historical road. That does not fulfil many of the criteria I have been talking about. If you simply have a muddy path, it can become not easily used by many people incredibly quickly. Some of the amendments here are designed to reward farmers to make sure that these remain useful. There is the buggy and self-propelled wheelchair test—the buggy test is probably the most applicable one here. If there is a muddy path on a winter’s day, especially if it is on a route that people can get to, it will have a habit of getting holes and then puddles in it, which expand. That damages any land around it, either as regards its environmental or agricultural purposes. If you reward farmers for making sure that that has a toughened surface, it will take much more use and will cause less damage to the things around it.
Other people then sometimes contradict this. I remember we did it during the passage of the CROW Bill—my noble friend Lord Greaves, I think, has the scars from that—and we have not yet got anywhere near the number of amendments we had on that; I like to clang the death knell every now and again. There was a great deal of discussion then. People in motorised wheelchairs gained a great deal of traction, which was fair enough—they like access to the countryside—but their issues are not the same as those of a person with a slightly bad knee who needs that surface.
Where is it appropriate to use a gate as opposed to a stile? How do you maintain it? I have heard many a farmer say, “Yes, great, we could put a gate in there. Do you have any idea what they cost and how difficult they are to maintain, and about replacements?” The answer, of course, was that I did not at that time. We must make sure there is a structure here that rewards that sort of help, which will help everybody else here, too: if you need to get to a waterway, for example, you will have a path that is useful and allows access through. These amendments are not so draconian that they would say exactly what the enhancement must be. There will be somebody who lives on the Wiltshire-Berkshire border and somebody, like my noble friend Lord Greaves, who lives in the Pennines, where the hills are steeper and more formidable—he says they are not; he is being kind—but I come from East Anglia and the change was pretty substantial: there, a hill is an event. The point is that different bits of the countryside will need different practices going forward.
Part of the answer here plays into other areas. The Agriculture Bill may be predominantly about agriculture, but it must be aware of what else is going on. I hope the Minister will at the very least be able to give us an idea of how this important aspect of the Bill will be tied into other policy and enhanced. If we do not do this, we are missing a trick. I beg to move.
My Lords, like some other noble Lords, I fell victim to the Second Reading cull. Had I been able to speak at Second Reading, I would have focused entirely on the question of public access, so I am very pleased to have the opportunity this evening of supporting my noble friend Lord Addington’s amendments and saying a few words.
We are all agreed that the principle of reward for public good is the right one, and it feels to me as if public access is one of the most important public goods that we can put in the Bill. We know that open-air activity in the countryside—not just walking but all sorts of activity—has a huge contribution to make to individual health and well-being. I think it should sit alongside access to good-quality food as an important outcome of the Bill. I was very heartened to hear the Minister’s response to the last group amendments, when he talked about the importance of projects for well-being and partnership working with other departments.
But it goes much further. There is, of course, an economic development argument, with people coming to visit farm shops, cafés and pubs, but it is even more fundamental than that. One thing that has troubled many of us is the real disconnect between people, the food they eat and the way that it is produced. Noble Lords have tabled a number of amendments later in the Bill to deal with that. Regular access to the countryside is one important way of helping to stimulate this interest in and understanding of the way that our food is produced. It is also a way of exciting young people into thinking, potentially, about careers in agriculture, land management or forestry—individuals who come from towns, not necessarily just country dwellers. The same can be said about biodiversity, landscape, animal welfare—the more access people have to the countryside, the more committed they will be to those things.
For a decade, I chaired a rights of way committee in Suffolk. I know that some landowners are more accommodating than others and that some users do not behave in ways that we might like them to, but this stand-off really does need to end, because going forward, the link between individual taxpayers and farmers will be much clearer than it was in the days of the CAP. If people have a perception that they are somehow not welcome in the countryside, they will ask, “Why should my tax money support you?” I think that it would be in everyone’s interests to begin to think much more carefully about public access.
In the interests of time, I will not go through the amendments, but there are two categories. There are the ones that seek to make sure that nothing in the Bill makes the situation any worse. An example is the important question of cross-compliance: making sure that we do not pay for farmers and landowners who do not even comply with their duties under the Highways Act. Nor should we be using taxpayers’ money to help them to do what they should be doing anyway. So we have one set of amendments that are negative in focus, but then the much more positive ones which talk about enhancement and all the things we do to improve public access—not just public footpaths and rights of way, but access more generally, and particularly how we should think about getting people from towns and cities out into the countryside that we all enjoy. I look forward to the Minister’s response.
Many of the amendments to which I have added my name cover issues around water. I welcome the comments of the Minister when he summed up on the earlier group and the discussion about how we could be more creative. I was also delighted to hear many noble Lords raise the issue of social prescribing.
I would like to declare an interest in that my daughter is a kayaker and has previously been on a British Canoeing junior development programme. Because of that, as an individual I have spent countless hours trying to get better access to the countryside and to water which, as a wheelchair user, is not easy. Indeed, it is often not easy for disabled people to access anything much beyond a car park—if they are lucky enough to find somewhere to park. So I welcome all the amendments that seek to offer financial assistance to help increase and improve access for everyone.
Although I have not specifically raised the issue of disability access in any amendments, it needs far more consideration. I have said previously that too many barriers have been put in place which stop wheelchair users getting around. I have been discussing this with the all-party group on cycling and I would also like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Addington, for widening the issue out to discuss scooters and families with buggies. I should also like to thank British Canoeing and the Ramblers for helping to clarify some of the points that I wish to raise.
I believe that it would advantageous to define the term “waters” within the Bill so as to be clear about what is or is not included. There is a lack of clarity in the scope that may lead to inconsistencies in how the text is interpreted. There could be an assumption that public access and enjoyment should be supported only on land. The definition should be broad enough to ensure that financial support can be given to the widest range of farmers and landowners who are seeking to improve the use and maintenance of or access to the water that falls within their land.
The annual waterways survey estimates that around 2.1 million people go paddling every year, 35,000 of whom have direct contact with British Canoeing. However, a similar number of people swim outdoors and the 2018 survey showed that 50% of them had experienced conflict around access and 84% of that was on rivers. Of the 42,700 miles of inland waterways, only 1,400 miles are uncontested. So less than 4% of all rivers have a statutory right of access. This can be a huge barrier to participation, so I believe that there is scope for the Bill to support farmers in making more space for nature and for people.
I also believe that wider contact with an environment that is rich in wildlife will help to increase understanding of the need to protect it and it will increase people’s ability to be physically active, but it is necessary to support farmers and landowners to do that. I am afraid that I disagree with the noble Viscount, Lord Trenchard, who talked about access in the previous group. England may be more densely populated than Scotland, but we have to educate walkers, paddlers and anyone who is accessing the countryside to not damage or disturb wildlife.
With regard to water, I would argue that it is more damaging to restrict people to using just a tiny amount of water. If we could spread that use out, the burden on existing pressure points would surely be eased. It goes without saying, however, that those who use these spaces need to be respectful. I know from my daughter’s experience that people are taught about the environment and flooding, as well as how to look after an area, clean up litter and report things that they see along the way. They would want to protect certain areas, for example where fish are spawning, and not cause damage.
With improved access to and along waterways, we need to be looking at places to launch and land, and access around dangerous obstacles, such as weirs. We should not forget that through our communities, our towns and cities, we are perhaps more disconnected from water than we have ever been. Including these amendments will be a crucial stepping stone for the Government to meet their objectives in the Defra 25-year plan and be part of a green recovery. I believe the Government can help farmers and landowners to make this happen.
