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EDITIONS
Wednesday, 4 March, 1998, 18:23 GMT
Landowners will march against 'right to roam'
Rambler
Ramblers want the right to roam over four million acres
In the run up to Sunday's countryside march, rural landowners will be aware of having won an important concession earlier in the week.

Labour supporters had taken it for granted that when in government their party would force estate owners to open vast swathes of the countryside to walkers.

It had become known as the "right to roam" and, while in opposition, Labour even proposed to start the ball rolling with a "John Smith Memorial Bill", named after the party's late leader who was a keen hill walker.

But in government its approach has softened and last Wednesday landowners won an important stay of execution. The Prime Minister said they will have up to two years to reach voluntary agreements on access.

Many landowners prefer to keep walkers on roads
Tony Blair said a voluntary arrangement would bring about access "quicker and far more easily".

Owners of estates who do not fall into line still face legislation after the two years are up, said Mr Blair.

Landowners greeted the plan as a sensible decision, but walking groups such as the Ramblers could not hide their disappointment.

At stake in the "right to roam" debate is whether to allow the public access to about four million acres (1.6m hectares) of countryside - most of it private land.

The Countryside Alliance, which is behind Sunday's rally in London, welcomed the government's compromise.

"We believe in increased public access but on the basis of voluntary agreements. We don't believe that statutory right to roam legislation is the right way forward," said Nigel Burke, a spokesman for the Alliance.

"That would be damaging in terms of privacy and to farming."

Mr Burke says the group is pleased to see the "government is really listening".

Environment Minister Michael Meacher
But the Ramblers Association says force is needed if the government is serious in its objective.

"The voluntary approach has been tried before and it hasn't worked so why should it work this time," said Kate Cox for the Ramblers.

"We are glad that the Government has said access is non-negotiable but we would rather have the legislation here and now."

The voluntary arrangement forms the basis of a consultation paper which was published by the government on Wednesday by the Environment Minister, Michael Meacher.

The paper emphasises that walkers are not being given carte blanche, but only access to mountain, moorland, downland and heathland.

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