5 June 1998

CLA threatens court action unless access compensation paid

By Catherine Hughes

LANDOWNERS have threatened to take the government to the European Court if it forces them to open their land to the public without offering compensation.

Lawyers for the Country Landowners Association believe they have a strong case under the Human Rights Act if the government introduces legislation to enforce greater access without offering compensation for increased costs and losses landowners may incur, said CLA president, Ian MacNicol.

He said the governments consultation paper on improving access to the countryside envisaged that a statutory right of access would not include compensation. Such a policy would not comply with the European Convention on Human Rights.

Mr MacNicol said voluntary access agreements, rather than imposed legislation, was the only way to secure improved access, although the CLA accepted that some changes to the law would be needed to cover areas such as improvements in the existing rights of way network.

In its response to the government consultation, which closes today (Fri), the CLA submitted a National Voluntary Access Framework, consisting of a nine-point action plan covering areas such as occupiers liability, new controls to govern dogs and public behaviour, and the creation of a countryside ranger service.

The landowners also want open country permanent path agreements to allow paths to be re-routed in light of changes in farm management practices.

Alan Woods, CLA environment and water adviser, said a voluntary scheme would be considerably cheaper, at £4m-£7m a year, for the government to implement compared with the legislative route costing £60m.

The Ramblers Association, in its submission, said the government must not be turned away from the legislative approach by "spurious and misleading" arguments which accuse walkers of damaging the countryside.

NFU president, Ben Gill, said the consultation paper significantly underplayed the usefulness of a voluntary approach to access to open countryside and substantially underestimated the compliance cost and environmental impact of the statutory option. &#42