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Whose land is it anyway?

Land ownership, power, wealth and conservation are inextricably linked in Britain and never have they been more in the public eye. But, says Lisa Sykes, whether this is the result of media manipulation or genuine grievances is becomin increasingly hard to distinguish

Since the high-profile Countryside March in the spring, a melting pot of opinion on all matters concerning the countryside has come close to boiling over. People from all backgrounds, from all parts of Britain, each with their own views on land management, access rights and protection of the countryside are now expressing their opinions freely.

At the crux of the debate is access to privately-owned land. A general "right-to-roam", much as that which exists in Sweden, has been advocated by campaigners for many years. The government is not prepared to go this far but as Geographical went to press, the consultation period for establishing a voluntary code to grant access to all mountain, moor, heath, down and common land in England and Wales, came to an end. A bill is expected to follow. And Environment Minister Michael Meacher is adamant that the Government will introduce legislation to allow access if a satisfactory voluntary code is not established. "Our objectives are non-negotiable," he says. "The major landowner organisations will have to give guarantees on the quantity, quality and permanence of the new access for walkers."

While the 3.5 million acres of land to be included in the agreement is a substantial area, lakes, farmland and woodlands will still be excluded, a fact that has angered the 122,000-strong Ramblers Association. Access to more than 2,500 forests has been lost over the last 15 years as some 125,000 hectares of Forestry Commission lands, with unhindered public access, have been privatised. But Meacher says access will be extended to other types of countryside, including woodlands, cliffs and foreshores if there is insufficient access by the year 2000. There are other grey areas too -- whether walkers will be able to take their dogs with them is uncertain and the access will only apply to those on foot, excluding cyclists and horse riders. Neither does the proposal cover Scotland, which has different trespass and access laws (see box).

One woman who, in her own words, has spent more than 20 years trying to find out about the countryside is Marion Shoard, author of This Land is Our Land, recently updated 10 years after its initial publication, and the inspiration for many of those favouring the tree and tunnel direct action so characteristic of the 1990s. "It will be very interesting to see what groups like the Country Landowners' Association will do," says Shoard. "Why should its members agree to voluntarily grant extra access to their land. The organisation may want it to avoid a legal right being granted later but individual landowners have no incentive to do so. A lot of people own land because of the privacy it affords and this goes against the grain." Landowners will not be paid any compensation for allowing access although there may be some funding for car parks, for which landowners will be able to charge, and marking paths.

Lindy Margach, spokesperson for CLA, says the organisation and its members are committed to improving existing rights-of-way and creating new access opportunities, "but we firmly believe that a voluntary solution is best as legislation might not deliver what the public actually wants." In a Gallup poll commissioned by CLA, while 80 per cent of people said they would prefer to see greater access to the countryside, nearly two-thirds actually prefer to follow way-marked paths rather than choosing their own route across open countryside. The survey also suggests that people want more access to their local areas rather than greater access to remote parts of the countryside.

In contrast, the Ramblers Association, which has campaigned hard for the right of access to hill country during a decade of "Forbidden Britain" awareness-raising mass trespasses, says voluntary arrangements will not work and that access has to be statutory. Assistant director and head of its access campaign David Baskins says: "We welcome the access proposals but know that leaving it to landowners to volunteer access will produce little of value. It is time for the promise of right-to-roam to be honoured with a new law rather than putting the nation's trust in a group of landowners who have shown time and time again that they do not deserve it." He cites as examples the Duke of Westminster's moorland in the Forest of Bowland, Lancashire and Lord Savile's moors in the South Pennines.

Margach says that the majority of CLA's 50,000 land-owning members welcome people on to their land. "We are not a Duke's Club," she says. "While our members own some 60 per cent of rural land in Britain, as individuals over half own less than 100 acres; they are mainly working farmers rather than absentee landlords." The CLA claims that right-to-roam legislation would cost landowners 50 million [pounds sterling] a year to manage access. Since 1990, an increasing number of voluntary agreements between landowners and government agencies has opened up another 220,000 acres of land and the CLA says that these site-specific agreements allow access to be tailored to local conditions and be managed to avoid conflicts with wildlife, the environment, farming and game management. Shoard says that she has examples of this unwritten, unofficial permissive access from all over the country and is worried that visitors to the countryside are being excluded. "Too often local people are beholden to the landowners. A landowner might say, `I want to close this path because there are too many people coming through my land however I will keep it open to local people of course if you support me on this and, incidentally, here is some money to repair the village hall'. What choice do they have?"