My Lords, I have added my name to Amendments 6 and 18 and I am very happy to support the noble Lord, Lord Addington, on those. I am very keen on getting more public access, but it is not just about creating new footpaths and so forth; it is about improving what we have as well, as he said. If footpaths are very muddy, that will put people off. I have examples locally where we used to have a bridleway. That got very muddy, the hooves churned it up and it is now very good for horses, very good for cyclists and very good for walkers, so this can be done and is, I think, very important. I have taken a great interest in getting more access to the countryside. It is not just about wheelchair users, although that is very important.
I got a great deal of assistance from an organisation called Birding for All and a gentleman called Bo Beolens, whose blog goes under the title “Grumpy Old Birder”—I was rather sorry that he got there first. He pointed out to me the problems you can have. For example, he can be given a key so that he can drive his car to a car park—somewhere walkers cannot go but he can get to a hide or something—but he has to get out of his car, assemble his wheelchair, go to the gate, unlock it, get back to the car, take his wheelchair down, go to the other side of the gate, get out again and repeat the process. It takes a long time and a lot of effort, so there have to be some innovative ideas. However, as I said, it is not just that. Something he pointed out that I think might have some resonance for many Members of your Lordships’ House is that, as you get older, sometimes you want to sit down on your walk, calling for provision of some resting place. It does not have to be a fancy seat; it could be an old log appropriately placed, or something like that. So, there are lots of things that can be done.
The other thing that has not been mentioned is getting access for those people who are very nervous of going out into the countryside, or even into nature. It does not have to be into the countryside; as I said earlier, we have lots of suburban areas. They are normally referred to as BAME, but there is another expression, which is the “visible minority ethnic” population, who feel very nervous about going out into areas where they do not see many other people who look like them. If we want to encourage more people to get into and understand the countryside, including farming, this is something we have to look at.
The Minister echoed the word “balance”, which was used previously, and balance is all-important here. The noble Lord, Lord Addington, mentioned the fact that there are competing desires. As somebody who goes out to enjoy nature, I am not always entirely chuffed to find myself in an area where there are lots of cyclists hurtling around when I am trying to spot a butterfly or something else, so there has to be balance.
I also well understand that landowners and farmers are nervous because, as we have seen in recent weeks and months, where people have been going out there seems to be an increase in irresponsible littering and fly-tipping, although that is a slightly different thing. I can understand why they do not want to have open access too much. We must also not forget irresponsible dog owners. Although it is probably a minority, you need only one person or a couple people to leave things around to put people off allowing access. Even on those areas that have public access, about a month ago a very important heathland in Surrey was set on fire. almost certainly by people using portable barbecues. I think that has also happened elsewhere. I can understand why, if I were a farmer, I would want there to be a balance in letting people in. We have to persuade and educate people on how to treat wild open spaces with respect.
That said, this is an important area that we should look at. For those people getting payment for public goods, public goods could well be encouraging people to use the countryside.
My Lords, yes, there have been fires on Pennine moors during the hot weather and lockdown, almost certainly caused by barbecues. I am one of the people pressing the Government to ban the use of mobile barbecues on open spaces. The sooner it happens the better.
I have been musing on the fact that I cut my teeth in the House of Lords on the Countryside and Rights of Way Bill almost exactly 20 years ago. At least three of us here in this debate are survivors of the all-night sitting we had in Committee—one of 11 Committee sessions. The Opposition at that time, the Conservatives, wanted 23 if I remember rightly. It was negotiated down to 11. If Members here think that they are hard done by, you ain’t seen nothing yet.
At that time there was also a pretty strong anti-access lobby in the House of Lords that was vociferous and quite angry. It is interesting that that has almost entirely disappeared and even those who raise questions are now reasonable and polite about it, which was not always the case at that time. That is a result of the success of the legislation that the then Labour Government brought in 20 years ago, which I was very proud to have been associated with in a very minor way.
I got together a speech to make today about how important access and recreation in the countryside are, but it is not necessary any more because it is generally accepted that that is the case. The value of recreation in the countryside for mental as well as physical health is generally accepted and that argument has been won.
As my noble friend Lady Scott said, we are talking about trying to make sure that things do not get worse and that they get better. Better small-scale facilities such as signposts and stiles that you can get over without demolishing dry stone walls in the process—I have done that twice in my life, simply because the facilities had deteriorated and it was a little-used footpath—help proper use and help land managers and farmers to cope with people walking across their land. It is win-win.
I am particularly supportive of Amendment 59, which is about enhancing access infrastructure. I am very fortunate to live in Pendle, on the edge of the town, with access to wonderful Pennine countryside, up on the Yorkshire border with Lancashire. Over the years, a huge amount of work had been done there on providing this kind of access. It is now beginning to fall apart a little, partly because the county council does not have the funding for it and partly because the schemes under which the work was done are not there anymore. It is very important indeed that the replacement and maintenance of facilities is part of what we are talking about.
I want to say something about the work that is going on in the Mendips by the Trails Trust, which the Minister will know about, as part of one of the trials looking at the provision of better and improved access. Will the Minister comment on that and tell us whether that kind of thing is going on in other areas? The trust is finding a lot of new bridleways, and those will be highly valuable. Indeed, I signed my name to the amendment from the noble Baroness, Lady Hodgson, about better bridleways.
One thing that is forgotten about is cycleways. Cycleways are not just urban things—they can be rural. They can be combined with horse riding and walking on local byways; indeed, you can cycle on a bridleway, but very often the surface is not all that good for cycling. They are not part of the rights of way legislation, because, at the time when that was based, cycles did not exist—they had not been invented. This is something that should be looked at now.
I ask the Government to look specifically at the problems raised by my noble friend Lady Scott concerning the ending of cross-compliance. Rights of way authorities have found cross-compliance requiring landowners to adhere to the Highways Act 1980 valuable, basically because they could threaten them for not doing it if they were getting grants. If that is removed, will a cross-compliance-type ruling be automatic, particularly in tier 1 grants and schemes, insisting that cross-compliance on rights of way on the land continues to exist—it would not be called “cross-compliance” but it would be the same thing—as a condition for getting the grant? Even if the grant does not cover rights of way at all, will landowners still be required to adhere to cross-compliance?
Finally, I come back to rights of way improvement plans, which I mentioned at Second Reading, and which the access authorities are supposed to have in place. Very often, the enthusiasm that went into these plans has gone, because rights of way departments have shrunk under the cuts to local authority budgets. The Environmental Land Management Policy Discussion Document, published in February, says that tier 2 outcomes are
“locally targeted environmental outcomes” with
“some form of spatial targeting and local planning”.
This seems to be ideally suited to rights of way improvement plans across an area. Is that the kind of thing that the Government will look at and consider favourably? Will they encourage rights of way improvement authorities to put forward plans and try to integrate them into the new environmental land management system?
My Lords, the amendments in this group are crucial to the success of this Bill—or at least, the spirit behind them is. When I was young, a family t-shirt read: “Farmer Palmer says ‘Get orf moy laaand!’”. Things have changed, and I am delighted by that, but it is not just offering access that is important but labelling access: making it practically possible for the people paying for these payments to farmers to enjoy the outcome. As my noble friend Lord Randall said, it includes things such as a resting place, information, enabling enjoyment when you get there and even some provision for the dog poo fairy—a range of things to make the visit worth while, a positive experience and something that people really engage with and appreciate.
Part of that is an understanding of not just the wildlife but the farming that is going on. I know from the limited facilities available within range of us that this is something people enjoy, but it is not as easy to provide as one would wish. It takes money, particularly given the safety aspects of allowing people near livestock and the time involved in explaining what is going on. To my mind, this is part of access to the countryside and should be eligible for support.
My Lords, I will speak to Amendment 100 in my name. I welcome the opportunity to take part in scrutinising this legislation. It was a great disappointment that the Government did not allow more time for Second Reading and prevented me and other Members of this House from taking part. I declare my interest as a director of a company that owns some farming land. Also, I recently served on the Rural Economy Select Committee and, some time ago, on the Farm Animal Welfare Committee and the FSA animal feedingstuffs committee. I am a member of the BHA.
