Yesterday, 4 November, Michael Meacher would have been 76. He was a true friend of the access movement. When Labour won the election in 1997, Meacher became Minister of State for the Environment. Despite being a very un-Blairite left-winger, he retained the post until 2003.
Meacher died on 20 October, far too young, while still MP for Oldham West and Royton. He held that seat for for 45 years, 29 of them as a member of the Labour frontbench, in government and opposition.
I have many good memories of working with him at the height of the Ramblers’ campaign for greater freedom to roam. He cared deeply about this, recognising it as a measure for equality which was at the core of what Old Labour stood for. He was a kind and caring person, listening intently like a benevolent owl behind his beaming spectacles.
The Labour government came in with a promise to legislate: ‘our policies include greater freedom for people to explore our open countryside’ said the 1997 manifesto, drawing on the policy to legislate ‘for a public right of unfettered access to common land, open country, mountain and moorland’ (In Trust for Tomorrow, from the Labour Party Policy Commission on the Environment, July 1994).
Yet despite this promise, Blair tried to get out of legislating. We were dismayed to hear in the autumn of 1997 that the government was going to consult on whether access should be statutory. With the manifesto promise, there could be no question. Then in February 1988, the Department for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (DETR) published a consultation paper, Access to the Countryside, in which people were asked to choose whether the new access should be achieved by statute or voluntarily —clearly not what we had been promised. We always felt that Meacher did not approve of this delaying, superfluous consultation. He made it clear from the start that those who favoured the voluntary approach must meet many criteria in order to persuade the government that legislation was not necessary: the access must be of good quality, permanent, clear, certain, cost effective and enforceable.
Unfortunately I made things worse for Meacher. The day before the consultation paper was due to be published, he invited the Ramblers to meet him so that he could explain the proposals, and I went along. (Shortly after, he met the Country Landowners’ Association, Moorland Association and National Farmers’ Union to deliver the same message.) That afternoon I went at short notice to address the Conservative Backbench Agricultural Committee. It was an unpleasant experience, those present were universally hostile. For some reason I waved the consultation paper at them and told them that it was to be released tomorrow. Immediately they seized on it, Nicholas Soames MP blustering ‘How typical of this government to tell the Ramblers before it tells parliament!’ I knew at once that I had dropped a clanger. That night Paddy Tipping (a good friend and Deputy Leader of the House) rang to say that the Tories were asking questions about a leak, and he wondered what had occurred. I had a sleepless night!
Private Notice Question
The next day, after the public launch of the document, I learnt that Tim Yeo, shadow environment spokesman, had obtained the agreement of the Speaker to summon Meacher to answer a Private Notice Question. I watched it on the Parliamentary channel and squirmed—but Meacher dealt with it brilliantly.
The question was: To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions in what circumstances a copy of a consultation document on the right to roam became available to the Ramblers’ Association before it was available to Members of Parliament, to whom else the document became available, and if he will make a statement.
Meacher named the four organisations to whom he had given the document (three of them farming and landowning bodies), and apologised sincerely. However, Yeo then went over the top and kept up the attack, wanting further admissions from the minister that he should have made a statement about the policy to the house. Meacher replied ‘I have already made it clear that I apologise to the house, and I have to say that, in that rant, the Hon Gentleman has completely overreached himself’. In any case, he said, this was a consultation document not a policy document. He also pointed out that if he was to be condemned, the opposition front bench should also apologise, since ‘the previous government routinely made major policy statements without any recourse to parliament’. Dennis Skinner helpfully endorsed this with figures: there were 41 occasions during the 18 years of Tory government when requests were made for statements but the government had already made them on the media. Meacher came out of it well; the Tories’ overreaction made them look silly. When I later apologised to him he brushed it aside cheerfully.
In September 1997, before the consultation was published, Meacher came to Hebden Bridge, Calderdale, first to meet grouse-moor and other landowners, and then to come for a walk with fellow MP Gordon Prentice (Pendle) and ramblers. We posed for the press by a private sign then walked up onto Boulsworth Hill, with the permission of the landowner, Lord Savile. Boulsworth had long been closed to the public—Tom Stephenson had hoped to route the Pennine Way over the top of this magnificent hill but had met with landowner opposition.
Meacher joined our Ramblers’ access rally at Todmorden in Calderdale the following September. I met him at Leeds Station and travelled in a minibus with him back to Tod for the event. He enjoyed meeting ramblers and patiently listened to our calls for legislation.
The consultation period came to an end. We submitted pages of evidence, staged countless events and stunts, and produced masses of publicity to demonstrate that the landowners would never volunteer sufficient access to satisfy the government’s promise for freedom to roam. The government’s announcement was to be made on Monday 8 March 1999. The press was putting out stories that Blair had reneged on the promise and the government had caved in. We had no reason to be optimistic.
