Dartmoor – Anthony Mangnall MP still fails to address the issues

A number of local newspapers, including the Totnes Times and Ivybridge Today, published excerpts of a letter by the Stars are for Everyone (SAFE) campaign group to Totnes MP, Anthony Mangnall, complaining of bias and the “gaslighting of constituents” in his article published in the Totnes Times in February.

SAFE invited Mr Magnall MP to a neutral debate if he disagreed with the complaints, an offer which he has so far declined to take up. Mr Mangnall MP did, however, provide a written response in the article published in the local newspapers.

The full letter by SAFE to Antony Magnall MP is published below with further comments by SAFE members on whether his response satisfies their complaints.

Dear Antony Magnall, MP

This letter is on behalf of the Stars Are For Everyone (SAFE), a group that includes many of your constituents and who wish to ensure everyone has the right to enjoy Dartmoor.  We write in response to your article in the Totnes Times of 18 February setting out your views on Backpack Camping and the recent High Court Judgment that found in favour of the claimants, Diana and Alexander Darwall. 

As your constituents, we respect the office you hold as our representative at Parliament. We recognise the burden of such office, calling you to undertake a service to your constituents through upholding the 7 Principles of Public Life set out in the Code of Conduct for MPs: Selflessness, Integrity, Objectivity, Accountability, Openness, Honesty and Leadership. Your office and these values are cherished because we know the struggles our ancestors had to endure, to wrest power away from arbitrary rule and create the institution of Parliament to represent us equally; to make our lives equally matter, no matter our class or wealth or ancestral descent. 

Due to the public office you hold, and the intrinsic values mentioned above, we were therefore deeply concerned that your article in the Totnes Times will be read by many of your constituents as reflecting a fair and objective representation of the issues concerning Backpack Camping on Dartmoor  However, we consider your article to be unfairly biased and inaccurate and breaches many of the 7 Principles of Public Life for reasons set out in detail below. 

We also sincerely believe in the potential that democracy holds – its principle of open and free debate by citizens and their representatives to lead to better results as citizens learn to empathise with, and be shaped by, difference as much as by what is similar.  Therefore, if you believe we have unfairly represented what we allege to be unfair biases and inaccurate information, we invite you join in a debate to discuss these differences so we can make each other accountable for our views.  Any venue for such debate will, of course, be neutral and independent, to enable constituents of different political leanings to feel safe and welcome to join.  

Why we believe your article is unfairly biased and inaccurate.

In your article you state that the “significant amount of attention” arising from the wild camping High Court case has “misled” people into thinking that “their rights on Dartmoor are likely to be taken away”.   

The implication of this is that, in your understanding of the legal judgment, it was not impacting on “public rights”, and the public were simply wrong to think that.  You then go on to say this wasn’t the public’s fault however, because they were being “misled” by those you blame further on in your article as “mischief makers”. 

This implication is confirmed by your next sentence.  Far from banning any “rights” you say,  the ruling “simply meant that Dartmoor National Park Authority had to ensure it had agreement from landowners to allow the practice to continue.”  (our underlining).  In other words, no rights were removed, all that needed to happen was for the public body of DNPA to ensure it had agreement from landowners, which landowners were more than happy to do.   

We believe this interpretation you are putting forward as an impartial objective view of the judgment misleads and is inaccurate in two very material and significant aspects, as explained below.  If you think otherwise then, as mentioned above, we invite you to a debate to be held impartially and independently.  

Your argument suggests equivalence between a “right” and permission.

A right is something each citizen has, under their control backed up by the force of law.  A permission is something you are given, something in the control of another, in this case landowners of Dartmoor and previously, under the reign of feudalism prior to the reign of Parliament, the aristocracy. 

The concept of a “legal right” that each and every citizen should have did not appear out of nowhere.  Through much suffering of ordinary people, the concept of equal legal rights for each and every citizen led, through civil unrest and war, to the construction of a set of ideals and institutions to protect those ideals of “equal legal rights”, established through a new body for and of the people, called Parliament. 

