New Clause 3 - Mechanically propelled vehicles on unsealed roads: removal of burdens

Deregulation Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:30 pm on 25th March 2014.

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‘(1) Within one year of the coming into force of this section the Secretary of State shall lay before both Houses of Parliament a report containing an assessment of the burdens and costs caused by the use of mechanically propelled vehicles on unsealed rights of way to—

(a) the users of such rights of way,

(b) landowners, and

(c) other interested parties.

(2) A report under subsection (1) shall include—

(a) proposals to alleviate such burdens and costs, and

(b) an assessment as to whether legislation should continue to permit mechanically propelled vehicles to use unsealed rights of way.

(3) The Secretary of State may through regulations implement any proposals contained in the report under subsection (1).

(4) Regulations made under subsection (3) shall be made by statutory instrument.

(5) A statutory instrument under subsection (4) shall not be made unless a draft has been laid before and approved by both Houses of Parliament.

(6) The Secretary of State shall not issue a report under subsection (1) until he has consulted with such interested parties as he thinks fit.’.—(John Hemming.)

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of John Hemming John Hemming Liberal Democrat, Birmingham, Yardley

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

New clause 3 was tabled as a consequence of the initial submission by the Green Lanes Environmental Action Movement, the Green Lanes Protection Group, the Peak District Green Lanes Alliance, the Yorkshire Dales Green Lanes Alliance and some 120 other groups that submitted documents to the pre-legislative scrutiny Joint Committee, on which I think four of us sat. We looked at this and thought that there were some issues to be considered, but that consultation was required. The House officials were kind enough to draft a clause that would lead towards that.

In the context of subsection (3), there are various possibilities for progressing things. One is drafted as the out-of-scope new clause 2; the other is drafted as the out-of-scope new clause 14. The point is that there is a recognised problem: some of the unclassified, unsealed roads are being damaged by irresponsible drivers. The alternative perspective is that of the groups that use motorised vehicles to go down those routes. Their co-ordinating group, the Land Access and Recreation  Association, drafted the out-of-scope new clause 14, whereas the Green Lanes Environmental Action Movement drafted new clause 2.

We are running a little bit short on time, because we have to finish at 5 o’clock—I think we are limited by the programme motion, and the guillotine falls at 5—so I cannot say as much as I would like. This is a complex issue because many thousands of roads are affected. For instance, the Ridgeway has had problems with being dug up, but traffic orders have managed to deal successfully with what is happening there. It is unsurprising in many ways, but the viewpoint of most people who use motorised vehicles on these roads is that they recognise there is an issue.

The Land Access and Recreation Association is happy to engage with Government and look at how to deal with this. The motorcycle sport policy strategy group, or MPS, which is a partnership between the Amateur Motorcycle Association, the Auto-Cycle Union and the Motorcycle Industry Association, and represents motorcyclists, takes the view that

“The responsible use of unsealed public roads and byways by motor vehicles helps to keep those routes open for use by others such as horse riders, cyclists, and walkers”.

It argues that

“There is significant evidence that many restricted byways, which were easily passable by non-motor traffic prior to 2006, are now grown-in and impassable since recreational motor traffic on them was stopped by legislative change (CRoWA 2000 & NERCA 2006). The MPS does however recognise that localised problems can on occasion emerge and supports local action in partnership with those affected”.

The MPS opposes blanket regulation—unsurprising in many ways—although to be fair to the Green Lanes argument, its approach was to identify which roads would be part of the road network and which would not be. The Motorcycle Action Group’s argument is that a voluntary code would be much better. There are difficulties. We have seen that considerable damage has been done to some of the routes.

The Trail Riders Fellowship takes perhaps the minimalist viewpoint, saying that it supports the Deregulation Bill without any amendment, so it does not even support a consultation process. Its argument is that its code of conduct encourages responsible behaviour at all times and it says:

“It is important to distinguish us from anti-social and hooligan riders who ride off legal roads and ignore restrictions anyway in contrast to law-abiding riders who by definition will be the primary victims of further constraints.”

It is right, in the sense that the difficulty is that some people just do not follow any rules whatever, so if we produce new regulations limiting people, some will take no notice of it.

