Celebrities criticised as cost of right to roam law hits £59m

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The Independent Online

Lengthy inquiries - such as that over the public access to Madonna's country estate in Wiltshire - meant that the costs of implementing the Countryside and Rights of Way Act more than doubled.

According to the National Audit Office (NAO), the Countryside Agency budgeted on a £28m cost for the introduction of the legislation, designed to open up almost two million acres of countryside to the public. However, the agency found that £69m has now been spent, almost half of which was due to the mapping required of the new areas.

According to the agency, the money covered the costs of the 3,173 appeals against the Act during the process of implementation, which ran from 2000, when the Act received Royal Assent to last October, when the process was completed. Many of the appeals ran for several days. However, the agency said that only 2.4 per cent of the new access land was reduced by the inquiry. A spokeswoman stressed that the agency viewed the inquiry process as a necessary part of the public consultation to ensure a balanced result.

The NAO report criticised the agency for failing to conduct a pilot scheme to test procedures and for underestimating the mapping costs. It also pointed out that, in a field test conducted by its employees last year, there was little evidence that large numbers of the public were using their right to walk over the land. The findings will have implications for the plans by the agency and the Ramblers' Association for a similar right governing coastal access.

The right to roam was a long cherished dream of the Ramblers' Association and was crucial to its formation in the 1930s. It was a commitment of the Labour Government when Tony Blair came to power in 1997. But the right has long been resisted by big landowners and country estates who have used the inquiry and appeal system to restrict the extent to which the public were able to access their land.

David Fursdon, president of the Country Land and Business Association, many of whose members challenged the Act, said: "Never has so much been spent on so few - so let's not make the same mistake with the coastal access project by giving people a blanket right that will fail to encourage more, and new, people to get out and enjoy the countryside." He added: "It's obvious that these blanket rights do not lead to new people visiting which is what we want for our rural businesses and for the public."

A spokeswoman for the Ramblers' Association said it was the landowners themselves who had pushed for the mapping proceess. "It was landowners who wanted the land to be mapped, which led to all these appeals and added to the cost," she said. "We are now calling for a right of access to the coast but do not want a similar mapped approach as it is costly and time-consuming."

Get off my land - appeals against right to roam

* In November 2004, the explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes appealed against a decision to classify a field he owned, near Exford on Exmoor in Devon, as open country under the right to roam legislation. The planning inspector backed the claim by Sir Ranulph and two other adjoining landowners, that the land had been wrongly classified as mountain, moor, heath or down under the Countryside and Rights of Way Act.

* The Grosvenor Estate, owned by the Duke of Westminster, the country's third richest man and one of the nation's biggest landowners, appealed against a decision to open 16 hectares of moor and grassland it owns alongside the river Grizedale in the Forest of Bowland, one of the most important access areas sought by campaigners. After an inquiry, the Duke won a partial victory when it was ruled that a strip of grassland should be excluded.

* Burgh Island, a five-hectare outcrop of land off the coast of south Devon, connected to the mainland only at low tide, and the site of an upmarket hotel, built in 1930s Art Deco style. A two-year battle over its classification as open country under the Act resulted in victory for the hotel owners in November 2004 after the planning inspector ruled that the island could not be classified as heathland because of the absence of heather.

* Fifty-four acres of the 1,132-acre Ashcombe estate on the Wiltshire/ Dorset border owned by Madonna and her husband Guy Ritchie, are now off-limits to ramblers during the shooting season between September and February, because of the risk of someone getting shot. The decision by a planning inquiry in June 2004 was a victory for the couple, who claimed their human rights could be infringed. The ruling also meant walkers were unable to go within sight of the couple's home.

* Vixen Tor, on Dartmoor in Devon, has long been barred to walkers and climbers by the landowners. Although the planning inspector accepted this caused "anger and disappointment" he concluded an inquiry in January last year by saying that the site could not classified as open countryside under the Act because the ground cover did not constitute mountain, moor, heath or down as defined under the Act.