Monday Book: Forced to live off the land

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RURAL LANDOWNERS who are now aghast at the thought of ignorant town-dwellers walking on their land are often delighted to let them in for a fee. As Marion Shoard puts it in her book, "the notion of charging others to walk on British soil arises logically from the existence of a right to exclude". And she cites a series of examples of turnstiles at cliff-tops and waterfalls.

By a delightful coincidence, her splendid book coincides with the promise of legislation to compel landowners to give free access to open country. It is obligatory reading for the curiously-selected rural landowner, Ewen Cameron, who is to chair the new Countryside Agency, assuming that the Government finds time for the legislation. The good news for him and for the rest of us is that the book is graphically written, tellingly illustrated and a rare publishing bargain, with a quarter of the 438 pages devoted to the key issue of making free access work. This is vital, since the professionals of the landowning lobby are working overtime to persuade us that access will destroy rural Britain.

Marion Shoard assumes that we want to make access work in, for a start, that 10 per cent of England and Wales which is moorland, mountain, heath, down and common, and to which the promised legislation applies. She demonstrates, from the experience of other European countries where access is taken for granted, that the fears of vandalism, littering and disturbance of wildlife are unfounded.

She argues, too, that the very limitation of the categories of land to which a right of access is proposed brings its own problems. In farmland, for example, pastures, field edges and cropland after the harvest were recognised walking routes in the 1940s. Today, access to every footpath has to be fought over by activists. This is because farmers, in hilarious numbers, are importing battery-reared pheasants for shooting by City types.

Woodlands present a more acute dilemma. The Forestry Commission gave access to its holdings but was obliged by the last two governments to sell off many of them. Public access was safeguarded over only 1.5 per cent of the woodland sold by the Commission between 1991 and 1995.

But neither of these categories, quite apart from lakesides, riversides and seashores, are covered by the proposed legislation. There is an uphill task ahead in persuading the British that they have a right of access to their own land. Meanwhile, a skilfully managed public relations campaign has sought to convince us that the typical owner keeping visitors off his land is "not a large-scale, heavily chemical-dependent agribusinessman but a small tenant farmer of agreeable disposition".

This sleight of hand is not subtle enough to deceive Marion Shoard, author of The Theft of the Countryside and of This Land is Our Land. Many of us will remember her facing up to grotesque dukes and their bailiffs in Channel 4's documentary, Power in the Land. Here, with the same mastery of rural history, from William the Conqueror onwards, she both explains how access to the land has been taken by the rich from the poor over centuries, and describes the struggles of our predecessors to win it back.

Her book reminds us, too, that we have had more than a century of legislation attempting to provide for popular access to land, and that the strength of the landowning interest has defeated or distorted all these efforts. She believes that the argument has been further advanced in the public mind in Scotland than in its more southerly counterpart, since "an awareness of the ownership of rural land and of folk history and culture far greater than in England gives Scottish people a new cause of grievance about the land crimes of the past and makes them readier to contemplate action than the English".

The good news from other countries is that the very illogicality of partial rights creates a demand for their extension. This may be exactly what the landowning lobby fears, but Marion Shoard's careful study of the experience of other nations, such as Germany, Switzerland and Denmark, suggests that it is inevitable.

"Would Switzerland today be taking on the millionaire owners of mansions around Lake Geneva to secure a right for the people to walk along the lakeside if it had not nailed its colours to the mast of a right of access to woodland and mountain pasture in its Civil Code nearly a century ago?" she asks. "Would Germany's citizens enjoy a right along paths and tracks if the 1975 Federal Forest Act, granting a legal right to roam over all woodland, had never been enacted?" For her, the modest intentions of current policy in Britain are important as a first step towards a shift in power and privilege in our own rural environment.

The reviewer is co-author, with Peter Hall, of `Sociable Cities'