Rural: A roam with a view

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Next week the Government is expected to publish its long awaited consultation paper on extending countryside access. David Foster talks to those with a stake in the debate, and charts the failure of previous attempts to enlarge the `right to roam'

Nip into any decent bookshop and for around pounds 5 you can pick up an Ordnance Survey map. It is your key to local footpaths, part of a national network extending for more than 100,000 miles.

The same maps also show National Parks. But 50 years ago, things were very different: National Parks were still in the future, and although OS maps did mark some footpaths, their legal status was unclear.

In 1949 came the National Parks and Access of the Countryside Act. As well as enabling the creation of National Parks, the Act required local authorities in England and Wales to produce "definitive maps" of local rights of way open to everyone.

However, the Act was expected to do more. Councils also had to consider making agreements with landowners that would open up vast areas of countryside for people to roam at will. In the absence of agreement, a council could make an access order - if they paid compensation to the landowner. But access maps only had to be prepared if access areas were actually established and, somehow, this didn't happen.

Only five out of 107 local authorities recently surveyed by the Ramblers' Association actually have such maps. In short, the survey concludes that outside the National Parks, the Act "had only a marginal effect" and the open country provisions "never became a vital part of [the] culture of recreation provision".

The problem, says Anthony Bosanquet, deputy president of the Country Landowners' Association (CLA), is that "local authorities have been reluctant to use their powers because of a lack of finance".

Stephen Jenkinson, of the Institute of Public Rights of Way Officers (IPROW) agrees: "In the Peak District they've opened up 80 square miles of extra access," he says. "That's only a tenth of the area of the Snowdonia National Park, but the annual cost of compensation is pounds 250,000."

So much for history. Labour's manifesto promised "greater freedom for people to explore our open countryside", and last autumn the environment minister, Michael Meacher, told a Ramblers' Association meeting that "the right to roam is a central part of our environmental programme... I anticipate that we will be preparing a bill... for the [parliamentary] session which begins in October 1998."

Landowners also want to see more access, though they believe that legislation is unnecessary. In November 1996, the CLA's Access 2000 conference established a policy to "increase the quality, quantity and diversity of access" by voluntary rather than statutory methods.

Since then the CLA has appointed an access adviser, and is producing an access register listing all non-statutory access provided by their members. Among other benefits, says Mr Bosanquet, this should address the long-standing issue of access that has been granted in return for tax exemptions. "There is no question at all that when a bargain has been struck with the taxpayer, then the public must be aware of where that access is." His only reservation is that an individual's tax affairs must remain confidential.

Mr Jenkinson welcomes the new access register. "My only worry is that without access to Inland Revenue records, they're relying on voluntary disclosure by landowners." But Kate Ashbrook, chair of the Ramblers' Association, is sceptical. "What the CLA has published so far isn't new - much of it is long-established, customary access. There is very little additional access being generated. But in any case, voluntary access would just be a hotch-potch; it won't be shown on OS maps, and the public won't known where it is."

If there is wide agreement about the need to open up more countryside, there are sharp differences of opinion about the practicalities - and the costs. Mr Bosanquet believes that a statutory right to roam "would undoubtedly involve compensation for loss of ownership rights" and he questions whether it would be either better or cheaper "than updating the 1949 Act to deal with people who won't fall into line" with a voluntary approach.

Ms Ashbrook disagrees. "We don't think open access needs the same sort of funding as footpaths. We don't expect that councils would need to produces maps. In most cases there will be no dispute about whether the land falls within the new definition". Most moorland, she argues, is pretty clear cut; and while there are problems defining downland, the Ramblers are helping with ideas to make things clearer.

The future depends on the results of the Government's consultation exercise, but any new legislation will probably be administered by members of IPROW.

"Giving people quality information about access if vital," says Mr Jenkinson - and that will involve some costs. Walkers also need alerting to the seasonal and environmental restrictions that everyone agrees will be necessary. "The problem isn't managing the people who use the access," he says. "The problem is managing the people who abuse it."