12 March 1999

CLAthreatens legal fight

over right-to-roam laws

By Jonathan Riley

STUNNED landowners, still reeling at the governments decision to introduce a statutory right to roam, have warned that they will fight for compensation in the European courts.

Country Landowners Association president Ian MacNicol denounced the decision saying it flew in the face of every public announcement made by ministers for the past four months.

"Where we have offered co-operation, they have chosen confrontation," he said, adding that he believed right to roam legislation would breach European human rights legislation unless landowners received appropriate compensation.

Tony Bailey, CLA policy director, said the cost of providing statutory access could run to £60m a year, giving the CLA solid grounds for legal action through the European courts. He predicted that any action taken by the CLA would be followed by numerous claims from individual landowners.

The government, however, has no intention of offering compensation, insisting there is no evidence that increased access would have any adverse effect on land values.

Environment minister Michael Meacher had been widely expected to increase public access to the countryside through voluntary agreements with landowners rather than resorting to legislation.

But he told parliament on Monday that the voluntary route had failed to deliver and new measures in England and Wales would have to be introduced.

About 1.6m ha (4m acres) of mountain, moor, heath, down and registered common land will be opened to the public. Further extensions to other types of open country, such as some woodland, could also be considered.

Laws will be introduced as soon as parliamentary time allows, making it unlikely that anything will change this year.

In the meantime, Mr Meacher said local access groups would be established to bring together interested groups, including farmers, landowners and conservationists, to agree how improved access should be managed.

Land managers will be allowed to block access for short periods, subject to an annual limit, without prior permission. Dogs will have to be kept on leads, with tighter restrictions where necessary. And landowners will have no greater liability towards those exercising the right of access than if they were trespassers.

The NFU believed legislation would impose additional burdens on hard-pressed owners and occupiers of open country. Union president Ben Gill said the governments plans laid out what was expected of farmers without setting out the responsibilities and duties of walkers.