Labour caves in to rich over your right to roam

Click to follow
The Independent Online
TONY BLAIR is personally blocking one of Labour's most frequently repeated and deeply felt promises - to give everyone a legal right to walk freely in open countryside.

He has been delaying publication of specific proposals to implement the pledge for months and is refusing to release them unless a firm commitment to legislation is dropped. Ministers have even been told to stop talking about the "right to roam" but to refer instead to increased access to the countryside.

The Prime Minister's obstruction follows personal lobbying by landowners. It flies in the face of an assurance he gave as Leader of the Opposition and is bound to reignite the row over whether Downing Street policy is increasingly being set by wealthy sectional interests. More than 30 Labour backbenchers have offered to campaign in the Commons for the measure and yester- day one warned of a repeat of the furores over hunting and Formula One tobacco sponsorship.

The "right to roam" has extraordinary resonance for the Labour Party. Mass trespasses on moorland as part of the Thirties campaign are deeply entrenched in party folklore, as is the failure of the post-war Attlee government to make it law.

Eighteen months before the election Mr Blair wrote to the Ramblers' Association to promise that "a Labour government will give people a 'right to roam'". There were similar pledges from a number of shadow ministers.

After the election, Chris Smith, the Culture Secretary, gave "a government commitment to the concept of a 'right to roam' " and Environment Minister Michael Meacher said that "the principle of access is not negotiable" and that Labour intended to take it forward "as quickly as possible".

Detailed policies for a public right to roam on mountain, moorland, heath, downland and commonland were sent to Mr Blair at the end of September. When this was reported in the Independent on Sunday, Ewen Cameron, then president of the Country Landowners Association (CLA) wrote to the Prime Minister, citing the "disturbing" article and accusing the Government of having "already made up its mind".

He insisted there should be proposals for "voluntary agreements" with landowners as an alternative to legislation. This is precisely the line Mr Blair is now taking. The CLA last week first confirmed suggestions that Mr Cameron had met Mr Blair before Christmas, and then denied them. Downing Street said there had been no formal meeting, but that the two may have spoken informally.

Labour MP Paddy Tipping said yesterday: "There is a fair head of steam building up in the party. The Government has responded on other occasions to wealthy interests rather than ordinary people and we hope history is not going to repeat itself.

"The voluntary approach to improving access has simply not worked in the past ... It is now time for legislation."