Roaming charge

Campaigners call for more access to land

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Two author-activists have launched a campaign to fight for greater access to the English countryside.

Right to Roam is the initiative of Guy Shrubsole, author of Who Owns England, and Nick Hayes, writer and illustrator of The Book of Trespass recently published by Bloomsbury.

An alliance of ramblers, wild swimmers, paddle-boarders, kayakers, authors, artists and environmentalists, the network seeks to extend the Countryside & Rights of Way (CRoW) Act 2000 in England so that millions more people can have easy access to open space, and the physical and mental health benefits it brings.

They point to countries such as Norway, Sweden, Estonia and Scotland, where the right to roam “has existed as a common right, a defining concept of nationhood”.

Hayes said Right to Roam grew out of the book. “I’d been involved with the land for years as an activist, artist and walker, but I’d always been in opposition to landowners or tenants,” he said. “Before I’d finished writing, I met Guy and that opened up for me the power of networks.

Access to rivers

“A wave is building and it’s immensely empowering to work alongside so many talented people who are doing positive work to open up access. It links up with food and farming and many other aspects of the land.”

Right to Roam has forged ties with the Land Justice Network and Paul Powlesland, founder of Lawyers for Nature.

The campaign will focus initially on green belt, to enable city dwellers greater access, as well as downland and woodland. A keen kayaker, Hayes is also passionate about championing access to rivers.

“The Australian and US legal systems are based on ours, but they grant citizens full rights of access to their rivers,” he said. “Here in the UK there has never been a definitive statement on people’s rights to use the rivers. We want to find a way to test the law, to contest the status quo.

“We’ll use communication strategies and form relations with MPs. There’ll also be direct action – that is, extremely non-violent action, directed by ecologists and botanists. We want to be about dancing, music, poetry and creativity, and to leave no trace. Any trespassing we do will probably be to collect litter. You have to approach this issue from all fronts.”

Right-to-roam campaigns can trace their roots to the mass trespasses of Winter Hill, near Bolton, in 1896, and Kinder Scout in 1932. The legislation of 2000 finally opened up areas of mountainside, moors, coastlines and other landscapes, but campaigners say this is only a small proportion of England’s land, and is often remote.


While pushing for wider access in the medium to long term, the network has a more pressing cause: to overturn the government’s plan to criminalise trespassers. The government’s 2019 manifesto is committed to “make intentional trespass a criminal offence”, turning upside down a 1,000-year common law that deems trespass a civil offence.

A petition created by Shrubsole is nearing the 100,000 signatures required to compel the government to consider debating the proposed legislation in parliament – which returns this week after the summer recess.

In an interim statement in April 2020, the government claimed new laws were needed to control Traveller communities and prevent “unauthorised encampment”.

Criminalise wild campers

“Travellers are the group most threatened by the government’s proposals,” said Shrubsole.  “Given the prejudice and marginalisation Traveller communities already face this is reason enough to oppose the criminalisation of trespass; even the police have said they don’t want or need the proposed new powers.”

Hayes added: “The new legislation is a slippery slope. They want to tighten up the law on behalf of individual property owners.

“The government keeps the wording woolly and they will use the recent complaints about littering and environmental damage caused by visitors to the countryside during the pandemic to criminalise wild campers and even kayakers. All those camping out at HS2 sites can be criminalised.”

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