A House of Commons debate on Thursday gave the strongest hints yet of Labour’s intentions towards the future of “right-to-roam" legislation, should the party form the next government.
Responding on his party’s behalf, Shadow Nature Minister Alex Sobel MP declared,
“We will introduce a right to roam Act, a new law allowing national parks to adopt the right to wild camp, as well as expanding public access to woodlands and waterways.”
Pressed for further detail as to how closely a new system would resemble that of Scotland which already has a general “rights to roam”, he expanded,
“Like in Scotland, Labour’s approach will be that our right to roam will offer access to high- quality green and blue spaces for the rest of Britain. We will replace the default of exclusion with a default of access and ensure the restoration and protection of our natural environment.”
The debate, on public access to nature, had been brought forward by Green MP Caroline Lucas. Last year she tabled a Bill that aimed to amend the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 to extend the right of public access to the countryside, although it stood no prospect of progressing. She posed a range of questions to the Government, including on recording historic rights of way, mapping open access land and whether Environmental Land Management Schemes (ELMS) could be improved to incentivise land managers to provide greater levels of access to the public.
The debate also focused on the availability of green spaces in urban areas, and numerous backbench MPs took the opportunity to highlight natural attractions within their own constituencies.
Responding on behalf of the Government, Natural Environment and Land Use Minister Trudy Harrison MP argued that the public utility of accessible land depends more upon linear miles than square miles: that is, the lengths of useable trails. Once both the King Charles III England coast path and the Coast to Coast national trail are complete, she said, England will have national trails of a total length of 4,952 miles, added to which are 43,910 miles of inland waterways and a national cycle network extending 12,000 miles of signed routes for cycling and walking, 5,000 miles of which are free of other traffic.
On farmland, she said that the Farming in Protected Landscapes scheme was being extended to 2025 and has shown success in increasing access to national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty. She also highlighted the importance of visitors knowing and following the Countryside Code.
Dr Lucas was dissatisfied with the Minister’s failure, as she saw it, to address her questions and concluded by remarking that the momentum behind the campaign for a comprehensive right to roam was only growing. Should Labour succeed at the next General Election, Mr Sobel’s comments strongly suggest it may lead to new legislation under a Labour government.
The Countryside Alliance will continue to argue that any access must respect the rights and needs of farmers, land managers and those of existing recreational users such as anglers. We also recognise the importance of access to the nation’s health and wellbeing and the opportunities that properly managed access represent for the rural economy. We would hope that the issue can be addressed pragmatically rather than, as is too often the case, as a matter of dogma.