As our Member of Parliament and having regard to the above, we cannot conceive how you might reasonably hold it to actually be the case that there is an equivalence between rights and permission, as the basis of Parliament itself was to put in place rights for citizens as a replacement to the arbitrary control they were subject to under feudalism.  To gaslight your constituents into thinking there is equivalence between permission and a “legal right” is not only to ignore our history of suffering and struggle, it is to actively disrespect the history of Parliament and to seek to dismantle and bury its legacy.  

Therefore, unless you have not understood the basis of Parliament, we consider your argument to be flawed with a lack of Integrity, Objectivity, Accountability, Openness and Honesty, 5 of the 7 Principles of Public Life set out above.  

The issue at the heart of the problem is who is in a better position to control who can or can’t wild camp on Dartmoor? 

For the public, through the protection of Parliament which was set up to prevent arbitrary rule, it is a public body (DNPA) set up under Parliament through statute, that is the proper body for determining how wild camping is managed on Dartmoor for the benefit of the nation, rather than for the benefit of one interest group of the nation.  Experiencing Dartmoor through backpack camping should be a right for all, not a permission granted by landowners that can be taken away at any time. 

However, the argument in your article is that those who own the land are in a better position to benevolently manage access for backpack camping, through the power inherent in landownership to permit or withdraw permission.  

Large landowners are only one interest group of the nation and a minority one at that.  Your argument is again a throwback to the time before Parliament, when citizens were under arbitrary control that could prevent them meeting their own basic needs of physical and mental health.   Your letter is biased towards one minority interest group even whilst your role requires you to fairly represent, with selflessness and integrity and objectivity, all interests of your constituents.  However, you label us “mischief makers” for representing our interests. 

By making the argument that landowners are in a better position to manage access in the national interest, rather than the body set up by Parliament to carry out this function, we believe you are dis-respecting the office you hold and the sovereignty of the people through Parliament. 

We recognise it is not just you as our MP who are failing the nation by conflating the interests of one group with that of all citizens in the public interest, it has become an endemic problem in many of our public institutions, e.g. the BBC too, in Countryfile, also stated that by landowners deciding where camping can happen, this “ultimately allows us to care for this beautiful countryside”.  

That is why we would like to reinvigorate an essential function of Parliament (the role of “parle” and “to parley” meaning to speak opposing views to each other for the purpose of peace/truce-making).   There is a lack of civil debate in our country between those with honest differences in view and that is why we invite you to step into such a role of Leadership with Selflessness, Integrity, Objectivity, Accountability, Openness and Honesty, by inviting you to a debate with your constituents if you feel we have not fairly or accurately responded to your article in the Totnes Times of 18 February.

On behalf of 

Stars Are For Everyone

April 2023

Mr Magnall’s response to the complaints published in the Totnes Times and Ivybridge Today are shown in the image at the head of this piece.

Mr Mangnall singularly fails to address the central concerns set out in the letter, as Mothiur Rahman, SAFE member and a solicitor (New Economy Law) and environmental law lecturer at the University of Law, the largest legal educational establishment in the UK, explains :

‘He has not taken up the invitation to debate these issues fully and frankly and openly with his constituents. That offer is still there.

“We support those Mr Mangnall cited as those people “whose livelihoods depend on [Dartmoor]”. However, wealthy individuals coming in and taking ownership of large parts of Dartmoor in order to make profits from pheasant shoots are not those whose livelihoods are dependant on Dartmoor. We reject the conflation of these kinds of extractive/profit driven private interests with those Dartmoor agriculturalists who have a deep love and connection to Dartmoor as a place.

‘Mr Mangnall’s mention in his response of his Private Member’s Bill for Dartmoor [ ‘A Bill to require the Secretary of State to publish proposals for a scheme to incentivise owners of land within Dartmoor National Park to allow enhanced access to that land in certain circumstances; and for connected purposes’.] suffers from the same problem as his earlier article in the Totnes Times – the summary is not an accurate reflection of what was described in the parliamentary discussion on the Bill. His response provides vague, generalised aspiration, but is conveniently silent on the bill’s specific aims and demands. We will find out more specific detail on the Second Reading of his Bill, tabled for November, but from what was said in the parliamentary debate they seem to include the following:

1) a change to the statutory provisions for the make up of the DNPA Management Committee with landowners to be included as an interest group;

2) a funding scheme for new rangers. We noted, with alarm, the warning from Richard Foord MP that this could lead to the privatisation of Dartmoor by the backdoor, with the public refused access by such rangers where they cannot afford to make payment for “enhanced services” and the precedent this could set for other national parks.’

