I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
This Bill can be summed up in three phrases - good for jobs, good for health and good for tourism. I am very pleased to be given the opportunity to introduce the Access to the Countryside Bill 2013 to Dáil Éireann. Clearly, I have a lucky streak because the first time it went into the box it came out trumps, so I will have to make use of that. Somebody suggested I should buy a lottery ticket on a regular basis, but I will have to work on that.
I have initiated this Bill in an effort to reform land access laws in Ireland, something which I will argue will lead to significant job creation, promote public health and increase the attraction of Ireland as a tourism destination. As the law stands, Ireland has about the most restrictive access laws in Europe and, as a result, Irish people have very poor access to their own countryside. If one goes back 100 years, one will find that Ireland had a great deal more access to the countryside than it currently has because many of the walkways people used before the days of motorised vehicles have fallen into disuse, partly because of the move to motorised vehicles and partly because of the depopulation of rural Ireland. Whether they are walkers, people engaged in orienteering, cyclists or even horse-riders, the citizens of almost every other European country have superior access to their own countryside than we do. Among other countries, this is true of our nearest neighbours, Scotland, Wales and England. It is also true of France, Austria, Germany, Sweden, Denmark and Luxembourg, all countries in which I have visited the countryside. In England, one of our nearest neighbours, tracks abound throughout the countryside even though that country is far more densely populated than ours.
There are many reasons to reform our land access laws but, first and foremost, by doing so, we have the potential to create hundreds of jobs in rural areas which would benefit enormously from them. Some of my colleagues will go into detail on that. Some people may be scratching their heads and wondering how reforming land access laws could lead to job creation. The reason there is so much potential for job creation is that the main reason tourists come to Ireland is to go walking and to enjoy our countryside. Some people might be surprised to learn that 743,000 visitors came to Ireland last year to engage in walking - four times more than came to go golfing, which is the second most common activity in which tourists engage when they come to Ireland. Contrary to common perception, hikers and walkers spend significant amounts of money during their visits, averaging approximately €873 per head, according to Fáilte Ireland. That amounts to roughly €650 million in tourism revenue from tourists who come to Ireland to walk in the countryside. Of course, walking in the countryside is not just for tourists; it is very much for us.
Scotland, one of our nearest neighbours, points the way for us. It has understood how important reform of land access laws is for walking tourism, and in the ten years since they reformed their land access laws they have reaped huge benefits. According to a recent estimate, Scotland generates £1.4 billion from nature-based tourism, and by 2015 walking tourism will account for 24% of all its tourism revenue. A single coastal path in Fife contributes approximately £25 million to the local economy, supporting the equivalent of 800 to 900 jobs.
To reinforce the point about how much potential for job creation there would be if we reformed our land access laws, I would like to quote from Mr. Murray Ferguson, head of visitor services at Cairngorms National Park in Scotland. When asked about how the reform of land access laws in Scotland has affected the economic prospects of parts of Scotland which were, in many cases, very deprived of jobs, he stated: "So many outdoor businesses and accommodation providers are basically running their companies based on people's right to access the land - the value to Scotland must be huge."
As legislators, we have no more important a role than to provide for the care and well-being of our people. Right now, our people need jobs - real jobs and sustainable jobs. Is there a Deputy in this House who would argue that a coastal path such as the one in Fife could not be created in Kerry, Cork, Galway or Donegal, and that such a path would not be attractive to tourists and Irish people? I have just been reminded of the Bray to Greystones path, which has been used by people over generations and which is of benefit to the economies of both towns. Reforming our land access laws would bring a new dynamic to tourism throughout the country and create badly needed jobs in rural areas.
If we reformed our land access laws, there would also be significant health benefits for the Irish people, which must be highlighted.
Physical inactivity is reckoned to cost the Exchequer approximately €1.6 billion per year. In recent years, many attempts have been made to get people out walking and running. I refer to the "Operation Transformation" campaign, for example. Many 5 km and 10 km runs take place throughout the country every weekend. Many people, particularly in rural Ireland, have to don a high-visibility jacket when they go out for a run or a walk because they have to use dangerous country roads. For this reason, there is a requirement to provide for the needs of off-road walkers, particularly in less scenic areas of the country. In places like County Meath and east Galway, I regularly see people walking the roads in high-visibility jackets to ward off the vehicles that might mow them down. I believe such people deserve better. If people had better opportunities to get out walking and running safely, while at the same time enjoying our beautiful countryside, many more of them would be inclined to do so. The positive health benefits of this would be quite substantial. The reality is that outside certain mountainous areas, there are few areas where good-quality walking access is provided.
I wish to mention some of the other reasons we need to reform our land access laws, aside from the significant economic and health benefits that would accrue if we were to allow more responsible access to our countryside. It is very important that the property rights of landowners are given their due respect. These rights are rightly enshrined in the Constitution. I believe the Irish people have a right to enjoy the Irish countryside responsibly. The word "responsibly" is very important. Indeed, it is laced through the Bill both by implication and in word. The people of this country certainly have a right to enjoy more of the countryside than they do at present. The proposals in the legislation before the House in this regard would give them no more right to enjoy the countryside of this land than the rights of the citizens of any of our European neighbours. For certain historical reasons, we have yet to adopt this attitude. I believe this point of view needs to be expressed more often and more loudly than it has been up to this point.
In turning to the detail of the Bill, I want to acknowledge the work of the Minister, Deputy Quinn, who produced an earlier version of this legislation when he was in opposition. I thank him and the two barristers who helped me with it, Richard Humphreys and Finbarr O'Malley. I also thank my staff who had to do a great deal of work on this matter. I refer particularly to my intern, Eoin Jones, who did a substantial amount of research on the jobs potential in this area.
The purpose of this Bill is fourfold. First, it provides for an orderly and limited method of legal access to certain categories of land held in various forms of private ownership for the purposes of responsible recreational use. It does this by giving local authorities the power to declare certain lands to be "access lands". Second, it ensures private owners whose lands are declared to be access lands are fully indemnified - I want to emphasise this point - against any legal action arising from an accident. Third, it provides for legal clarity between the rights of landowners and the rights of the general public. Fourth, it provides for the establishment of a body to oversee the implementation of access programmes in each local authority area in the State.
I will now go through the specific sections of the Bill. Section 1 of the Bill is a standard interpretation section. It defines certain terms that are used later in the Bill. Section 2 enables the Minister to make regulations about certain matters that are prescribed in the Bill in order to give full effect to it when it becomes an Act.
Section 3 sets out the powers of a local authority in relation to access lands. It provides that a council may, by resolution, declare land within its functional area to be access land. It specifies that section 4 of the Bill will apply to that land if such a declaration is made. The council must comply with any prescribed procedures, including procedures for serving notice of an intention to make a declaration on every owner, lessee and occupier of land who would be affected by the declaration. It must also consult prescribed persons and any other appropriate persons. This section of the Bill provides that a declaration that land is access land may be made in respect of specific categories of land which may, in principle, be suitable for public access. Section 3(3)(b) states explicitly that a local authority:
may not make a declaration that land is access land in respect of—
(i) cultivated land,
(ii) improved or semi-improved grassland,
(iii) land within the curtilage of a habitable dwelling or a farm building (other than a derelict building),
(iv) land vested in or occupied by the Minister for Defence,
(v) land belonging to a statutory undertaker (within the meaning of the Planning and Development Act 2000 but not including Coillte Teoranta) .... [or CIE in respect of disused railway lines], or
(vi) land that is or is part of a public park or public garden.
How much time do I have left, a Cheann Comhairle?