Amendment 100 is a probing amendment. First, there is no definition in the Bill of “public access”. I also raise the issue of allowing walkers and riders access to agricultural land. While there is a good number of footpaths, in some parts of the country bridle paths are in short supply. Horse riders have access to only 22% of the public rights network, which is the only real way they have of accessing countryside.
Certain responsibilities and liabilities go with creating bridle paths, which means many landowners are reluctant to create more. With the number of cars and bicycles now on the roads—cyclists can be a real danger to horse riders too, as they seem so silent and frightening to horses—there are far fewer safe place for horse riders to go. Access to agricultural land would give the benefit of opening up more safe places to walk and, especially, to ride.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Addington, is to be congratulated on this group of amendments. They are vital, and I am very glad to be associated with Amendment 111. I would have been associated with more if there had been spaces when I came to put my name down.
In our modern society—urbanised, digitalised, impersonal—it is serious for the whole future of humanity that so many people have totally lost contact with the countryside. Whether it be about the inspiration, an uplifting experience, or the spiritual or physical enhancement of being there, enjoying it and being active within the countryside, it is just not a reality for many people. We have a major challenge to put this right. It seems that all of us who have engagement with the countryside have a big responsibility for it—whether the land be in private ownership, public ownership, national parks or whatever—to make sure that people are re-engaging with what is, of course, in the end, fundamental to the well-being of society and to people’s own well-being in terms of food and the rest.
There has been too much surreptitious—sometimes quite sinister—cutting off of access to the countryside. We should take this very seriously indeed. It is wrong and it is very dangerous in terms of what I have just been saying. For these reasons and many others, these amendments are crucially important and I am very glad to be able to support them.
My Lords, I am amazed to hear that there were 11 days in Committee for the then CROW Bill and we have four for this much larger and more extensive Bill. It is amazing how things have changed.
I have been steward of the family farm for only a few years. During that time, I have experienced a number of issues with public access. We have had IRA bombs hidden in the woods; we have had oysters stolen; I have seen lambs mauled by dogs; I have seen sheep bludgeoned to death with baseball bats. We have chestnut blight throughout our woods spread by spores, which are carried on feet, and asbestos fly-tipped in ancient forests. I have just restored the belvedere tower that was burnt down by vandals more than 50 years ago. Public access to the countryside is quite sobering and your Lordships might be surprised that I am very supportive of it. It really needs to be managed, because it has incredibly dangerous and negative implications if it is not handled well.
It requires more than 45 minutes of this debate to really do justice to the issues but, as I see it, access is principally about education in what the countryside is about, how it works and how it is managed. I am encouraged that some of these amendments really focus on that. They focus on education on the countryside and what farming is about. Farming is about life and death, uncomfortable decisions and balancing the well-being of animals with the well-being of humans. The more that ELMS can be used to encourage responsible, sustainable and resilient access to the countryside for the benefit of people’s health and well-being, the better for all of us and, particularly, the better for land managers, whose management of the land suddenly becomes relevant to a much wider swathe of the population.
I am pleased with the positive reaction to the suggestion that health and well-being benefits are the purpose of access. Can the Minister comment and think about how we are funding this access, and whether it is just ELMS or whether we could perhaps look to the national health budget to provide additional financial support if we are doing so much good for people’s health and well-being, particularly their mental well-being? Perhaps some of the health budget can be directed towards land management for the benefit of public access.
We really need to think very firmly about biosecurity. I mentioned the chestnut blight, but there are so many diseases that are rampant in our countryside. Farmers do not exclude people from the countryside just because they do not want them there: they often exclude them because it is very damaging to have people all over the countryside, particularly in sensitive areas where one is dealing with disease and pestilence that is really ravaging so much of our native flora and fauna.
There is also physical security. Many in rural areas live in isolated houses; free access to the countryside can cause all sorts of issues with rural crime, fly-tipping and health and safety. Who pays when someone trips and falls? How does insurance cover that? All these things need to be worked through if we are to encourage more access to the countryside, as I hope we will be able to do.
My Lords, I support the general aim of Clause 1 to move to a system of public payments for public good, and putting in the Bill a list of purposes for which assistance could be provided. Amendments 6 and 9 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Addington, add to this clause that measures which would ensure enhanced public access to the countryside can qualify for financial assistance. This is welcome and necessary as, despite improvements to our beautiful countryside in recent years, in many places access is not guaranteed. This can be because the routes are inaccessible or do not exist. By introducing these amendments, landowners and others will be encouraged to support greater access to the countryside by improving rights of way, stiles, gates and signage and developing new paths along field margins. If the noble Lord, Lord Gardiner of Kimble, is not minded to accept these amendments, can he set out clearly how the Government intend to achieve the intent behind them and encourage greater access to the countryside?
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Addington, the noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson, and others on their focus on access to and enjoyment of the countryside, and the sport and recreation policy element, which I know the Minister shares.
These amendments seek to establish a clear commitment from the Government that, under these new arrangements, public funds will be directed towards delivering improvements in public access to the countryside in a balanced way for all users, as the noble Earl, Lord Devon, rightly emphasised, particularly for those engaged in sport and recreational activities which have over the years established a good, close and effective working relationship with farmers and landowners, particularly where rights of way exist, not least to and on water. I am pleased that point was emphasised by the noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson. It is also important to recognise in this context the strength of argument put forward by my noble friend Lady Hodgson on the important equestrian issues at stake. The Bill provides an excellent opportunity to bring improved public benefits. I hope farmers and landowners will be encouraged not to restrict access for any person on any inland waterway or lake which forms part of that land for the purpose of open-air recreation.
I hope the Minister will find ways to ensure fair and equitable access to our countryside for all sustainable recreational pursuits on land and water at a time when fitness and activity levels are in crisis. I hope he will also agree that we should strive to deliver a new and improved regulatory regime that drives and enhances improvement and access to the maintenance of existing public rights of way for all users of the countryside. Enhanced access to the countryside and improved protection of the existing path network have been called for today in your Lordships’ House. I hope the Minister will signal his support for these objectives, to which I add my strong support. I believe he can, because I hope he will emphasise that in Clause 1(1)(b) it is possible to deliver these aims. In future, I hope that we in this House will hold this and future Governments to the important effect that that clause should deliver in the interests of a wider sport and recreational policy and an enhanced enjoyment of the countryside.
My Lords, I declare my interests, as on the register. I too regret that I was unable to participate in the Second Reading, but I will be mercifully brief with my comments on this group of amendments.
My worry with this group is the same as that which I had with the first two groups, on which I desperately wanted to speak but, through my incompetence, I notified the Whips incorrectly. My worry is that these amendments, like the others, are too prescriptive and not necessary to achieve the objectives on which all noble Lords agree. I counted and, if all the amendments in the first two groups are agreed, Clause 1 of the Bill will have 42 new and additional purposes added to it. I think that is unnecessary.
I am very keen on access to the countryside and to all green space, and I share the views of my noble friend Lord Randall that we need to increase the number of people from minority groups who visit the countryside. Studies show that the problem is that some youngsters will not go to a park 500 yards from their home. In such circumstances, it is difficult to get them into the wider countryside. This is a huge educational problem.
I do not support the amendments of my noble friend Lord Randall and the noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson, on a small but important technicality. I believe that the word “supporting” can include “enhancing”; therefore, changing it is not necessary and could be damaging. If the definition is simply enhancing, it may freeze out farmers who have done a lot of access work, above the minimum, but can do no more to enhance it and would not qualify. It would therefore be a bit unfair if those farmers, having already reached a high access standard, got no payment, but those who had done little got payment for enhancing by just a small amount. I submit that the word “supporting” is adequate and can do all the enhancing work that colleagues suggested.
