“Get off My Land”: The Battle
for Access Rights and Lessons From Across the Border
On a cold winter’s morning in January, a group of more than 3000 protesters gathered in Dartmoor National Park. There, they invoked the spirit of Old Crockern, the folkloric figure who embodies the moors around Crocken Tor.
Said to curse greedy farmers with destitution, Old Crockern in part represents Dartmoor’s barren climate, historically unkind to those seeking to cultivate it. However, Old Crockern plays a dual role - not only as an embodiment of the landscape but also as a protector of the countryside, ensuring the moor is free from ill-gotten gains.
"92% of the countryside and 97% of rivers remain off-limits to the general public"
The protest followed a high court ruling brought forth by Alexander Darwall, a hedge-fund manager and the sixth-largest landowner on Dartmoor. Darwall hoped to stop wild camping on Dartmoor by arguing that the Dartmoor Commons Act (1985), which conferred access rights for the purpose of open-air recreation, does not include the right to wild camp. In its decision, the high court ruled in Darwall’s favour, stating that the wording of the Act was ‘clear and unambiguous’ - it was never intended to establish anything more than the right to roam.
Spearheaded by Right to Roam UK and The Stars are Ours, the protest took place on Darwall’s estate, and marked the largest demonstration for access rights in recent times. In this case, they got what they wanted. As of 31st July, the right to wild camp on Dartmoor has been permitted to resume following a successful appeal against the ruling brought forward by the National Park Authority. However, the court case and subsequent appeal have highlighted the confused nature of access rights across the countryside.
92% of the countryside and 97% of rivers remain off-limits to the general public.
The small percentage of the countryside that is genuinely accessible to the public covers a variety of different landscapes, from the coastlines of Cornwall to the high fells of Cumbria. These places are undoubtedly beautiful, but they are remote, often far from the largest cities and hard to access by public transport.
The freedom to access the land in England and Wales is thus a postcode lottery, with the countryside becoming the increasing preserve of a predominantly white, middle/upper class minority.
In an age of pandemics and climate crisis, where the health benefits of spending time in nature are well documented, the right of access for all is essential.
Coinciding with the fight for increased access rights on Dartmoor is an increased awareness of the degraded condition of Britain’s countryside and waterways. The discharge of sewage into British rivers and seas has become a national scandal. Thames Water, the largest water provider in the UK, were recently fined for sewage discharges into two rivers in 2017. Following years of financial mismanagement, the company is now on the brink of collapse.
Simultaneously, biodiversity levels have almost halved since the 1970s due to changes in land use. There are growing calls and efforts to ‘rewild’ large tracts of the countryside to reverse the damage. In the case of Dartmoor, there is a growing awareness that the barren landscape of Old Crockern is not as wild as it appears. North-east of Princetown, near the centre of the moor, lies the much photographed Wistman’s Wood; a small remnant of a much larger temperate rainforest that once covered vast swathes of the moor. Human processes, such as deforestation and livestock overgrazing, have rendered the landscape unrecognisable, creating an ecologically denuded upland environment.
Image by Becky McLoughlin
Horse on the Moor
Image by Becky McLoughlin
A shifting policy landscape
While there are major challenges in the way that we manage, access and relate to land, there are indications that the policy landscape may slowly be shifting in favour of land reform. One of the facilitators of this change is, perhaps surprisingly, Brexit.
Britain’s exit from the European Union also meant an exit from the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). The CAP grants landowners and farmers subsidies for keeping their land in an ‘agricultural condition’. This means that land not used for food production is kept clear for the receipt of subsidies. In other words, land that could otherwise support wildlife habitats is deliberately kept degraded.
To replace the CAP, the Agriculture Act of 2020 was passed to allow governments to follow different approaches in regard to agricultural policy. This has allowed for the development of new schemes under a broad approach known as Environmental Land Management (ELM). Crucially, the new system would provide farmers and landowners with subsidies, as long as a form of public good is provided in turn, whether that be habitat restoration or animal welfare improvements.
So what does this mean for an emerging land reform agenda?
The CAP system subsidies farmers by the hectare, which favours the owners of large farms. In contrast, many smaller landowners lose out on payments altogether. The concentration of land ownership in the UK exacerbates this issue. As subsidies inflate speculative land values fuelling the further concentration of land ownership, smaller landowners lose out or disappear altogether.
The second issue that the CAP system highlights is the opaque nature of land ownership generally, and the CAP payment system more specifically. The UK lacks a transparent land registry, with a payment to the official land registry the only way to know who owns a piece of land. While individuals, communities and public bodies find it hard to obtain the fees to understand broad ownership patterns, private companies face no such barriers. This has led to several negative effects, such as an information asymmetry between larger and smaller housebuilders, and a subsequent impact on the UK’s dysfunctional housing market.
