Blair caves in to rich over right to roam

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BRITONS will not have the right to walk in wild countryside until after the millennium - if ever - despite repeated government promises to make it a top priority.

Plans to promptly introduce a legal "right to roam" over mountain, moorland, heath and common land - a long-standing Labour commitment - have been watered down and delayed by Tony Blair, after he was personally lobbied by landowners.

As forecast in the Independent on Sunday two weeks ago, the Prime Minister has successfully insisted that the plans include proposals for "voluntary agreements" with landowners as well as the promised legislation. Both a right to roam and a reliance on voluntary measures will be included as "options" in a consultation document this month

Even if the legal option isadopted, no bill will be introduced before autumn of 1999, at the earliest, because of fears of opposition in the House of Lords. This means it could not be in force until after the millennium.

The extent to which the influence of landowners on Downing Street has been able to weaken a central tenet of the Labour movement is alarming some cabinet ministers. Nearly 40 MPs, including some ministers, have now promised the Ramblers Association to lobby for the right to roam in Parliament.

Last night, Mr David Beskine, assistant director of the Ramblers' Association, said: "Mr Blair promised a right to roam Bill and has said that he keeps his promises. It is incredible that a government with a popular mandate and one of the biggest ever majorities should run scared from a bunch of aristocrats."