Labour reneges on right to roam

MINISTERS WILL this week water down Labour's long-standing commitment to give people the "right to roam" over wild countryside, threatening to provoke the biggest row in the party since the election, writes Geoffrey Lean.

The plans, to be announced tomorrow, will combine voluntary and legal measures to open up the countryside, but they will fall far short of the compulsory right of access that is one of Labour's oldest and more frequently repeated pledges.

More than 180 Labour MPs support a private member's bill from MP Gordon Prentice which would lay down a statutory right to roam, and the new plans are bound to stir widespread anger. They fly in the face of repeated pre-election promises by ministers - including Tony Blair - that "a Labour government will give people a right to roam".

The plans provide for legislation to establish a presumption of a right to roam over mountain, moorland, heath, downland and common land in England and Wales, but they stipulate that permission must be negotiated between landowners, ramblers and other interested parties in "regional access fora".

If agreement cannot be reached in the fora, there will be a right of appeal to the new Countryside Agency, due to be set up in April. But many Labour MPs are unhappy because the new body is to be headed by Ewen Cameron, former president of the Country Landowners' Association.

The plans are a compromise between the Environment Minister, Michael Meacher, who has pressed for a full statutory right to roam, and Mr Blair, who has insisted on a voluntary approach since being lobbied by landowners after the election.

The Prime Minister blocked Mr Meacher's proposals for months, demanding that plans for legislation be dropped, until forced by backbench pressure to give way partially.