The long-promised "right to roam" - cherished target of the traditional Labour Left for half a century - was announced by Michael Meacher. The Environment minister said walkers will get for the first time a statutory right of access to between three and four million acres of countryside in England and Wales, defined as mountain, moorland, heath, downland and registered common land.
Landowners, who greeted the proposals with fury, will be able to object to new local access forums, which it is hoped, Mr Meacher said, will reach consensus on access. If agreement could not be reached, compulsion will be used, making it a criminal offence to continue to block rights of access.
The new Countryside Agency being established for England this year and the Countryside Council for Wales, which will manage the forums county by county, will make the final decisions. They will map all the land covered by the new access, which could take years.
Mr Meacher told delighted Labour backbenchers the legislation would be brought in as soon as parliamentary time allowed as a "lasting tribute to the memory of John Smith", the former Labour leader and a keen hillwalker.
Tony Blair was suspected of wanting to cave in to landowners' demands for more modest voluntary agreements, but pressure from the Environment Department, John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, and Labour backbench support for the forthcoming private member's "Right to Roam" Bill by Gordon Prentice, the MP for Pendle, have convinced Downing Street of the need for a more radical line.
Mr Meacher told MPs: "Over the past 50 years, a voluntary approach has delivered relatively little and, despite some commendable initiatives, there is little prospect of much new access being provided voluntarily in future ... Only a new statutory right will deliver cost-effectively the extent and permanence of access we seek. We are convinced legislation is the only way to make sure people will be free in perpetuity to explore open countryside." Landowners could restrict access for up to 28 days each year for land management, such as heather burning or shooting. Other temporary or permanent closures might be made for nature conservation, protection of heritage sites, health and safety or defence.
Mr Meacher said the new Countryside Agency's first president would be Ewen Cameron, a Somerset landowner who is the immediate past president of the Country Landowners Association. His successor as president, Norfolk landowner Ian MacNicol, said landowners would fight the move. He said: "We believe this to be the expropriation of private land rights."
Kate Ashbrook, head of the Ramblers' Association freedom to roam campaign, was "delighted" with what she called "an historic moment".
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