Access to the Countryside Bill 2013: Second Stage [Private Members]
Friday, 14 June 2013
I acknowledge Deputy Dowds’s work in putting this Bill before the House. While I support the broad thrust and principle of it, the strong cases made by Deputies Kyne and Lawlor deserve to be further explored. This Bill is not about giving a franchise to people to go everywhere but about opening walkways and parts of the countryside.
Last week, I had two friends home from America. As part of our tour of Ireland, I took them to walk the O’Sullivan Beara Breifne Way on the Beara Peninsula in west Cork and the Slea Head drive in County Kerry. Thankfully, the weather was majestic and the scenery was at its most picture-perfect. For me it emphasised the resource that is the Irish countryside, which is shared by all of us. However, as Deputies Lawlor and Kyne stated, there are concerns, for example, about farm animals not used to human contact. Last week, I noted on Slea Head how tourists could unintentionally frighten animals.
A balance needs to be struck with this Bill and I commend Deputy Dowds for putting it before us. Unlike in many parts of Europe, where walkers enjoy free access to many private tracts of land without requiring the landowners’ permission, our system of access gives all control and rights to the individual landowner. Accessing land for recreational needs is a grey area. There are no guarantees for the walker and there is no certainty for the landowner. A voluntary system is in place which encourages dialogue between all parties, a system that has allowed the creation of 40 walking routes across the country. This shows the potential there is when all interested parties work together. This morning I noted that Senator Martin Conway welcomed a new walking trek in County Clare. If this Bill is developed with all interested parties, it will have the potential to offer a statutory basis for expanding these walking routes, which will increase the economic benefits to rural communities.
Tourism is important to our country. The Government has prioritised the development of the tourism sector, offering key supports such as the reduction of VAT for tourism services and incentives such as The Gathering. There are further long-term opportunities which can be developed.
In west Cork alone it is estimated that the walking trails and support for the walking industry bring €14 million per annum into the local economy. That is hard-earned money and with investment and improvements it could be increased by nearly €8 million, raising almost €22 million locally, which shows the importance of the walking trails. In Cork city we have seen the development of walking tours and of the Slí na Sláinte route, which is something different, but it highlights the importance of urban and rural tourism in our country. It is important that we develop and promote this type of tourism product, which will offer those living in rural communities a business opportunity, encourage the development of communities and ensure that employment opportunities exist for young people close to their homes.
We live in the real world and I understand the genuine and legitimate concerns. We cannot achieve what we want to achieve by dictating to landowners – which I know is not the intent of Deputy Dowds – and while no one group should have a veto on the development of walking routes, we must not go another extreme and prescribe walking routes without consulting with farmers and other landowners. This Bill could form the basis of a dialogue to establish a regime that would met the needs of Deputy Dowds while taking into account the views expressed by Deputies Lawlor and others. There may be exceptions in which a compromise or accommodation cannot be reached – for example, when dealing with an area where crops have been grown and grassland has been improved. Deputy Kyne spoke about the land in Connemara, and that is a fair point. Other countries have different approaches. The models used in Sweden, Norway and England, the details of which I will not go into, can be examined.
I acknowledge the position of the IFA, which is opposed to the Bill. I read its briefing material and I understand its concerns. I know the IFA values the work of Comhairle na Tuaithe, as has been said, in developing walking trails in a voluntary and consultative way, and it recognises the potential benefit to rural communities of developing this very important sector.
Across Ireland, much access is already possible through co-operation by landowners, hikers and walkers. The Bill aims to offer a more formal basis for developing further walking routes by setting out clear guiding principles. I support the Bill in principle.