The above points were raised in a 2019 study on land reform commissioned by the Labour Party. Amongst calls for greater transparency in land ownership and changes in agricultural policy following Brexit, the study made a swathe of recommendations, including arguing for greater access rights across England and Wales. The interlinked nature of these issues emphasises the need for a holistic policy approach that aims for large-scale reform in the way that land is managed, owned and accessed.
However, following Labour’s poor performance at the end of the 2019 election, the discourse around land has largely revolved around the housing crisis, home ownership, and the need to either reform the planning system or drastically increase supply.
While the importance of housing affordability, particularly for the young, should be high on the policy agenda, the issue of housing should be viewed as one aspect of a wider question concerning land and how we relate to it in a changing world.
Following the protest for wild camping on Dartmoor at the beginning of the year, and the continued scandal of polluted waterways, the Labour Party indicated that they would extend the right to roam, including by wild camping or swimming, across the national parks of England and Wales. Simultaneously, greater access rights should be rolled out across the country.
While this is welcome, it remains to be seen how far a Labour government would go in prioritising land reform should they come into power following the upcoming election.
A modern land reform agenda in England and Wales that prioritises local communities and the environment is still in its embryonic phase. But we need not look far to see the social and environmental benefits that land reform can offer.
Lessons from Scotland
In Scotland, land reform has been a political priority since devolution in 1997.
The evolution of a community-centric land reform agenda in Scotland follows centuries of historical injustices against rural communities. More recently, the highly concentrated nature of land ownership, landlord absenteeism, unregulated land sales, and the opaque nature of land ownership led to land reform gathering momentum, especially following the 2003 Land Reform (Scotland) Act.
The 2003 Land Reform Act dealt specifically with public access to land and community ownership. Once passed, it allowed for a universal right of public access to Scotland’s land and waterways, not just for the purposes of passing through, but also for activities including wild camping and canoeing.
The act is regarded as a significant success. A report published by a government advisory group in 2014, following its 10-year anniversary, found that it should be judged a ‘considerable achievement’ that has ‘delivered significant public benefits’.
In addition to the universal right of public access, the act also gave communities the opportunity to register an interest in land and the right to buy it when it comes up for sale - a right that has been exercised in the rural areas of Assynt, Eigg and Gigha, where community buy-outs took place during the 1990s and early 2000s.
Following the 2003 Act, the Scottish land reform agenda has evolved in tandem with changes to planning policy amid a renewed interest in community empowerment. In 2015, the Community Empowerment Act further contributed to the land reform agenda by extending community right to buy to urban areas in cases of vacant or derelict land. This allowed communities the right to purchase and manage land owned by local authorities. The Land Reform Act of 2016 also gave MSPs the power to force the sale of private land to community bodies in the absence of a willing seller, furthering sustainable development.
Scotland’s land reform agenda has allowed for genuine access to land across the nation, and is notable for prioritising community ownership across both rural and urban areas. The ownership of rural and urban land by local communities, and the empowerment that arises from this, is clearly valued by the Scottish Government as an end in itself. While community ownership allows for a greater stake in the management of land, increasing confidence in local decision-making, it also offers a raft of other benefits.
"Scotland’s land reform agenda has allowed for genuine access to land across the nation"
For example, community ownership of housing stock has led to the creation of community-led housing associations, particularly in rural areas, resulting in an increase in affordable housing. A recent report by Community Land Scotland (2022) also highlights the potential benefits of community-led housing in urban areas, as a result of the expanded community right to buy.
Other measurable benefits relating to community ownership in rural areas can be seen in the perception and utilisation of renewable energy, as well as housing and population retention.
A vision for the future
The question of land, who owns it, who has the right to access it, and what it is used for, is one that has been central to the history of the British Isles. It is a question with no easy answer.
The history of land use is not uncontested, with a cast of colourful characters, from the diggers of the civil war period, to the access rights campaigners of the 1930s claiming common ownership of the land. However, existing issues, from the opaque nature of land ownership to the lack of access rights, highlight the primacy of private ownership and the subsequent harm this has caused both ordinary people and the environment.
While there is evidence that this is changing, particularly in Scotland, no such urgency exists across the border.
Political opportunities created by Brexit offer the space for imaginative thinking around how land is best used, and the land reform agenda in Scotland provides a blueprint for policymakers in deciding the future of land use across the British Isles.
Ongoing economic and ecological crises highlight the scale of the challenges faced across the country. There is an urgent need for a holistic policy approach that brings the different issues relating to land together into a definitive land reform agenda. We must create a more democratic and sustainable land system that works not only for the environment, but also for local people.
Such changes could also reinvigorate the collective imagination.
In a nation where the possibility of positive political change is often met with incredulity, the restoration of our shared environment and the empowerment of local communities could provide a glimmer of hope as we look ahead to an uncertain future.
Tom currently works in urban planning for Hackney Council. He completed an MSc in Urban and Regional Planning at Heriot-Watt University in 2019 with a focus on community ownership and the Scottish land reform agenda.