Allow right to roam or else, landowners told

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The Independent Online
EVERYONE will gain the right to roam over the open countryside of England and Wales, the Government said yesterday. If rural landowners do not come up with credible proposals to allow access to ramblers, then ministers will introduce legislation to compel them.

A long-awaited consultation paper says the right to roam will cover nearly 5,000 square miles of mountain, moor, heath, down and open commons - about a tenth of the land area of England and Wales.

The Government has given the National Farmers' Union, the Country Landowners' Association and the Moorland Association a three-month consultation period in which to come up with voluntary proposals for opening up their estates to the public with a network of new paths and free-to-roam areas.

It will then weigh these plans up, and if what is on offer does not go far enough, then new access laws would be drawn up, said Environment Minister Michael Meacher. ``Our objectives are non-negotiable,'' he told a press conference. The major landowner organisations would have to give guarantees on the quantity, quality and permanence of the new access they were allowing to ramblers. They would not be paid any compensation, although there might be some funding for car parks and marking paths.

But Mr Meacher insisted he wanted people to be able to wander freely across open landscapes, even if most people preferred staying on a footpath.

``The countryside is wonderfully refreshing and reviving to the spirit,'' he said. In a small, crowded island "people do have a right to enjoy the wonderful legacy of our countryside, provided they do so responsibly.''

The document does not cover Scotland, which has different trespass and access laws and where there is a traditional right to roam - although ramblers fear it is being eroded.

People south of the border will not be given the right to roam through crop fields, woods and enclosed grazing meadows. The Government has also not yet decided whether they will be allowed to take their dogs with them.

Yesterday, Mr Meacher was doubtful on whether any voluntary agreement could be adequate. He said he had visited Ranmore Common near Dorking, Surrey, at the weekend where a landowner had recently revoked a right to roam which dated back to 1929. Warning notices have gone up.

``That's a challenge for those groups arguing for the voluntary way,'' he said. He questioned how the Country Landowners' Association could ensure all its members complied with any agreement.

But the Association was delighted with yesterday's document. ``We're really glad they included the voluntary option, and we're confident our members can deliver,'' said spokeswoman Anne Marshall.

Kate Ashbrook, chair of the 122,000 member Ramblers' Association, was also encouraged but said legislation to enforce the right to roam was essential. ``The landowners are bound to say they can deliver voluntarily; we're quite clear that they can't.''