Priced Out

Charging for access to our national monuments reduces the poor to trespassers in their own nation

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 29th April 1997.

To believe, as we often do, that everything that can be privatized has been privatized is to underestimate the imaginative venality of those who see the commonweal as a source of revenue. Every time we think enclosure has reached its limits, some new device arrives to startle us. In the United States, property companies trade blocks of sky and argue over the ownership of clouds. In Japan a few yen will buy you a breath of fresh air on a polluted street. The genetic revolution has been financed by the expectation of acquiring patents on the very stuff of which we’re made.

Each accretion to the private sector is a loss, however subtly felt, to the unpartitioned heritage of all humankind, but few are as overtly exclusionary as the sale of our national monuments.

Yesterday, the Highland Council wisely decided not to charge visitors to Ben Nevis. Had it done so, it would have neatly completed the set of Britain’s most celebrated outdoor monuments – Stonehenge, Land’s End and John O’Groats – which we now must pay to enter. “People”, one of the councillors observed before the vote, “should pay for the privelege of being here”. But enjoying the greatest treasures of the nation is not a privelege; it’s a right.

Charging for access to famous places is becoming, as the writer Marion Shoard has pointed out, one of the great growth areas of what passes for a rural economy. We must now pay to see the Doone Valley on Exmoor, Clapham Beck in the Yorkshire Dales and Swallow Falls in Snowdonia. Cambridge colleges now charge £1.50 to reach the River Cam; along ever greater stretches of the Thames in London, the fees are more exclusive still: to get to the river you must buy one of the new apartments on the bank.

In many of these places, we may unwittingly have paid for the right of access already. The government has granted inheritance tax exemptions to people who allow the public onto their land. Astonishingly, however, neither the government nor the landowner is obliged to let us know which land is covered by this scheme, even if we ask.

It is not, of course, just the great outdoors from which the poor are now excluded. The Victoria and Albert Museum introduced a compulsory charge in October and the British Museum is likely soon to follow. You must pay to see Canterbury or St Paul’s Cathedrals, and Westminster Abbey will start charging next year. Streets in which all of us were once free to wander are covered, gated and patrolled by guards, who ensure there’s no stopping without shopping. In some parts of America, the unsalaried can’t even get to them, as, shifted underground, they are accessible only via the basements of the offices they serve.

There is no question that turnstiles systematically exclude the poor. Museums which have started to charge have seen their attendance fall by 40 per cent, and local people are hit harder than tourists. The plight of the Maasai people of East Africa (who can enter the game reserves where once they grazed their animals and buried their dead, but only on payment of a gate fee often greater than their annual incomes) shows that there is no evident limit to pecuniary exclusion.

Entry charges for national monuments fail to make even economic sense. It’s not only poverty that stops at the turnstile, but also goodwill, as Liverpool’s Walker Gallery discovered when Sir Denis Mahon withdrew a staggering bequest when it decided to charge. No museum in the United States – where admission has been charged for much longer than in Britain – manages to recoup more than two per cent of its costs at the gate.

There’s no question that the number of visitors to some national monuments is overwhelming, but a booking system would limit numbers just as effectively and far more equitably. Barring the poor from our national monuments is surely the clearest signal that their participation in the national project is no longer required, that they are, effectively, superfluous. As enclosure proceeds, those who cannot pay become trespassers in the nation.

Labour’s promise to open up the countryside now applies only to mountains, moorland and common land: its proposals for a right to roam around the coast, along riverbanks and in woods have been dropped. Progressive as it is, it won’t allow us back into our famous places.

So let us submit no longer. Let everyone who visits Stonehenge refuse to pay, let us seize back Land’s End and John O’Groats and march politely up the nave of Westminster Abbey. For these places belong not just to those who purport to control them, but to the nation, and all of us have a claim on them. If citizenship is to become a right, rather than a privelege, we must overthrow these abominable enclosures.