Leading article: Walkers all over the country can celebrate a victory

THE PRIME Minister spent the last years of Labour's Opposition promising more access to the countryside: indeed, he specifically promised a statutory "right to roam" over heath, down and moorland. Mr Blair's promise would have made for painful reading this morning, had the rumours that the Government was considering only local voluntary agreements been confirmed. In fact, the plans announced yesterday by the environment minister, Michael Meacher, at least promise the fulfilment of Mr Blair's pledge. Walkers and ramblers all over the country - including those in the Cabinet - should celebrate.

One of New Labour's most strongly worded pledges in opposition was the promise to create a legally enforceable "right to roam" over uncultivated land; but the vague reference to more "access" in Labour's 1997 election manifesto seemed to be a worrying indication of retreats to come on this issue.

We now know that those fears were exaggerated. A Countryside Agency will oversee local agreements between landowners and ramblers; the role of local forums will be purely to advise. There will be a statutory right to roam, which will usually take precedence over restrictions necessary to safeguard the environmental worth of special sites, and to protect farmers from the damage done by walkers trampling over their crops.

Local agreements may do little to open up new areas. Responsible landowners and farmers will co-operate, and continue to provide well-marked footpaths and tracks on their land. Bullies such as Nicholas Van Hoogstraten - the target of Ramblers Association protests at the 9-ft-high fence he has constructed across a public right of way in East Sussex - will probably go on obstructing and frustrating the legitimate claims of walkers.

The vital element in Mr Meacher's announcement is that such obstruction will not be tolerated: there will be no private vetoes for anyone. Arbitration between conflicting demands, now to be placed in the hands of Ewen Cameron as the new head of the Countryside Agency, will be vital in deciding which side prevails in deadlocks such as that on Mr Van Hoogstraten's land. Mr Cameron is a former head of the Country Landowners' Association, and has in the past publicly opposed a right to roam. Now he is said to be enthusiastically behind the Government's reforms. He will have to prove that his conversion is real.

New Labour has compromised on other "countryside" issues such as fox- hunting and farm subsidies, and has spared the voting rights of some hereditary peers sitting in the House of Lords. Now it appears to have realised the political harm these compromises were causing. Opinion polls show the public to be overwhelmingly in favour of the type of access that yesterday's plans promise. One of the first acts of the Scottish Parliament - probably headed by a Labour first minister - later in the year will be to inaugurate a right to roam, fitting recognition of that country's long tradition of a more open countryside. The Parliamentary Labour Party was keen on Gordon Prentice's Private Member's Bill that has forced the Government's hand: Mr Blair could not afford to divide his party, as well as alienate the wider public, in his efforts to appease Middle England.

Landowners and the Conservatives, who yesterday in the Commons appeared to act almost as their mouthpiece, should realise that access to uncultivated land can no longer be denied. The local forums that will try to reach agreement between landowners and the public will be their last chance to show that they can act responsibly. Public and Government will be watching them; if they attempt to stand in the way of access, they will be overruled. The Government's radicalism is a welcome renewal of its radical mandate, won in opposition to such vested interests.

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