Expanded 'Right to Roam' Law Shelved in England

Ninety-two percent of the country remains inaccessible to the public—for now.

walking a trail in England's Lake District
Walking the valley of Great Langdale in England's Lake District.

Peter Mulligan / Getty Images

Efforts to expand public access to green open spaces in England have stalled, with a recent review of current laws by the UK’s Treasury department shelved indefinitely. 

“I think we are blessed in this country with hundreds of thousands of miles of public footpath to allow people to access the countryside,” Mark Spencer, leader of the House of Commons, explained when questioned on the decision. “We have to recognize the countryside is not just a place of leisure, but it is also a place of business and food production.”

Outrage from campaigners in favor of enhanced access quickly followed, with many reiterating that present laws allow public access to only 8% of the English countryside. 

“The government ought to be championing increased access to the countryside by extending our right to roam to include rivers, woods, and green belt land,” Guy Shrubsole, co-founder of the Right to Roam campaign, told the UK Guardian. “Instead, ministers have squashed what could have been a groundbreaking review of access rights, seemingly bowing to landed interests.”

Access Denied

When Britain passed the Countryside & Rights of Way Act in 2000, granting public access to a limited amount of land, it was lauded as an important first step to reopening vast swaths of the privately-held English countryside. Critics have argued, however, that much of the land is remote and not easily in reach for large portions of the population. As a result, this partial right to roam has been described as “a postcode lottery” and “a perk for those that happen to live in the area.” 

According to the book “Who Owns England?,” published in 2019 by Shrubsole, half of the land in England is held by one percent of the population. “Land ownership in England is astonishingly unequal, heavily concentrated in the hands of a tiny elite,” he wrote.

When the pandemic hit and lockdown encouraged Britains to seek outdoor activities, lack of access was once again brought to the forefront.

“A large body of research, endorsed by the government, suggests that our mental health is greatly enhanced by connection to nature,” wrote George Monbiot in August 2020. “Yet we are forced to skulk around the edges of our nation, unwelcome anywhere but in a few green cages and places we must pay to enter, while vast estates are reserved for single families to enjoy.”

Under the UK’s Law of Trespass, 92% of land and 97% of waterways are presently inaccessible to the public. This is in stark contrast to neighboring nations, such as Scotland, where a 2003 act declared a (non-motorized) right to be “on land for recreational, educational and certain other purposes and a right to cross private land.” In Nordic countries, these rights are expanded even further, with Sweden allowing “responsible” camping on private lands for one or two nights. 

It’s important to note that right to roam laws aren’t meant to evoke carte blanche where someone can just set up a chair in your driveway or private garden and relax. In Sweden, you’re not allowed to walk or camp within 70 meters [230 feet] of a dwelling or garden. In Norway, this extends out to 150 meters [492 feet]. As the “Right to Roam” campaign site states, the real question is: how much land does one person need exclusively?

“The absurdity here is a question of scale: the law of Tort, which governs trespass, makes no distinction between climbing the fence of someone's back garden, and taking a woodland stroll in a duke’s 13,000-acre estate,” they argue. “People have a right to privacy and personal security in their homes and gardens. But when the private wall of an estate extends around thousands of acres, the question becomes more prevalent.”

Mass Trespasses Planned

The UK Treasury’s review of access to natural areas, launched last year under the leadership of Lord Theodore Agnew, was tasked with exploring a “quantum shift in how our society supports people to access and engage with the outdoors.” 

Its subsequent shelving has spurred activists to continue fighting, with mass trespasses planned during the warmer months. Others have taken to publishing books, such as Nick Hayes’s recently-released “The Trespasser’s Companion,” a practical guide to reclaiming nature in your own local area and leaving no trace. 

For Shrubsole, whose Right to Roam campaign will likely only grow stronger, it’s only a matter of time before England opens more gates to the public. 

“They’re on the wrong side of history,” he said of the government’s recent lack of action. “The public want greater access to nature and will win in the end.”

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