Landowners may face new access laws

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THE GOVERNMENT will signal next week that it intends to press ahead with tough legislation to open up land to ramblers, despite fierce resistance from landowners.

Michael Meacher, the Environment Minister, is expected to announce that a consultation process on the Access to the Countryside green paper has shown that limited rights need to be underpinned by statutory powers to open land owned by reluctant landlords such as the millionaire property dealer, Nicholas Van Hoogstraten.

Mr Van Hoogstraten has infuriated ramblers after he blocked a footpath which runs for half a mile through High Cross Estate in the heart of the Sussex downland near Uckfield. All pleas by the ramblers for the footpath to be reopened have been refused.

The Government would prefer to allow voluntary agreements to be reached between walkers and landowners, but the consultation has shown that some landowners, like Mr Van Hoogstraten, are determined to keep them out.

Ministers have concluded that walkers need some legal backing to their right of access to the countryside. That will be welcomed by the ramblers, but they will be told that the Government cannot proceed with legislation until after the Lords is reformed, which could put legislative action off for at least a year, and possibly until after the general election.

In the meantime, a Labour backbench MP, Gordon Prentice, is expected to take up the issue with a private members' bill on the right to roam after coming fifth in the ballot for the right to introduce backbench bills. The issue could revive the clash between town and country, which came to a head last summer with the mass march on London over the backbench bill, introduced by Worcester's Labour MP Mike Foster, to ban fox hunting .

Mr Prentice is guaranteed a full day of debate in the Commons but it is likely that a freedom to roam bill would be killed like the ban on fox hunting.

Tony Blair has been wary of upsetting the landowners since the mass rally in London, but the consultation process has convinced ministers that there is a need to reinforce walkers' right of access to the countryside. "We will need some legal underpinning. But we won't be able to start until the Lords is reformed," said a source.