Britain’s battle for the ‘right to roam’

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In May, nearly 200 ramblers committed a mass trespass across the Duke of Somerset’s private estate in Totnes, Devon. These ‘picnic protestors’ are members of the campaign group, ‘Right to Roam’, whose main complaint is that only 8% of English land is available for free walking, whilst only 3% of lakes and rivers are available for water-based activities. As part of a national movement, these trespasses are aimed at acquiring greater legal access to private land. 

This battle over land seemingly represents a minor class battle

The main argument against giving the public the right to roam on private land is fear of vandalism, fly-tipping, and general rowdiness. Journalist Magnus Linklater has cited the movement as an ‘excuse to be a vandal’, criticising the ‘attitude’ of those who ‘see the countryside as their entitlement’. Of course, with rights comes responsibility. But after their trespass on the Duke of Somerset’s estate, roamers turned this argument on its head. They claim it is the landowners, not them, inflicting nature, citing ‘mass graves’ of pheasants, rubbish, and a mishmash of fencing in the Duke’s South Hams estate. This battle over land seemingly represents a minor class battle.

The current laws, enshrined in the 2000 Countryside and Rights of Way Act, certainly provide a large amount of land for public consumption. However, roamers want this act extended in line with the ancient customs of Scotland or Sweden, whose laws defy natural ‘gatekeeping’ and allow anyone to wander in open countryside. Right to Roam also has the support from over 100 public figures, including the household names Stephen Fry and Ali Smith. They signed an open letter to Boris Johnson in 2020 intending to procure greater public access to the countryside, insisting such a measure would improve equality and the ‘health of our nation’.

As of July, the Government is still refusing to publish the findings of the Agnew review

Last year, the Government held a commission to hear these concerns. However, at the beginning of June, more complaints emerged that the Treasury and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs had ‘squashed’ these proposals by refusing to publish the report. Attendees of the meeting last year, which included groups representing more than 20 million hikers, climbers, and kayakers, have sent another open letter to the Government demanding the review be published. General secretary of Open Spaces Society, Kate Ashbrook, said to The Guardian that “The Agnew commission was a huge disappointment. It intended to make recommendations for the spending review which would achieve a ‘quantum shift’ in access to the outdoors and nature, and it failed — but keeps the detail secret.” As of July, the Government is still refusing to publish the findings of the Agnew review. One minister responded that the review has been shelved because the countryside is first and foremost a ‘place of business’. 

However, another government spokesperson has claimed that the findings of the commission have been incorporated into the spending review: £9m will be invested into urban green-spaces with the levelling up parks fund, they have promised. But this is not what the ‘roamers’ asked for. British Canoeing are particularly concerned that barriers preventing an equal ‘right to paddle’ are adversely affecting those from BAME and working-class backgrounds. 

Only time will tell whether this pressure will get a response from the government or whether ramblers will turn to more mass trespasses, especially with the summer months incoming.

Image: Ivar Struthers via Flickr

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