To roam means to wander freely without impediment or purpose. The word evokes human limitlessness, a rambling that defies productivity or destination, and it is an apt term for the right that grants us public access to land.
But despite the obvious benefits, both for our wellbeing and for the opportunity to connect with the natural world, only 8% of land in England is accessible today, predominantly in parcels of the country far beyond major cities.
In Scotland and a great number of nations, the ‘Right to Roam’ – to explore green spaces (besides cultivated land or private garden) without obstruction – is a legal default. After significant public pressure, a skeletal Right to Roam for England was installed by New Labour in 2000 in the forms of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act. But unlike other nations, private landowners here still have the right to exclude the public from their land.
The outdoors has profound effects on mental health. Sometimes, happiness is simply derived from clean air, woodland and a feeling of rapture towards the non-human world. This was emphatically demonstrated by months of lockdown, where exercise was rationed and movement restricted beyond the home.
And as we recover from the pandemic, expanding the Right to Roam is more pressing than ever, to unlock vast swathes of land in private hands for the enjoyment and education of all.
Unequal Land Ownership
Part of the problem is that England’s land ownership model is archaic. It’s an inequality that has been baked in over generations: almost a third of England’s land is still owned by the aristocracy, while one in eight UK households don’t even have access to a garden (rising to one in five in London).
Land, as a finite resource, is valuable. Ownership of land generates millions in passive profit just by renting or leasing land for agriculture, mining or real estate. And it is concentrated in the hands of less than 1% of the population, with half of England being possessed by an estimate of just 25,000 landowners.
Most estates are the product of enclosure: the theft of land that had previously been held in common. The thousand-year history of enclosure is an unjust one; entire villages were forcibly evicted so land could be subsumed into large estates and adapted for agricultural use and private profit. This history lends the Right to Roam a folklore feel – a repossession of ancient freedoms.
Writing in Tribune in 1944, George Orwell lambasted this mass privatisation of land, saying that “in the case of the enclosure of the common lands, which was going on from about 1600 to 1850, the landgrabbers did not even have the excuse of being foreign conquerors.” Orwell accused British landowners of “taking the heritage of their own countrymen, upon no sort of pretext except that they had the power to do so.”
The Right to Roam
Eight decades later, Orwell’s anger remains relevant. A significant number of people are locked out of nature and all the health benefits that accompany it, whilst wealthy individuals maintain exclusive access to inherited woods, pastures and rivers.
Trying to cross the countryside on foot often means circumnavigating miles of high walls peppered with “NO TRESPASS” and “PRIVATE LAND – KEEP OUT” signs. It’s a small ask to allow ordinary people to walk up a pleasant-looking hill or ramble across a meadow, but the millions of acres of land now in private hands are still as jealously guarded by their owners as they have been for decades.
The case for expanding the Right to Roam has become even more clear-cut during the coronavirus crisis. During the pandemic, two moments have aligned: the government is pushing for our country to become a healthier one, and green space is now categorically viewed as a social good and critical for wellbeing.
“Public access to nature for health reasons ought to be a central part of the Government’s new public health initiatives,” says Guy Shrubsole, land reform campaigner and author of Who Owns England. “Ministers have unveiled plans to ban junk food advertising to kids, and to bring about a ‘cycling and walking revolution’. Opening up access to the countryside for people’s mental and physical health is the missing piece in this strategy.”
There’s certainly a long way to go, and even existing rights are at threat. The 2019 Conservative manifesto promised to make trespass a criminal offence, which would have severe implications beyond ramblers and wild campers – it would also jeopardise peaceful protest and the rights of Gypsies, Travellers and Roma. Priti Patel has warned that legislation to criminalise trespass could be brought to parliament as soon as this autumn. Should this happen, it must be resisted by a broad alliance of all those who share a belief in free access to land as a social good.
Making trespass a criminal offence could also curtail the creation and registration of new rights of way. It would plug attempts to expand public access land and end centuries of common law protections. “Rights of way are mainly established by 20 years’ use ‘without force, secrecy or permission’,” explains Shrubsole, “Trespass is an accepted part of the common law: customary use of a path across someone else’s land is a key part of the creation of new rights of way.”
We need a step-change in how we interact with our environment, breaking down physical and cultural barriers to nature that have been purposively built up over hundreds of years. Short of restoring our country’s 60 million acres into a new commons system, we need to start with access. In particular, Green Belt land around major cities (which serves over 30 million people) should be opened up, so city-dwellers can profit from rambling, swimming and participating in nature. It’s good for us.
The ability to explore the natural world without prosecution won’t solve the unequal distribution of land ownership in this country, either. But it would mark a recalibration in who is allowed to enjoy it, breaking down the exclusive rights of the elite. Now the pandemic has put us in a situation where things are being forced to change, the Right to Roam can be freely discussed once again. However, it’s up to public pressure to light the flame.