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The BBC's Margaret Gilmore
"The bill is the result of years of campaigning"
 real 28k

Michael Meacher
"This is going to increase public rights of access to four million acres."
 real 28k

Friday, 3 March, 2000, 12:00 GMT
'Right to roam' to become law
red squirrel
There may be better news for squirrels
The government has published a bill which will open up four million acres of countryside to the public.

The Countryside and Rights of Way Bill will set down tougher laws to give the public right of way over open countryside as well as protect wild species and habitats.

Environment Minister Michael Meacher said that the "historic" legislation would open up one ninth of the land in England and Wales.

Mr Meacher said the Bill would:

  • Create a right to roam far more of the nation's mountain, moor, heath, down and registered common land
  • Include landowner safeguards to protect wildlife and land use.
  • Introduce new powers to end the obstruction of rights of way
  • Better protect Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs)

    'Safeguards for landowners'

    "I'm at great pains to ensure there are safeguards in this bill for landowners," said Mr Meacher.

    "They can close areas of land for up to 28 days and I certainly intend there to be an increase in ranger and warden services to ensure that responsibilities are exercised by those who have the new right."

  • walkers in the snow
    Walkers are hoping for a better deal
    Opening up the countryside was a Labour manifesto commitment and has been a long standing demand of the Rambers' Association and other pressure groups.

    Mr Meacher denied the bill favoured the urban population over rural people and said the changes should not burden farmers and other landowners with any significant extra costs.

    The law would be changed to ensure that landowners did not have insurance liabilities for walkers who injured themselves in accidents on their land, he said.

    "We do not believe that there will be any significant increase in cost to landowners.

    "Where there are increases in paths, way-marking, stiles, gates or car parks, we think it is reasonable that that should be a cost for local authorities and not for landowners.

    "Access to these large areas we don't believe is going to be very costly."

    New powers

    The bill will introduce protection for public rights of way, which are sometimes neglected or actively obstructed by landowners.

    It is expected that the government's conservation advisers, English Nature (EN) and the Countryside Council for Wales (CCW), will be given powers to refuse permission for damaging activities on SSSIs..

    The courts will probably be allowed to impose unlimited fines for damage, in place of the present maximum sum of 5,000, which can make it worthwhile to exploit a protected area.

    EN and CCW may be given the option of compulsory purchase of an SSSI if the owner is unwilling to manage it properly, and they may be allowed to order restoration where damage has occurred.

    But while some groups think the bill will mark a welcome step forward, they say that they fear it may neglect several key issues.

    Friends of the Earth (FoE) wants the bill to include a duty on the government itself to promote the recovery of endangered species and habitats.

    FoE is also looking for measures in the bill to protect whales, dolphins and basking sharks and for the establishment of a marine conservation agency.

    It says species and habitats need protection outside SSSIs, not just within them, and it wants changes to the existing permits held by the owners of more than 400 SSSIs to extract minerals and peat from them.

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    See also:

    16 Feb 00 |  Sci/Tech
    Bid to save England's plants
    17 Nov 99 |  UK Politics
    More rights for ramblers and wildlife
    10 Mar 99 |  UK Politics
    Wildlife lobby demands new laws
    25 Oct 99 |  Sci/Tech
    Better news for basking sharks
    23 Sep 99 |  Sci/Tech
    Birdlovers demand ban on peat use
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