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Dartmoor Victory Emphasises the Need for Reform

Public Right to Countryside Access

A Review of Countryside Access and the Persistent Endeavours of the Open Spaces Society

While the Countryside & Rights of Way (CRoW) Act 2000 marked an important milestone, enabling public access to approximately 8% of England’s landscape, a significant 92% of the nation’s countryside remains inaccessible. This restricted access is all the more remarkable considering that it is the public, through taxes and state funding, who contribute significantly to the upkeep and conservation of these landscapes.

The Open Spaces Society (OSS), Britain’s first national conservation body, has been tirelessly advocating for public access to the countryside since 1865. The founding members, including the philosopher John Stuart Mill and Liberal MP Lord Eversley, fought early battles to preserve public spaces such as Hampstead Heath and Wimbledon Common.

The Dartmoor Precedent: A Pivotal Victory in the Right to Roam Debate

The recent right to ‘wild camp’ victory in Dartmoor is a significant step forward in the public’s right to roam. An appeal, led by the National Park Authority and the OSS, against a local landowner’s challenge culminated in this triumphant outcome that strengthens public access to the countryside.

Defining the Right to Open-Air Recreation

The Dartmoor Case and Its Significance

Central to the Dartmoor case was the interpretation of open-air recreation under the Dartmoor Commons Act 1985. This landmark case arose when landowners contested that wild camping did not qualify under this definition, prompting nationwide debates and stirring emotions across various sections of the population.

Lord Justice Underhill, however, asserted in his summary judgement that wild camping categorically fell under open-air recreation, a ruling that has been widely applauded by public access advocates, outdoor enthusiasts, and legal scholars alike. His judgement further solidified the interpretation of open-air recreation as encompassing not just traditional activities but embracing a broader range of outdoor engagements that resonate with the spirit of connection to nature.

A People’s Triumph and a Rationale for Greater Public Access

Celebrating the Judgement

Kate Ashbrook, General Secretary of the Open Spaces Society (OSS), hailed the judgement as an “excellent outcome,” underscoring that the right to open-air recreation now definitively includes wild camping. This Dartmoor victory serves as a timely reminder of the importance of public access rights to England’s countryside and the wider implications for environmental stewardship and societal well-being.

The Need for Broader Access

Yet, we cannot ignore the glaring fact that public access is restricted to a mere 8% of the countryside. This limitation stifles opportunities for recreation, education, and engagement with natural landscapes. The public, as significant contributors to the country’s economy and the conservation of its landscapes, has a legitimate expectation for broader access to these spaces.

But the conversation extends beyond the pleasure of roaming or wild camping; it’s about fostering a deeper connection with our shared heritage and landscapes. It’s about enhancing the well-being of people through nature interaction, and it’s about ensuring our collective duty to protect and respect the land is recognised and supported.

A Call to Action

The Dartmoor victory has ignited renewed discussions and is seen by many as a turning point in the public right of access movement. It’s time to revisit our access rights, spurred by this triumph, and advocate for a more inclusive, fair, and sustainable approach to the treasures of England’s countryside.

This entails comprehensive dialogues with various stakeholders, including landowners, conservationists, local communities, and government bodies, to strike a balance that honours both private property rights and public access. There may be challenges, but the potential benefits to society, the environment, and the very soul of the nation make it an imperative worth fighting for. The Dartmoor case can be the spark that redefines our relationship with the land, transforming it from privilege to right and from exclusion to inclusion.

Our Planet, Our Stories: Environmental Reporting by The Bournemouth Observer.

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