Landowners accused over access 'con'

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THE MAIN countryside body opposed to a statutory "right to roam" has been accused of "conning the Government" with its publication of a register of land that is supposedly open to the public but includes lanes and fields that are not available for everyday use.

The register, compiled by the Country Landowners' Association, is designed to show details of land voluntarily opened up to the public by landowners. But it has been criticised for including roads open only to commercial traffic and fields open solely for fox hunting.

The CLA says the list, drawn up as part of its Access 2000 programme and displayed on its website, demonstrates that its preference for a voluntary code of access to the countryside is popular with its members, and that there is no need for "right to roam" legislation.

The register has been issued in advance of an announcement by the Government on public freedom to roam on mountain, heath, moor, down and common land. The Government is under pressure to honour its election manifesto pledge that access would be ensured by placing it on the statute book. Labour MPs have threatened a revolt if the Government fails to introduce a legally enforceable code.

Among the sites listed by the CLA as "open to the public" are:

t North Bovey, Devon: open to the South Devon fox hunt only;

t Iver, Buckinghamshire: open for "Pick Your Own" strawberry gathering;

t Denshaw, Greater Manchester: open to allow National Grid maintenance vehicles to turn around, clay-pigeon shooting, and annual dog trials;

t Ewerby, Lincolnshire: opening of a barn for functions;

t Marbury, Shropshire: for the control of rabbits;

t Dean, West Sussex: gardens on payment of entrance fee;

t Withypool, Somerset: open for hunting.

Supporters of a statutory right of access to the countryside believe the nature of the land so far "opened up" illustrates how a voluntary code of access would be unworkable and how it has attracted little enthusiasm among landowners in England and Wales.

A month ago it emerged that the only direct result of the Access 2000 scheme, set up last year and part-funded by a pounds 70,000 grant from public money, was 20 acres of open access and eight miles of paths on a 3,000- acre estate owned by the CLA' s president.

The Ramblers' Association says that, because much of the land in the register is opened only on a conditional or commercial basis, the list goes against the spirit of free and unlimited access to the general public.

"The CLA are trying to con and delude the Government. They are listing everything they could find," commented Kate Ashbrook, chairman of the Ramblers' Association, which is holding a series of rallies today to mark its National Access Day. "This is not access for the general public. It's hardly voluntary access to pick your own fruit - you have to pay for what you take.

"They are providing deals for fee-paying people on the landowners' terms. The CLA have not persuaded their members in the terms required by the Government."

The CLA, however, said the register was designed to encourage access for all kinds of land users.

"This is a comprehensive list of a wide variety of access opportunities," said a spokeswoman for the CLA. "Why should it just be for walkers? We're not opening land up just to the ramblers. Other people want access too. There are people who want to ride horses or mountain bikes or hold scout camps.

"We believe that a voluntary code works best. You can't just open up land; you have to go about it in a sensible manner. We're encouraging our members to take stock of what they have available."

Landowners also feel that the logistical difficulties involved in creating public access are unappreciated. Edward Greenwell, a landowner in East Anglia, said he had been hampered by a lack of resources among local authorities in his efforts to create a 2.5-mile coastal path and a half-mile footpath on his land.

"The local council tries its level best but it has a limited amount of money and it has different priorities which come before the creation of this path," he said.

"It's frustrating because I'm afraid that landowners will get the blame for failing to create access when they actually want to let the public in. "Unless the Government gives more money to councils to administer the creation of new paths, the problem will be with us for some time."