England’s green space is all but off-limits – one legal fight may be about to change that
Villagers around Dartmoor must have been alarmed a couple of weeks ago to see thousands of protestors rising out of the mist, trampling down country paths into the wilderness of the moor.
Now, a legal dispute between a wealthy hedge fund manager and the national park in south-west England has caught the nation’s attention and could lead to the biggest expansion of land rights in a generation.
Alexander Darwall, who bought 4,000 acres of the park in 2013, was miffed that people thought they had the right to camp on his land.
However, this has been an ancient tradition on Dartmoor: picking your way across the peaty soil and walking past ponies with your tent in a backpack and spending a quiet night under the stars, leaving no trace.
Darwall, who runs pheasant shoots and holiday cottages, took the park to court late last year to seek clarification on the law from a judge. The case is complicated – I was watching in the high court, but essentially it hinged on whether “outdoor recreation”, which the law allows, includes wild camping, an activity not expressly mentioned in law.
A couple of weeks ago, a judge decided that it doesn’t.
This case has caused widespread anger because so many people remember camping on Dartmoor, as part of school-age schemes like the Duke of Edinburgh’s award, the Ten Tors hike or even military training.
It’s also reminded people in England of how unfair land rights are in this country. While in Scotland you can go anywhere in the countryside as long as you’re passing through and leave no trace, very little of England is available for hiking and picnicking without landowner permission.
This includes national parks, which are largely privately owned and have restricted access. Some national parks are only 10% open to the public.
England is quite unique in this. In the US, for example, national parks are mostly state-owned and free for all to explore. Wild camping is allowed too, on lands operated by the Bureau of Land Management, WMA (wildlife management areas), national grasslands and state forests. In France, it’s a devolved issue but many parks allow camping if you pitch up in the evening, leave in the morning and leave no trace.
Anyway, this could all be about to change. The Darwalls have caused an outcry. While once it was just the lone Green MP in parliament, Caroline Lucas, calling for an expanded “right to roam” written into law, now all opposition parties are pushing for greater access. When I was with Labour’s shadow environment secretary, Jim McMahon, in Dartmoor last week, he committed to a right to roam act under a Labour government, expanding the right to walk and camp.
Oh, and the Dartmoor National Park Authority is taking the Darwalls back to court to appeal the decision – despite their dwindling resources they believe this is a fight worth having. The CEO of the park told me last week that doing the right thing is heroic, even if you lose, and that this court case has national implications as other landowners could be empowered to reduce rights in parks in a similar way.
Watch this space – the debate over land access in England is about to get very exciting.
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