Labour chiefs wrangle over right to roam

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The Independent Online
A LAST-DITCH battle was being fought between Tony Blair and John Prescott last night over plans for a Government consultation paper on a public right to roam over more than 3 million acres of the countryside.

After months of high-level Government wrangling, with the Prime Minister attempting to placate the Country Landowners' Association, and environment ministers fighting for statutory enforcement of the public's right of access, the final deal gives the landowners a two-year deadline to open up their land.

The ultimatum is that if they have not delivered by then, the Government will bring forward legislation - which it could push through a reformed House of Lords in which hereditary peers would no longer have a right to vote. That formula marks a distinct retreat from earlier pledges given by ministers, many of whom do not trust the powerful landowners to give ground.

Before the election, in 1995, Mr Blair himself said: "A Labour government will give the people the 'right to roam' which will be coupled with a duty to respect crops, livestock and valuable habitats." Frank Dobson, then the party's environment spokesman, said: "On behalf of the Labour Party, I make this promise. The next Labour government will give people a right to roam. It will make the right to roam a legal reality. We will change the law to give people that right."

But the battle over the latest non-statutory deal was continuing in Whitehall yesterday, with No 10 resisting a demand by Mr Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister and Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, that he should be allowed to make a full Commons statement to accompany publication of the paper, scheduled for next Wednesday.

The Independent was told Mr Blair feared Mr Prescott would "rub up" the landowners the wrong way. Mr Prescott's colleagues wanted him to be able to reassure party and people, in Parliament, that the right to roam would be enacted.

Some Labour MPs fearthat if any Bill has to wait until after the House of Lords has been reformed, it will become a pretext for further delay.