I say to the noble Earl, Lord Devon, that the NHS and Public Health England are working with lots of organisations, including Natural England, on something called social prescribing. I believe that, until a few months ago, about 2,000 NHS staff were being trained in GPs’ surgeries to get people to do various things other than queue up for pills. That put it rather crudely; I do not mean that to be unfair on people who need pills. But social prescribing could save the NHS billions. Once this Covid-19 crisis is over or under control, I hope we get back to social prescribing.
On Amendment 34, I agree it would be good if the wider or urban public understood what agriculture does or where their food comes from, but this is not a job for government. Farmers themselves and their organisations—the NFU, CLA and Tenant Farmers Association—through farm open days and schoolchildren visits, must promote public understanding and engagement with agriculture. That is their business. No one knows it better. They are the best people to educate the public, rather than the Government.
My Lords, the Government deserve congratulations for bringing forward this Agriculture Bill. It offers the same potential as the Attlee Government’s efforts in 1947 and the common agricultural policy that has dominated us for so long. I am particularly pleased that the Government have realised that farming is changing and changing quite dramatically. I sometimes feel that those at the centre do not quite understand the subtlety of those changes.
I have an advantage: I live in the area where I started work, on the land, 50 or 60 years ago. I can determine the changes in agriculture. I will come back to that in a moment on these clauses. This has been a particularly interesting eight hours of debate. There were issues in the previous two groups of amendments related to those we are discussing now, but I held back because I wanted to speak on rights of access, which I think are critical.
Before I develop that, it seems as if this has been a Second Reading debate, made even more confusing by the considerate and detailed response of the Minister, who has gone out of his way to sum up, on two occasions, which has been an advantage. One point has kept coming up about forestry and woodland. There is confusion on what the Government have in mind; perhaps they have not got their sights completely set at this stage. I was led to believe that certain parts of woodland, and certain forests—which were a bit different—might receive a public grant. We were certainly looking at huge areas of new woodlands being created up here in Cumbria, just outside the national park. There is a great deal of potential for access in and on forestry land.
I had the honour of being chair of the Forestry Commission for nine years. It will be no surprise to the Minister that I was very keen to promote the right to roam in forests. We were not covered by the legislation—that was mountains, moorlands and heath above a certain height. But, when I was chair, we decided that there would be a legal right of access in all our freehold Forestry Commission land. This has not caused any fundamental difficulties in running our forests. I press the Minister to look at the possibility of permitting access to forestry land as well.
I also want to make the point that, amazingly enough, quite a lot of forestry land is near the centres of big towns, cities and urban areas. There is great potential for access in those areas. You can often get there much easier, but there are difficulties. I remember trying to negotiate access to a large forest within two miles of the centre of Newcastle. The Forestry Commission—we the people—owned the freehold, but I could not grant access, because when the land was bought it was agreed that the shooting rights in the forest would remain with the original vendors. To this day, people in a concentrated, built-up area are not allowed to use that forest, because of the shooting rights. I hope it might even be possible that some of the money available under the new government proposals could be used to buy out those rights. I know that there are difficulties, but I cite this because it is the way we ought to be moving forward. The holistic approach which the Government are taking to agricultural support in the future is the right one.
I mentioned earlier the subtle changes. Just outside the Lake District National Park in the lower levels of the valleys there were a lot of small mixed farms. Those farms provided employment and were viable, but I can tell the House that in the Bowness-on-Windermere area in which I live, I cannot think of a farm that has a single cow. There is the odd steer about, but all the land is grazed by sheep. That means that most of the small farmsteads have been sold off to be converted into country cottages. We are now finding the cost of that. Field upon field which used to be pristine hayfields are now covered in reeds. Stone walls which were maintained and rebuilt if they fell over—you had to do that to keep the cows in—are now left unbuilt. It is a real problem when you are trying to have countryside that deals with so many people. The Lake District National Park—I tell the House this repeatedly, and I do not apologise—has 19 million visitors a year, a vast number.
I was going to do that. We have 19 million visitors. In order to accommodate them, there need to be facilities. If we are going to have public access, we need small car parks and public transport to get people to the attractive areas.
My Lords, I shall be brief as I do not have amendments in this little group. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Addington. Overall, access has been a phenomenal success although we heard from the noble Earl, Lord Devon, that that is not always the case. My concern is that the flip side of access should be responsibility on the part of those using the access. Over the lockdown period we saw regrettable behaviour by a few irresponsible people which unfortunately tarnished it for many.
I remember that when I was growing up there was something—I think there may be a later amendment on this—called the countryside code. It was on television. There were adverts saying simple things like, if you walk on the Pennine Way, which is near where I grew up, you close the gate if there is livestock in the field and that it is dangerous to enter a field where there is a calf, as the cow will defend it to the death. We have even seen a vet, who was walking their dog through a field, killed in the past two years. Like the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, I cut my parliamentary teeth next door on the CROW Bill, so I bear the scars. We ran one or two very unsuccessful exercises as an opposition, I recall. How can the Government ensure that the flip side of access will be responsibility and that the costs will not be disproportionate to the enjoyment? I hope those using the access will behave in a responsible manner. We saw some malicious fires—It was not just fly-tipping; the materials were burned to get rid of them so they could not be traced—and the irresponsible use of barbeques. When there are crops growing in a field, you cannot have access until the crops have been taken out. We need responsible behaviour so that the cost will be proportionate to the enjoyment.
My Lords, I rise to support the amendment and to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Addington. As somebody who over the years has supported access to the countryside, I fully understand and appreciate that. However, I come back to the principle, raised by the noble Lord, Lord Empey, and the Minister, of the balance of competing rights: the right of people to enjoy the countryside, and their right to have access to it while at the same time respecting it. Like the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering, I am well aware that during lockdown there was a certain despoliation of the countryside—a considerable level of littering and probably interference with farm animals. It comes back to the issue of getting the balance right. After all, access to the countryside can be a pretty disputatious issue if it is not managed properly.
The amendment refers to “people’s access to it”. Subsection (1)(b) refers to
“supporting public access to and enjoyment of the countryside”.
Given that, I wonder whether the Minister would be happy to accept, as an addendum to paragraph (a),
“and people’s access to it”.
The amendment would provide that greater clarification but of course, with all these issues, there is a measure of risk. There is a need to protect farm animals but as long as the farmer is getting benefits, under the principle of public money for public goods, he can see value in it.
On the other hand, the people who are getting access must ensure, given that risk, that they do not interfere with the pathway of the animals or with areas where there are crops. We have to ensure that balance, so that farm activity and husbandry can continue, while at the same time allowing public access. I am happy to support this amendment, subject to those provisos and to the Minister stating that in his view, “people’s access to it” would enhance subsection (1)(b).
My Lords, first, how nice it is to see the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, back with us and participating. We have missed him; I wish him very well and good health for the future. I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Clark of Windermere, for picking up the question I have asked the Minister twice, so far, about forestry and woodland. I hope that, third time lucky, we might get a reply from him.
I want to address the provision of public access; we will come to the consequences of public access in two amendments’ time, so I am not going to mention those. I am a great supporter of public access. It was absolutely crucial to me when I came out of hospital, and was being pushed around in a wheelchair, to be able to get out into the countryside on footpaths that could accommodate a wheelchair. They were quite difficult to find but we found them. It did my health and whole well-being a power of good. Having got out of the wheelchair, I have been using the footpaths to get as fit as I can. Some footpaths have certainly been good, but the bridleways are an absolute nightmare for anybody with bad knees or bad feet, and who has to use sticks.
What does the Minister mean by “public access”? There is no definition in the Bill. I believe that this is the beginning of the right to roam in England; I am sure that will come as a logical consequence of the Bill. Many farmers fear that public access will turn parts of England into a recreational theme park, rather than places with farming communities. The problem with public access is that it is a legal minefield. What public access is to be granted? Is it to be a permissive path or a bridleway? Will it be a BOAT—a byway open to all traffic—or a restrictive byway? We do not know. As my noble friend Lord Gardiner said, we want farmers to participate in this scheme, but they will not do so until they know what the consequences of these amendments are and what they actually mean.
