The Labour Party, current odds-on favourite to form the next UK Government, has stated an intention to introduce a Scottish-style right of access to the countryside in England. Could this be a game changer for countryside walking and crag access?
Speaking on Thursday 18th May during a Commons debate on public access to nature, Shadow Environment Minister Alex Sobel said:
"Labour's approach, like in Scotland, will be that Labour's right to roam will offer access to high-quality green and blue space in the rest of Britain. We will replace the default of exclusion with a default of access.
"Research shows that people with a stronger connection to nature [are] more likely to behave positively towards the environment. It's quite simple: the more people engage with nature, the more likely they are to protect it."
Tweeting back in January in support of wild camping rights on Dartmoor, Sobel had hinted about an expansion of the right to roam, but yesterday's comments appear to go further.
Our National Parks should be open to all and access to Dartmoor is integral to that. Labour will expand the right to roam as part of our programme for Government— Alex Sobel MP 🟣 (@alexsobel) January 13, 2023
Our natural spaces are here for us all to share for biodiversity, wellbeing and equity pic.twitter.com/fqtRnn4Zj1
Kate Ashbrook, General Secretary of The Open Spaces Society is one of those who has been pushing for better access in England:
"The Open Spaces Society is delighted that Labour is committed to introducing laws to provide greater public access" she told us, "recognising that there are gross inequities in access at present."
"Everyone should be able to immerse themselves in nature, and we especially want people to have much greater opportunity to enjoy green spaces, woodland, and water, close to their homes, while we must also protect and extend our unparalleled network of public paths. There is much detail to work through, but it is excellent that Labour is willing to pioneer such important legislation and we are keen to help shape this new law."
Despite setbacks such as the recent high court decision to prevent wild camping on Dartmoor, the movement to extend public access to England's green spaces and waterways has gathered pace in recent years, as witnessed by the emergence of groups such as Right to Roam, a growing number of events reflecting mass trespasses of the last century, and the popularity of books such as Trespass by Nick Hayes:
But with less than 10% of England yet open to all, campaigners have recently called for a 'new manifesto' for public access:
In recent years UK Government Ministers have promised that some of the money paid to farmers and land managers under the new Environmental Land Management Scheme would be for more and better paths and access. However campaigners point out that the pledge has yet to lead to any proposals. Perhaps a change of Government might speed up progress.
It is not yet clear to what extent Scotland's much-lauded legislation - introduced by a Labour administration in 2003 - is intended to be a model for England.
As guided by the Scottish Outdoor Access Code, rights to 'responsible' access in Scotland apply in open countryside, woods, beaches, rivers and lochs, parks and some types of farmland; but there are 'common sense' exceptions such as gardens, fields planted with crops, school grounds, and anywhere that charges for entry. While issues including anti-social camping and litter have been prominent in recent years, many commentators in Scotland attribute these problems to poor public education and a lack of resources to enforce relevant bylaws, rather than a liberal access regime.