There is no question about it: there are circumstances where the weather means that it is better to have a traffic regulation order and prevent people from using motorised vehicles on such routes, but there are also questions about where the balance is when there are conflicts between different users of those routes. A lot of excellent work has been done by the green lanes organisation. I could read out all the details of the different routes. There are people who have argued that  there should be different rules in national parks, but the way forward in this case is through a consultation process involving all the people on both sides of the argument. Obviously I have not had the success of my hon. Friend the Member for North West Leicestershire

Photo of John Hemming John Hemming Liberal Democrat, Birmingham, Yardley

Indeed. I have not had my hon. Friend’s success in getting Government support for this approach, but I understand that there is some interest in the other place in putting forward some way of progressing.

The situation is complex. The people whose voices have not been heard in all this are the local authorities. Questions have been raised with me about whether the way in which traffic regulation orders are implemented is too bureaucratic and whether there could be improvements to the process. However, we will not resolve that through the passage of this Bill directly; it would have to be resolved at a later stage. The drafting of new clause 3 is intended to facilitate the introduction of deregulation to make it easier to manage the traffic and ensure that this clear problem of conflict between responsible and irresponsible motorised vehicle users is dealt with. We are obviously in a position to establish the environment, although the decisions would have to be taken locally. That is the argument for new clause 3.

Photo of Thomas Docherty Thomas Docherty Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I shall keep my remarks brief, in the spirit set out by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley; I am conscious that we still have a number of important new clauses to cover.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman. I think he has tabled the new clause as a probing amendment, which I am pleased to see, as it is welcome. He is trying to tease out from the Parliamentary Secretary the Government’s latest thinking. I also pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Mr Blunkett), who I am sure the hon. Gentleman would agree has been a champion of the issue for some time.

Back in our evidence sessions, the hon. Member for Macclesfield and I posed a number of questions to the stakeholder working group. There are clearly strong views on both sides of the argument. I have a great deal of sympathy with green lanes organisations, but also with the motor sports argument. We believe the new clause is a welcome contribution to the ongoing debate, but what is important, as the Ramblers Association outlined to us recently, is that we allow the stakeholder working group to continue to make progress in bringing together all the arguments to see whether there is—pardon my dreadful pun—a common way for us to proceed. When the Parliamentary Secretary responds, will he update the Committee on when he expects the stakeholder working group to reach consensus on the issue?

I will not detain the Committee any longer. We welcome this contribution to the discussion. We think these issues require further work and we hope there is a way of balancing the needs of the motor sport interest with those of other users of the rights of way.

Photo of Andrew Bingham Andrew Bingham Conservative, High Peak

I shall make a few short remarks on the back of what has been said. Obviously, much of the Peak District national park sits in my constituency.  This is an issue of conflict between users: ramblers, motorcyclists and 4x4 drivers. I have seen the damage done to paths, footways and roadways, and it is quite serious. However, the main ethos of national parks is that they are available to everybody, no matter what their interests are. The new clause is a good probing amendment, and I am interested to hear the Government’s response, but I have concerns about the damage being done.

I have had people at my surgeries on both sides of the argument, including those who want to pursue motor sport. They want to pursue it responsibly. In my younger days, I remember going not far from the constituency of the hon. Member for Chesterfield to watch late-night car rallies until 1 or 2 in the morning, but it was always done responsibly. It is an interesting problem. As the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley said, we are not going to solve it here and now. I know there is some interest in the other place about what will be done; we should maintain a watching brief and perhaps look to sort the problem out in future, maybe as part of the Bill or as part of other, later legislation.

Photo of Kelvin Hopkins Kelvin Hopkins Labour, Luton North

I voted on this issue in the pre-legislative scrutiny Committee and suggested, without thinking very much, that it would be simple to restrict all motorised vehicles to metalled roads only. I realise now that that was a bit of oversimplification; for example, farmers clearly need to be able to access their land. My hon. Friend the Member for Derby North said in a previous sitting of this Committee that there are bike clubs. I suggested in response that perhaps designated routes for bike clubs would be one way forward, but clearly there are complexities to the issue that I did not properly appreciate at the time of the other Committee.

The hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley has made the point that this issue needs more careful analysis. His amendment, probing though it is, would pave the way for a more measured appreciation of the problem, and perhaps for future measures that will satisfy those who want to protect the countryside, as we all do, and those who want reasonable and responsible access to drive off-road occasionally in certain specified areas.

