The Guardian view on Labour’s rethink on the right to roam: a step in the wrong direction | Editorial

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During a recent House of Commons debate on public access to nature, MPs on both sides of the aisle seized the opportunity to indulge in a spot of bucolic lyricism. William Wordsworth, John Keats, Laurie Lee, John Constable and Beatrix Potter were among those mentioned in dispatches. But the most significant intervention was made by the then shadow minister for nature, Alex Sobel.

A future Labour government, said Mr Sobel, would introduce Scottish-style right-to-roam legislation in England, vastly expanding access to woods, rivers and grasslands. Labour would offer people “the right to experience, the right to enjoy and the right to explore”. In a country where the right to roam currently applies to only 8% of land, this was an approach that was true to the party’s long tradition of campaigning for wider access to the countryside. It is also one which has huge popular support.

The news that a policy U-turn is apparently under way is therefore surprising and disappointing. Speaking to the Guardian last week, Labour sources referenced the importance of respecting the needs of landowners and avoid sweeping top-down reforms. It now seems likely that the party’s election manifesto will focus merely on modest additions to the Countryside and Rights of Way Act (Crow), introduced by New Labour in 2000.

This would be a missed opportunity. As Lord Smith – a cabinet minister in that government – has pointed out, Crow was certainly an improvement on what went before. But the act does not include woodland or rivers, and excludes wild camping. It also created a sometimes incoherent patchwork of accessible areas – some of which can only be reached by trespassing on private land – and it failed to address social inequalities. The less well-off and people from a minority ethnic background are far less likely to have easy access to green space, and greenbelt land outside urban areas is generally off-limits.

All these deficiencies could be addressed through adopting a Scottish-style presumption of a universal right to roam, with necessary exclusions built in to protect the interests of farmers, landowners and wildlife. As in Scotland, an accompanying and far better publicised countryside code of conduct should be part of a reset in relations between people and the land they live in. If a culture of responsible access to nature can be developed in Ayrshire and Aberdeenshire, the same can be true in North Yorkshire and Norfolk.

The result would be a straightforward increase in human wellbeing. As plentiful research has indicated, greater immersion in natural environments comes with significant physical and mental health benefits attached. But in the midst of a biodiversity crisis which threatens one in six species in Britain with extinction, a wider ecological perspective should also be borne in mind.

Opening last May’s parliamentary debate, the Green MP Caroline Lucas quoted the American biologist Robert Michael Pyle, who asked: “What is the extinction of a condor to a child who has never known the wren?” As new generations are tasked with the stewardship of the Earth in a time of extreme environmental peril, forging a greater sense of connection with nature will deepen the desire to care for it. Labour, the party whose Clarion Clubs campaigned for the countryside rights of cyclists and ramblers in the early 20th century, should be at the forefront of this new mission. There is still time to U-turn on its U-turn.

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