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Ramblers call for arbitration over disputes

IT was a change in the law that was supposed to give the public the right to roam across the most scenic parts of Scotland.

However, 10 years on, Scotland's Ramblers say there are still too many locked gates barring their way.

They also believe the authorities are now reluctant to take action against obstructive wealthy landowners because it results in expensive litigation.

A new arbitration procedure is needed, they say, to sort out the many problems which still exist.

In its submission to the Land Reform Review Group set up by ministers, the 6500-strong Ramblers Scotland group says it regards the establishment of statutory rights of public access over most land and water in Scotland as "one of the most significant achievements of the Scottish Parliament since it was reconvened in 1999".

However, the submission added: "After the legislation was passed it was hoped this would pave the way for many long-running, entrenched conflicts to be resolved, and for Scotland's countryside to become a more welcoming place for all.

"Ten years after the passing of the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003, this vision has only partly been achieved."

Ramblers Scotland says there are still many examples of signs in the countryside that try to deter access, with the submission: "Locked gates are also still widespread which are a particular issue for horse-riders but also for cyclists and less-able walkers."

It says that, while there may be a legitimate reason for some gates to be locked, such as where fields of livestock run alongside busy roads, the ramblers feel some land managers are not facilitating access.

The Ramblers claim access authorities are failing to pursue landowners over such issues.

However, the submission continues: "More seriously, access authorities seem reluctant to use the powers they have to uphold rights of access, especially in cases where landowners prove recalcitrant.

"The fear of the costs of litigation that might arise, especially during this time of economic difficulties, has led to access authorities showing restraint in dealing with landowners who have far greater financial resources and the capability of continuing these cases to higher courts on appeal."

The Ramblers say they are also aware of the great financial risk posed to charitable organisations, community groups and private individuals of taking a case to court, even when acting in the public interest.

The Ramblers themselves were involved in two test cases. In 2007, Ann Gloag, the co-founder of the Stagecoach bus empire, successfully argued in court she be allowed to keep high metal fences prevented access to 12 acres around her property, Kinfauns Castle near Perth.

However, the following year, Euan and Claire Snowie failed in their legal fight with Stirling Council to exclude 70 acres of ground around Boquhan House near Kippen from public access on grounds of privacy.

The Ramblers added: "We feel a new procedure using some form of arbitration process needs to be built into the legislation in preference to the existing arrangement which involves reference to the sheriff court to determine the extent of access rights.

"The new process needs to be quicker, cheaper and fairer than the present one."

Paul Wakefield director of operations and communications at the landowners organisation Scottish Land and Estates, said: "There are many reasons why gates need to be kept locked and these include preventing livestock straying on to busy roads and to prevent motorised vehicles from gaining unauthorised access to land. This can often be the only way to discourage poaching, fly tipping and other criminal activity.

"When gates are locked for these purposes, there is no breach of Scotland's Right of Responsible Access legislation by the landowner.

"Scotland's access legislation already includes provision for local access forums to assist if any dispute resolution or changes are required, when there would have to be compelling evidence to support such measures."

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