Labour reaffirms `right to roam' pledge

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The Independent Online
People will be given the right to roam over Britain's mountains, moors and open country by the next Labour government, the party's environment spokesman promised yesterday. Buffeted by the wind on the edge of Haworth moor, West Yorkshire, Frank Dobson said the freedom to roam would become "a legal reality".

The proposal has the smack of popular socialism and presages a battle royal with landowners. The Moorland Association, representing some 125 grouse moor owners including several in the House of Lords, has said it would fight the legislation "every step of the way".

Mr Dobson was speaking at one of more than 100 rallies organised by the Ramblers' Association on what they declared "Open Britain Day". The aim was to highlight how many footpaths remain illegally blocked or difficult to follow and to press their case for the freedom to roam in open country - a right they accept must be balanced with safeguards for landowners.

Haworth moor was the elemental inspiration for Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights but, 150 years later, it is likely many of the Bronte sisters' walks would be on forbidden ground.

Mr Dobson's reaffirmation of a pledge by the late Labour leader, John Smith, was welcomed by Janet Street-Porter, the Ramblers' Association president. In a first appearance since her dramatic exit as head of Live TV, Ms Street-Porter said anti-access landowners were "a dying breed, an anachronism in the 1990s".

"I am convinced that we will win this fight, because justice, tradition and the public interest are on our side," she told the 150 or so ramblers at the Haworth rally.

Most went on to walk across Haworth Moor to take in the commanding Pennine views from Alcomden Stones - access having been granted by Yorkshire Water, just for the day.

Trespass was not intended to form part of any of the day's events across Britain, which the association said attracted some 4,000 people.

Soon after Parliament resumes, the association intends to publish a draft Access Bill "based on the principle of establishing freedom to roam but subject to measures for the protection of wildlife, farming, landowning and other interests".

Landowners and conservationists will be invited to discuss the legislation to try to provide a future government with a workable model. The association describes it as an "olive branch" approach while pointing out to landowners the possible stick of legislation if it is refused.

Restrictions on access would include a ban on letting dogs off leads, lighting fires, and disturbing birds and animals. Landowners would be able to apply to local authorities to suspend access for shooting, to protect newly-planted trees, or if there was a fire risk.

John Smith was a keen hillwalker and vice-president of the RA. But his promise of a right to roam seemed to fall dormant as Tony Blair took a cautious approach to policy commitments. But Mr Dobson was unequivocal. "I come with a pledge from the Labour Party that we will support your campaign for greater freedom for the people of this country to roam upon the land." Labour would make the right to roam a legal reality, he said to cheers. It would also remove the threat of the 1994 law of aggravated trespass being used against "innocent walkers".

Mr Dobson also emphasised that with new rights would come new duties.

Although most resistance to an Access Bill could be expected in the Lords - "the House of Landlords" according to Mr Dobson - by convention peers do not vote down legislation proposed in the governing party's manifesto. Nor might the Lords want to antagonise a party that plans to remove hereditary peers' voting rights.

Attempts to persuade Parliament to legislate for a right to roam - common elsewhere in Europe - go back 110 years. Some of those gathered at Haworth had been around for much of that time. Elsie Gaskell, aged 73, joined the RA with her parents when it was formed in 1935.

"We're not militant ramblers and we don't like trespasses," Mrs Gaskell said. "But there comes a time when you have got to push and that is why we have these rallies."

Suggestions of a new mood of militancy at the head of the Ramblers' Association are strenuously denied. The last RA-backed trespass was on Thurlstone Moor in the Peak District in 1991. Initiated by local members, it attracted 560 people. With the goal of a right to roam closer than it has looked for a century, the RA intends to keep up pressure, but from the lawful side of the fence.