In the course of the presentation of his bill in parliament, Mr Mangnall claimed that landowners had no representation on the Dartmoor National Park committee, implying that they were utterly voiceless. This is not so, there being two significant landowners on the committee, as reported here.

As highlighted in their letter, campaigners are concerned that Mr Mangnall is attempting to disguise biased support for landowner interests above those of the public, having received a £5,000 donation towards his campaign office in 2020 from Dartmoor landowner Alexander Darwall – the individual at the centre of the recent controversy. There is also a wider concern that the focus on the landowner sets a dangerous precedent for other national parks and public access rights.

Mr Rahman continued:

‘Mr Mangnall MP claimed that DNPA had added 3,500 acres for wild camping under the permissive “Voluntary Landowners’ Agreement”, put in place of the Public Rights Framework which the High Court determined was not a proper interpretation of the Dartmoor Commons Act 1985 (with that High Court interpretation now being appealed to the Court of Appeal by the DNPA). Whilst it is of course welcome that the DNPA have added land in their control at Holme Common for backpack camping, it is 750 acres not 3500 as stated.

‘Not only that, this additional land was included to offset the land lost to backpack camping due to the loss of the Public Rights Framework through the High Court decision, and its replacement with a permissive Voluntary Landowners’ Agreement.

Thirdly, and most importantly, the precarious nature of the permissive Voluntary Landowners’ Agreement is highlighted by the fact that land has already been removed from the voluntary scheme by landowners since it was put in place on the 18 January 2023, as can be seen from the map below prepared by one of the campaigners. If this is happening after a mere 4 months, one can only imagine what the long term expectations for public access to Dartmoor are, especially with the warning already provided by Richard Foord MP about Mr Mangnall’s Parliamentary Bill being a risk to Dartmoor being “privatised by the backdoor”.

Nothing has been said by Mr Magnall MP which refutes SAFE’s complaints of gaslighting and confusing constituents by attempting to make an equivalence between permission and rights. His failure to respond to this core complaint, which we invited him to publicly debate with us in a neutral forum should he disagree, shows up his lack of care to help everyday people understand the basis and importance of their rights.

Whilst the Permissive Voluntary Landowners’ Agreement currently enables backpack camping on 27 per cent of Dartmoor (63,000 acres), the precariousness of this framework, highlighted by Mr Rahman’s comments, demonstrates the need to return to a Public Rights Framework for Dartmoor, which is now in the hands of the Court of Appeal. The silent withdrawal of land at Ditsworthy and Lud Gate demonstrates how an attrition of access could occur.

We hope that the Court of Appeal, following the hearing tabled for 18 July, will agree that the DNPA’s interpretation of the Dartmoor Commons Act 1985 is the correct and lawful interpretation and thus bring back the Public Rights Framework to Dartmoor.

Ensuring the land at Dartmoor enables the interests of all to be equitably met, whether access to nature, agricultural or conservation interests, requires a dialogue between rights and responsibilities. It’s not a free-for-all, but nor should it be at the behest of large estates. In the long-term we need new legislation to re-enact traditional commoning practices which include the community as one of the economic agents of change, rather than remaining only a passive beneficiary subject to the agency of either landowners or public bodies which do not always understand the local contexts.

Mothiur Rahman

Dartmoor Preservation Association are fundraising to support the appeal – please do consider donating.

With thanks to Guy Shrubsole for land ownership information on the wonderful ‘Who Owns Dartmoor’ blog.

A portion of this round-up includes material originally tweeted by Lewis Winks 🌍 (@curiousways) on 11/04/2023.