Blair reassures farmers over right to roam

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The Independent Online
Tony Blair will reassure farmers and landowners that ramblers will not be allowed to trample down crops and disrupt farming activities under new rights to roam proposed today in a government Green Paper.

The Prime Minister has chosen the glossy pages of this week's Country Life magazine to deliver his message of reassurance to the countryside community in advance of a mass march in London at the weekend by an expected 200,000 country pursuits supporters.

"Some people are worried about our commitment to greater access to the countryside," Mr Blair writes. "I can reassure them we are committed to consultation and to ensuring that any new rights and not abused.

He added: "The idea that this will result in people trampling down crops and disrupting farm activities is fanciful, as I am sure the consultation will show."

In a separate move, Jack Cunningham, the Minister for Agriculture, will announce that the Government will meet the estimated pounds 40m cost of two measures imposed on farmers to restore public confidence in meat after the outbreak of mad cow disease.

He will tell the Agro-Europe conference in London that the taxpayer will pick up the bill for a deboning scheme for specified risk meat and for setting up a cattle traceability scheme with the operating costs for the first year.

The Government is also ready to look into the feasibility of an early retirement scheme for farmers, Mr Cunningham will tell the conference, answering concerns raised last week with the Prime Minister at a meeting with farmers' leaders at Downing Street, including Ben Gill, the National Farmers' Union president and representatives from Wales and Scotland.

The Green Paper on the right to roam, to be published today by environment minister Michael Meacher will fulfil a Labour election pledge to give walkers rights of access to the countryside, except areas of cultivated land. It will make it clear that the Government wants to see voluntary co-operation between landowners and walkers, but if necessary, it would be willing to introduce legislation to enforce the rights of access. It will also limit the rights to walkers without dogs.

That may upset dog lovers who are eagerly awaiting the right to roam, but the green paper will be seen as a further compromise in further moves this week to defuse unrest in the countryside.

It follows the shift announced by John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, on Monday, to require more building on "recycled'' land in cities, towns and villages, than in the green belts.

The Government is keen to undermine the attempts by the Tory Party to capitalise on grievances over housing in the green belts, falling farm incomes due to the high value of the pound and BSE, and the Labour private member's Bill to ban foxhunting.

William Hague, the Tory leader, will be joining the march on Sunday organised by the Countryside Alliance, but Mr Blair is keen to hold on to the many rural seats which Labour won in the general election landslide last May.

t Six Bishops from rural England have declared their opposition to plans by Labour to ban fox-hunting by 2000, in a letter published by the Daily Telegraph today.

The good life? page 16