Balance was mentioned by the noble Baronesses, Lady Scott of Needham Market and Lady Ritchie of Downpatrick, the noble Earl, Lord Devon, and my noble friend Lord Moynihan. We all would like a sensible balance in this, but there has been a huge amount of warfare between farmers and public access groups. There is a big history here. Let us take the example of two schools that have had huge problems just trying to divert footpaths: Helmshore Primary School in Lancashire and Wardour Catholic Primary School in Wiltshire. The ramblers have refused and have contested every opportunity to deviate the path along the edge of the field rather than through the playing fields, meaning that a school has lost a large chunk of its playing fields and, because of coronavirus, has had to fence that path off. That path must be monitored by staff when the children are out and cleared of dog mess regularly. It has caused the school a whole lot of problems. That has not helped in getting towards a balanced system.
Similarly, as the Minister will know, there is a huge backlog of applications to create rights of way where there may not be any at the moment. He will be aware that the South Somerset Bridleways Association has 261 applications to create new routes under the existing legislation. If we cannot get the existing system right, people will be very fearful of the future system. The British Horse Society trying to open a bridleway in Derbyshire contributed to the suicide of one of the owners; a suicide in Somerset was also linked to the aggressive attitude of Somerset County Council when trying to open a right of way that did not exist. There is a big history here. We must get this right, and that will take a lot of resolve by the Government.
One must also look at what the Open Spaces Society says on its website. If we are talking about balance, where is the balance in saying that your position is to oppose path changes? That is a complete no-no. It does not want any path changes. It goes on to say:
“Diversions out of farmyards should normally be opposed” and that if spreading disease is given as a reason, it is invalid. How can it be invalid with coronavirus rampant?
We have a massive problem with the existing legislation. It is a legal minefield, it is costing owners thousands of pounds to prove a negative in many cases, and we are now faced with a Bill in which public access is to be opened up. I approve of that, but there will have to be a huge effort by the Government to get the present situation under control to reassure farmers about the future situation.
What will happen after 2026? If a landowner agrees a scheme over a public right of access before 2026, will it retrospectively become a bridleway or a public footpath? Will they be able to claim that when it was on a temporary basis or part of some project? These are the legal questions that farmers must face, and the Government must face up to, because at the moment it is a mess. We debated this in the Moses Room, and afterwards, a number of people who had come in to listen were very heated about the lack of progress.
I know that there have been problems and staff have been seconded to look after the Covid-19 situation, but can the Minister tell us where we have got to in trying to correct the present situation regarding footpaths?
My Lords, to begin, I take my reference point from the Book of Genesis, where Adam and Eve were told that they had to be stewards of all creation. That was further defined in the Book of Leviticus, which makes clear that the use of land is to provide abundant crops but also that it is to be a place of sanctuary. Of course, Leviticus goes further, for those who wish a literal interpretation and application of the holy book, because it says that all land must be owned for only 50 years and then passed back by the owner. So landowners who have had land for many centuries need to bear in mind that their tenancy over that land also incorporates long-standing rights of access.
I was a little surprised to hear the noble Earl, Lord Devon, suggesting not just that the NHS budget be diverted to landowners but that access was a major problem. It has certainly not been a major problem at Powderham Castle for the hundreds of thousands of revellers who have visited to watch Noel Gallagher, Coldplay or the range of other concerts that have taken place there. We need the facts to be accurate in these debates.
Health, sanctuary and well-being are fundamental to humanity. Society cannot function without them. Access to the sanctuary of quietness away from the towns and cities is fundamental to the physical and mental well-being of the citizens of this country. There is therefore a balance to be struck between the subsidies demanded and received by the farming community year on year—be it through the new government policy or, previously, the excessive common agricultural policy—and the right of citizens to access rights of way without hindrance, to go out into the fresh air into the sanctuary, as Leviticus defined, in order for our well-being to be preserved. At this time, with the horrors of coronavirus, those rights of access are fundamental. In my view, these amendments are apposite in getting the balance right.
I want to begin by saying, “There endeth the lesson”. Having sat here now for well over seven hours and heard virtually every speech, I am glad to have the brief opportunity to say a few words.
The Government must learn the lesson of the Second Reading. Time and again we have heard today from people who were excluded; I myself was one of the 22, or whatever the number was. If we had had a two-day debate on the Bill, I think we would have moved a little more expeditiously through Committee because a lot of Second Reading points have been made.
I urge my noble friend, for whom I have enormous regard, to discuss with his colleagues the inevitable extension of the Committee stage of the Bill. It will not get through in four sessions and, frankly, it should not.
We are talking about access, but I prefer my definition. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Addington, and my noble friend Lady Hodgson of Abinger, who talked sensibly about a definition. My definition is sharing and enjoying. Two things have happened during the Covid-19 crisis. Time and again, we heard people on the radio and television saying how marvellous it has been to hear the birds, rather than the planes; to have time to look at the blossom and to enjoy the peace and tranquillity of the countryside. Then, every night after turning on the local television news in Lincolnshire, “Look North”, we would constantly see our screens defaced by the appalling litter that has been left by those who have been selfish in their possession, rather than grateful in their enjoyment.
My friend, the noble Earl, Lord Devon, gave a salutary speech about some of the problems he has faced. He is not alone. I was for 40 years the Member of a rural constituency and, particularly in the last decade of those 40 years, our local papers and television were constantly full of stories of fly-tipping and defacing the countryside. There has to be a pact between those who enjoy and those who provide the enjoyment.
It is important to recognise that the countryside that we all love has been made by centuries of farming. There have been villains from time to time—those who ripped out hedges in the 1960s and early 1970s to create prairies, and so on—but, on the whole, British farmers have behaved with a wonderful devotion to the land that they have tilled and farmed. We want that to be shared.
I was glad when—I call him my noble friend because we entered the House on the same day, in June 1970—the noble Lord, Lord Clark of Windermere, talked about forestry. Incidentally, I commend to your Lordships a book he has just written, A Lakeland Boyhood. I had the great pleasure of reading it and will have the great delight of reviewing it in due course. He knows about that wonderful part of the countryside and that 19 million visitors make it extremely difficult to preserve areas of peace and quiet, where it is possible to get away from the honeypots and truly enjoy the beauty and majesty of that marvellous part of our country. We have to bear that word “honeypots” in mind, because we do not want to emerge from this Bill the creation of certain areas that are so pressed upon that they lose their beauty, where the people who go destroy the very thing they have gone to see.
The word “balance” has been used a lot in this debate and it is question of balance—balancing the rights of farmers, and they are rights. We are making it possible for those farmers who are particularly conscious of their environment to receive payment. That is right. Therefore, there is a public right of access, but it has to be controlled in a way that does not destroy the very thing that has brought us to this debate tonight. My noble friend Lord Gardiner is a judicious man. I hope he takes due note of what has been said, and the points made by my noble friend Lord Blencathra, who said, in effect, that legislative diktat is not always the way forward.
My Lords, I will speak in support of Amendments 6, 9, 98 and 111 in this group. For many people, Covid-19 has provided an opportunity —or perhaps a necessity—to go on and discover local walks in their own immediate neighbourhood, to get exercise and fresh air and not spend the whole day in their own home. A crucial feature of the Bill, as we know, is the introduction of a new system of financial assistance for farmers to replace subsidies paid as part of the EU’s common agricultural policy. In future funding will be in exchange for the delivery of public goods, which includes better public access.
Clause 1(1) states:
“The Secretary of State may give financial assistance for or in connection with any one or more of the following purposes”,
with paragraph (a) reading
“managing land or water in a way that protects or improves the environment”.
