Accusations of the "politics of envy" made a rare return to the Commons yesterday as Labour and Tory MPs clashed bitterly over the introduction of a statutory right to roam.
Leading the attack, Michael Meacher, Environment minister, attacked the Tories for being "still rooted in the 'squirearchy' of the 18th century". He said: "Only Her Majesty's Opposition of the present ilk would think that the environment is going to be devastated and the rural economy ruined by walking."
Introducing the Countryside and Rights of Way Bill, he added: "Unlike the Tories we believe the countryside should be an asset for everyone, not just those who happen to own substantial parts of it. This Bill sets a new, historic foundation for uniting the interests of all the parties: those who live and work on the land; those who want to enjoy access to some of our finest landscapes; and those who are concerned to strengthen our biodiversity and natural heritage."
However, Andrew Robathan, the Tory MP for Blaby, claimed that ministers were trying to portray his party as a "bunch of landowners and toffs". He said: "I own 0.1 acres of the whole of Britain so I can hardly be described as a landowner. This Bill is the delivery of a promise made by old-style socialists and resembles the politics of envy."
Archie Norman, Conservative spokesman for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, said the measure ignored the concerns of the agricultural and conservationist community. But Mr Meacher insisted it would open up about one-ninth of the land in England and Wales, a scale "never before seen". He said: "We will grant people a right of access on foot to 4 million acres of mountain, moor, heath and down, and registered common land - much of which will be opened up to the public for the first time in centuries."
Under the present voluntary opening to the countryside by landowners, it would take "1,000 years" to achieve the same access as under the legislation. "There is no suggestion of people trampling over beds of begonias under this legislation," he said. The Bill also introduced the option of a prison term for the first time for those convicted of wildlife crimes, Mr Meacher added.Reuse content