Nearly all land and water in the UK is privately owned and inaccessible to the public. The effects of this are far-reaching. Not only does it confine people’s leisure time, but it impacts everything from house prices to political protest. However, there are groups and campaigns seeking to change the state of land rights in the UK today.
In January 2020, writer Guy Shrubsole stated that the public has a right of access to 8% of England’s land. “The other 92% remains off limits,” he added. This access is provided by the Countryside and Rights of Way (CRoW) Act, which came into effect in November 2000. CRoW stipulated that any member of the public could use “open access” land, which is colloquially defined as mountain, moor, heath and down. In addition to open access land, there are also about 140,000 miles of public rights of way. These include footpaths, bridleways and byways, but don’t include roads and adjoining pavements.
However, there is growing discontent over the limited access that members of the public have to the nation’s countryside. And the movement for land justice seeks to address that.
What is the problem?
it seems a safe bet to say that around a third of England and Wales remains in the hands of the aristocracy and landed gentry – and that half of England is owned by less than 1 per cent of the population
The book also traces the historic transferral of land from common use into the hands of private individuals. Who Owns England? pinpoints the start of this as the Norman conquest of 1066 and it began with the ‘forest laws’. As the New Forest National Public Authority explains, these were:
set up to protect the beasts of the chase and their habitats including the vert. They precluded poaching and taking wood from the forest. The punishments for breaking these laws were severe and ranged from fines to, in the most severe cases, death.
Forest law was the first major example of enclosure, or sealing land off from common use. Enclosure has been a historical process taking place in England and Wales over centuries. And as The Land magazine outlines, there have been numerous revolts against enclosures throughout those times. The most significant of these was probably Kett’s Rebellion, which occurred in Norfolk in 1549, but it was still a major issue 60 years later in the Northamptonshire-based Newton Rebellion of 1607.
Recent history has also given rise to movements and moments of rebellion against enclosure. The 1932 Kinderscout trespass saw 500 men and women trespass on a grouse shooting estate in the Peak District. Trespass leader Benny Rothman summed up the group’s reasons for carrying out this act of defiance when he said that their:
request, or demand, for access to all peaks and uncultivated moorland [for rambling] is nothing unreasonable.
And in 1985, outdoor pursuit advocates The Ramblers launched the Forbidden Britain campaign. This movement of rallies, trespasses, research and advocacy laid much of the groundwork for the CRoW Act. However, as The Ramblers itself acknowledges, years after this ‘right to roam’ law was passed, most of Britain remains out of bounds to residents and visitors.
Why is this a problem?
Understanding why this is a problem requires looking at the issue from multiple angles. The most ubiquitous of these is economic.
Land value is a primary factor in house prices. Think tank IPPR published The Invisible Land in August 2018, which focused on the impact of land value on the UK’s housing market. It began:
Conventional wisdom suggests that the UK has a problem with house prices but the reality is that we have a problem with land. The value of land held by households has soared over the past two decades and is now worth more than double the value of the property that sits on top of it.
The consequences of this extend beyond the mere cost of houses. IPPR stated that escalating land values drive “growing wealth inequality, create the conditions for a broken housing market, and are a root cause of an unproductive and unstable economy.”
High costs also prevent people from working the land. The Landworkers’ Alliance highlighted this issue in its 2014 manifesto Feeding the Future. It pointed out that “Despite making up 71.1% of farms in the UK, small farmers have access to only 25.4% of agricultural land.” Moreover, the “prohibitively expensive” cost of buying land means available plots are bought up by “large farming estates”. This further concentrates land in fewer hands.
Public access to rural spaces also suffers from concentrated land ownership. Though affecting everyone in England and Wales, the issue is acutely apparent for people from Black, Indigenous and People of Colour (BIPOC) communities. Land In Our Names (LION) highlights the racialised and colonised history of land ownership. It said that in the UK, BIPOC communities are:
60% less likely to be able to access green space and natural environments than their white counterparts. … Unequal access to land is particularly stark in Britain, where land ownership is often inherited, and concentrated into hands of a few wealthy (white) individuals and families.
And as journalist Amy Hall wrote for Red Pepper, this problem is deeply embedded into our social consciousness:
the way the ‘great British countryside’ has been constructed in our collective consciousness is firmly as a white space.
As an example, Hall highlights how the word ‘urban’ has become intrinsically linked with the idea of Blackness.
Finally, and in some ways most fundamentally, private ownership of land doesn’t lead to healthier ecologies. Data by the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA) in 2019 showed [p1] about 9m of England’s 13m hectares are used for agricultural purposes. And as estate agent Savills point out, larger farms (those over 250 acres) “cover three quarters of farmland”.
This type of industrial farming is deeply damaging to the environment. Overt instances of pollution happen on a huge scale. In 2017, a Guardian investigation revealed “more than 5,300 cases of agricultural pollution… across Britain” between 2010 and 2016 – and England alone accounted for 3,000 of these. Most were slurry leaks from dairy farms. Intensive farming practices generally are intertwined with the UK’s plunging biodiversity. In a 2020 article for the Natural History Museum, biodiversity researcher Katia Ortiz said:
Even when we consider different human pressures, such as human population density and road development, we always find that the most shocking biodiversity declines are across agricultural sites.
One stark example is the loss of wildflower meadows, which are important sites of biodiversity. Campaign group Save Our Magnificent Meadows says 97% of lowland meadows have been lost between the 1930s and today. This began with ploughing land for cereal crops during World War Two and has continued with modern farming practices.
Such devastating farming practices depend on a system of privatised and centralised land ownership.
Who is tackling the problem?
Between November 2019 and March 2020, the government held a public consultation on criminalising what it described as “trespassing when setting up an unauthorised encampment”. This proposal has become a focal point for the contemporary land justice struggle, bringing together many parties.
Representatives of Britain’s travelling community including Friends, Families and Travellers (FFT) and The Traveller Movement have led the campaign against the proposed law. FFT described the proposal as “deeply unfair”, saying the law would “imprison and fine families… for the “crime” of having nowhere else to go.”
FFT joined a coalition of other organisations in writing an open letter to the home secretary on the matter. It called the proposed law:
an extreme, illiberal and unnecessary attack on ancient freedoms… [that] would have a negative effect on how people can access and enjoy the countryside and green spaces
Other groups approach the issue of land justice from a different but no less important angle. LION highlighted the problem of BIPOC access to rural areas, something that groups such as Black Girls Hike and individuals like The Hillwalking Hijabi are tackling. BIPOC-led efforts are crucial in exposing colonial history in Britain’s rural spaces, something that the National Trust has also chosen to highlight.
Rural activist groups such as hunt saboteurs and shoot monitors also advocate for greater access across the countryside. Bath Hunt Sabs explained the reason for this, saying trespassing means activists can “stop killing” from happening. Hunting in particular, because it is banned, continues by hiding from the public’s eyes.
Land justice is an issue of justice for the masses against the rights of a minority. That means its success demands an approach that links across individuals, groups, campaigns and communities. This is already beginning to happen, but there remains plenty of scope for all of us to help broaden and strengthen these networks.
Music for land justice in the UK
A playlist of songs about land justice in the UK.
Lead contributor Glen Black.
Main article image via Andrew Martin/Pixabay