The Right to Roam - but not for years

Even though the Countryside Act will be law in 15 days' time, free access to our open spaces may not become a reality until 2005 or later
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The Independent Online

The much-heralded Right to Roam is poised to turn into a débâcle, with the public denied access to millions of hitherto closed acres for at least four more years - possibly even longer than that.

The much-heralded Right to Roam is poised to turn into a débâcle, with the public denied access to millions of hitherto closed acres for at least four more years - possibly even longer than that.

The Countryside Act, which gives ramblers access to many of Britain's most beautiful areas after decades of struggle, becomes law in 15 days time. But hikers are going to have to wait far longer to get their boots on the promised land. The earliest date it will be opened up is 2004, although even this target is thought by many campaigners to be optimistic. It is more likely to be at least 2005 before the Right to Roam becomes a reality.

Delays will occur because every piece of mountain, moor, heath and downland in Britain must be definitively mapped to show the right to roam areas before the public has access to any of it. This, and the appeals procedure, gives landlords scope to use their financial resources to grind down plans to open up their land.

John Bainbridge, chief executive of the Dartmoor Preservation Association, which has earmarked several hundred acres on the moor to be opened up, said: "People will be able to stall forever. I doubt whether the volunteers working for walking groups will have the staying power to stick it out for years and years. I fear it will descend into a huge talking shop where everybody gets dispirited. We've already mapped the bits of Dartmoor that we will be able to walk on. It's not controversial. Everyone knows what downland and heath looks like when they see it. We could have everything signed and sealed within three months."

The prospect of clashes with landlords continuing for years more will come as a shock to ramblers, who thought that the Right to Roam legislation had ended such battles. But many recent causes célÿbres could remain acrimonious for years to come.

In the Forest of Bowland in Lancashire, for instance, the Duke of Westminster has always refused to give walkers access to many miles of fells and moor; in Surrey, BBC governor Adrian White took his right to fence off common land at Ranmore to the High Court, and blocked footpaths; in Oxfordshire the Earl of Macclesfield has opposed walkers being allowed to stray from designated footpaths, "because they can't keep their mouths shut"; and in Devon, racehorse owner Martin Pipe blocked access to a common in defiance of local protests.

Other landlords who could resist full access include, on Dartmoor, the Duchy of Cornwall (present incumbent: the Prince of Wales); Yorkshire Water, which once fenced off 100,000 acres in the Peak District National Park; electronics firm Racal, which owns the famous, but off-limits, Westbury Beacon in Somerset; and even the Chequers Estate (present part-time resident: Tony Blair) which keeps the top of the spectacular Beacon Hill in the Chilterns out of bounds.

In some of these areas there is an element of access and people do use them under local informal agreements - but they are technically trespassing because they do not have the right to roam.

Even if land does become "open country", there will be restrictions on access to walkers. Land will remain closed, or be open on a limited basis, where public access may affect wildlife. Landowners will be also able to restrict access for limited periods for activities such as shooting or heather burning. Developed or intensively farmed land is expected to remain out of bounds.

Most military training areas, such as Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire, although nominally included in the Act, will be exempt under a series of Military Land Acts.

To make clear where people may walk freely under the new law, the Countryside Agency, the Government's rural advisory body, is producing maps of all the "open country" that will become available. This involves not only a laborious process of mapping thousands of square miles of countryside, most very remote, but also a consultation period and, in many cases, a lengthy appeals procedure triggered by landowners. It will, says Bob Roberts, the agency's head of access policy, be "a big job".

The agency, which is responsible for deciding what areas will be opened, last week hired an environmental consultancy to carry out the mapping and manage the consultation process. They will also draw on local authorities, wildlife organisations, English Nature and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. Volunteers for the Ramblers' Association are also being trained to help provide recommendations from the walking lobby.

A handful of pilot schemes are under way - for example, in the Berwyns in Clwyd, North Wales - but the work will begin in earnest next month. The first regions to be mapped will be the North-west and South-east, where the provisional maps will be published and opened up for consultation by September. The Countryside Agency will then extend the programme to the rest of England and Wales. Privately, the agency admits that it does not expect to complete all the work by its deadline of 2003. Some of the areas to be mapped are much-coveted parts of the country, where landowners and access groups have fought over rights for more than 100 years.

They include the moors in West Yorkshire, where almost all of what is known as "Wuthering Heights country" is out of bounds to walkers; Dartmoor, where the Duchy of Cornwall is expected to have to open up several scenic spots; and the desolate Forest of Bowland, where large amounts of off-limits land are owned by the Duke of Westminster.

There are even concerns that there will be delays to territory designated as "fast-track" land - common land that is already registered and land above 600 metres, where the Countryside Bill provides for automatic access. This land could become open at any time but the Countryside Agency expects consultations and appeals to take up to a year.

Kate Ashbrook, general secretary of the Open Spaces Society, is lobbying for land to be opened as it is mapped. "We are determined we will have access before the five-year target," she said. "We need to get on the land and start enjoying it as soon as possible. The maps should be produced on a regional basis and land opened up when the maps are ready."

Mr Roberts defended the agency's timetable: "The time involved is in taking consultations and allowing appeals. We have to do it in a fair and transparent manner. We can't just do it all with a felt-tip pen. We are creating something that is supposed to last for ever. This is not a quick fix."