Labour backs down on ramblers' rights

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The Independent Online
THE GOVERNMENT has watered down a manifesto pledge to give walkers an unrestricted Right to Roam across the countryside. Under proposals to be unveiled next month, ministers will announce statutory and voluntary measures guaranteed to provoke a furious response from Labour MPs and the ramblers' lobby.

More than 100 Labour backbenchers are expected to vote next month for a private member's Bill that would give walkers and ramblers a comprehensive freedom to roam across areas now restricted.

However, The Independent has learnt that the Bill, to be published by Gordon Prentice, Labour MP for Pendle, will not receive government backing.

Ministers will produce their own proposals shortly before the Bill receives its second reading on 26 March, but those plans will not give ramblers the access they have demanded. Government plans will create a statutory framework to allow access to open land through voluntary agreements between councils and landowners.

The Bill will cover five areas - moorland, mountains, heath, down and common land - and the agreements will exempt landowners from liability for any accidents or injuries caused to walkers.

The proposals would tidy up the 1949 National Parks Act, which allowed for voluntary agreements but has proved ineffective, giving greater access to only 50,000 acres.

In a move that will further upset the rambling lobby, it has also emerged that a Government Bill is not likely to be introduced until 2001.

Ministers believe the hybrid approach will help to open up about 4 million acres of open land on a permanent basis.

When in opposition, Labour pledged to overturn centuries-old landowners' rights by giving walkers a legal mandate to wander freely in open country. The changes to the Bill will infuriate some Labour MPs who have taken part in mass trespass campaigns.

Downing Street, however, is keen to keep the countryside lobby on board - as seen earlier this week when it emerged that No 10 had approached a former Country Landowners' Association president to chair the new Countryside Agency.

Mr Prentice said last night that government failure to back his Bill would provoke a strong reaction on the back benches, as would any backing off from tough legislation.

As well as more than 100 MPs, Mr Prentice expects support from ministers and former cabinet members. "Labour is reinventing itself as a party of the centre-right. There is going to be a reaction against that from its core supporters; this is one of those issues," he said.

David Beskin, a spokesman for the Ramblers' Association, said a move towards voluntary agreements would be resisted.

"If they go for voluntary agreements, that won't change the law drawn up 50 years ago. The 1949 Act has not worked.

"We want a presumption in favour of access, and any move away from that will leave people angry. We will actually campaign against such a plan."