25 February 1998
Government sides with landowners on "right to roam"

By FWi staff

FARMERS and landowners have been given two years to “voluntarily” open up their land to ramblers; otherwise legislation will be introduced forcing them to comply.

Environment minister Michael Meacher today released the Governments three-month consultation paper on public access to the countryside.

Mr Meacher said the Government was prepared to delay “right-to-roam” legislation if farmers and landowners agrede to give ramblers greater access to their land. He said he hoped that landowners, councils and ramblers could get together to agree on access.

The Country Landowners Association and the National Farmers Union immediately applauded the move, while the Ramblers Association criticised the Government for reneging on an election promise to change the law.

Ian MacNicol, CLA president, said he was confident landowners could meet the challenge and that voluntary schemes were already underway.

Mr MacNicol said right-to-roam legislation was unnecessary because powers already exist to grant walkers public access. He said legislation would make access too broad, opening up land where access was neither actively sought nor could be readily provided.

Ramblers, Association assistant director David Beskine said: “We know that leaving it to landowners to volunteer access will produce little of value. Bitter experience has shown the real attitude of landowners towards the public being free to walk over uncultivated land,” he added.

The aim of the Government is to increase access to 1.7 million hectares (4.25m acres) of uncultivated land – about 10% of land in England and Wales.

Mr Meacher said the challenge was with landowners to prove over the next three months that they can meet the Governments five-point criteria.

Under the five-point wish-list:

  • The quality of access must be improved and unhindered by landowners;
  • Land should be open permanently;
  • The correct balance of rights and responsibilities between owner and public should be achieved;
  • Adequacy of policing arrangements should be agreed; and
  • Any scheme must be cost-effective.

Voluntary access arrangements would then be monitored over an undefined period and if they fell short of these criteria at a later date, the Government would then still legislate.