30 November 2015 by Kate Ashbrook
Last weekend I wandered over Cobstone Hill above my home in Turville, Bucks. I have the right to walk here thanks to the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 (CRoW) which received royal assent 15 years ago today; it is grand to roam free over the downland enjoying the wide Chiltern views.
CRoW was a long time coming. There were many attempts in parliament to win freedom to roam on open country: from the first parliamentary bill promoted by Liberal MP James Bryce in 1884 to the feeble provisions for access agreements and orders in the 1949 National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act.
The Ramblers revived the campaign in the early 1990s, in preparation for a sympathetic government. We formed an access committee and looked in detail at how the rights could be framed in legislation. Our tireless vice-president, Paddy Tipping, presented the result to parliament as a private member’s bill, to promote debate. We also used our annual Forbidden Britain Day to highlight forbidden moorland with well-publicised rallies and trespasses.
When the Labour government was elected in 1997 we were ready. We had secured pledges from candidates of all parties before the election, confirming that they would back the right to roam, and the promise was included in the party manifesto. Even so the government procrastinated and we had to keep up the pressure. At last, on 17 November 1999, we staged a demonstration on the edge of the forbidden Midhope Moor in the Peak District, with transistor radios clamped to our ears so that we could hear the wonderful words in the Queen’s Speech: ‘A Bill will be introduced to give people greater access to the countryside and to improve protection for wildlife’. A cheer went up.
The government’s Bill required the Countryside Agency and Countryside Council for Wales to prepare maps of mountain, moor, heath and down which would become access land, with common land which was already recorded on registers. We would have the right to walk there subject to certain constraints and restrictions. Pre-existing rights would apply to land already subject to legal access, such as some commons.
The Bill wound its way through parliament and I attended nearly every session to follow its progress. On the night of 3 October, when the bill was in the House of Lords, the debate lasted all night—the first time in living memory, and so I sat there all night too. I had a seat ‘below bar’ secured for me by a friendly peer, which meant I could feel a part of the action.
There was considerable hostility to the Bill in the Lords, and the government could only win amendments with Liberal Democrat support. This meant that, at the very last minute, the government conceded that for downland to qualify as access land it must not be improved or semi-improved grassland. That concession was a serious error because it was interpreted so as considerably to reduce the amount of downland which was subsequently mapped as access land, the mapping being based on botanical definitions.
The Act received royal assent on 30 November 2000. In England the access was introduced region by region as maps were confirmed, in Wales it was all in one go. But at the end of this, we had the right to walk freely on extensive areas of open country. No longer was Boulsworth Hill and much of the Forest of Bowland in Lancashire forbidden territory. In the Yorkshire Dales National Park the amount of access land increased from 4 to 62 per cent of the park area. In the lowlands of the south and east we gained less: there are the commons, but heaths and downland are small and scattered—reflecting the lamentable loss of these habitats since the Second World War. Also, there is no requirement to provide access points to the land. If it is inaccessible from a public highway, you can only get there legally by parachute!
In Scotland, a few years later, we secured much more extensive access through the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003. This defines access by exception, with public behaviour regulated by a statutory code. And of course, since CROW, we have also won the Wales Coastal Path and the developing coastal access around England.
We still have a long way to go in England and Wales. All open country should be included in access land—and what about woodlands and riverbanks which provide magnificent opportunities for walkers? In Wales the government is consulting on wider access rights so we have an opportunity to shape our freedoms here.
There is still much to campaign for but, 15 years on, let’s celebrate the access we have won — our rights to wander freely from the path over acres of glorious countryside.