Revolution for the countryside

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Indy Politics

By Geoffrey Lean and Jo Dillon

By Geoffrey Lean and Jo Dillon

07 November 1999

Ministers are planning to bring in the right to roam - opening up 4 million acres of the nation's wildest land to the public - among a raft of sweeping new green measures in the most far-reaching countryside legislation for half a century.

The Bill, scheduled to be introduced in next week's Queen's Speech, will also set out to protect wildlife and to safeguard nearly 40 of the country's most beautiful landscapes.

In a separate development, Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, is expected to announce on Tuesday that the Government will not legislate to ban fox hunting in the next session. But he has told anti-hunting MPs that they will get enough time to ensure passage of a private member's Bill to ban the sport.

The planned Countryside Bill, the first green legislation introduced by Tony Blair's government, would be a major triumph for Michael Meacher, the Environment Minister, and John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister.

While its inclusion is not yet certain, as the contents of the Queen's Speech have yet to be finalised, it has advanced sharply up the Government's list of priorities.

Until recently, it was being kept out of the programme for the coming session, but the rising crisis in the countryside, growing criticism of the Government's failure to bring in green legislation and last week's abolition of hereditary peers - who were expected to mount stiff opposition - have helped to ensure it a place in the provisional list.

The right to roam, the most controversial measure in the Bill, will give the public free access to mountain, moorland, downland, heathland and common land in England and Wales. Ministers are also considering including powers in the Bill, which would not be published until after Christmas, to enable them to open up other areas - such as the foreshore, riverbanks, lakesides and woodlands - without new legislation.

The official Countryside Agency is to draw up maps of areas to be opened up, and an "access forum" in each area will try to reach a consensus on how the right to roam is to be implemented. Landowners will be able to restrict access for limited periods for activities such as shooting or heather burning.

But ministers are having difficulty working out the details of a "sweetener" for landowners - the right to change the routes of public footpaths on their land.

Other measures will revolutionise protection for the 5,000 Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs). The main safeguard now is to pay landowners who threaten to damage or destroy them to desist.

English Nature, the official wildlife watchdog, reported last month that over a quarter of England's SSSIs were suffering continuing damage and neglect under this regime.

The planned Bill would allow the authorities to prohibit damaging activities altogether. Landowners would be able to appeal decisions, but would have no right to compensation, and would be subject to an unlimited fine if they disobeyed the order.

The authorities will also have increased powers to force landowners to restore damaged SSSIs, to order them to take measures to manage them better, and to purchase sites compulsorily as a last resort.

The landscape measures - exclusively forecast in The Independent on Sunday last March - will give far-reaching protection to England's 37 Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, including the Cotswolds, the Forest of Bowland and the Isles of Scilly, the Chilterns, Kent's High Weald, Dedham Vale in East Anglia, and the Mendip, Quantock and Malvern Hills.

Originally established by the Attlee government - and recognised to be as beautiful, if less wild, as the National Parks - they have so far been given little effective protection.

The Government has also promised to set up two new national parks - the New Forest and the South Downs - but ministers have not yet decided whether to include them in the Countryside Bill or to designate them under existing legislation.