Open spaces: Walkers' paths blocked by delay in corridors of power

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Is Tony Blair getting cold feet over his election commitment to legislate for greater freedom to roam over open country? The White Paper that ministers promised to publish by the end of 1997 has not appeared. Stephen Goodwin investigates the delay.

It seemed the most unequivocal of promises. Buffeted by the wind on moors which provided the elemental inspiration for Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights, Frank Dobson told a band of ramblers he had "come with a pledge on behalf of the Labour Party". It would legislate to make the right to roam a "legal reality".

That was in September 1995 when Mr Dobson, now Secretary of State for Health, was shadow environment secretary. The campaign for the freedom of the hills seemed to be approaching fruition after more than 100 years. Subsequent Labour figures softened the language and emphasised the need for walkers to act responsibly, but, essentially, the promise was there in the party manifesto and was underlined by Tony Blair.

Last summer, with his feet barely beneath his new desk, environment minister Michael Meacher said that there would be a White Paper within weeks and that he wanted consultation with the various parties - ramblers, landowners and conservationists - finished by the New Year.

As the timetable slipped, junior minister Angela Eagle promised MPs that the White Paper at least would be out by New Year.

So where is it? A departmental spokesman repeated the "coming shortly" line but could not explain the delay. The fear among access campaigners is that Downing Street has become anxious about further angering the farming and landowning lobby. Ministers have been shaken by the scale of rural uprisings in defence of fox hunting, and, most recently, beef and sheep farmers.

According to insiders, the consultation paper was ready to go two months ago and was even translated into Welsh. It not only proposes granting a right to roam over mountain, moor and common land, the original commitment, but extends the freedom to uncultivated down and heath land.

Some 3.2 million acres of land in England and Wales would be covered, including the round tops of the South and North Downs and the chalk grassland of the Yorkshire and Lincolnshire Wolds. Hidden gems like Horsedale, in Yorkshire, would become open to walkers if the downland proposal survives the consultation process. "The impression the Government is giving at the moment is that they are getting cold feet," said Alan Mattingly, director of the Ramblers' Association.

"10 Downing Street is doing absolutely nothing to reassure people who want this legislation that it is a promise they are going to keep."

While a rural backlash is the most likely explanation for the delay - some landowners regard a right to roam as nothing short of land nationalisation - questions have also been raised over compensation.

The Country Landowners' Association has warned of claims totalling pounds 2bn if access rights are granted to offset a loss of land value and pay for public liability insurance. But Mr Meacher has publicly rejected wholesale compensation. Payments would only be likely if an added benefit, such as a car park, was being provided.

Mr Meacher was hoping to get an access-to-the-countryside Bill into the legislative programme beginning next autumn, but unless his proposals are published soon and the consultations speedily completed, the timetable will be impossibly tight.