Photo of Tom Brake Tom Brake The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

Let me start by responding to a number of the points made during this short exchange. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley for tabling new clause 3. I am sorry that I will have to disappoint him. Had he achieved the critical mass achieved by the hon. Member for North West Leicestershire for his proposals, we might have supported him, but I am afraid that that will not be the case—I will explain why—although I welcome the fact that the new clause has created an opportunity for us to discuss this issue today. I would like to thank Pat Stubbs, from one of the organisations campaigning on green lanes, who sent me a video that set out in graphic terms the issues around this particular concern and the impact on green lanes.

I suppose I should also declare an interest. I must admit that I have not been out on a motorbike on green lanes for 35 years, but there was a period when I might have done so—in a wholly responsible manner. More recently, I have run and cycled along them. Today I am  a user of these excellent facilities, which provide access to our parks and green spaces around the country, as I am sure many others on the Committee are too.

The hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife raised the important point of where we go from here, and asked how we would take things forward if there is an issue. The proposal is that DEFRA will work with Natural England to organise the founding of a group with an independent chair and a secretariat, and invite stakeholders with the relevant experience and expertise to join the group. The group will contain a balance of interests and cross all sectors, and will be expected to come up with its own terms of reference. I hope that is helpful in setting out what the plans are.

Photo of Thomas Docherty Thomas Docherty Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

This is a good, healthy, positive debate, and in that spirit will the Parliamentary Secretary undertake to write to the Bill Committee later today to set that point out for everyone’s benefit?

Photo of Tom Brake Tom Brake The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

I normally like to respond positively to the hon. Gentleman’s interventions. This will be on the record, in that it will be reported and Members will be able to see precisely what is envisaged, but if he feels that he needs the additional comfort of a letter, I am sure that could be organised—although officials may not be particularly happy that I have offered to require them to undertake additional work. Clearly, what I have set out is how the Government intend this issue to be taken forward. It is one of the more controversial issues that can be tackled in the countryside, and we need to achieve the same degree of unanimity and compromise that was achieved through the existing stakeholder working group.

Photo of Andrew Bridgen Andrew Bridgen Conservative, North West Leicestershire

Soil erosion on green lanes is an important issue, but is my right hon. Friend saying that he is putting the brake on the new clause of my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley?

Photo of Tom Brake Tom Brake The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

Oh dear. I am being encouraged to stray into a different direction, but I would like to confirm that when I was the party’s transport spokesman, my surname was an issue on a regular basis.

Thomas Docherty rose—

Photo of Tom Brake Tom Brake The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

I am happy to give way as long as it is not a brake joke.

Photo of Thomas Docherty Thomas Docherty Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

On a substantive matter, I expect that civil servants are always happy to serve with the Parliamentary Secretary, but will he also ensure that the letter answers the other questions I asked, about the time scale? We very much welcome the fact that the group is being set up, but it would be helpful to know that there is an out-date foreseen in this process.

Photo of Tom Brake Tom Brake The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

I will certainly endeavour to ensure that as much of the available information as possible is contained therein.

Photo of John Hemming John Hemming Liberal Democrat, Birmingham, Yardley

I welcome what is being proposed, because obviously the model of a stakeholder working group worked extremely well in dealing with that area. I would like to ask the Minister whether it is worth considering introduced a modified version of new clause 3 at a later stage. That would ensure that if the new stakeholder working group comes up with a consensus that people think is a way forward, primary legislation would not be required to get it into force.

Photo of Tom Brake Tom Brake The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention, but I suspect that he is trying to push me further on this subject than I would like to go today. Clearly we know that this is a controversial issue. We know that no stakeholder working group has been established, and it has therefore not had an opportunity to consider my hon. Friend’s new clause. Once the group is established and its members start to look at the options, I am sure that they may well want to refer to his new clause and possibly use it as a basis for taking matters forward, but that is a matter for them. We need to let them consider this appropriately.

My hon. Friend the Member for High Peak rightly highlighted concerns about the impact of such activities. The hon. Member for Luton North, in the true spirit of the confessional, said he had put forward a solution without thinking much about it. I commend him for seeing the light and acknowledging that this complex issue requires complicated decision-making processes.

Photo of Kelvin Hopkins Kelvin Hopkins Labour, Luton North 3:00 pm, 25th March 2014

Although I accept that the issue is complex, I am still concerned about four-wheel drive vehicles churning up beautiful countryside. That issue still has to be addressed properly.

