The Editorial’s Perspective on Labour’s Reconsideration of the Right to Roam: A Move in the Opposite Direction.
During a recent discussion in the House of Commons about public access to nature, members of Parliament from different parties took the chance to express their love for the countryside. Famous names such as William Wordsworth, John Keats, Laurie Lee, John Constable, and Beatrix Potter were all referenced. However, the most noteworthy contribution came from Alex Sobel, who was then the opposition spokesperson for nature.
According to Mr. Sobel, a potential Labour administration plans to implement legislation similar to Scotland’s right-to-roam laws in England, greatly increasing the ability to access forests, rivers, and open fields. The party would grant individuals the opportunity to experience, enjoy, and explore these areas. This aligns with Labour’s history of advocating for greater countryside accessibility, as currently only 8% of land allows for the right to roam. This approach has garnered significant public support.
The news that a policy U-turn is apparently under way is therefore surprising and disappointing. Speaking to the Guardian last week, Labour sources referenced the importance of respecting the needs of landowners and avoid sweeping top-down reforms. It now seems likely that the party’s election manifesto will focus merely on modest additions to the Countryside and Rights of Way Act (Crow), introduced by New Labour in 2000.
Lord Smith, a member of the cabinet during that time, noted that not including woodland or rivers in the Crow act was a missed opportunity. While it was an improvement from previous measures, it failed to address issues such as wild camping, created a disjointed system of accessible areas, and did not address social inequalities. Those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds and minority ethnic groups have limited access to green space, and greenbelt land outside of cities is typically inaccessible.
All these deficiencies could be addressed through adopting a Scottish-style presumption of a universal right to roam, with necessary exclusions built in to protect the interests of farmers, landowners and wildlife. As in Scotland, an accompanying and far better publicised countryside code of conduct should be part of a reset in relations between people and the land they live in. If a culture of responsible access to nature can be developed in Ayrshire and Aberdeenshire, the same can be true in North Yorkshire and Norfolk.
The outcome would lead to a direct improvement in the quality of human life. As numerous studies have shown, spending more time in natural surroundings has notable advantages for both physical and mental well-being. However, amidst a crisis in biodiversity where one out of every six species in Britain is at risk of extinction, a broader ecological viewpoint should also be considered.
At the start of last May’s parliamentary discussion, Green MP Caroline Lucas referenced a quote from American biologist Robert Michael Pyle: “What does the disappearance of a condor mean to a child who has never seen a wren?” As younger generations are responsible for protecting the Earth during a time of significant environmental danger, developing a stronger bond with nature will strengthen their desire to preserve it. The Labour party, known for its Clarion Clubs that fought for the rights of cyclists and hikers in the early 1900s, should take a leading role in this new objective. There is still an opportunity to change course from their previous decision.