Right to roam: Labour commit to ‘replace a default of exclusion with a default of access’

View from Great Mis Tor, Dartmoor Photo by the author

In the most significant leap forward for all of those campaigning for public access to nature, the Labour front bench committed to replace a ‘default of exclusion [to the countryside and nature] with a default of access.’ Reacting to this news, Right to Roam campaigner, Guy Shrubsole, tweeted:

Green MP for Brighton Pavilion, Caroline Lucas, lead the important debate, setting out the context in which bio-diversity has slumped to leave England one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world and a mere 8 per cent of the country is accessible to the public. Indeed, half of England’s countryside is owned by just 1 per cent of the population. No wonder most of us feel disconnected from nature. As Caroline emphasised, addressing this fundamental inequality must be at the heart of measures to improve public access. In a powerful and impassioned speech, she stressed that for people to really care about what happens to the natural world and to do something to defend it, they had to have experienced it – touched it, been immersed in it. It has to go from the abstract and the hypothetical to the real.

‘Fundamentally, increasing public access to nature – and extending the right to roam – is about acknowledging that we cannot protect what we don’t love, and we cannot love what we do not know – and in order to know it, we must be fully immersed in it, and intimately connected to it. 

Whether that’s walking in woodlands, listening to the birds in the trees, or bathing in icy lakes. Nature needs us – and we need it too.’

Caroline Lucas

The debate occasionally slipped into maudlin ramblings on childhood experiences with one or two Conservative MPs attempting to prove their eco-credentials (despite their voting records) by showing themselves able to name three insects or a bat.

Many drew attention to the mental health benefits of engagement with nature – absolutely on point as the country is in the middle of a mental health crisis, especially amongst the young.

The Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Trudy Harrison, was the very embodiment of glib complacency and superficiality, failing to address any of Ms Lucas’s crucial questions on changes to access. It will be interesting to see how she responds once she receives the same questions in written form, but one suspects that there will be more waffle and spin from a government which has presided over the degradation of our rivers and waterways and reneged on climate promises.

But none of that really matters, because this is, surely, a government and a party on the way out. The Labour pledge to introduce a new right to roam law is the biggie. It will be transformative.

Congratulations to all those who have been lobbying for change. You have given us some real hope. Respect and love of nature coupled with a determination to defend the natural world against the polluters, extractors and exploiters is the only we can save this planet and ourselves.