The proposals, requiring access to hundreds of thousands of acres of Britain's most beautiful landscape, are bound to start a new row between the Government and some of the country's wealthiest aristocrats.
A landowner revolt over the "right to roam" is likely to dwarf the dispute over fox-hunting. The Government is expected to meet furious opposition in the House of Lords at the very time that ministers are trying to reform it.
Fear of delays caused byresistance in the upper chamber has already given the Cabinet second thoughts about supporting the anti-hunting Bill, but it would find it extremely hard to back away from the access provisions as they fulfil an election promise repeatedly reaffirmed by ministers and described only last week as "an absolute priority".
The plans, detailed in a consultation paper drawn up by environment ministers, may also open up tensions among greens between ramblers pressing for access and conservation groups which fear that walkers may disturb rare wildlife.
They establish a "right to roam" across mountain, moorland and commonland in England and Wales (despite its name, there are only rights of access to about one-fifth of the country's 1.3 million acres of commonland). North of the border the issue will be left to the Scottish Parliament, after devolution.
No compensation will be paid to landowners, though they are demanding up to pounds 2bn for opening up their property and taking down the "Keep Out" signs, but they will be entitled to levy a small charge for the use of any car parks or other facilities they put in to accommodate walkers.
Ministers have decided not to extend the right to roam to woodland, riverbank, cliffs or foreshore; but they could yet be persuaded, during the three- month consultation period, to include heathland and downland, which takes the place of mountain and moorland in the landscape of southern England and the Midlands.
The proposals - promised by Mr Blair before the election - now only await his go-ahead before being published. Environment ministers will have a Bill ready within a year, and are pressing for it to be included in the 1998 Queen's Speech.
Battle lines are already being drawn. David Beskine, assistant director of the Ramblers' Association, which has campaigned for the measure for decades, says: "This strikes at the very heart of the landed aristocracy."
Among those affected are the Duke of Westminster, one of Britain's wealthiest men, who allows free access to only one-tenth of his 25 square mile tract of beautiful countryside in Lancashire's Forest of Bowland.
The duke is a director of the Countryside Movement, headed by Lord Steel, which opposes the right to roam, and bailed it out of financial difficulties with a pounds 1m, interest-free, unsecured loan. The duke's Grosvenor Estate said yesterday that free access "would make life difficult for us in managing the estate". It described it as "an emotive issue" and predicted resistance in the Lords.
The Country Landowners Association (CLA) warned of "an incredible amount of opposition" from its members, who "feel incredibly strongly on this issue". Other prominent landowners likely to be hit include Earl Peel, another director of the Countryside Movement, Lord Savile who owns moorland above Hebden Bridge, and Sir Arthur Milbank, a big North Yorkshire landowner who heads the Moorland Association which is even more opposed to thelegislation than the CLA.Reuse content