7. The Fortifying Commons: access and recreation

Access to space for recreation and nature – both in the countryside and in towns and cities – is vital. There is now a large volume of research showing that connections with green space are crucial to both mental and physical health. Physical access to the land that surrounds us enhances our sense of belonging, allowing us to feel that we are no longer trespassers in our own nation, but active citizens with a stake in the national project.

The Right to Roam in the countryside, won after 70 years of hard campaigning, applies to only about 10% of England and Wales.[1] Much open access land is located in remote upland areas, far from large population centres. Vast swathes of the country remain off-limits, where walkers, bird watchers and children picking blackberries face menacing Keep Out signs or risk being chased off by gamekeepers.

Landowners also use managed neglect to ensure that public rights of way fall into disuse. The process for registering further rights of way comes to an abrupt end in 2026, after which no more historic footpaths can be registered.[2]

Privately-owned public spaces

In our cities, public space is being eroded. Our public parks are entering a period of austerity-induced decline, despite their rising popularity.[3] Through the spread of  privately-owned public spaces (POPS), the public realm is being steadily privatised. Our city and town centres are increasingly the property of multinational property companies, such as 42 acres of central Liverpool (in Liverpool One), or 36 acres of central Bristol (in Cabot Circus). Companies might call such places ‘public realm’ in their brochures, but they are patrolled by private security guards charged with preventing people from walking a dog, playing a guitar, taking photographs and other activities. In many POPS, bylaws also restrict public protest. People deemed ‘undesirable’ can be served with notices revoking their implied permission to enter, which amount to privately-issued ‘spatial ASBOs’. The role of public space is reduced to shopping, eroding civic life, turning citizens into consumers and impoverishing our conception of society.

Learning from the past

In trying to resolve the land question today, we can learn from the largely forgotten history of land reform in the UK. Previous movements to resist the enclosure of the commons, secure land for communities to grow their own food, and open access to the countryside provide inspiration for a 21st-century land reform movement.

The enclosure of the commons

Common land was where the majority of the population once lived and worked, exercising collective rights to farm and forage for food and fuel. Between 1600 and 1914, common land covering a fifth of England was enclosed by members of the aristocracy and gentry, dispossessing many.[4]

This process was halted in Victorian London, when groups like the Commons Preservation Society successfully fought to keep Epping Forest and Berkhamsted Common open to the public.[5] A wider registration and protection of remaining commons followed, including recent legislation that gives some measure of protection to Town and Village Greens. Despite these successes, however, just 3% of England remains common land today.[6]

Victorian land reform and the birth of allotments and County Farms

The 1873 Return of Owners of Land, the long-forgotten ‘Victorian Domesday’, revealed that just 4,000 aristocrats and gentry owned half of England and Wales.[7] This prompted widespread calls for land reform. Some MPs stood for election on the promise of ‘three acres and a cow’ for landless labourers.[8]

The movement against enclosure also sought to reclaim land for the public, taking action through the newly-created County Councils. This system of local government, created in 1888, eroded the power of landowning country squires.

With England trapped in a deep agricultural depression, councils were given the power to purchase land for County Farms, and rent them at below-market rates to young and poor farmers. The Smallholdings Acts of 1892 and 1908 ensured that they became a vital first rung on the farming ladder for newcomers to a sector with high capital costs.

Another legacy from this period is the allotment, provided by local authorities from 1878, in response to demands by working class city-dwellers for land to grow fresh fruit and vegetables. Allotment provision expanded dramatically during both world wars and was vital to ensuring domestic food production at times of shortage and economic insecurity.[9]

The struggle for rights of access and engagement

The Kinder Scout trespass of 1932 drew attention to the lack of public access to land for recreation: a lack felt most keenly by urban labourers packed into crowded and dirty cities. The post-war Labour government responded by creating the first National Parks in 1949. In 2000, Labour extended public access to land with the Countryside and Rights of Way (CRoW) Act, which created a Right to Roam across about 10% of the land in England and Wales.

The Town and Country Planning Act 1947 empowered communities to help determine how the land around them is used for the first time, by creating the modern, democratic planning system. Large landowners successfully lobbied to exempt farmland and forestry. Today the biggest driver of species decline and natural habitat loss in Britain is industrialised agriculture.[10] We believe it is time to re-open the debate about owners’ freedom to use and abuse the land as they wish.

Inspired by the efforts and ideas of previous land reform movements, we propose a number of changes that would greatly improve public access to and enjoyment of the countryside, and bolster small and family farms.

A new right to roam on urban, suburban and rural land

Despite progress under successive Labour governments, some 90% of England and Wales remains off-limits to the public. Our rivers and lakes are also mostly inaccessible: according to the British Canoeing Society, a mere 4% of England’s inland waterways can be paddled uncontested.[11] This lack of access is a legacy of centuries of land concentration in the hands of a wealthy few.

On public access to the countryside, the rest of the UK lags far behind Scotland. The Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 granted a legal right of access to almost all land and water. People must of course behave responsibly in exercising this right (“leave nothing but footprints, take nothing but photos”). Certain types of land are exempted, such as gardens, sports grounds and fields on which crops are growing.

