The English countryside is a “place of business” and already has “hundreds of thousands of miles of public footpaths”, a minister has said in response to questions about why the ”right to roam” report has been shelved.
The comments by Mark Spencer, the leader of the house, came as campaign groups expressed their fury over the Treasury’s decision to shelve the review, which was commissioned to search out a “quantum shift in how our society supports people to access and engage with the outdoors”.
The review, headed by Lord Agnew, had included a potential expansion of the much-fought-over “right to roam”, which campaigners fear will not now go ahead. In response, activists are planning mass trespasses to raise awareness of how much of England’s land is out of bounds. The right to roam exists over only 8% of the country.
Spencer made the remarks after the Green MP Caroline Lucas asked why the responses to the Agnew report into making more of the countryside publicly accessible would not be published.
He said: “I think we are blessed in this country with hundreds of thousands of miles of public footpath to allow people to access the countryside. We have to recognise the countryside is not just a place of leisure, but it is also a place of business and food production.”
Lucas responded: “Utterly feeble ‘defence’ from leader of house on government quashing review into the right to roam. Working and leisure are not incompatible – is this really the government’s excuse?”
Ninety-two per cent of England’s land is privately owned and not available to access. The Countryside and Rights of Way (CRoW) Act 2000 gives a legal right of public access to mountains, moorland, heaths, some downland and commons, and the English coastal path. Campaigners have asked for this to be extended to cover rivers, woods and green belt land. Ninety-seven per cent of rivers are off limits to the public, and tens of thousands of acres of woodland have benefited from public subsidy yet remain publicly inaccessible.
This weekend, the Right to Roam campaign is celebrating the 90th anniversary of the 1932 Kinder Trespass, when hundreds of activists trespassed on Kinder Scout in the Peak District. They were there to highlight the fact that walkers in England and Wales were denied access to areas of open country.
A group of ramblers will be walking to Kinder Scout on Sunday for a Kinder in Colour event, which will be led by people of colour.
The organisers said: “Even with a small amount of rights of way available to ramblers, the countryside is still rife with barriers to access, especially for black people and people of colour. With this in mind, we want to celebrate the Kinder Scout legacy by creating a new culture for the countryside, one which is fully inclusive and embraces differences.”
James MacColl, the head of policy, advocacy and campaigns for the Ramblers, said the UK government was not doing anywhere near enough to improve access to the countryside.
He explained: “The government … isn’t making use of its own Environment Act powers to set public access targets. Its new farm payments scheme shows no sign of rewarding farmers for improving access on their land, despite repeated promises. Proposed changes to the planning system don’t prioritise access to nature.
“As the Ramblers continue to campaign for access rights, this weekend we’ll be celebrating the 90th anniversary the Kinder Scout trespass, a landmark protest on the route to improving access to the countryside for all.
“Access to these green open spaces is still currently very limited and unequal and the Ramblers wants to see government extend the freedom to roam across England and Wales so that it is more easily accessible, and better connected to our path network and our towns and cities.”