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Wednesday, February 25, 1998 Published at 09:31 GMT

UK: Politics

Landowners have two years to open fields
image: [ Ramblers want a legal right to roam. ]
Ramblers want a legal right to roam.

Country landowners have two years to prove they will open up their land to walkers - otherwise they will face tough legislation.

Ministers say they will give English and Welsh landowners enough time to allow right-to-roam access without resorting to legislation.

Environment Minister Michael Meacher : "We will achieve our objective" (4'46)
Disappointed ramblers have accused the government of buckling under pressure from powerful landowners, including Peers, and fear Labour has dropped plans for a legal right-to-roam.

The proposals to go before the House of Commons are expected to put the initiative on landowners, asking them to draw up plans for voluntary agreements.

If they do not agree, they will face right-to-roam legislation, say ministers.

[ image: Many landowners prefer to keep walkers on roads.]
Many landowners prefer to keep walkers on roads.
The proposals do not affect Scotland where common law on access to land is simpler than south of the border.

Only a tiny proportion of the UK's 'common land' is open to the public.

Ramblers complain the public's right to explore Britain is hampered by arcane and unfair laws, some of which date back to Elizabethan times.

Labour backed walkers before the General Election. But since taking power, the party has seen the issue become closely related to a larger and more complicated debate over the future of the countryside.

A Department of the Environment spokesman said: "The Labour objective is to extend access to the countryside, whether or not through voluntary agreement or laws.

[ image: Walkers tried mass trespasses in the 1930s]
Walkers tried mass trespasses in the 1930s
"We will have to wait and see what the responses are to the consultation."

David Beskine of the Ramblers Association accused the government of stalling over the right to roam.

"We don't think landowners will take the opportunity to open up their land," he said.

"A voluntary approach cannot work and legislation is the only way forward."

The British Association for Shooting and Conservation (BASC), which represents shooters and gamekeepers, recently surveyed landowners.

Around 90% of those who allowed access to land complained that walkers abused the countryside by letting dogs off leads, disturbing wildlife and interfering with game management.

BASC spokesman Lesley Ferguson said: "We are concerned that legislation will give freedom without responsibility.

"This is not a 'get off my land' syndrome."

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16 Feb 98 | UK
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