With heavy hearts, Ramblers’ campaigners spread themselves over the country ready to respond to events. I was posted at Hebden Bridge, close to the forbidden Widdop Moors. I started at 6am and was interviewed by News 24 on snowy moorland with Dorothy Fairbairn of the Country Landowners’ Association. We continued to be interviewed all morning, although we had no news. At lunchtime the BBC wanted to record two interviews with Dorothy and me, one presuming we had won, and one presuming we had lost, so that it could use one of them on the 6 o’clock news. I refused. I wanted to know the answer and not to pretend.
We went to the pub at Heptonstall for a late lunch and there received the message that we had won. The government would legislate. Meacher made a statement to the House at 3.31pm.
I can confirm that we have decided to introduce legislation as soon as parliamentary time allows to provide for a general statutory right of area access. … Glorious parts of our heritage are still the preserve of the few, not the delight of the many. . we will introduce legislation to remedy that. We look forward to discussing widely the details of the package, but we are firm on the principles. This balanced package fully meets the commitment that we gave in our manifesto and will be a lasting tribute to the memory of John Smith. I trust that hon members on both sides of the house will support it.
And after Gillian Shephard, Tory MP for South West Norfolk and opposition spokesman on the environment, had made a curmudgeonly attack, Meacher responded breezily Nothing reveals more starkly the fact that the Conservative Party is stuck in an eighteenth-century time warp than their approach to the statutory right of access. He went on to quote the Ramblers’ NOP poll the previous year which demonstrated that 85 per cent of people wanted a legal right of access over mountain, moor, heath, down and registered common land. He used the term ‘statutory’ many times in his statement, he really believed in it.
That was a proud day for Meacher; he had tolerated the procrastinating consultation and then faced down Blair and made his glorious announcement. He was called to appear on BBC2 Newsnight and I had to race down the M1 from Leeds to join him, an angry Ian MacNicol, president of the CLA and, for some reason, Nicholas van Hoogstraten (I had told Newsnight that he was irrelevant: he had an illegally-blocked footpath but we were talking about right to roam; Newsnight disagreed, he would add colour). Fresh from the hill and wearing my trainers, I did not contribute much to the programme, but I did not mind. We had won. Meacher was jubilant and deserved to be.
Meanwhile, I had been offered a place on the board of the new Countryside Agency, to be launched on 1 April. I couldn’t decide whether to accept or whether it would cramp my ability to campaign. So a few days later I had a chat with Meacher about it and, as always, he was kind and understanding. He said it was fine to accept and that I could carry on with what I was doing. ‘Just don’t get on the front page of the Daily Mail,’ he said. So I accepted, and I’m glad I did.
The following year the Countryside and Rights of Way Bill, with statutory-access measures, was introduced into parliament and Meacher, ably supported by Chris Mullin (MP for Sunderland South and parliamentary under-secretary at DETR) worked incredibly hard to get it through. He introduced the final stage in the commons, third reading, on 14 June 2000. As is traditional, he gave fulsome praise and thanks to all who had helped get the bill this far, including the opposition.
This was immediately followed by an amendment from Damien Green, shadow environment minister, calling for the house to decline to give a third reading to the bill, for a list of reasons, all of which had been painstakingly debated at committee and report stages. Meacher responded in characteristic form:
I rather unwisely praised Conservative members for their thoughtful and constructive contribution to the debate. However, from their remarks on third reading, it is plain to all in the house that the mask is beginning to slip.
When I first made the statement to the house on 8 March last year, Conservative members’ reaction was one of spluttering rage and outraged repudiation. A further year of considered reflection, and the realisation that the bill is hugely popular, have tamed their response. We are now down to four relatively small matters of outstanding difference between us. Even on these, their reaction is biased and unbalanced, as I will show.
I accept that the bill does not do all that the opposition would like it to do—for very good reasons. Were we to accept all the amendments tabled by the Conservative party on report, open countryside could be closed for more than half of all Saturdays throughout the year, and would certainly be out of bounds at night, with people becoming criminals for the heinous offence of swimming in a lakeland tarn.
To sum up, the reasoned amendment is distinctly churlish in its response to the bill; it looks solely and excessively at the sectional interests of only one of the many groups of people who will be affected. The bill will benefit all who love our beautiful and priceless countryside and our rich natural heritage. I urge the house to reject the amendment and to send the bill on its way.
The bill did of course get its third reading and won royal assent on 30 November. It has its faults as we know, but it has greatly expanded the areas of access land in England and Wales and is a milestone in legislation and something Labour should be proud of.
Meacher won the legislation through being steely, committed and principled behind a benign and measured exterior. It took a very special person to achieve this, and we were immensely fortunate that he was at the helm.
Michael Meacher, 4 November 1939 – 20 October 2015
You can listen to a feature about him on BBC Radio 4’s Last word on 23 October here at 13.43 minutes.