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Sydney Lenssen Give back our rights to our country

ANALYSIS

Rights of way in the countryside are vexatious, with regular rows between sticklers with old maps from the Ramblers Association and frustrated farmers with burnt fingers. New Labour, alert to the dawning of a leisure age, wants to encourage more people to walk, cycle or ride horses around Britain's rural and urban by-ways.

The Countryside Commission, before it became the Countryside Agency this April, issued its vision of rights of way in the 21st century, reporting that change over the past 50 years had been very rapid - backwards.

Since the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act of 1949, highway engineers have managed to improve most country lanes for motorists, often surfacing from hedge to hedge. By encouraging cars, lorries and buses, they have seen off the ramblers, bicycles and horse riders. So- called rights of way have been broken, usually beyond recognition even for those who brave the traffic.

In 1987, bodies involved agreed a new national target, that all rights of way would be legally defined, properly maintained and well publicised before 2000. On this, the Commission's report noted some success, but most highway authorities have said they will not meet the target, some claiming it will still take another decade or two.

So in March this year, Environment Minister Michael Meacher promised new laws to bolster what he sees as a rich legacy - 'a 130,000-mile recreational web'. Consultation on this ends next month.

First, compare what has happened to the nation's rivers and beaches, for the water industry started its clean-up in 1949 too. Over 50 years about £100bn has been spent on cleaner water, with £15bn more promised by 2005.

Despite some moans, real improvements have been achieved, accepted and paid for by the public, even though the resulting gains to health and the environment are marginal. Over that period few people have suffered illness or death from drinking or swimming in polluted water. Bathers, fishermen and landowners - a significant but small percentage of the total population - are the beneficiaries.

In comparison, what the countryside lobby is looking for is tiny - a miserable extra £150M on rights of way over the next few years. Little wonder Meacher can afford to be enthusiastic. Its ambition is limited to completing the mapping of routes and resolving the disputed bits.

The new legislation proposes 'local access forums' for landowners and walkers to settle their differences. Highway authorities will then be 'advised' and required to 'review the position every 10 years', but with no duty to do anything or spend a penny.

DETR has clearly run out of inspiration and ambition - lots of words and few deeds. What is needed is a clear vision on how our country lanes can be made safer for all users of all ages. The target should be a rolling programme of simple works to join up the many paths and bridleways with clearly designated lanes or tracks behind hedges, to rid the routes of fear for life and limb.

Highway engineers might then retrieve what they have allowed to happen, knowingly or otherwise, over recent decades, and people can be encouraged once again to enjoy our natural heritage.

A seminar on 'Rights of Way for the next Millennium,' part of the DETR consultation exercise, will be held at the ICE, Great George Street, on Tuesday 7 September, starting 1.45 pm in the Telford Lecture Theatre.

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