Similar rights of access also exist in other northern and central European countries, such as Norway, Sweden, Austria and Switzerland. Despite dire warnings from Scottish landowners that Right to Roam would create havoc, the Scottish Rural Affairs and Environment Committee reported in 2011 that the access provisions appeared “to be working well and there is little desire amongst stakeholders for any significant change”.[12]

Labour should:

  • Extend the CRoW Act 2000 to grant a Right to Roam across all uncultivated land and waterways, excluding gardens and other limited exceptions.
  • Repeal the legislation in the CRoW Act 2000 which states that “all unrecorded footpaths and bridleways created before 1949 cannot be recorded after 1 January 2026”. This would end the arbitrary cut-off point for registering further rights of way.

To counter the enclosure of public urban space, the following right should be enshrined in legislation:

  • Add a new Schedule 17 to the CRoW Act 2000 providing an urban and suburban right to roam, codifying a citizen’s right to come onto land for civic and cultural purposes.

 A legal definition of public space

To halt and reverse the privatisation of urban space through the proliferation of POPS, we need a legal definition of what ‘public space’ really is. This would involve a change to the planning system:

  • Create a new D3 Public Realm use class in the Town and Country Planning (Use Classes) Order 1987. Define this as space (whether publicly or privately owned) where citizens have the right to come onto land for civic and cultural purposes. Require councils to ensure that all new developments with any open space include this provision as a requirement for planning permission and that this provision is also required as or when established developments seek future use class changes.

Defending and creating new parks and urban green spaces

Parks and urban green spaces are currently threatened by austerity. We hope Labour’s wider public spending plans will end the squeeze on council budgets. We further recommend that Labour:

  • Make the provision of parks a statutory service for councils;
  • Make it easier for councils to create new parks and urban green spaces by reforming the Land Compensation Act 1961, as detailed in earlier chapters.

Allotments for all who want them

Allotments remain highly popular: waiting lists are at an all-time high.[13] They enable people to exercise, relax, eat fresh food and connect with nature. Everyone has a right to one. The Allotments Act 1908 states that, where there is demand from local residents, “the council shall provide a sufficient number of allotments”. Councils are empowered to meet this need by compulsorily purchasing land. But the 1908 Act sets no time limit for provision, which means that people often sit on waiting lists for years. The National Allotment Society says there are 90,000 people currently sitting on waiting lists.[14] Yet today England devotes ten times as much land to golf courses as it does to allotments, many of them in the Green Belt surrounding our cities.[15]

Community food growing projects allow people to grow their own food without the commitment required in taking on an allotment. They are particularly useful for people with long term health problems, students and refugees seeking asylum.

A Labour government should ensure that land is available for everyone who wants to grow food:

  • Amend the 1908 Allotments Act to introduce a time limit of one year for the mandatory provision of land for allotments and ensure that this must be situated within reasonable distance of allotment holders’ homes.[16]

As discussed in Chapter 5, by reforming land compensation rules to allow councils to purchase land more cheaply, local authorities will more easily acquire land for allotments and community food growing projects (as well as for social housing).

 The mandatory provision of allotments does not apply in London, thanks to the Local Government Act 1963.[17] To answer unmet needs in this city, a more creative solution might be explored. Green Belt legislation is being attacked in some quarters for restricting house building. But rather than dismantling it, which would merely increase urban sprawl and deliver a windfall for landowners, a better option is to prioritise it for community food growing and access to land.

Amend National Planning Policy Guidance to make allotment provision and land for community food growing projects a key function of Green Belts, particularly near railway stations connecting to city centres.[18]

Many London councils own significant quantities of land in the Green Belt. They could be obliged to make this available for food-growing, perhaps in partnership with inner London boroughs, or through future revisions of the London Plan.

Next: Chapter 8: Farming and Forestry for the Many »

[1] Marion Shoard, ‘Into the Woods’, The Land Magazine, Issue 22, January 2018.

[2] Ramblers website, ‘Don’t Lose Your Way – 2026’.

[3] Heritage Lottery Fund, 2016, ‘State of UK Public Parks 2016’; original report no longer online, but results summarised in Alison Benjamin, ‘UK’s public parks face “decline and neglect”’, The Guardian, 7 September 2016.

[4] Parliament website, ‘Enclosing the land’.

[5] Open Spaces Society (modern name for the Commons Preservation Society) website, ‘About us’.

[6] Foundation for Common Land website, About Commons.

[7] Kevin Cahill, Who Owns Britain, 2001.

[8] Roy Douglas, Land, People & Politics: A History of the Land Question in the United Kingdom, 1878-1952, 1976.

[9] David Crouch and Colin Ward, The Allotment: Its Landscape and Culture, 1988.

[10] RSPB et al., State of Nature Report, 2016.

[11] British Canoeing website, Access to Water.

[12] Rural Affairs, Climate Change and Environment Committee, Scottish Government, 2011. Meeting Papers Annexe B p9

[13] National Allotments Society website, Brief history of allotments. (Information on waiting lists at bottom of webpage).

[14] National Allotments Society, op cit.

[15] I. Johnston, 2017. Golf courses cover 10 times more land than allotments – and get £550,000 in farming subsidies, The Independent.

[16] The 1908 Smallholdings and Allotments Act.

[17] National Allotments Society, How to get an allotment.

[18] National Planning Policy Framework, 2012. Protecting Green Belt Land.