Landowners in access 'sham'

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The Independent Online
A COUNTRYSIDE lobby group, opposed to a legally enforceable "right to roam", is being accused of wasting thousands of pounds of taxpayers' money on a scheme which has failed to create significant new public access to land for walkers.

One MP is even demanding that the Government calls in the National Audit Office to investigate how the Country Landowners' Association (CLA) has been spending public money on its Access 2000 project. The Ramblers' Association has labelled the scheme a "sham", and says it shows the need for legislation on the right to roam.

The CLA was granted nearly pounds 70,000 by the Countryside Commission (CC) for the scheme, set up 15 months ago to improve the "quality, diversity and quantity" of public access to the countryside.

However, the only direct result of the scheme is 20 acres of open access and eight miles of paths on a 3,000-acre estate owned by the CLA' s president.

The CLA set up the scheme to prove that landowners could be persuaded to grant access to their land on a voluntary basis, instead of being forced to do so through legislation, promised in Labour's election manifesto.

The CC agreed to meet part of the cost of the project with taxpayers' money over three years to April 2000. This cost included paying an access adviser to identify sites which could be opened to the public and to encourage landowners to improve access.

Nine access assessments on estates across the country have been completed, but the only new land to be opened up to the public is on the Stody Estate, in Norfolk, owned by Ian MacNicol, president of the CLA.

Gordon Prentice, MP for Pendle and a supporter of the Ramblers' Association, says action should be taken by the National Audit Office. He first questioned the progress of Access 2000 in May, when he asked the Secretary of State for the Environment to list the new public access sites opened as a result of the expenditure.

"These landowners do not want people on their land. They say there is no public demand for access, but if that is true, why are they getting their knickers in such a twist about granting access?

"What the CLA has never answered is what is done with the landlord who refuses to grant people access," he said.

The Ramblers' Association is equally critical, saying the CLA's lack of progress proves voluntary access does not work.

"Access 2000 has been a sham from the outset. It has been running for more than two years and yet the CLA cannot point to a single acre of land where the public has been given new access," said David Beskine, assistant director.

"The Government must honour its pre-election promise of a legal freedom to roam."