John Prescott's plan to preserve more of our dwindling countryside follows that of Clement Attlee - and the dream of William Wordsworth
t is back to the future for the countryside. Ministers are setting out to complete a half-finished green revolution started by the Attlee government 50 years ago, ending a grievance long nourished by Old Labour and conservationists alike.

Today's page one revelation that John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, wants to upgrade England's 37 Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs) to make them similar to National Parks follows the Government's surprise announcement, 10 days ago, of a "right to roam" across wild countryside. It is likely to do more for the country's finest areas than any other single measure in the last half century.

Meanwhile, as we also report, ministers want to set up at least one more National Park in England; and the Government is also about to establish a long-awaited system of National Parks in Scotland, starting with Loch Lomond and the Trossachs. Between them, these measures would just about complete a system for protecting and managing Britain's most beautiful landscapes, which was laid out in a pioneering series of reports in the aftermath of the Second World War. They will be popular with most of the public and on the Labour back benches, but will upset landowners.

It was Wordsworth who first launched the idea of National Parks in his 1810 Guide to the Lakes. This concluded that he and other "persons of pure taste ... deem the district a sort of national property, in which every man has a right and interest who has an eye to perceive and a heart to enjoy".

But he was no believer in the right to roam. The landscape, he insisted, would be ruined if "artisans, labourers and the humbler class of shopkeepers" whose "common minds precluded pleasure from the sight of natural beauty" were enabled to "ramble at a distance" by the opening of a new railway from Kendal to Windermere.

Nevertheless a society "for protecting the public of being robbed of its walks by private cunning and perseverance" was formed in Edinburgh in 1845, and a right-to-roam Bill for Scotland almost got through Parliament in 1892. But it was in the 1930s that the issue took off.

An inquiry set up by Ramsay MacDonald recommended the creation of National Parks, but nothing was done. Then in 1932 six ramblers were arrested and imprisoned after a mass trespass on Kinder Scout, in the Peak District, entrenching the right to roam in Labour folklore.

Within days of taking office in 1945, Labour set up a series of committees which recommended a system of National Parks in England, Scotland and Wales and a right to roam across all open and uncultivated land. But the ensuing legislation created only some of them.

Ten National Parks were established in England and Wales in the 1950s - from Northumberland to the Pembrokeshire coast, from the Lake District to Dartmoor (one for the Broads was added in 1988) - but none in Scotland. And though the Act did strengthen Britain's public footpath system, it fell well short of bringing in a "right to roam". The parks were confined to "extensive tracts of country", mainly far from towns and cities, which would attract people by their very wildness. So, until the Broads were added, they all ended up north and west of a line from the Humber to Torquay.

To make up for this, a couple of clauses in the Act provided for the designation of smaller areas of beautiful countryside that were supposed to receive the same protection. They were called Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

In fact, as Tony Burton, assistant director of the Council for the Protection of Rural England, says, the AONBs became "the Cinderellas of conservation". They got little effective protection, especially against intensive agriculture spurred by EC subsidies, and large areas were ploughed up. Others were spoiled by roads, holiday developments and mobile telephone masts. The new plans are intended to make them stronger, to give them more recognition, and to provide money to promote environmentally friendly farming and tourism.

While National Parks have, since 1995, had their own boards as planning authorities, control of the AONBs would remain with local authorities. But they would set up their own statutory boards which would have to be consulted on any new development. They would get money from the Government, the Lottery, the EU and local rates to subsidise environmentally friendly farming and other conservation measures.

The plans are based on proposals from the Countryside Commission, which, if implemented, says its director Richard Wakeford, would be "the most important development for AONBs in 50 years".

Ministers also want to add to their completion of the 1949 agenda by creating at least one more full National Park. They are considering the South Downs, the only area originally proposed as a park which has not yet become one. But there are two problems. The Downs' long narrow shape cuts across several planning authorities, and creating a new one for a National Park could complicate transport strategies. And because they were so poorly protected as an AONB, much of the wild chalk grasslands have been ploughed up for crops.

Much of the damage done to the countryside and its most beautiful landscapes over the last half century resulted from the Attlee government dropping proposals to include forestry and farming in the planning system. Agriculture ministers are trying - but have so far failed - to get the EU to pay large subsidies for farming that enhances rather than destroys the countryside. If this government manages to complete the rest of the 50-year-old agenda, they may find themselves put firmly on the spot.