Why I... believe the government's plans for a right to roam do not go far enough

April 2, 1999

Marion Shoard is visiting lecturer in environmental planning, University College London. Her latest book, A Right to Roam, is published by Oxford University Press at Pounds 8.99.

The key thing that environment minister Michael Meacher did in his March 8 Commons speech was to say that a voluntary approach to countryside access was unsatisfactory. He said people should have a right of access to the countryside and should not rely on the grace and favour of landowners.

Visiting the countryside is the second most popular outdoor activity in Britain after gardening. Yet when people go to the country, they can see only part of it. Our lives would be enhanced in all sorts of ways if we could see and walk on more land. Universal access would open up the countryside; we would be able to draw new mental maps of our localities.

The countryside is crucial to our collective national identity. Access should be part of being a citizen, an entitlement to move freely, so long as our presence does no harm.

Meacher restricted his considerations to mountain, moor, heath, down and common land, which cover only 10 per cent of England and Wales. I think it ought to cover the whole country. Partial access does not make sense. Rights are universal in application - you do not have 10 per cent of a right to vote. And why moorland as opposed to woodland? A lot of the land affected by government plans is far removed from where most people live. Although commonland, heath and down are included, that is only a tiny proportion of the four million acres involved.

The land covered under a partial access right would have to be defined because different land categories are hard to distinguish. Also, a lot of downland is fragmented. On the Highclere estate in Hampshire, for instance,there are 22 separate areas of chalk downland, with few links between them.Then there is the possibility of landowners claiming unfair treatment. Moorland owners will say, "Why us?". With universal access, everyone would be treated the same.

Now that the genie is out of the bottle, people will think this messing about with mapping and partial rights is crazy. Once we have universal access, no one will believe how we lived for so long under such a feudal regime.

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