New Labour, Old Feudalism

You can stuff your voluntary access agreements: we want the right to roam

You can stuff your voluntary access agreements: we want the right to roam

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 11th February 1999.

The Country Landowners Association points out, correctly, that six million acres of Britain have been secured for public access. Curiously, it omits to add that almost all of this land is owned by the National Trust, by conservation bodies and government agencies. Only a tiny handful of these acres has been provided by members of the CLA or other private landowners.

So reluctant have landlords been to share their good fortune with the great unwashed that the �70,000 the government gave to the Country Landowners Association in 1997 to fund voluntary access agreements have secured just twenty acres for public enjoyment, all of them on the CLA president’s land. Even when landowners have been granted inheritance tax exemptions in return for allowing public access, we still can’t walk on their land, as they don’t have to reveal where it is.

Hardly anyone believes that voluntary access agreements can work. When the government’s consultation paper gave people a choice between the voluntary approach and a statutory right, 80 per cent of the respondents chose legislation. An NOP poll conducted last year found that 85 per cent of British people wanted the right to roam. Partly as a result, 165 MPs have signed the private member’s bill published yesterday by Gordon Prentice as a last-ditch attempt to force the government to honour its multiple promises.

Tony Blair, however, has decided to sabotage the bill, and rely instead on the voluntary approach the public has emphatically rejected. Faced with a choice between upsetting the electorate and upsetting the heirs of the Crown’s illegitimate offspring, the government has sided with the bastards. The message could scarcely be clearer: New Labour, Old Feudalism.

The CLA, and presumably its feudal vassals in No.10, argue that as the land in question is private, rights over it must accrue to the owner. They are labouring under a misconception. In English law, the land belongs to the nation, through the Crown. “Landowners” possess merely a bundle of rights to use the land, called “property”. It is not an exclusive commodity: more than one person can enjoy property in a piece of land. Most of it was stolen from us, first by foreign invasion and annexation, later by enclosure.

Anyway, the CLA has already neatly disposed of its own argument. In contesting the Foster Bill which sought to ban hunting, it insisted that enjoying country pursuits is a fundamental human right. Presumably Mr Blair accepts this case, because he also torpedoed the Foster Bill. If the British aristocracy has a fundamental right to smash up people’s gardens (and even, last week, the cemetery in which Winston Churchill was laid to rest) by hurtling through the countryside on horseback, it’s hard to see why the rest of us should be denied the right to a quiet walk.

The Country Landowners Association gave up pretending that ramblers frighten game birds away, after the ramblers pointed out that driving them onto lines of guns might have rather more to do with their dicomposure. Now it argues that ramblers damage wildlife. It’s true that particularly sensitive habitats need to be protected from walkers. But it is significant that English Nature, the RSPB and the Woodland Trust all encourage access to their reserves, even though this land has been singled out for its wildlife value. Only by getting people into the countryside can we hope to offer its wildlife some protection from the state-sponsored vandals of the CLA. Forty-five per cent of our Sites of Special Scientific Interest have been damaged or destroyed over the past ten years, not least because we have been forbidden to witness and contest their destruction. In Britain, you are banned from picking wild flowers, but not from ploughing out the fields in which they grow.

The battle over the right to roam, in truth, is a clash between two species of freedom: our freedom to enjoy our common inheritance against the freedom of the landlords to molest and bully us. Tony Blair believes in freedom, but only of the second variety. There are no lengths, however absurd, to which he will not go to secure the freedoms of the powerful while denying the freedoms of the powerless. Well, Mr Blair, you can stuff your voluntary access agreements. We will take our right to roam, whether you grant it to us or not.