The Guardian has uncovered that the Labour party has reversed its promise to establish a right to roam similar to Scotland’s in the English countryside if they win the election.
Instead of assuming the right to access, the party has stated that it will explore alternative methods for increasing land access in England, following resistance from certain landowner groups.
Activists expressed disappointment upon hearing the announcement. In recent times, there has been a surge of public movements advocating for mass trespassing, with some gatherings drawing thousands of individuals, all in support of a universal right to hike through the English rural areas. Currently, only 8% of England permits free movement.
Wales, similar to England, falls under the jurisdiction of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act (Crow), which grants the right to walk on open areas such as mountains, moors, heaths, and downlands, as well as “registered common land.” However, there are no overall rights to roam the countryside in Northern Ireland.
The former shadow environmental team, headed by Jim McMahon, Member of Parliament for Oldham West and Royton, had pledged to implement a right to roam similar to that in Scotland. This would grant English individuals the presumed right to hike in rural areas.
Earlier this year, Alex Sobel, the Member of Parliament for Leeds North West and former Shadow Minister for Nature, stated in parliament that Labour’s strategy will be similar to Scotland’s, where access to high-quality green and blue areas will be provided through Labour’s right to roam. The current default of exclusion will be replaced with a new default of access.
Studies have demonstrated that individuals who have a greater bond with nature tend to exhibit more positive behaviors towards the environment. In essence, the more individuals interact with nature, the more inclined they are to safeguard it.
Rural organizations, such as the National Farmers’ Union, have expressed disapproval of this proposal. Tim Bonner, CEO of the Countryside Alliance, suggested that rural voters may not support the Labour party if they enact a policy allowing free access to land, labeling it as a threat to rural areas.
According to sources within the Labour party, their strategy has shifted from advocating for a widespread right to roam to collaborating with rural organizations in order to improve access. The team in charge of shadow ministerial duties is currently exploring potential changes to the Crow Act instead. This act, passed in 2000, grants the public legal access to mountains, moorland, heaths, certain downland areas, and the newer England coast path.
Toby Perkins, the shadow minister for nature and rural affairs since September, expressed a desire to expand access to nature. However, he emphasized the need for caution and collaboration with farmers rather than a unilateral approach.
Steve Reed, the shadow environment secretary, expressed disbelief at the idea that the next Labour manifesto would not include improved access to nature. However, he also recognized the importance of considering the concerns of farmers, producers, and growers in regards to protecting their crops. He announced that Labour would be creating a white paper specifically addressing access to nature.
Activists have expressed disapproval towards the shift in focus. Guy Shrubsole, a member of the Right to Roam campaign, stated that a gradual expansion of the Crow Act will not result in fair access for those who require it most. This approach is also costly and requires a significant amount of time. When the Crow Act was first implemented, it took five years and millions of pounds to map out access land, resulting in only 8% of England being available for roaming. Additionally, much of this land is located in remote areas far from where the majority of people reside, creating isolated pockets of access that can only be reached through trespassing.
The right for responsible access to land and water in Scotland, with reasonable exceptions and a well-publicized outdoor access code, presents a more effective, cost-effective, and feasible approach that England should adopt. It has also been shown to be popular among the public, with 62% in favor of a similar right to roam in England.
“We are excited to continue our collaboration with Labour as they refine their strategies, and we will increase our efforts in the upcoming year to showcase why England should emulate Scotland’s actions on accessibility.”