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These Right to Roam activists are fighting landlords to open up UK's green spaces to all

In England and Wales 92% of the countryside is off-limits. Right to Roam campaigners want to lift those restrictions, opening up spaces for all

Right to roam protest

Protest at Stall Moor near Cornwood, Devon, January 2023. Image: Supplied

It’s been a strange road for Right to Roam. It was after the Second World War that the government first proposed complete access to England’s countryside to complement the newly formed NHS. It was rejected by landowners in the House of Lords who deemed it a step too far. In its place was the watered-down National Parks Plan.  

Today, only eight per cent of England and Wales has right of access, restricted to mainly remote areas – meaning people can only access green spaces if they live nearby or can afford travel and overnight stays. Walking or camping on the other 92 per cent is trespassing. This leads to over-tourism where access is permitted. 

Over the years, proposals to expand Right to Roam throughout England and Wales, to match the full rights enjoyed in Scotland, have been pushed back by landowners. But support is growing. In a post-pandemic world, people appreciate the value of access to nature, and many are now demanding more UK green space access. 

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In July 2023, Right to Roam won a landmark case against Dartmoor landowner Alexander Darwall, who wanted to revoke the historic right to wild camp on common land – the only place it is legal in England. It reinvigorated interest in Right to Roam and, thanks to campaigners, Dartmoor will remain a magnificent place to wild camp in England. 

Just last month, Right to Roam activists met at the Scottish border for a symbolic trespass highlighting the inequalities of rights of access in the UK. Organiser of the Borderlands Rally, Jon Moses, set one foot in Scotland, which was legal, and the other in England, which was trespassing. The protest aimed to point out the unfairness of wealthy landowners doing nothing with the land, but still not allowing public use.  

Meanwhile, residents in popular beauty spots are bearing the brunt of over-tourism. Living on Scotland’s famed NC500 route, Robin Pettigrew, a chartered member of the Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, published a report drawing upon the pressures of too many visitors to the area. It highlighted how holiday lets around Scotland have drastically increased following the pandemic and noted that the Scottish government has “failed to provide sufficient funding for the infrastructure required to accommodate the increase in visitor numbers”.  

Extending Right to Roam throughout the UK could ease the pressure over-tourism has on places like the NC500 route, as well as other beauty spots in Scotland, the Peak District and Snowdonia National Park.

Moses told The Big Issue: “Right to Roam gives people the opportunity to know, love and enjoy the places near to where they live, rather than having to seek them out in faraway honeypots. [It] gives people the confidence to experience nature on their own terms, rather than in highly regulated tourist environments. While there will likely always be honeypot sites, Right to Roam legislation… can help make other parts of the countryside more viable, reducing concentrated impacts.” 

As well as reducing over-tourism in popular locations, Right to Roam could benefit tourism on a much more personal scale.  

Lewis Winks of environmental education consultancy Lestari told The Big Issue that “access to land in England remains desperately unequal, with exclusion as the default, resulting in many people missing out on important formative experiences in nature. For those without a car, far-flung fragments of accessible land are out of reach.”  

Right to Roam campaigners, and others who seek more rights to green spaces, insist access to nature should never be a crime. By opening up more of the country, more people would have the opportunity to experience greenspaces legally and enjoy the benefits to their physical and mental wellbeing. 

Ellie Sivins is a member of The Big Issue’s Breakthrough programme.

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