Open countryside should mean full public access

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The Independent Online

Britain is open for business, Tony Blair boldly declared at the height of the foot-and-mouth outbreak in March. Three months and a delayed general election later, it is still untrue. Despite repeated attempts by central government to force local councils to open footpaths, and despite the attempts of many local councils to do so, most of the footpaths in at least half the counties of England remain closed.

This is because farmers have the right to apply for paths to be kept closed on grounds of disease containment, but the suspicion must be that too many of them are using foot-and-mouth as an excuse to restrict the right of others to roam.

While many farmers have suffered in recent years from events largely outside their control, one way in which they can be sure to lose the sympathy they deserve would be to conform to the stereotype of jealous landowners determined to keep the common people off the land which belongs to us all.

There is still no evidence of any transmission of foot-and-mouth disease via humans, and it is clear that the main route of infection is from animal to animal through close proximity. In light of that, farmers who are too defensive about public access to the countryside are exacerbating the divisions, not between country and town, but within the countryside itself. There are more people in rural areas who are dependent on tourism than there are who depend on farming.

Yesterday, farmers in Co Durham complained to the Prime Minister that if access to the countryside were granted too quickly, farmers would think they had wasted their time and effort in fighting the disease. He should have told them bluntly that the culling policy had controlled the outbreak and that there are other interests in the countryside which have to be balanced against the minimal risks of opening up as many footpaths as possible.

Now that summer is really here, Margaret Beckett, the new Secretary of State for Rural Affairs, must find a way to force the pace and open up the countryside – and declare Britain genuinely open, not just for business but for the enjoyment of our common inheritance.