Land for Life
- The protection or reclamation of common spaces in both towns and the countryside. An end to the continued enclosure of playing fields, city farms, parks, allotments, informal relaxation and play areas.While new common spaces are successfully being defined in some counties, and this is welcome, in many areas there has been a significant net loss. Common spaces are of enormous importance in maintaining community and the sense of belonging – your life can extend into your surroundings, and your surroundings into your life. We would like to see counties make a real commitment to the protection of these critical places.
- A right of access to uncultivated land in the countryside.Opponents of a right to roam claim that access would destroy the very resources that visitors value. The hidden beauties of the countryside, exposed to the unkempt and ignorant mass of humankind, would rapidly wither away. It is true that there are places, like Derwentwater and Dovedale, where the pressure of numbers does damage the land, and there are others where the fauna or flora is so vulnerable that it can tolerate no intrusion, but these conditions are rare and localized. They fail to justify our exclusion from uncultivated land in the rest of Brita in. Indeed, looking at most of the places in which access is allowed, it is hard to escape the conclusion that public participation protects wildlife and archaeological sites, rather than destroying them. If damaging change takes place where people walk, there is a public outcry. But what no one sees, no one grieves – or not, at any rate, until it is too late.
Our physical exclusion from the countryside lies at the heart of our loss of a sense of belonging, and if we do not belong there, we will not fight for it. It is pertinent, therefore, to look at the other reasons given for keeping us out. Landowners often claim that access to their land would represent an intrusion on their privacy. Gamekeepers will confront trespassers with this argument even when they catch them out of sight of the house, or on an estate owned by an absentee landlord. Why some people’s privacy should extend across a substantial proportion of Britain, while most of us are content for people to be walking past our front doors, is never adequately explained.
Visitors, it is claimed, do not understand the countryside, and will therefore cause chaos to farming, forestry and field sports. It is true that some visitors do, as landowners suggest, damage hedges or frighten livestock. But restricting these activities (and there are plenty of laws with which to do so) surely does not necessitate excluding the harmless majority, any more than stopping people from spraying graffiti or breaking shop windows means keeping everyone off the pavement. If people are ignorant of the countryside it is surely because they have been so successfully kept out.
We are told, moreover, that we have an adequate network of footpaths, from which there’s no need to stray. Regrettably, many of the most charming and intricate corners of Britain are wholly inaccessible by public path. Perhaps more importantly, one visits the countryside to escape the constraints of dedicated space, the narrow regimentation imposed by the pavement, the office or ten square metres of garden. Keeping to the footpath does little to relieve our sense of confinement.
We feel that Swedish law offers a good model for an access policy in Britain. There, the Right of Common Access, or Allemansratten, gives everyone the right to cross another person’s land on foot, provided no damage or disturbance is caused. The landowner or tenant does not have to give permission. Carefully defined exceptions ensure that walkers are not allowed to enter the private land surrounding a house, or cross newly planted woodland, growing crops or other land likely to suffer damage.
Swedish local authorities may prosecute landowners who obstruct access or erect signs to deter people from using their right of common access. On the other hand, people who leave litter in the countryside may be fined or sent to prison for up to six months.
Some areas used by the armed forces continue to be barred to the general public; in addition some nature conservation areas are also excepted from the right of common access. However, hunting and shooting in the countryside (and shooting pheasants is common in southern Sweden in late summer) take place without any suspension of Allemansratten.
- A reform and updating of the planning and public enquiry processes, so that local people’s interests are defended as staunchly as those of developers.We feel that many of the problems of inappropriate development, which delivers more gains to developers than to ordinary people, arise from distortions in the planning process. Developers have a right of appeal if a planning decision goes against them; local people do not. They can also re-submit almost identical applications as many times as they like, until they wear down the resistance of local communities or exhaust their resources, as legal fees swallow up people’s fighting funds.
We’d like to see the same rights of appeal for local people as for developers. We’d like an end to the re-submission of similar applications and other means by which developers can exert undue pressure on both communities and councils. We would also like to see an end to the use of off-site “planning gain”. As DoE Circular 28 makes clear, this is unlawful, but it continues to be widely and openly used. While we are aware that councils are short of funds, we feel that planning decisions made on the basis of what developers can offer in the way of external incentives are unlikely to be as balanced as those judged on the merits on the scheme alone.
- A freely-accessible public registry of land ownership, leading to community ground rents.According to the Land Registrar, up to 50% of the land in England and Wales is not recorded in the registry. Only properties sold since 1925 are on the list, and even these are often inadequately recorded (landowners have escaped proper registration by, for example, “renting” their land to themselves. It is often impossible to find out who owns the land on our doorsteps. As many landowners are receiving significant amounts of taxpayers’ money, there is a desperate need for an open and comprehensive registry. This would h elp bring land use practices to account.
A further advantage of a comprehensive registry of ownership could directly benefit local authorities and government. At present the increases in land value which result from both zoning and nearby infrastructure projects all accrue to the landowner. This both hugely increases the price divide between agricultural and residential land and means that potential returns to a local authority or to central government are foregone. With a partial taxation of these gains (land tax or community ground rent), some of the unearned increment would be returned to the community.