§ Baroness Gibson of Market Rasen
asked Her Majesty's Government:
What action the Government are taking to lift blanket closures of footpaths and bridleways imposed by local authorities under the Foot and Mouth Disease Order 1983. [HL508]
§ Lord Whitty
We have looked urgently at revoking remaining blanket closures of rights of way imposed by local authorities in England. Letters were sent to local authorities explaining the Government's proposals in more detail and inviting them to make representations if they considered they could justify retaining blanket closures beyond 20 July.
We have now considered carefully the representations received. We have agreed that blanket closures may remain in place for the time being in Cumbria and in parts of Devon, Lancashire, Durham, Gloucestershire and Herefordshire. We have also allowed Somerset to retain partial blanket closure until 27 July, and agreed with North Yorkshire their proposals for temporarily retaining closures in parts of the county. In granting these exemptions we have recognised the logistical difficulties which revocation would pose for a few authorities, particularly those hardest hit by foot and mouth disease.
With the exception of the authorities mentioned above, all remaining closures under Article 35B will be lifted from midnight on Friday, 20 July. At midnight the following Friday, 27 July, any remaining closures under Article 35A (which allowed authorities to close individual paths outside Infected Areas without ministerial consent) will be revoked.
These actions will ensure that public rights of way are closed only where this is justified. The department's guidance and veterinary risk assessment issued on 23 May makes clear that, except within 3 km Protection Zones around infected premises, paths may safely be reopened. We expect authorities to continue to reopen paths where this can be done safely, in line with the guidance. We shall review the position no later than early September.
Lifting blanket closures does not mean that all paths will be open. Local authorities retain power to close individual paths, though outside Infected Areas this requires the department's consent. All such closures must be signed at entrances to the path. Authorities should use their power to close paths selectively, in the areas affected by revocation and elsewhere, only where justified on disease control grounds, in line with the department's guidance. Where paths within Protection Zones are affected by the lifting of a blanket closure, authorities should arrange for their selective re-closure where appropriate.
People using paths should take sensible precautions to reduce even further any risk of spreading the disease. These are set out in the codes for path users accompanying the guidance to local authorities of 23 May. Authorities should publicise these 137WA precautions, particularly the need to stay off farmland if people have recently handled farm animals and to avoid going near, touching or feeding livestock.
The Government's decision to open footpaths to walkers is entirely consistent with our strong advice to farmers to observe tight bio-security and reflects very different risks. The risks of footpath users transmitting the disease are tiny, particularly when compared with those posed by farmers and others who handle livestock.
Foot and mouth disease remains a serious problem in a few areas and we continue to do all that is necessary to contain and eradicate it. But in most of England there is no case for wholesale closures. Keeping footpaths closed hurts the rural economy and prevents people enjoying the countryside. We have received strong representations in favour of our approach from those engaged in tourism and other rural businesses—including farmers who have diversified their activities—because of the extent to which their income has been devastated by the consequences of the outbreak. Revoking unnecessary closures now means the vast majority of our countryside will be open for the summer holidays and people will know where they can walk, cycle or ride.