Although this is helpful, it does not acknowledge the value added of enabling people to experience some benefit from improvements in environmental quality. Amendment 6 adds
“and people’s access to it” and seeks to ensure that where financial assistance is provided for the protection or improvement of the environment, public access enhancements are incorporated, where appropriate, so that people can experience some benefit from the actions taken. This is particularly important near centres of population, where the recreational value of new woodlands or better access to paths across open land is far higher than in more remote locations.
Clause 1(1)(b) refers to
“supporting public access to and enjoyment of the countryside, farmland or woodland and better understanding of the environment”.
However, as landowners or occupants, farmers are already required by law to keep clear public access to their land, so “supporting public access” could appear to be providing funding for doing something for which there is already a legal requirement. There is thus no certainty that funding will be provided for new public access or for making existing paths more accessible, yet this is important in enabling more people to get outdoors. Natural England estimates that 20% of people cannot use rights of way because they cannot use stiles or gates or they are with someone who cannot.
Amendment 9 replaces “supporting” with “enhancing” to express more clearly that financial assistance will be provided to enhance public access to the countryside by improving accessibility beyond the legal minimum of existing rights of way. It also helps ensure that funding can be provided for the creation of new access opportunities through, for example, the provision of paths along field margins as alternatives to unsafe country roads and at the rural-urban fringe to increase the connection of communities to nature and the rural world.
Clause 1(1)(b), which enables the Secretary of State to provide financial assistance for
“supporting public access to and enjoyment of the countryside” is welcome, but more clarity is needed on the outcomes in terms of public access to and enjoyment of the countryside that will be supported through further financial assistance to farmers. Amendment 98 seeks to do this by adding to Clause 1(5)
“‘supporting public access to and enjoyment of the countryside’ includes the provision of new public access or improving the accessibility of existing public rights of way”.
Thus the amendment provides certainty that financial assistance may be provided for new public access or steps to make existing rights of way more accessible, and also that the new financial assistance scheme will provide direct benefits for the public through better access to the countryside.
Clause 2(2) states:
“Financial assistance may be given subject to such conditions as the Secretary of State considers appropriate.”
Landowners and land managers are required under the Highways Act 1980 to keep rights of way on their land clear and accessible to the public. The duty was reinforced by the system of cross-compliance governing payments to farmers under the EU’s common agricultural policy, which required, among other things, the fulfilment of legal duties for rights of way as a condition of receiving funding from the public purse. The Government are committed to ending cross-compliance and have suggested they will establish a new, simplified regulatory regime.
The principle of financial assistance being subject to conditions, as introduced in subsection (2), is welcome. What it does not do is specify what those conditions will be. Amendment 111 provides that:
“The conditions may (among other things) require the recipient to fulfil their duties for public rights of way under the Highways Act 1980.”
It will thus help ensure that landowners’ and occupiers’ duties for public rights of way are among the conditions that the Secretary of State may attach to the provision of financial assistance. This is important because existing rights of way are the primary means by which people can get outdoors. It is, therefore, vital to have in place a regulatory framework that encourages farmers to keep paths clear as a condition of receiving payments from the public purse.
The set of conditions, including those relating to public access, provide clarity for farmers over the baseline standards expected, and it also—as the noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson, said earlier—helps create a level playing field within the sector. Most farmers fulfil their legal obligations, so those who do not should not be treated equally and without any sanction for not keeping access open.
I hope the Government will give careful consideration to this group of amendments and the objectives they seek to achieve. It would be helpful if the Minister could say, in his response, whether they are also government objectives, either in whole or in part. If they are but the Government do not feel overexcited by these amendments, I hope, like my noble friend Lady Kennedy of Cradley, that the Minister will spell out very clearly in his response why the Government believe that the wording in the Bill—and which wording that is—already provides, without any doubt, the safeguards and assurances that these amendments to which I have referred are intended to provide.
Our farmers must have, and deserve, a fair deal as we leave the EU, and we need to make sure this Bill delivers precisely that. However, our countryside should be accessible to all and, in return, those who visit the countryside must exercise that right responsibly and in a manner that does not adversely affect those who earn their livelihood from the land and who provide us with a basic necessity of life—namely, food.
My Lords, whilst I can support reasonable extension to public access, as I said earlier it is indeed a double-edged sword. In those parts of the country where agricultural land is close to towns or cities, significant opening up of more footpaths, or increasing the numbers of people entering land used for agriculture, forestry or horticulture, may cause disturbance to birds and animals and exacerbate a littering problem that has got worse during the lockdown anyway.
It is likely that farmers, whose financial rewards are going to depend more on the quality and condition in which they maintain their land, are going to be reluctant to encourage more public access unless they are paid to provide it. They need to be paid because they will need to make good, or mitigate the damage to, the land, crops, fences, gates and wildlife habitats that will result from increased public access in those parts of the country near significant population centres.
Perhaps the amounts that farmers should be paid for public access would have to be more than is justified in terms of the numbers of people who would benefit. We should also remember that you do not need to have access to the improved environment in order to benefit from it in terms of better air quality, higher standards of food products and cleaner water in our rivers.
Amendment 59, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Addington, seeks to enhance public access not only to land but also to water. Would my noble friend the Minister not agree that farmers and riparian owners would have to be compensated for the significant additional costs of this? Would he also concede that compensation should be paid to owners of fisheries whose catch numbers would be damaged by an increase in kayaking and boating on rivers and inland waterways?
Lastly, I slightly fear that too much path surfacing, signage and waymarking may make the countryside more like a cross between a golf course and a public park, which, in extremis, will urbanise the appearance of the countryside and remove its wildness, which is so valuable.
I regret that I cannot support the noble Lord’s Amendment 99. I remind your Lordships that rivers are not located on agricultural land but are very often adjacent to it. Sometimes the riparian ownership is the same as the land ownership and sometimes not. Similarly, I believe that Amendment 72 seeks to put public access and recreational activities on the land on an equal footing with food production. Desirable though public access in a measured, safe and manageable way undoubtedly is, it must remain subordinate to the need to use our agricultural land in an efficient and sustainable manner for agricultural and related purposes.
I have sympathy with the intention of the noble Lord’s Amendment 88 to broaden the meaning of understanding the environment. I rather wish that the draftsman had made use of the phrase “natural capital”. I am not sure about the word “agroecology” and note that there is a slightly shorter accepted word “agricology” —but of course I accept that language changes to meet the needs of the times.
As I said, the extension of the Scottish right to roam to England and Wales would bring unintended negative consequences, although I certainly welcome my noble friend Lady Hodgson’s intention to encourage activities such as walking and horse riding.
My Lords, I start by asking my noble friend the Minister whether, in his mind, the definition in the Bill of the countryside, farmland and woodland excludes water. One would think that water would be included in that, but obviously the noble Lord, Lord Addington, would like to have it added to the Bill.
It is quite useful that the Bill is to support the provision of access. Presumably it allows the land occupier to direct the access where they can cope with it, if necessary with access to water. My noble friend Lord Trenchard just mentioned the Scottish attitude to right to roam. I understand that the noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson, lives far enough away not to have ready access to the Scottish right to roam. In many ways it conjures up a nightmare for most landowners, in that people can go anywhere they like other than the curtilage of a dwelling house. As my noble friend Lord Trenchard mentioned, the pressures in Scotland are not as great as they are down south, although I happen to live by Loch Lomond and the pressures there are certainly equal to any other area in the country—so much so that the national park has brought in a prohibition on drinking alcohol on one side of the loch, because the public were wont to make a nonsense of that.
One aspect of this power in the Bill is that nowadays farmers are almost necessitated to have an element of diversification in what they do. Very often it is a question of having some feature that the public will come to and offer payment for. The powers that the Government are providing will be taken up with enthusiasm by these people, because it will give them a more attractive way to have people come and visit them and enjoy what they have to offer.
