The right to roam is an epic victory

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The passage of the Countryside Bill into law last week is the biggest victory for Britain's landscape and wildlife - and for people's enjoyment of them - in at least half a century. It provides the strongest protection ever for threatened species and habitats, provides tougher safeguards for Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and - most significant of all - at long last gives the people of this nation the right to roam freely over its wildest countryside.

The passage of the Countryside Bill into law last week is the biggest victory for Britain's landscape and wildlife - and for people's enjoyment of them - in at least half a century. It provides the strongest protection ever for threatened species and habitats, provides tougher safeguards for Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and - most significant of all - at long last gives the people of this nation the right to roam freely over its wildest countryside.

The right to roam, which opens up four million acres of mountain, heath, down and common land to the public for the first time, is an epic victory after more than a century of struggle. Landowners have fought this reform all the way. Even in the Countryside Bill's final stages, Tories in the House of Lords were still introducing wrecking amendments. The debates resonated with the outrage of the landed gentry that ordinary people should be allowed to disturb their private preserves. Lord Onslow warned that "nerds in anoraks" would ruin the "joy" of shooting grouse. The Earl of Shrewsbury called it "a charter for criminals" and other peers said it would lead to "drug parties", "devil worship" and "supermarket trolleys" in the hills. Their reaction speaks volumes for the resilience of the class system that so bedevils Britain.

For a while it also had Tony Blair in thrall. In one of the less creditable episodes of his premiership, he blocked the measure for months - after being lobbied by the Country Landowners Association - despite having promised it, in writing, before the election. At one stage he even forbade ministers to use the words "the right to roam", and pushed for more of the voluntary-access measures that have so singularly failed over the past 50 years. We owe the new law not to his half-heartedness but to the patient persistence of Michael Meacher, the Environment minister, and the downright determination of backbench MPs who threatened the biggest revolt of the Parliament if the promise were broken.

But now it is time to celebrate. Despite everything, the Government has ultimately proved true to its principles - reason enough for three wholehearted (if rather relieved) cheers. It is a victory not just for common land, but for common sense. May there be many more.

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