THE NEW ENGLISH COUNTRYSIDE
Adapted extract from The Trespasser’s Companion
We don’t just need a Right to Roam. We need a complete revolution in our relationship to nature. And a Right to Roam, if introduced properly, is the way we get there.
The Stile is once again the appropriate metaphor. The stile is an infrastructure installed into the English landscape that not only allows us access to the countryside, but acts as an encouragement to do so. But there is another important aspect to the stile. By offering a way over the barbed wire, it facilitates the public right to access nature. But by keeping the fence in place, it facilitates the farmer’s and landowner’s right to continue their valuable work for society, without risk to crops, livestock or profit. The stile is a balance of interests. And so is the Right to Roam.
Any expansion of England’s Right to Roam would first be preceded by consultation. But unlike the consultation to the CROW act, there must be many more people representing many more communities and vested interests at the table, in other words, it must take the form of a Citizens Assembly. This would not only be a chance for every community in England to have their say, but even more importantly, it could be used as a powerful wave of publicity to engage England in beginning the urgent process of improving our relationship with the outdoors, renewing our contract with nature.
The right to roam is not about arguing for a few more spaces for people with ski poles to drive to and walk. It is about unlocking a sense of belonging to our land, for everybody. It’s not a silver bullet to solve problems such as race and class. but it does help both issues. What single other change of law could promote mental, physical and spiritual health, whilst also allowing people the opportunity to care for nature. What other legislation could tackle both loneliness and the destruction of ancient woodland? The right to roam is the first step over the line towards a new relationship with nature which could benefit all aspects of society.
The right to roam is the first step over the line towards a new relationship with nature which could benefit all aspects of society.
The necessary extension of our rights of access to nature must not be an isolated act. It must be introduced within a framework that ensures its efficacy, and supports its sustainability. The implications of greater access to nature reach into almost all sectors of society, from education, conservation, healthcare, welfare and each of these sectors must be expected to contribute to its success. For too long, access to nature has been sidelined as a recreational concern – it is much more than this. Access to nature is an issue of health, of class, of race, of gender, of disability, of parity in society and must be approached as such. To resurrect Lewis Silkins phrase from the late 1940s, a Right to Roam must be part of a wider People’s Charter for the Open Air, a covenant between community and environment that changes the whole dynamic of the countryside, from exclusion to inclusion.
The first barrier to fall will be the false notion that community and environment are separate entities. They are not. So much of our society depends on the health of our environment that it is false to partition them. The welfare of our society is the welfare of our environment, and each supports the other.
The People’s Charter for the Open Air will reignite our right of responsibility alongside our right of access, not one before the other, but in one go, because they are two sides of the same coin. It follows, therefore, that the extension of our rights to access nature depends first and foremost on the Maori notion of “Kaitiakitanga”, the active protection of the environment by locals. Each parish of England must have its own Guardian group, a team of locals who have specific responsibility towards the health and welfare of the environment within their territory. The Guardian group must be representative of the community, and it will act as a bridge between the local population and the owners and workers of the land. Following the Trash Free Trails model, the Guardians will be responsible for litter picking, for any damage incurred by public access and will offer a guarantee to landowners that a right of public access will not damage their workplace. The New English Countryside balances the needs of the landowners with the needs of the public.
But the Guardians can also offer much more. With their local knowledge of the area, with their direct line of contact between land workers and owners and the public, they can act as a hub for education and action that benefits the environment. Guardian groups will coordinate with local schools, to create education plans that are situated in local nature. They will coordinate with bushcraft schemes, forest school camps, initiatives that not only teach a fuller knowledge of the outdoor world, but also a responsibility to nature and to each other; they will ensure that these essential life experiences are open to all children regardless of economic background (this will be possible because entry to the countryside will be free). The Guardian groups will coordinate citizen science schemes, from monitoring water pollution and invasive species, to a much fuller recording of the health and diversity of our species. Every parish has a local historian, a local botanist, every parish has enthusiasts who are willing to share their knowledge and experience for the simple love of sharing – in the New English countryside, amateurism will be celebrated and supported, a keystone of our connection to nature.
But the Guardian group can go even further. If England needs to double its tree cover, from 10% to 20%, why not use these Guardian groups to organise local tree planting, an act that will bind the community, both to each other, and the forest, for generations to come. It will also offer huge savings to the public purse, no longer needing to finance professional organisations to do the same work. During the drought of 2020, largely unreported due to the pandemic, local residents of West Berkshire and Oxfordshire were recruited by the Hardwick estate to water the saplings that had just been planted to balance the loss of several hundred ash trees from Dieback. The young trees were saved from death by the free labour of locals, who were all enthusiastic to extend their connection with nature from simply observing it, to actively helping it. The forest that grows as a result of their labour will be a manifestation of society and environmental cohesiveness, it will be a living expression of the commons. This tiny example could be extended across England, creating not just one generation of Guardians, but families of them, so that children can walk in the woods their grandmothers planted. That’s how we build a sense of belonging in the New English Countryside.
Children can walk in the woods their grandmothers planted.
