righttoroamThe Ramblers’ “vision” includes a “true right to roam”.   The document “Our vision and strategic framework 2015-2025”, approved at General Council 2015,  states that “This expanded access will connect people, path networks and communities so that everyone can benefit from walking”.   On the face of it, this “true right to roam”, based on the Scottish and Scandinavian model, seems a very good idea, the final stage in a long campaign to get access to virtually all open countryside in England and Wales. What serious walker could possibly disagree with such a noble ambition? Well, actually, I do.

I am an enthusiastic supporter of the present English model of the right to roam that was implemented in the CROW Act of 2000. I campaigned for it, and organised rallies at Todmorden and Haworth, plus a celebratory one at Haworth. The English model is basically the right to roam on moorland, mountain, heath, down and common land with a few restrictions which walkers have generally found acceptable.   It could still be improved with a more generous interpretation of what constitutes downland, and there need to be many more access points to access land, certainly to the extensive Pennine moorland in West Riding Area and other parts of northern England.   But, these reservations apart, I think we have got it more or less right in England, and to my knowledge there have been no serious incidents or problems. So why not extend the right to roam to the rest of the open countryside in England?

The first thing to say is that in landscape terms England is not Scotland. Scotland (where “the true right to roam” is very successful) is mainly moorland and mountain, uncultivated, and unenclosed. England is just the opposite: it is mainly lowland, cultivated, and enclosed by hedges, fences or walls. That in itself makes roaming in England more difficult. Predominantly, England is a land of fields. A “true right to roam” would involve walking round lots of fields often with high vegetation or crops till a gate was found (probably the same one as the walker came in by), or trying to get across the hedge, fence or wall without causing damage to it or oneself.

The second major thing to say is that spread across England is a network of approximately 140,000 miles of rights of way. This is the rights of way network that generations of our members as Group and Area footpath officers, members of staff, and members of kindred organisations have worked hard to claim, protect and enhance.   It is the rights of way network protected by statute, case law and a host of legal judgements as described in more than 800 pages of “The Blue Book”. The network isn’t perfect. In some places more paths are needed (perhaps claims for historic paths may fill in some of the gaps), and recent surveys such as those carried out by West Riding Area and the Big Pathwatch have found quite a lot of serious path problems. But for all its imperfections the rights of way network in England provides an excellent framework for walking throughout the land. It is serviceable and legally protected, and both walkers and landholders know where they are with it.  It’s probably the best legally protected network of paths in the world.

Almost certainly, a “true right to roam” if it is ever implemented will have an impact on the rights of way network. Why use a public right of way if a “true right to roam” lets you walk virtually anywhere? We can only of course make guesses about its possible impact if it were ever implemented, but it’s important we try to do so.  For a start, it is doubtful whether serious walkers will scatter themselves all over the place. They are more likely to use a “true right of roam” in an attempt to provide a new link between paths where one doesn’t already exist, occasionally to visit attractive places that are not on rights of way, and perhaps to avoid walking on busy roads. This in itself might be regarded as more than adequate justification by many walkers. However, very likely it will lead to trouble with landowners, because, to put it delicately, some walkers may prefer to take a more direct route from field to field than the gates used for farming purposes provide. Another group of path users are dog walkers; a “true right to roam” will liberate them to make considerable use of fields close to the edge of towns whether or not rights of way exist. This too will cause trouble with landowners. Beyond that, I do not foresee some sort of mass invasion of the countryside, but, more likely, sporadic unfortunate incidents involving livestock and litter where people stop the car somewhere out in the country and wander into the fields knowing they can go anywhere. These points alone make me think that a “true right to roam“ will give far more hassle than benefit.

Some deterioration in the condition of rights of way is likely to be caused by a “true right to roam”.   Firstly, the paths are likely to receive less use as walkers spread themselves more widely. Furthermore, landowners may consider that protecting rights of way across their land is not worth the trouble if walkers can wander anywhere, and, for the same reason, local authorities may wonder why they should make more than token efforts to fulfill their statutory duties.

A “true right to roam” raises important campaigning issues. On the face of it, it could be the big campaign that the Ramblers has been desperately looking for over the last few years. Unfortunately no. It hardly seems wise to commit considerable resources and effort to a campaign that has dubious merits and little support (either from our own members or other walkers), and which will inevitably run into powerful and sustained opposition. There are also other campaigning issues. Does it make sense to claim historic paths if a “true right to roam” will enable people to walk wherever they wish? Arguably, the two aspirations are incompatible. Furthermore, is all the effort and all the past effort to protect rights of way really worth it, all the painstaking footpath work, the legal cases, the Blue Book etc., if we are going to push for walkers to wander anywhere and everywhere? In essence, why bother with footpath work at all?

I have to say, therefore, I come to the conclusion that there is very little to be gained (mainly, I think, by dog walkers) in the pursuit of a “true right to roam” across England (that it is being pushed for in Wales is up to Wales). Perhaps we should democratically reconsider it.