Guy Shrubsole, writer and activist, reflects on what the Right to Roam act has achieved over the last 20 years and where he thinks the Right could be further extended.
The views in this article are those of the author and this topic will be given further consideration in 2021 by the BMC. If you would like to tell us what you think about extending your access rights in the first instance, please fill out our survey.
Twenty years ago this week, the Countryside & Rights of Way Act passed into law, creating the Right to Roam in England and Wales that we know and love. But whilst it was an historic moment – and the Right to Roam has proved to be hugely popular and successful – it remains unfinished business.
Because the Right to Roam it created covers only around 8% of England. The landscapes it encompasses – mountains, moorland, downland, heathland, commons and coast – are amongst our most beautiful; but they also tend to be remote from where most people live. Meanwhile, over the border in Scotland, the Scottish public enjoy a full responsible right of access.
That’s why earlier this year my friend Nick Hayes (author of The Book of Trespass) and I decided to set up a new campaign to extend Right to Roam in England.
We would like to see our freedom to reconnect with nature extended to cover woodlands, rivers and Green Belt land – allowing more people to explore the countryside on their doorstep.
And this week we’ve been joined in calling for this by over 100 authors, artists, musicians and actors – from Stephen Fry and Ali Smith to Mark Rylance, A.L. Kennedy and Robert Macfarlane, Jackie Morris and Jini Reddy; from Boff Whalley of Chumbawumba and author Melissa Harrison to David Lindo, the ‘Urban Birder’.
They’ve signed this letter to the Prime Minister Boris Johnson, calling on him to extend our Right to Roam for the sake of the nation’s health.
Because having access to nature is so good for us – something we’ve known in our hearts for a long time, and which is now being confirmed by the science. A simple walk in the woods, for example, can boost our immune system for a month afterwards. Exercising in a green space can help combat ADHD in children.
And what lockdown has demonstrated so clearly is that we all need ready access to green outdoor spaces. Yet it has also shone a stark light on how unequal that access is: 1 in 8 British households has no garden; Black people in England are four times as likely as White people to have no outdoor space at home. With so much of England owned by a tiny percentage of landowners, isn’t it time we shared access to the land a bit more?
A Right to Roam is not a right to trample. We too are disgusted by litter and outraged when a small minority engage in ‘fly-camping’, as happened in some places over the summer – perhaps partly because there were no festivals this year. So our letter is clear that with new rights would come new responsibilities: a rebooted Countryside Code, with a proper promotional budget to make sure it’s actually heard (currently the Government spends just £2k a year promoting the Code). We want to see the countryside protected, farmers respected and nature restored to its former glory. But we’re not convinced that the way to do that is by shutting the public out. Instead, we need to learn from Scandinavian countries, where greater freedom to roam goes hand-in-hand with a culture of ‘leave no trace’. After all, studies show that people who have more contact with nature are more likely to care for it.
If you, too, want to see greater freedom to roam in our countryside, please visit https://www.righttoroam.org.uk/ and sign up to be a part of the campaign.
Guy Shrubsole is the author of Who Owns England and runs a blog of the same name and is our guest blogger for our anniversary week celebrating 20 years since the CRoW Act passed.. Follow him on Twitter.
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