Blair backtracks on right to roam pressure

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MINISTERS are promising that Britons will soon have the right to walk freely over three million acres of the country's wildest landscapes after a sudden change of tack by the Prime Minister.

Tony Blair, who for months has been blocking plans for a legal right to roam, last week privately assured a group of his backbench MPs that he was determined to open up the land to public access.

He made his latest move in the face of a growing backbench revolt, sparked off by the Independent on Sunday's exposure of his opposition three weeks ago.

The Government now plans to bring in a bill within two years to force landowners to give free access to 3.2 million acres of mountain, moorland, heath, downs and common land - unless they voluntarily open the entire areas in the meantime.

Plans for such legislation were sent to Mr Blair - who had pledged before the election to enact a right-to-roam law - at the end of September. But after being personally lobbied by landowners, he refused to give the proposals the go-ahead, raising a number of objections. He finally insisted he would only approve them if they included the "option" of voluntary agreement with landowners for greater access.

Landowners were confident they would be able to kill the proposed law by opening up a few, limited areas to the public. But Labour MPs were furious at the weakening of a particularly cherished and long-standing policy. Nearly 40 of them, including some ministers, undertook to campaign in Parliament for the right to roam.

Last week, just before his departure for the United States, Mr Blair called in three of the most committed MPs to assure them he was willing to legislate.

"He was at pains to point out that he was absolutely committed to greater access to the countryside," said Paddy Tipping, one of the MPs, yesterday. "He recognised that landowners had not done very much in the past voluntarily to provide access, and said that the pressure was now on them to prove that they could do it."

Mr Tipping said that Mr Blair had clearly moved his position and was "counter spinning". He believed that publicity over the issue - in articles in the IoS - had "done a service".

Ministers now say landowners have less than two years to prove they can voluntarily grant access to the entire 3.2 million acres or face legislation. They insist that nothing less than "the full monty" will do - opening up just part of the areas would not fend off the introduction of a bill.

Environment Minister Michael Meacher said yesterday: "There can be no shifting of our goals. We will give landowners a good opportunity to deliver the full area within a reasonable time scale. If they do not we will have to look to other means to secure them."

The Government does not want to bring in right-to-roam legislation before October 1999 anyway, because by then it expects to have reformed the House of Lords and thus neutralised the threat that hereditary peers would defeat it. Few expect that the landowners will voluntarily grant access to the whole area and avoid legislation.

David Beskine, assistant director of the Ramblers' Association, said: "Mr Blair's U-turn is very welcome. We do not believe that landowners will grant access voluntarily and so look forward to legislation within the next two years."