Tory U-turn gives ramblers victory

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The Independent Online
THE CONSERVATIVE Party is to drop its long-held opposition to a right to roam in the countryside after a vigorous lobbying campaign by environmental groups.

The surprise move, which would constitute a U-turn by the party, would see Conservatives backing the biggest shake-up in public access to land Britain has ever seen.

It follows the strongest signals yet that the Government plans to overturn centuries-old landowners' rights by giving walkers a legal mandate to wander wherever they like in open country.

The plans for the freedom to roam will mean anyone would be able to walk unhindered for the first time across five designated sites of moorland, mountains, heath, down and common land.

Their adoption, now likely in a Bill in 2000 or 2001, will mark the final victory for ramblers and hikers after decades of mass-trespass campaigns.

The Tories' decision follows high-level contact with ramblers groups, and opinion polls showing that 85 per cent of the public supported the policy.

The move, which would go much further than current rights of way for footpaths, follows ministers' frustration that voluntary agreements with farmers have failed to secure access to Britain's most scenic countryside.

During the last general election campaign, the Tories described the proposals as a "charter for rural crime" and aggressively opposed a 10-minute rule Bill on the subject.

The Environment minister, Michael Meacher, is expected to announce next month the Government's decision on the freedom to roam and Tory insiders believe that a move to legislate would leave them looking out of touch with public opinion.

The 1949 National Parks Act was aimed at freeing up 4 million acres of land, but the public has been given greater access to only 50,000 acres since the Act was passed.

Mr Meacher gave a strong hint that he was likely to legislate, with a Bill likely in 2000, when he told the Labour Party conference it would take 1,000 years to get full access if voluntary agreements were relied upon with landowners.

Some Tory party advisers even claim that the issue could be turned to their advantage as an example of its commitment to individual freedom.

The softer line is sure to upset farmers and landowners' groups, but Tory insiders believe that significant political capital may be lost by backing the losing side in the debate.

It is understood that the National Farmers' Union is also preparing for legislation, a fact that has influenced senior Tories.

Proof of the change of heart was apparent on Wednesday when the Ramblers Association and the environmental pressure group Friends of the Earth held their first meeting on the topic at Conservative Central Office.

Gillian Shepherd, Conservative environment spokeswoman, issued a personal invitation to the green groups in an attempt to show that the party was open to all sides of the argument.

A Tory spokesman said: "Our gut instinct is against legislation for the freedom to roam, but we are in favour of improved access and if we were persuaded that it might improve access, we would be prepared to look at legislation.

"One of the options will be to look at tidying up the existing rights to access. Legislation is another option. Nothing has been ruled in and nothing has been ruled out."

David Beskin, assistant director of the Ramblers Association, said his visit to Central Office would be a "historic" development in its relationship with the Tories.

"It shows they now realise there's every likelihood the Government will pass freedom to roam legislation. While much of the Tory old guard, like Norman Tebbitt, have been implacably opposed, the new leadership is more in step with modern values.

"The Conservatives have traditionally been opposed to giving people a right of access to the open countryside, but as William Hague has made clear, the party wants to modernise in preparation for the new millennium. The Conservatives must realise that legislation is inevitable."