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Right to roam: yet another countryside cock-up

Friday 25 June 2004

Our countryside commentator John Sheard, who once favoured easier access to open countryside, despairs at the chaos caused by the rush to get the Right to Roam laws onto the statute book

A SERIES of appeals tribunals will start in Skipton next week so that some twenty or so farmers and landowners can try to put right errors made in maps drawn up to enforce the so-called Right to Roam legislation.

Whether they win or not remains to be seen. If they are lucky, like the pop star Madonna who could afford to pay top lawyers to keep ramblers out of most of her country estate, they will succeed.

If not, they will be like the Queen, who has been forced to allow not just ramblers but people who want to play football or have a picnic on her privately owned Sandringham estate in Norfolk, the family favourite for royal holidays.

It appears that, unlike Madonna, who is more famous for her boobs than her music, the Queen had decided not to appeal because, no doubt, she fears that such and action would lead to yet another kicking from the tabloids (and, not doubt, the Guardian too).

But one cannot help wondering why some bright spark in the Countryside Agency decided to allow strangers close to a family whose members are amongst the world's most glamorous targets for terrorists from Belfast to Baghdad.

The cost in security terms will be vast, with police marksmen behind every tree and - who knows? - whole troops of SAS men hidden in the bushes. But security aside, isn't any family allowed just a bit of privacy on holiday if it spends its working life in the glare of 24-hour publicity?

Thankfully, not many of us are threatened with assassination but we all should have a right to peace of mind - and that is an increasingly rare commodity in the countryside, which has become an irresistible target for criminals driven out of the towns and cities.

According to statistics issued this week by the Country Land and Business Association, 1,818 appeals about incorrect mapping of proposed new rights of way have been held or are to be held in parts of Craven, excluding the Yorkshire Dales National Park, and the North West (see News, Wednesday).

Of those, victims of mapping errors - which unless successful appealed will be cast in stone forever - have included members who found their gardens, their woodland and their cultivated fields wrongly mapped as open countryside for public access.

My attitude to the right to roam has always been, perhaps, ambivalent. I have in the past bitterly resented the fact that vast areas of the Peak District, the Lake District and parts of Yorkshire have been denied to the public although they were publicly owned.

The old Corporation water works companies were the worst offenders, fencing off tens of thousands of acres around lakes and reservoirs. And there were big private landowners who kept their land private - even though it was often miles from their homes - simply to keep the peasantry at bay.

But there were many, many more, like the Duke of Devonshire at Bolton Abbey and the Duke of Westminster in the Trough of Bowland who were happy to enter in local access agreements for the benefit of the general public.

They, too, are entitled to their privacy, as are ordinary folk like you and me. The question often asked of the militant leaders of the Ramblers' Association is: would you like strangers walking through your back garden? There response is that such rights do not apply in towns (where most of them live!).

In the past, I have often praised the Countryside Agency, particularly when it has been able to give sensible advice to a Government which knows less about the countryside than my dog (dead these past ten years).

But on this occasion, the agency has produced yet another countryside cock-up, one we can well do without. It will open even wider the gap between town and country because, when dealing with such a sensitive matter, it should have taken great pains to get it right. Unless, of course, it has been placed under pressure by the Left Wing of the Labour Party as part of its class war against country folk...

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