Politics: Landowners threaten legal action if ramblers are granted the right to roam

Scenting blood in their campaign to kill off any right to roam, landowners yesterday unveiled new ideas for improving access to the countryside on their own terms while hinting at court action if the Government legislates.

The package from the Country Landowners' Association, including a register of the thousands of acres where landowners "permit" the public to walk without granting rights, is intended to put further pressure on Tony Blair.

Within the next three weeks, the Government is expected to publish its consultation paper on granting greater public access to open country. Michael Meacher, the environment minister, submitted the paper to No10 in the autumn. But Mr Blair, lobbied hard by well-connected landowners, has delayed publication, provoking fears he was abandoning a manifesto commitment.

Ramblers suspect members of the Royal Family, among the country's largest landowners, may have may made known their opposition to a right to roam.

Ian MacNicol, president of the CLA, said yesterday that managed voluntary access remained the best way forward. "It is a more cost-effective, more practical and more responsive way to deliver that manifesto commitment." According to a study carried out for the CLA at Manchester University, landowners would be able to claim pounds 50m a year in compensation if the original proposal for a right to roam over mountain, moor and common land in England and Wales was enacted.

Mr Meacher has rejected large payouts, but Mr MacNicol said yesterday that if a right to roam was granted without compensation the issue might be taken to the European Court of Human Rights. "Intuitively, we feel the costs will be less for voluntary access," he said.

As well as county access registers, giving information on permitted access rarely shown on Ordnance Survey maps, the CLA is also pioneering "access audits" of farms and estates to identify where owners might to falling short of existing legal requirements and possible improvements.

The Ramblers' Association said that while the CLA indulged in "PR fantasies", public rights of way were routinely and illegally blocked. Among examples cited, were paths on land owned by the Duke of Buccleugh in Northamptonshire and Duke of Westminster in Cheshire - two of the country's wealthiest aristocrats.

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