The English countryside boasts a whole range of natural delights, and yet the vast majority of it is out of bounds for the general population. According to the Right to Roam campaign, 92% of the countryside and 97% of rivers are not available for public access. Even the Countryside and Rights of way Act, implemented in 2000, only opened up around 8% of the English countryside for partial roaming rights – and even these areas are mostly considered remote and therefore accessing them is often limited to those who live nearby, or can afford the cost of travel and accommodation. In the remaining 90% of the landscape, anyone wishing to explore the countryside and connect with nature actively risks being labelled as a trespasser.
In itself, the Right to Roam is an ancient custom which is still mostly observed in countries such as Norway, Sweden, Estonia and Scotland. Whether land is within private or public ownership, the general population still has the common right to access the countryside – private owners may still choose how they manage their land, but they may not exclude every member of the public from it. In countries where this right is observed, the health and mental wellbeing of the nation is generally considered to overrule the right to exclude. Exclusion is often considered an English rule of private property. However it may appear, the Right to Roam doesn’t allow free reign over the countryside – there is an expectation that land management and activities should not be interrupted and the ecology should not be harmed in anyway. This is similar to the Countryside Code in England.
In June 2022, The New Yorker featured an article by Eula Biss detailing how the modern idea of enclosure lead to less than 1% of the population owning nearly all of Britain’s agricultural land. It was a steady process, unfolding over around 500 years, but acts of Parliament in the 18th and 19th centuries truly brought it through to exclusion. The land was once worked and accessed cooperatively – commoners had the right to collect wood from forests, use commons for livestock grazing, run pigs in the woods, and to fish from watercourses and bodies. When property rights became an act of parliament, this use of the common land shifted from access to trespass – as Eula writes: ‘living off the land was redefined as theft’. This steady and long winded process of enclosure culminated in what is sometimes called the ‘theft of the commons’. Eula sums it up astutely as: ‘Across centuries, land that was collectively worked by the landless was claimed by the landed, and the age of private property was born.’
In a post enclosure world, and more recently post lockdown, lack of access to the countryside can now be considered to be detrimental to the general population. This disconnect has a discernible effect on mental and physical health – so, in the modern world, how can this be addressed?
The Fordhall story of community ownership may be one such example – a possible framework of commons in the present day. In this framework, land is once again valued and shared by the many, not the few – shareholders and supporters are actively encouraged to partake in the decision making around the land use activities. The site in itself is free to access, with no charge for the onsite trails or parking – the public are welcome to connect with the environment, with no obligation to do anything more than meander.
Charlotte Hollins, general manager of the Fordhall Community Land Initiative, said: ‘I think it is important to remember land does not have to be seen as a commodity – this is a modern human construct. It should be something we all value, nurture, share – with nature as well as other people – and utilise the common good.’
Enclosure has brought about a disconnect between the public and the environment, and at a time when there is both a mental health and climate crisis, this disconnect is something which should be actively tackled. In short, access to green space should not be a privilege, but a right.
For more information about the Right to Roam campaign, visit: https://www.righttoroam.org.uk/
To read Eula Biss’ full essay ‘The Theft of the Commons’, visit: https://www.newyorker.com/culture/essay/the-theft-of-the-commons
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