Labour tests 'freedom to roam' plans

Inside Parliament
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The Independent Online
One of Labour's more concrete policy promises - the freedom to roam over open countryside - was given a test run in the Commons yesterday and immediately ran into the hostility of an MP fighting the landowners' corner.

Tim Yeo, Conservative MP for Suffolk South and a former environment minister, said the access Bill was a "legislative dinosaur" and showed how little Labour understood the countryside.

But Paddy Tipping, MP for Sherwood and a rambler, had solid support from his Labour colleagues and the Bill's introduction was approved by 144 votes to 60.

It will not reach the statute book, but that was never Mr Tipping's intention, nor that of the Ramblers' Association which drafted the measure. They regard it as "a first step" - the basis for consultation with owners and conservationists on how access can be balanced with land management and shooting interests.

"It is not a Utopian demand with everything the access lobby would wish for in an ideal world," Mr Tipping said. "To characterise it as allowing unrestricted access reveals prejudice and vested interest."

Freedom to roam legislation has a long - if unsuccessful - pedigree going back to the Access to Mountains Bill of 1884. The object has changed little: to grant a right to walk over mountains, moors and other uncultivated land for fresh air and recreation.

It ceased to look an unlikely prospect when John Smith, the late Labour leader and a keen hillwalker, adopted it as party policy. Successive shadow environment secretaries have reaffirmed the promise, though emphasising that obligations would also be placed on walkers. Those who failed to control their dogs, dropped litter or lit fires would be treated as trespassers.

Mr Yeo denounced the Bill as a flawed "monstrosity" which would halt the steady progress to more access. In the last five years, agreement had been reached on managed access to more than 90,000 hectares of land.

He said the Bill would "criminalise" landowners who sought to protect their property or keep people away from hazardous areas, while those who wanted to curtail the right to roam would have "go on bended knee to some council lackey". The whole approach was based on "the old Labour attitude", Mr Yeo said, and he was surprised it had slipped the notice of Tony Blair.

Mr Blair, however, has had his mind closely focused on education and law and order as the Tories have hammered on with charges of "hypocrisy" against his team. MPs were expecting another bruising encounter at Question Time yesterday but the heavy blows never materialised.

Struggling with a cold, the Prime Minister said Labour "sometimes use tough words on crime, but when it comes to actions they are very soft". Mr Blair hit back with the painful reminder for the Conservatives that "under them crime has doubled".

Paddy Ashdown also weighed in, claiming the numbers of police had fallen by 1,000 when John Major had promised at the election to increase them by 1,000. "Is this what he means by 'saying one thing and doing another'?"

Mr Major said the figures showed crime falling for the first time in 40 years and resources for an extra 5,000 police officers. As Mr Ashdown gesticulated, the Prime Minister added, with personal venom he reserves for the Lib Dem leader: "It's no good you living in some Disneyland of your own waving your hands about. These are the facts."