Photo of Tom Brake Tom Brake The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

I agree. I do not want to be flippant about what the hon. Gentleman said earlier: he is right that this is a serious issue. One of the difficulties in trying to identify a solution is that there are serious problems in a relatively small number of places, and a small number of problems or no problems at all in other places. We must find a solution that deals with the areas that are badly affected and does not have a heavy impact on the areas where there is no issue or where motorised sports make a positive contribution to the local economy. It is important that we allow a stakeholder working group to emerge with a good balance of representatives from the different organisations and to come forward with a solution to the problem.

The new clause tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley seeks to place a duty on central Government to devise and impose a solution to the highly complex and partly ideological debate about the recreational use of motor vehicles on unsurfaced routes in the countryside—in particular, national parks. We sympathise with people’s genuine concerns about the problems that can arise from the recreational use of motor vehicles on unsealed roads, but we do not believe that the new clause is the best way to deal with those concerns. We agree that this issue needs to be tackled and that some means of resolution must be found; the Government said as much in our response to the Joint Committee’s pre-legislative scrutiny report. However, we do not believe that the Deregulation Bill is the right mechanism.

The issue of recreational off-road motor vehicle use is complex, emotive and contentious. One person’s pleasurable pastime is anathema to another person. I appreciate why it arouses strong feelings and why there is a clamour for something to be done. Motor vehicle use is often portrayed as a burden and a cost, but it is not always that simple. Research conducted in 2005 on byways open to all traffic found that although there are some acute cases of damage caused by recreational motor vehicle use, for the most part it is not a significant problem. Furthermore, not all damage to unsealed roads and tracks is caused by the recreational use of motor vehicles. Much of it is caused by farm vehicles, water erosion and poor maintenance.

There is good evidence that the use of unsealed roads during organised motoring events, such as hill climbs, puts significant amounts of money into rural economies. Some groups of motor vehicle users voluntarily repair and maintain unsealed tracks, and often the use of green lanes by motor vehicles keeps vegetation in check and therefore keeps routes open for other users.

Photo of Thomas Docherty Thomas Docherty Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

The Minister is doing a comprehensive job of setting out the Government’s position, and I thank him for that. When he writes to the Committee about the economic assessment that the Government appear to have made, it would be helpful if he sets out whether the Government intend the working group to quantify the economic benefits versus the cost of restoring the damage done to the green lanes.

Photo of Tom Brake Tom Brake The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

The letter I will write is getting longer and longer with all the issues that the hon. Gentleman seeks to have included. I highlighted the fact that the stakeholder working group should come up with its own terms of reference. If it comes up with a solution to the problem, it may choose to look at the economic impact and conduct an economic assessment. However, it must be responsible for coming up with its own terms of reference.

The new clause presupposes that the review will conclude that motor vehicle use gives rise to a burden and cost, which the new clause would provide powers to alleviate. We should not make such assumptions before a review is even started. We believe that the best way to review policy on the recreational off-road use of motor vehicles is for it to be based on the stakeholder working group model used for the other rights of way. That approach has proved to be successful, and mutually beneficial solutions have been arrived at through dialogue, negotiation and an exploration of all the viable possibilities and their likely consequences.

That approach has proved successful, resulting in mutually beneficial solutions being arrived at through dialogue, negotiation and an exploration of all the viable possibilities and their likely consequences. Solutions arrived at in this way, based on agreement and mutual interest, will result in less conflict and less need for enforcement. However, such an approach cannot be effective if the process is constrained by a time frame of the kind that the new clause would impose. Moreover, the pre-supposition that the review will conclude that motor vehicle use gives rise to a burden and cost, and that the essence of the approach should be a legislative one, imposes a further constraint on reaching a mutually agreed solution. That is hardly deregulatory.

The new clause would create new regulation and a new burden where it may not be necessary when the issue has been properly analysed and discussed. Furthermore, subsection (3) of the new clause contains a sweeping power to adopt some sort of measure to remove public rights of way by regulations. The Government believe that that is a use of delegated legislation too far and does not recognise that the best solutions to problems are often those that do not resort to legislation. I urge the hon. Gentleman to withdraw his amendment.

Photo of John Hemming John Hemming Liberal Democrat, Birmingham, Yardley

I am actually very pleased with the Government’s answer regarding establishing an alternative, or another stakeholder working group involving ramblers and those who drive vehicles down the route to find out what area of compromise and agreement there may be. That worked extremely well with the stakeholder working group referenced elsewhere in the Bill and would work well here. I had always intended the new clause to be a probing one, and I beg to ask leave to withdraw it.

Clause, by leave, withdrawn.