Controversial stuff, yet Shoard is no Swampy figure. She is not a traveller, a tunneller or a tree-dweller. She looks more like a librarian or a teacher. She is actually an academic, her facts are meticulously researched and her words carefully written. She has worked for the Council for the Protection of Rural England as a planner, is currently vice-president of the British Association of Nature Conservationists and a lecturer on rural policy and environmental planning at University College, London.

She did not even go on the Countryside March. "I was quite concerned about it really because it tried to pretend a rural culture existed as opposed to an urban culture, and I don't think it does. What there is, is a culture of people who have privileges, such as landowners, who tried to give the impression that the huge mass of people out there in the countryside supported what they want to do, which was to protect those privileges. Actually people had very different ideas about things -- there were people who were anti-building on greenfield sites marching shoulder to shoulder with landowners who were only too happy to make huge amounts of money to sell greenfields for housing."

The national press revealed that the Countryside Alliance, aka the British Field Sports Society, which organised the march, was partly funded by property companies only too willing to turn greenfield sites into houses, roads and other developments. But Richard Tice, joint chief executive of Sunley Holdings whose house building division seeks out greenfield plots for development, did not see a conflict of interest when he marched. "I love the countryside and am involved in field sports. The Countryside Alliance is for the defence of field sports not fields." That may be but there is certainly a raft of "countryside concerns" kept afloat by the hunting lobby. Shoard claims it was engineered this way to make their objectives more politically acceptable. "Rural issues such as the right-to-roam and declining services were thrown in. You now hear people talking about the decline of the rural bus and postal services. It is now fashionable to say that the social and economic fabric of the countryside is crumbling. I do not think that it is. Village life is not disappearing, it is very healthy. The cricket matches and the village teas are still happening. Often it is the newcomers that keep these things going; they are city accountants playing cricket while their wives brew up the tea. It is what they moved to the country for. They like this idea of the community in the countryside and support it more than the indigenous rural people, even though they might only be there at weekends. The real problem is one that affects the rural poor because these new people want urban facilities in the countryside so they don't get all their shopping at the village shop but drive to a supermarket for more choice, bypassing the county bus service, so these services go into decline. But the idea that community life is deteriorating is quite wrong. In most places it has never been healthier."

According to Shoard, good old-fashioned town and country planning is the way forward through the quagmire of historical baggage that is rural issues in Britain. She is optimistic that possibilities for conserving the countryside first put forward in 1980 may now see the light of day. "When it became apparent that agricultural change was the reason for the devastation of so much local landscape and identity, planning controls to protect hedgerows and other features were suggested. But this idea got lost and conservationists found it easier and less confrontational to talk about subsidy schemes -- bribing farmers to stop. It was a wrong move and has delayed the real solutions for 20 years. Now it is time to go back. Regulation can sound unpalatable but it is what we have to do if we are going to conserve the countryside effectively. People now realise that subsidy schemes are both voluntary and only effect fragments of the countryside."

Planning gain agreements are now common in towns and on the urban fringe. When, for example, Sainsbury's wants to build a new supermarket it has to provide affordable housing, community facilities or perhaps even give money for a purpose. Shoard sees these legal agreements working just as well in the countryside: "If a farmer wants to introduce an 18-hole golf course on his land then he should have to bring the ancient woodland alongside into better management or secure new public footpaths. They could be applied to any feature. She is particularly keen to see these agreements incorporated into house building -- where the largest profits are made -- as some 4.4 million new homes will be built in England alone over the next 25 years.

She advocates a re-evaluation of where population and industry should be in Britain. "There are parts, not on greenfield sites, where empty and derelict properties could be resurrected. We need to have another look at greenbelt too. It is the most effective form of protection and has preserved the character of settlements within it," says Shoard. "But it has got wider and wider which means development has leapfrogged over it into what is often much better countryside. We have to remember that greenbelt isn't designated because of the quality of its landscape but because of its proximity to towns. In fact it often has the detritus of urban living -- waste tips, sewage works and pylons -- within it. The real country side beyond it is where the ancient woodlands and heaths are."

