Countryside is not a playground – right to roam is deeply flawed
It’s high time to scrap the Countryside and Rights of Way Act as it stands, argues Chris Rundle, an agricultural journalist from Somerset.
Farmers, it is reliably reported, are "closing the gate on ramblers".
Well I'm not surprised.
Labour's decision to declare millions of acres of farmland open to all through its right to roam legislation has bequeathed the farming community an appalling mess.
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It has not, from personal observation, led to any increase in the number of those who resort to the countryside for the purposes of recreational walking – despite some Labour-run authorities appointing grossly over-remunerated "officers" specifically to teach people how to put one foot in front of the other.
It has, on the other hand, merely encouraged those with a perverse interest in causing the maximum amount of inconvenience to the farmers and landowners whom they envy and despise to explore every possible method of doing so.
Ancient footpaths which ran through farmyards where there was once nothing of any value lying around to tempt the light-fingered have been uncovered from the maps and triumphantly tramped in the finest spirit of Kinder Scout.
Worse ... local authorities are being deluged with applications – many of them clearly vexatious – to re-open routes which were once, apparently, recognised rights of way but whose use has lapsed.
In the new climate of austerity which has gripped the public sector by the throat, local authorities can now afford to devote only the most meagre levels of staff and resources to rights-of-way issues (though often appear to be choosing to target and even victimise farmers as a priority) and as a result these cases are piling up, causing massive backlogs in the processing queue and unacceptable delays for farmers and landowners, who are urgently seeking to divert footpaths away from buildings which now contain costly equipment and machinery.
Then there are the cows. When Labour took its revenge on landowners for what happened during the Enclosures they forgot to tell people about the cows.
Which are not always the benign, harmless beasts of the field they are popularly supposed to be. Deaths and injury resulting from trampling by single or multiple cows have shown an alarming increase since we were all told we could walk pretty much anywhere we fancied out in the country – and in more than one case it's the farmer who has been vilified for his audacity and thoughtlessness in keeping his animals in fields where the public was allowed access.
Add to all this the mess Natural England is making of its plans to complete a right-of-way around the entire coastline and the whole issue of access to the countryside is in utter chaos.
All Natural England has managed to achieve so far is to reinvent the wheel by "creating" access along part of the Dorset coast which was already on the route of the South West Coast Path, merely to be able to trumpet its spurious "achievement" in time for the Olympics.
Further north its next proposed section from Brean Down to Minehead is deeply enmired in problems, with at least one landowner threatening litigation over the loss of land.
Anyone who believes Natural England is going to achieve the entire project within the stated £50 million budget is deluding themselves.
The Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is now being asked to create blanket exemptions from right-to-roam legislation where issues of privacy arise, which should offer some kind of remedy for those who find determined ramblers striding through farmyards and gardens.
But clearly the Countryside and Rights of Way Act has created a monstrous problem which cannot be resolved simply through tinkering around with bits of minor legislation.
A total overhaul of the entire system – as was mooted a year or so back – is clearly needed, as is a new Act which will cover rights-of-way in the context of the 21st century, rather than harking back to the days when footpaths were established as the shortest routes to the church or the pub before tarmac roads or the vehicles to drive on them were ever dreamt of.