MoD backtracks over right to roam

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THE MINISTRY of Defence held talks for the first time yesterday with environmental groups that have repeatedly called for better public access to its vast tracts of land.

Campaigners and walkers welcomed the change of approach by the ministry over its plans for its rural estate, which includes some of the most spectacular countryside in Britain. Despite the 1990 Options for Change exercise, which cut overall army manpower by 25 per cent, the ministry still occupies almost 500,000 acres of land in Britain.

Of this, almost 40,000 are within national parks, cutting off parts of the Pembrokeshire coast, Lake District, Peak District and North York Moors from the public. A quarter of the Northumberland National Park is owned by the MoD.

Last month campaigners successfully pushed for a public inquiry into plans to train with large guns at the Otterburn area of the park.

Concern about noise, the environmental impact and access to MoD land have been highlighted by the Ramblers' Association and the Council for National Parks, which were at the meeting yesterday at the MoD in London.

Vicki Elcoate, director of the Council for National Parks, said: "It marks a definite change in culture at the MoD. One reason ... is that public expectations about the environment have changed.

"The MoD cannot get away any more with being such a closed shop. They made it clear this was the beginning of a process and we hope it will lead to a much higher level of public debate about what happens to the land occupied by the Ministry of Defence. It is something which concerns everyone."

The council says occupation of so much national park land presents a conflict of interest. The idea of national parks was conceived after the Second World War to provide areas of open countryside for people living in an increasingly built-up environment, Ms Elcoate said. Yesterday's apparent change follows the strategic defence review (SDR) of July, which will bring more changes to the forces, including the return of soldiers from overseas.

Ian Andrews, chief executive of the ministry's defence estate organisation, said: "One of the commitments of the SDR was to carry out a strategic appraisal of the rural estate.

"We also committed for the first time to consult widely and to take into account their views." Campaigners have also argued that, after the end of the Cold War, the military no longer needs large tracts of training land.

But Mr Andrews said the need for troops in Bosnia, Northern Ireland and the Gulf as well as the return of about 25,000 overseas troops over the past 10 years meant that the need for land was as great as ever. "We have changing requirements and we continuously keep the extent of the estate we have under review," he said.