However, like my noble friend Lord Trenchard, I have considerable reservations regarding all that is contained in the descriptive Amendment 99. It seems to conjure up access even to ditches or anything with a bit of water in the bottom of it and then to ask for access even to the banks of those. That makes a bit of a mockery of the remaining legislation in England that access must only be by an approved route so that all the interests in establishing the route can be considered.
My Lords, this group of amendments is primarily about financial assistance being provided for public access to the countryside and waterways. My noble friends Lady Scott of Needham Market, Lord Addington and Lord Greaves have given extremely good reasons why public access is a public good. The noble Lord, Lord Randall of Uxbridge, supports improving current footpaths rather than creating new ones, and I share that view.
The noble Baroness, Lady Hodgson of Abinger, has defined public access to include horse-riding. Certainly, horse-riding is a very popular pastime, and it is extremely healthy. The enjoyment of the countryside, whether walking, riding or canoeing, should be encouraged wherever possible. However, I share the view of the noble Earl, Lord Devon, that there must be a balance. Not all who use rights of way respect them in the way they should.
There is nothing better than going for an energetic walk along a right of way and ending up at a pub for lunch. However, I stress to all that it is important that the countryside alongside the footpaths, bridleways, watercourses and RUPPs should be respected by those who use them.
There are a number of rights of way across the country open to the disabled and mothers with pushchairs. The Tissington trail in the Peak District and the Tarka trail in Devon are two such. I would like the Government to encourage more landowners and farmers to create more level access for people with disabilities and small children, as set out by my noble friend Lord Addington and the noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson.
I have little sympathy for enthusiasts who insist on applying for footpaths through domestic homes and gardens just to prove that there once was a right of way along a route years ago. In these cases, there are often perfectly adequate footpaths on a nearby route that provide an alternative. I agree with the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, that the Ramblers do themselves no good at all with their intransigent attitude. That said, it will be incumbent on landowners and farmers who have rights of way running across their grounds to keep them clear and safe for the enjoyment of all who wish to use them. Bridleways should be kept clear, especially of overhanging branches and brambles, as should watercourses which canoeists will be using.
Access to the countryside is extremely important, and I look forward to the Minister’s response.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Addington, and the many other noble Lords who spoke on these amendments. It seems that I spoke too soon when I said in the debate on the first group that a level of consensus seemed to be developing. The more we get into the details, the more divides begin to appear. Indeed, I started off with some certainty and now I have more questions than answers. I hope that, as we go through the Bill, some of my questions will be answered or dispelled. It is important that we get these issues out on the table, and some of those difficult issues to do with rights and responsibilities need to be addressed. Obviously, Committee is the right place to do that.
As president of the Friends of the South Downs and a former long-standing member of the Ramblers, I very much support greater public access to the countryside. For example, I am proud of Labour’s record on delivering the right to roam and our network of long-distance footpaths. I also agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson, who rightly raised disability access, that clearly a great deal more needs to be done to improve access to our countryside. As the president of the South Downs society, I have to say that many of the issues we have are about elderly people walking the paths who cannot climb the stiles or find it difficult to access some of the more difficult terrains and so on, which could easily be adjusted. It is not just about people with disabilities but about making sure there is public access for all.
We know the public can gain huge benefits from being in the open air and walking in the countryside. As many noble Lords have said, we have learned that very acutely during the recent Covid crisis, when people have been denied that access. The point made on the previous group by the noble Earl, Lord Devon, is important: fundamentally, this is about health and well-being, and we need to bear that in mind.
It is also important that public understanding of farming and nature is enhanced. I have seen some fantastic examples of school visits to farms that have really enthused young people for the first time about the importance of the countryside. We need to encourage those sorts of visits. That will clearly have the effect of persuading young people to respect the countryside more and will go some way to addressing some of the concerns that a number of noble Lords have raised—the noble Earl, Lord Devon, did so rather vividly—about some of the problems when young people do not respect the countryside: littering, fires, vandalism, fly-tipping and so on. At the same time as creating access, we need to create respect.
Supporting public access to the countryside and providing a better understanding of the environment are already in the financial assistance set out in Clause 1, so the issue we have here is what further wording we need in amendments, beyond those rights already spelt out and the existing legal minimum. That is the challenge for us today: to make sure that if we make adjustments and additions, we get them in balance.
My noble friend Lord Clark of Windermere made an important point about access to forests. Until he explained it, I had not quite understood what some of those issues were, but it is important, particularly as we look to extend the planting of trees. It would be helpful if the Minister could address that question and explain the Government’s plans for giving us greater public access to forest areas.
The amendments we have been looking at also specify access to waterways. The noble Lord, Lord Addington, and the noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson, talked about those issues and the importance, for example, of canoeing and wild swimming. I do not doubt that all those activities should be encouraged, but I have a genuine question as to whether this falls within the original intention of the Bill, which was to support agriculture, food production and the environment. This might be something the Minister can shed some light on in his response.
On the other groups, we talked about the Bill’s connection with water, and I am still struggling to understand quite where the boundaries of that lie. For example, I had assumed that the references to “managing land or water” in Clause 1 were meant to address the impact of farming activities on the quality of adjoining water rather than encouraging a wider responsibility for recreation to take place on local rivers. That is an issue that a number of noble Lords raised, so we need to understand the interconnection between what is essential, what is voluntary and what are the real advantages to us of access to that water. That is a genuine question and I do not know the answer to it.
I am slightly anxious that all of us who support greater public access will get our hopes up too high here. Of all the things that we are looking for—better facilities, better road access, better stiles and better gates—I wonder how many will come to fruition through this Bill. It would be interesting if the Minister, when he replies, could clarify whether any of the tests and trials are looking at the issue of public access. It would be useful for us to know whether the Government are taking it seriously at this initial stage. I am just a little worried that it will be a nice add-on at the end, with good words on the issue but that, when push comes to shove, it will not be something for which funding will actually be made available.
I am very much in favour of it, but we have to be realistic. We have to look at where there are other funds that can be accessed, perhaps more quickly than going through the ELMS process, which we know will take some time. Understanding what it means to have public access, understanding the best way to access appropriate funds, and understanding what practical changes we need to make to the Bill will be really important.
As ever, we come back to “balance”. Ultimately, we need to strike a balance between the interests of the farming community and the public and the environment. It will work only if all aspects of our activities can benefit and thrive. I include that in the issue of public access, as I would access to food. They are all important and we need to get the balance right.
As we have all said, there is a limited budget. We will be fighting over that limited budget and we have to be responsible about how we do it. In the meantime, I beg to hear the response from the Minister.
My Lords, I am grateful to all noble Lords. This has been an important debate. When preparing for today, I never realised that we might hear references to Leviticus—but it is an interesting way forward. I will begin by replying to the amendments tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Addington, and I will also take in Amendment 100, tabled by my noble friend Lady Hodgson.
I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch. Public access to the countryside provides a huge range of benefits, including improving physical and mental health, and supporting local communities and economies. Spending time in the natural environment, as a resident or a visitor, can reduce stress, fatigue, anxiety and depression. It can help boost the immune system and encourage physical activity, and it may reduce the risk of chronic diseases such as asthma. It can combat loneliness and bind communities together.
Here, the word “balance” comes up again. In my experience, the countryside is about balance. It is overwhelmingly not in the interests of any farmer to fall out with their neighbours, because, in the end, we all have to find a way through. My noble friend Lord Cormack, the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie of Downpatrick, the noble Lord, Lord Judd, the noble Earl, Lord Devon, and the two noble Baronesses from the Front Benches spoke of this.
