Right to roam delayed until Lords reform

Click to follow
THE GOVERNMENT is to grant walkers legal rights of access to private land, but intends to delay the move until after the reform of the House of Lords.

Senior ministers have decided that the Government would not succeed until after the hereditary peers - including many of Britain's biggest owners of moorland and heath - have been removed from the Upper House.

"We will need some legal underpinning. But we won't be able to start until the Lords is reformed," said a source.

The delay could mean putting off action until after the general election, disappointing Labour voters who have been campaigning for the right to roam. Earlier this year the Government said it would consider working for improved access through voluntary agreements, if they could be shown to be satisfactory.

In response, the Country Landowners' Association set up an access register and posted it on the Internet to show the number of sites where walkers are welcomed. At the start of this month more than 2,000 sites were represented, the CLA said, representing over a million acres. But this figure falls short of the Government's target of granting access to all 3.5m acres of "open countryside" - mountain, moor, heath, down and common land - in England and Wales.

Many Labour MPs were disappointed by the Government's voluntary approach, after the party's clear pre-election commitment to legislate on the right to roam. At a Ramblers' Association rally in 1995, Frank Dobson, then Labour environment spokesman, said: "The next Labour government will make the right to roam a legal reality. We will change the law to give people that right."

Tony Blair followed this up with a personal pledge, in a letter to the Ramblers' David Beskine later that year, in which he said: "As Frank Dobson pointed out in his speech, a Labour government will give people a `right to roam', which will be coupled with a duty to respect crops, livestock and valuable habitats."

Michael Meacher, the Environment minister, will today use a speech to the Countryside Commission to state that a final decision on the right to roam will be announced in the next few weeks.

Gillian Shephard, the Conservative environment spokeswoman, yesterday backed calls for some form of legislation, but accused Mr Meacher of being motivated by old fashioned "class warfare" over the issue.

Mrs Shephard said that there was neither a need nor a demand for a catch- all "freedom to roam" law, but there was a case for new legislation to redefine laws of trespass and landowner liability.

Ministers are still considering the detail of the legal powers that would be required.

The Green Paper proposed a right of access to mountain, moor, heath and down and registered common land, but it stopped short of a right to roam in all circumstances. It ruled out access to developed land, and said the right should not extend to agricultural land notused for extensive grazing.

The Countryside Commission would have a statutory duty to issue guidance on identifying countryside to which there was a right of access.