Free at last

We get the right to roam, but a predatory landlord has been chosen to enforce it

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

April 1 1999 will be a day of ponderous irony. It is the 350th anniversary of the famous attempt by Gerrard Winstanley and the Diggers to turn Britain’s land into “a common treasury for all”, defying the predatory landlords by seizing and cultivating St George’s Hill in Surrey. It is also the day on which the government’s Countryside Agency is launched, and its chairman takes office. Ewen Cameron is about as predatory as modern-day landlords come. As president of the Country Landowners’ Association, he campaigned relentlessly against a legal right to roam. Now he’s in charge of implementing the policy he fought. I’m still finding it hard to believe that this isn’t an elaborate April Fool.

But at least the government, to its great credit, has now made a commitment to statutory rights for walkers, which has astonished and delighted the millions of people who stroll in the countryside. How did it happen, and what, precisely, does it mean?

I would love to pretend that I knew what he was doing, but I was fooled as thoroughly as everyone else. The environment minister Michael Meacher, the man derided by party strategists as ineffectual, appears to have played a remarkably crafty hand. While the press office slickers whispered that the promised right had been dropped, he remained silent, allowing the landowners to believe that they had won their age-old battle to exclude us from our own nation. Instead of bullying and blackmailing Tony Blair once more, they relaxed.

Mr Meacher’s announcement, when it came, was a masterpiece of pre-emption. The landlords’ objections were anticipated and deflected. They will not be subjected to any special liability for the people who walk on their land. Dogs must be excluded or kept on their leads. Land can be closed temporarily to protect sensitive work or vulnerable wildlife.

So what has the judicious Mr Meacher won for us? Our new right looks, at first sight, unequivocal: we’ll be allowed to walk on mountains, moorland, heaths, downs and common land. We might be permitted to walk in woods and around the coast as well. The freedom of movement which the United Nations defends and for which British people have fought for centuries is, it seems, at last to be granted to us.

But nothing in New Labour politics is quite as clear as it might first appear. There is no timetable for legislation. While we wait, the landlords will doubtless redouble their efforts to replace our heaths and downlands with barley and ryegrass, on which we wouldn’t want to walk, even if we were allowed to.

And this problem exposes the principal flaw in this welcome legislation. The Countryside Agency intends to chart the places in which we’ll be permitted to walk, and the Ordnance Survey will be asked to identify them on its maps. But the process will be attended by the most almighty punch-up. Landlords will insist that their heaths are in fact scrubland, and their downs are improved pastures. Botanists, geologists and landscape historians will be recruited by both sides to argue that the plant species, the rock type, the soil profile or the agricultural history prove that the land does or doesn’t fit into one of the government’s categories. There’s a danger that the whole exercise could get stuck in the unfenced bogs of definition.

There is, moreover, no means suggested by which landlords can be prevented from ploughing up the places registered as roaming country, then requesting that the newly cultivated land be closed to us. Indeed, the government’s proposals insist that landlords will still be able to develop the land selected for access.

There would surely have been a simpler way to safeguard one of our most fundamental freedoms. Had the government granted us the right of access to all land, except that which has been developed or recently ploughed, and introduced the long-sought countryside protection measures which would prevent the continued obliteration of our most precious wild places, it could have saved itself years of bitter battles.

But, for now, it looks as if Mr Meacher’s proposals are the best we’re likely to get and, for all their flaws, they are worth defending. In some small way, the people of Britain will now be able to wrest a few parts of their nation from the exclusive grip of its destroyers. “Jacob”, Winstanley wrote, “hath bin very low, but he is rising, and will rise, do the worst thou canst; and the poor people whom thou oppresses, shall be the Saviours of the land.”