The noble Earl, Lord Devon, said that these things need to be handled well. Well, we all need to try to handle things well, but this is an area where inflammatory language is extremely unwise. I do not think that we are going to get anywhere unless we work collaboratively. That is why we have this power. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Addington, that we have a power in the Bill to provide financial assistance to support public access to, and enjoyment of, the countryside, farmland and woodland. That is a good basis from which we should be working.
The Government are supporting and enhancing access to the countryside in a number of different ways. I am very pleased that tourism was raised. The completion of the England coastal path—the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, knows I have written to him—was delayed, unfortunately, because of coronavirus, but we are working on this. Not only domestic but overseas visitors thoroughly enjoy walking in this country, so we are supporting our network of national trails and ensuring that rights of way are recorded and protected, as well as developing ways to support access through the environmental land management scheme. One of the most rewarding elements of my responsibility for the England coastal path has been to join many people of a range of abilities and disabilities at openings of some of the England coastal path. For instance, there are platforms that settle well into some of the dunes to enable people in wheelchairs to get out into the dunes while keeping away from tern nests. Again, it is all about balance in how we organise these things.
I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, and the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, that there are three ELM tests and trials looking at issues concerning access, and these will help us understand how the scheme could work in a real-life environment. For example, the ELM scheme could fund the creation of new paths, such as footpaths and bridleways, which provide access for cyclists, riders and pedestrians where appropriate. It could support access to water and waterways on someone’s land. In particular, the Mendip Hills trials will work with farmers and land managers in the Mendip Hills to explore a range of issues relating to creating access infrastructure—another point made by the noble Lord, Lord Addington, and the noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson. The tests will conclude in 2021 and will be very helpful. I say also to the noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson, that funding may be given under Clause 1(1)(b) to support access to water bodies and waterways in the countryside, farmland and woodland, which could provide access to those locations. Our ELM scheme will reward land managers for the public goods that they deliver, which could include granting of public access to water.
My noble friend Lord Trenchard asked about trials. We need to have these trials and that is why I do not think the discussion we are having is immensely valuable. We should not try to ring-fence the detail at this stage in this primary legislation; we need to be pragmatic to get the right results, because it is by getting those right results that we will encourage more farmers to feel that this is their scheme and access is not a forbidding element of the financial assistance package. Defra continues to liaise regularly with other key stakeholders, including the NFU, of which I declare my membership, Ramblers, with which I have a lot of good relationships, and the British Horse Society, of which I declare my membership, among others, to discuss access and Covid-19 recovery opportunities.
I say to my noble friend Lord Caithness and the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville, that one of the ways we are going to get this right is by getting people around the table. That is why Defra has a stakeholder group advising on rights of way reform that brings together landowners, users and local authorities to develop a consensus on areas for change and the necessary implementation. I am anxious to get this as far forward as possible, and my noble friend Lord Caithness keeps me on my toes. He ought to recognise, and I am sure he does, that we are dealing with a number of issues in terms of legislation and it has not been possible to bring forward the deregulation package on rights of way reform that we all desire, but I cannot engage in a mission impossible when we have many other demands on the Government’s legislative plate and the delays because of coronavirus.
On the conditions land managers must meet in order to take part in the scheme, the current wording enables a range of different conditions to be set and, again, we will work with stakeholders to develop these. Of course, land managers’ legal responsibilities in relation to access over their land will still be applicable.
The noble Lords, Lord Rosser and Lord Greaves, and my noble friend Lord Moynihan raised points about meeting baseline regulatory standards. We expect farmers and managers to meet regulatory standards, regardless of whether they are claiming an ELM payment. This is voluntary; I would resist entirely if noble Lords thought this was an opportunity to start instructing people what they should do on their land, beyond their legal responsibilities and requirements. In the ELM discussion document published on
A number of noble Lords, including the noble Earl, Lord Devon, the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, the noble Baroness, Lady Scott of Needham Market, and my noble friend Lady McIntosh of Pickering, raised the Countryside Code. The messages in the Countryside Code are being promoted widely, via Natural England’s local and national partner organisations, as well as landowners and managers. Defra and Natural England have recently released some targeted communications to tackle specific issues such as wildfire and littering. In response to the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, there was a discussion in Defra about this. Local authorities already have the powers to make bylaws to prohibit barbecues in public spaces. That is the way it should be done, because that is the way that local communities and local authorities can work together. There is legal provision for that, so it can be placed in the local context.
Footpaths, bridle paths, byways, and open-access land are all important in making sure that as many people as possible can enjoy our natural environment. However, it is important to ensure that the Bill enables public support for all types of access, including access to water, and access on other legally designated types of path.
I turn to Amendment 88. Clause 1(5) clarifies that
“‘better understanding of the environment’ includes better understanding of agroecology”.
The clause, as drafted, already allows the Secretary of State to give financial assistance to support farmers, foresters and other land managers so that they can improve public understanding of the environment, for example through educational visits.
“supporting public access to and enjoyment of the countryside, farmland or woodland and better understanding of the environment”.
This will allow us to pay for matters such as educational infrastructure, to ensure that our farmers have the right facilities to host farm visits, including school visits.
In response to my noble friend Lord Blencathra and the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville, last year was the Year of Green Action, a year-long drive to get more people from all backgrounds involved in projects to improve the natural world. Due to the positive reception from all audiences, young people will continue to be able to take up these opportunities and provide a crucial viewpoint on these important matters.
There was mention of young people and littering. My experience, I am afraid, is that people of all generations are culpable on this. We have to engage young people in the quest to improve our environment. Candidly, dropping litter should be an anti-social behaviour. We should all lead on this as best we can.
I am chided by my noble friend Lord Caithness. I might get tetchy with him if he starts saying that I do not answer questions. I endeavour to do so as often as possible. In answer to the noble Lord, Lord Clark, my legal advice is that Clause 1(1)(b) allows support for access to forestry land equalling woodland. I hope that is helpful to my noble friend Lord Caithness.
The noble Earl, Lord Devon, talked about public access, and indeed, other government departments also spend money on initiatives to promote and enable access. Among the things I am responsible for are our national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty. I noticed when I went to the Cotswolds “green prescriptions”, whereby local doctors’ surgeries encourage walking teams and walking in the countryside. That is helping to improve people’s well-being—something we definitely need to work on.
We are working on updating the Countryside Code, a point raised by my noble friends Lord Randall and Lady McIntosh and the noble Baroness, Lady Scott of Needham Market. Later this year, Natural England will start looking at the options for a refresh of the code. Those who are my age, and even some who are younger, will remember that the Countryside Code was the absolute mantra for how to behave properly. It is about rights and responsibilities and that is why we need to get the balance right. The refresh will provide an opportunity to examine how best to include what has been learned from the Covid-19 pandemic.
I will look at Hansard, but I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Addington, who has tabled amendments that I understand absolutely, will take it from me that much work is going on in the trials. He seeks a power to provide financial assistance to support public access—I believe that the definition of that phrase is the dictionary one, in that it is all about access for the public—but I think it best not to try to add detail to that, because in doing so we may fall into the same traps. A broader ability to provide financial assistance will be the better way forward, particularly as we learn from the trials and the tests, which are going to be dramatically important in showing us the way forward.
Before I ask the noble Lord, Lord Addington, to withdraw his amendment, I say to the noble Baroness that I hope she will accept the bona fides of the three tests and trials. They are all about access, and we want to fulfil the prospect of more people enjoying the countryside, but it has to be done in a way that encourages farmers to think that it is a good idea. I believe that we have it in our grasp to get that right in a balanced way. With that, I hope that the noble Lord feels able to withdraw his amendment.
My Lords, the Minister has done his usual thing of being thorough and charming at the same time—and I have now damned him with praise. However, I cannot help but feel that we should take a look at how we expect these trials to go through and see whether we can clarify that at a later stage. With that caveat, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 6 withdrawn.
Amendments 7 to 11 not moved.