The Government has announced that 60 per cent of new homes will be built on brownfield sites, worrying for those who value their urban green space. But the Countryside Commission, the Government's own advisory body, cautions against always using brownfield sites. Some, it argues, would be better turned into woodland or parks to make cities themselves more attractive. At the same time the Commission says that the countryside should not become a dumping ground for houses that cannot be accommodated in towns and cities, it too concludes that it is time to be less dogmatic about the greenbelt.

Another feature Shoard would like to see transferred from urban development planning to the countryside is the hugely successful listed buildings programme. "Why can't hedgerows be listed?" she asks. "You can't remove a hedgerow without permission under the recent legislation but the real problem is one of neglect. If they were listed, as with buildings, the onus would be on the owner to manage them and make sure they don't go gappy. Perhaps there could be grants available to help maintain them. Living in a listed building is seen as a privilege and a responsibility, so why can't owning a hedgerow or ancient pond have the same importance?" It would also shift responsibility and cost on to the landowner; local authorities, already stretched for cash, currently have to police and administer applications for hedgerow removal and protection. According to a survey carried out by the Institute of Terrestrial Ecology, more than half of those hedgerows lost between 1990 and 1993 disappeared because of neglect, which is not even covered in the legislation. Last year the Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group was invited by more than 6,000 farmers on to their land to help them integrate conservation with modern farming. FWAG Chief Executive David Ball believes if information is presented to farmers in a clear way they will be enthusiastic. "Some farmers think that conservation is costly but we can demonstrate that it can either have no cost or can even save money." This is why planning is the answer, says Shoard. "The planning system in Britain is well understood. It is celebrated around the world, as is our landscape. So we need to safeguard it." And she is optimistic for the future. "It could well happen. We are not asking for a revolution, merely an extension of what is already in place."

RELATED ARTICLE: IN THE BIG COUNTRY

In Scotland the feudal land tenure system goes back centuries but with the Scottish Office promising land reform and looking at legislation to empower local communities, conservationists are pushing for national parks, legalised access rights and the recreation of the Great Caledonian Forest under a new Scottish Parliament. Under this system, huge estates have passed into foreign ownership -- according to Andy Wightman, author of Who Owns Scotland? around half of the land in the Highlands and Islands is owned by people who don't live there. And this has a direct impact on the environment, according to Nick Cooke, director of Scottish Conservation Projects, part of the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers. "If you compare Scotland to Norway, which has a similar climate, the treatment under Scotland's land tenure system has left it ecologically impoverished because of centuries of over exploitation under absentee landlords. There is optimism now because with a Scottish parliament this issue will go rocketing up the agenda," says Cooke. The problem is that no-one yet knows what a Scottish Parliament will look or sound like so any conservation improvements are still a matter of speculation. Of course, there are exceptions on both sides. The Assynt Crofters Trust was the first group to buy out their feudal land owner and set an important precedent in 1992, and landowners who manage heather moorland estates for grouse are undoubtedly responsible for conserving a wildlife habitat for other non-commercial species too. Unlike the rest of Britain, the principle of "freedom to roam" has long been accepted as a Scottish tradition but is increasingly ignored by present day landowners, according to the Ramblers Association Scotland. The campaign group is calling for a right to walk in Scotland's countryside, a ban on path blocking and protection for heritage paths. "Despite having some of the finest scenery and wildlife in Europe, Scots find themselves among the worst treated of Europe's citizens in their rights of access to land and their ability to protect their footpaths," says John Holms, vice-chairman of the Ramblers Association Scotland. The general assumption has always been that people can go where they like unless they cause damage to the countryside. But of 15,120 kilometres of estimated rights of way in Scotland, just one per cent are fully protected in law, according to the Scottish Rights of Way Society. Hiking and walking are now the most popular holiday activities and this is having repercussions on the path network throughout the country.
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Author:Sykes, Lisa
Publication:Geographical
Date:Jul 1, 1998
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