The papers are full of the twentieth anniversary of Tony Blair’s first election as Prime Minister on that bright, optimistic Thursday. But I haven’t seen one yet that mentions that his government gave us legal freedom to roam on common land and mapped open country in England and Wales—which, despite its limitations, was one of the most radical actions of the Labour government in 13 years.
The Ramblers had lobbied Labour politicians for access legislation since before the 1992 election (which Labour was widely expected to win). In October 1995 Tony Blair pledged ‘A Labour government will give people a right to roam’. On the Saturday after polling day we wrote to every Labour MP to remind him or her of the pledge.
And on the Sunday (4 May) I set off for Downing Street to deliver my letter to Tony Blair. I was allowed into Downing Street after I had rung Charing Cross police station for permission. I delivered the letter with a bank of photographers snapping. This photo was the one in the Morning Star.
On Tuesday 6 May I joined Labour MPs Paddy Tipping (Sherwood, Nottinghamshire) and Helen Jackson (Sheffield Hillsborough) with Ramblers’ vice-president Mike Harding and a host of walkers at Bar Dyke on the eastern side of the Peak District National Park. This was another reminder of its promise: as we looked longingly over Broomhead Moor, forbidden land which has since been opened to walkers.
The following day the 418-strong Parliamentary Labour Party had its first meeting. Bill Michie, MP for Sheffield Heeley, pressed Blair on access legislation; his MPs were watching him.
This was the final stage in the campaign for what became the Countryside and Rights of Way Act. It took another three years because Tony Blair would have preferred a system based on the ‘goodwill’ of landowners. Fortunately his environment ministers, especially Michael Meacher, were keen.
Labour should never forget that it gave us the nearest thing to the right to roam in England and Wales—but that there is still much for it to do.