But we could go further. When Scotland introduced a full right to roam in 2003, it also legislated for a community right to buy. The Land Reform Act stipulated that a local body, made up by members of the community, could register their interests in purchasing land, provided that their acquisition was ‘compatible with furthering the achievement of sustainable development’. Most recently, in May 2019, locals of the “Muckle Toon”, a burgh in Dumfries and Galloway, clubbed together to buy Langholm Moor, owned by the UK’s largest property owner, the Duke of Buccleuch. They crowdfunded £3.2 million to buy the property and in october 2020, they completed the purchase. They now work together to manage 5200 acres of land, land which will become a hub for community interaction, with each other and with nature. Rather like the collective ownership of a pub, practiced across English villages, locals have a stake in the management and sustainability of the land and feel more deeply implicated in its future. They all pitch in, graft together, and have a deeper connection with the environment and with their community (because they are one and the same thing). The New English countryside allows communities to manage the land they live on.
The responsibility to forge a New English Countryside is on all of us, but the government must not shirk their responsibility. They must consult with a far wider group of stakeholders and create a much more robust countryside code, one that accepts our right to swim, camp, lay fires, and as such, gives urgent practical codes of conduct that have been ignored until now. We should look to the Scottish Outdoor Access Code as our model, not just in its content, but in its format – it must be reviewed every five years, acknowledging that the dialogue of interests surrounding a right to roam is flexible to negotiation and changes in context.
The right to roam is an incredible opportunity to save the treasury much of the £8.2 billion per year it spends on our sedentary lifestyles. So the government must speculate to accumulate. To fund an architecture that makes the English Right to Roam work for everyone, would be to make these savings incremental and sustained, to benefit the nation in the long term as well as the short. Some examples: the New English Outdoor Access Code should be properly funded.
Spending £2000 per year on publicising the code is barely a fraction of enough. But its entire communication strategy must also be redesigned. The current downloadable PDF, with crappy illustration made on Photoshop is an embarrassment, and about as effective as trying to teach html coding on a chalkboard. Why shouldn’t the countryside code be upgraded to suit the 21st century, and speak to new generations in a manner they feel comfortable with. The New English Outdoor Access Code should be an ongoing social media campaign, featuring tic toc memes, insta videos, complete with celebrity endorsements (let’s get Rashford on the case). The New English Countryside will communicate to us in a manner suitable for the modern age.
A right to roam would of course invalidate almost every sign currently displaying its misanthropy across the English countryside. All but the wooden and metal signs will be removed, and disposed of as the single use plastic waste that they are. The more solid signs will remain, not just because they carry a classier, vintage aesthetic, (which would be the focus of walking and paddleboard tours) but they will also serve as to remind people of the value of what we have gained. Alternatively, we could do away with signs altogether, and, god forbid, have a place on earth that is not designated, branded, codified with human interest. Let the New English Countryside be a place where we go not to tell or be told, but to learn, to watch, observe, experience the workings of nature, the passing of time, the changing of seasons. But if we do decide on signage, let them be new, neat QR codes, placed at points of high visitor volume. Instead of telling people to go away, these signs will inform you of your responsibilities to each particular site, inform the public of ground nesting birds, or rare orchids. The New English Countryside welcomes you, and wants you to learn about it.
It would be the government’s responsibility to offer landowner grants for the installation of architecture to facilitate use – in other words, stiles. But it is their role to consider infrastructure as well – bus routes should be reinstated from urban populations into areas of nature and these renewed routes should be publicised with great fanfare. But why not point people to the countryside, from areas of dense urbanisation. Why not put up signs in the centre of Birmingham, for example, that point people out to the countryside, to the nearest green space, to Warley woods, or the bluebells in Coldlands woods, both within 8 miles of the city centre.Why not tell people that? The New English Countryside both facilitates and encourages people towards it.
Of course, we need to decide exactly what an English Right to Roam actually looks like. Our English rights must be compatible with our English countryside. Should we follow the Scottish right to roam, and encourage wild camping, mountain biking, wild swimming, paddleboarding etc, across all but specific areas of the land, or should we focus on extending the CRoW act over areas such as woodland, rivers and greenbelt? What is certain is that alongside a right to access more of the countryside, we need a right to do more than just walk. For people’s physical and mental health, we need to be able to exercise in a way that we enjoy, because that is the key to sustained exercise. Why should a swimmer be made to walk, when swimming is what they love?
For too long have we accepted a piecemeal advance of rights, a bargaining table of bartered compromise that treats our connection to nature as squares on a monopoly board. The backstage negotiations of the CRoW act must be brought forward into the limelight, and must take the form of a citizens assembly. Alongside the CLA, the Countryside Alliance and the NFU the ramblers, british canoeing, british mountaineering, British cycling must all be represented. We must be honest about the barriers of race, gender, class and sexual orientation that block people from nature, and we must tackle them directly by centering representatives from those communities at the heart of discussions. Whoever we are, wherever we live, wherever we are from, we are all shareholders in nature. The commoners need their seats at the table.