Noisy sports 'have a right to use countryside'

Commons committee finds little damage to environment, reports Nicholas Schoon; 'I don't think you can ban such activities. People will just go on doing it illegally'
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The Independent Online
Members of Parliament yesterday spoke up for the rights of motorists and those who indulge in noisy sports to use the countryside.

The House of Commons' Environment Select Committee reported that it could find no conclusive evidence that the number of people visiting the countryside had grown significantly in the past few years.

And there was little sign of severe long-term damage to wildlife and the environment by the heavy flow of visitors pouring out of towns. The many conflicts in the countryside over leisure pursuits were more often clashes of culture rather than disputes over real environmental threats, the MPs' report says.

Pursuits such as water-skiing, motorbike scrambling, cross-country four- wheel-drive motoring and clay pigeon shooting could be disruptive, and even destructive. "But I don't think you can ban this sort of activity from the countryside," the committee chairman, Andrew Bennett, said. "People will just go on doing it illegally."

Instead, the report calls on councils to encourage provision of space for the noisier sports away from the most scenic and prized countryside areas. It advocates voluntary codes of conduct and the solving of disputes between country visitors through voluntary agreements reached by their representatives, landowners and the authorities.

The MPs found no case for banning private cars from country roads in the most valued areas. They say that if some visitors only want to look at rural scenery through a car window then they have every right to do so - elderly and frail people can only see the countryside in this way.

In a few of the most congested beauty spots in the national parks - the "honeypot" areas - there may be a case for extra-high car parking fees. The report suggests that signposts on roads approaching the area should warn when car parks are full and point the way to alternative sites.

It also calls for a traffic restriction experiment, in which public transport is substituted for all private cars in one particularly popular location. Mr Bennett suggested Surprise View at Watendlath, Cumbria, in the Lake District as an example.

The committee comes out clearly against the "leisure village" concept developed by firms such as Center Parcs, in which large holiday complexes built in the middle of the countryside can only be reached by car. New leisure facilities should be as near as possible to urban areas and should be built on derelict land, or land of the least possible agricultural, wildlife or scenic value. They should be reachable by public transport.

Mr Bennett said that many people who drove 20 miles out into the countryside did not do so to have an authentically rural experience - they would have a pub lunch, take a short walk by a lake or river, then go home.

Good urban parks could easily provide them with that sort of experience on their doorstep. The report warns against letting city parks, woodlands and open spaces become neglected and dangerous, because these can bring the countryside into the town.

8 The Environmental Impact of Leisure Activities, House of Commons Environment Committee; HMSO; pounds 20.