Protecting our right to roam

Tresspass
Pixabay
Campaigners are working to protect and extend our right to roam, and to create a future in which we are all free to connect with nature.

There is plenty that everyone can do to help protect our rights to roam and extend our access to nature.

Parliament passed one of its many Inclosure Acts in August 1845, handing more treasured common land into the total control of wealthy landowners to use for their own profit.

This particular act of enclosure, made 175 years ago, marked the appointment of Inclosure Commissioners who had the power to enclose land without submitting a request to parliament, making the process even easier for the landowners.

Over 5,200 such bills were enacted between 1604 and 1914, including some 6.8 million acres of land, over a fifth of the total area of England. At the time these acts had a profound effect on people across England. Those that could previously support themselves by the land found themselves having to find work, often forcing them to move into the growing cities. Years later these laws are still effecting communities. 

Access

Today, half of the land in England is held by just 1 percent of the population, around 25,000 people. Thirty percent of this figure is made up of aristocracy and gentry.

The effects of this unequal control of the land run deep, impacting the current housing crisis and influencing new laws and ongoing governance. The most direct impact, however, is the restriction to access to land for the majority of people within the country.

It is a shocking percentage: the general public can freely access less than 10 percent of the total land of England. While there have not been new enclosure acts for over 100 years, there are new policies being enacted which will continue to curtail public access to land.

Firstly, although it currently feels a long way off, an act to remove any unregistered rights of ways will be finalised in 2026. What this means is that any footpaths, bridleways and other pathways through the countryside which have not been officially registered to the records will be officially unrecognised and free for landowners to remove.

Campaign groups have been busy working on saving these cherished routes across the country before the deadline. Ramblers have used an online programme to enable thousands of volunteers to map an estimated 10,000 miles of forgotten rights of ways using old maps. Now they have this information, the next stage will be registering these paths to make sure they are preserved, another effort which will need monumental input from the public to meet the looming cut-off point.

Right to Roam

The Countryside and Rights of Way Act (2000) codified what had been common law, granting public access to a certain, very limited, amount of land, often meaning that wandering off the set footpaths would result in an act of trespass.

The situation in England and Wales stands in contrast to Scotland, where a 2003 Act gave the public entirely unhindered access to open countryside, as long as damage is not caused. Meanwhile in England and Wales, 92 percent of land and 97 percent of waterways are inaccessible to those who do not want to be accused of trespass.

To add to this inequality of access, the Conservatives have been considering a new plan to make trespass a criminal offence rather than just a civil offence. This change will disproportionately affect gypsy and traveller communities and effectively bar the majority of people from the majority of the countryside.

While Britains don’t generally rely on the land to make a living - unlike our ancestors, chased from the land by enclosure - our access and use of the land still plays an important role in our day to day lives, and is especially important for our mental and physical health. There is evidence that walking in forests can help boost our immune system and the benefits for mental health have been widely reported, from helping to relieve stress to benefitting those suffering from depression.

It is also possible that more open access to the countryside will help to stop landowners committing illegal environmental damage. George Monbiot reported discovering illegal quarrying in Wales while technically trespassing in recent weeks.

Connection 

Free access to nature supports deeper connections to the natural environment, and helps to foster cultures of care and responsibility, attitudes that are greatly needed in the fight against ecological breakdown. 

The coronavirus pandemic and subsequent lockdowns have already led more people to seek out green spaces, but they have also starkly highlighted an inequality in access.

Some could post sun-bathing selfies from their own lawns in the strictest moments of lockdown, while others didn’t even have a balcony to perch on. These inequalities are amplified when we look at publicly accessible land.

Those who live in towns with no access to a car will find it difficult to reach the pockets of countryside that are open to the public. In the UK, Solidaritree argue that people of colour are further disadvantaged by the lack of access to green spaces, and are working to fix this, and Land in Our Names (LION) is focussing on land justice as a centre point for issues around food insecurity, health inequalities, environmental injustice & widespread disconnect from nature.

Action

There is plenty that everyone can do to help protect our rights to roam and extend our access to nature.

There is a petition to sign against the criminalisation of trespass. The Ramblers have a dedicated webpage for their campaign to reinstate the Rights of Way across the country.

There is also a new campaign for the Right to Roam and an extension to the Countryside and Rights of Way Act.

Alongside these easy online actions, the most enjoyable way to support this movement is to get out and make use of our current rights of way. While this may not be an option for many of us, if we overturn the unequal legislation it could soon be a life-changing reality for all.

This Author 

Liz Lee Reynolds is a freelance writer focussing on place and the environment. She tweets @LizzieeLR.

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