Right to roam campaign faces a tough climb

Ramblers find path to freedom blocked by mountaineers
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The Independent Online
The campaign for a public "right to roam" over mountain and moor will get an unwelcome jolt next month when one of its natural allies, the British Mountaineering Council, publishes a charter echoing the arguments of landowners.

Rather than legislation granting access to open country, the BMC favours an "informal approach", securing permission to climb on particular crags or walk in an area by negotiation with individual owners. The Country Landowners' Association calls it "managed access".

But to the Ramblers' Association and many climbers, the mountaineers' approach smacks of "revisionism" at precisely the wrong moment. Campaign- ers are anxious to hold Labour to a commitment to introduce a right to roam, subject to commonsense restrictions, if it wins the general election.

Tony Blair, the Labour leader, has shown signs of wavering on a promise he has been told could alienate rural voters. The commitment, with its awkward socialist overtones, was inherited from the late John Smith. So far, Labour frontbenchers have insisted that it will be carried through. But the BMC's "Access Charter", and the council's respect-able standing in the outdoor movement, could help Mr Blair cover any retreat.

"The charter will be used to drive a wedge into what should be a united camp," said Jim Perrin, the mountaineering author and one of climbing world's few political radicals. "It will be used to undermine the Bill."

An "inept" BMC access team had fallen for the blandishments of the CLA and a seat at the negotiating table, Mr Perrin said. "It's the traditional strategy of those in power. Let's give these people the appearance of influence and respect-ability and they will be happy."

BMC and RA representatives attended the CLA's lavish Access 2000 conference last month, but only the ramblers spoke out against the landowners' line that access to the countryside beyond public rights of way must be agreed voluntarily and managed.

A draft of the charter does not rule out legislation but argues that access has become a much more complex issue since the Thirties - the time of mass trespasses on the Pennine moors. It calls for a "thorough review" and initiatives to "bring greater public access to both upland and lowland countryside in England and Wales in ways which are in keeping with the needs of land managers and wildlife conservation".

The BMC fears that defining open country could lead to climbers being barred from crags in lowland or cultivated areas in a "backlash" by landowners. Labour has limited open country to mountain and moorland; the BMC wants to add cliff and foreshore; and the RA would like to go further and include downland and forests.

A paper prepared earlier this year by Jeremy Barlow, the BMC's access officer, warned that concentrating on improved access to target sites might be seen as "provocative" and as undermining the RA's attempt to achieve legislation.

David Beskine, the RA's assistant director, regretted what he saw as a shift in BMC policy over the last four years.

"They're not interested in mountain walkers any more, just themselves and their friends who go climbing on individual crags. They seem happy to slip into the position as acting as the agent for restrictions. We're very sad about it," he said.