The CLA describe their own report on access, wittily named The Right Way Forward, as hard hitting; I would describe it as dyspeptic.
The report’s Executive Summary is not very descriptive but is quite florid in its language. Almost everything, it seems, ‘defies logic’, needs an ‘injection of common sense’, is ‘unjust’ (to landowners), requires ‘greater fairness’ (for landowners) or is ‘ridiculous’. However, the Executive Summary didn’t really tell me what the problem might be but did tell me that there were many landowners spluttering about ‘it’ – whatever ‘it’ might be.
The public rights of way system, like most things deeply rooted in the past, can seem anachronistic or charming depending on the details and which side of the fence you might be standing. You might ask why the needs of people to be able to walk from village to village in the days long before public transport links, or private cars, existed should still affect the ability of landowners to pursue their own interests on their own land, or you might wonder why public access to land which is only in the ownership of particular families through accidents of history should be so severely limited to thin strips and paths.
Take an Ordnance Survey map and look at the intricate pattern of small-dashed or long-dashed lines indicating footpaths or bridleways respectively and you are usually looking at history. You will often be looking at incomprehensible routes that cross the countryside. ‘My’ Breeding Bird Survey plot is fortuitously crossed by rights of way that meant that I did not have to ask the landowners’ permissions to walk down the green lane or to pick my way along the side of a field following an ancient path. But prompted by this report to look at the footpath which facilitates my bird surveying I cannot even guess why that right of way exists.
The green lane I use is a bridleway and is used by the occasional person on a horse and a much larger number of people taking their dogs for walks but the footpath, which sneaks down the edge of a dull and enormous arable field, goes from nowhere to nowhere else and despite its convenience for me is probably hardly ever used by anyone else – certainly I have never seen anyone else using it, and the occasional struggle along it when the vegetation grows up suggests that it is not well trodden.
But maybe I am wrong, perhaps it forms a useful and valued part of other people’s lives as well as of my own. And certainly it seems to me, though perhaps I am wrong about this too, that it barely should impinge on the consciousness of the landowners whose boundary it appears to me to follow.
It was only because I am a frequent user of footpaths, and because I find the rights of way system in England terribly endearing, that I persevered beyond the so-called Executive Summary (it only seemed to summarise the ire of the CLA for me rather than the essence of the problem which has stimulated their ire, and why is it ‘executive’?) and read deeper into the report. I’m quite glad that I did because the case studies, or anecdotes as we might call them, are quite illuminating.
This is most certainly a report written from the landowners’ points of view but it does tell a tale of expensive and time-consuming legal battles with only the lawyers gaining – and that’s never a good outcome. I have sympathy for the CLA’s cause now that I have read the case studies but had very little when I read their press release, introduction to the report or the summary written specially for executives. What reduces my sympathy is the report’s spluttering tone – one can almost see the red-faced ‘countryman’ wanting to say ‘get off my land’ but knowing that that would give the wrong impression. The report, despite the fact that I think it makes some good points, is not one to bring both sides together nor to persuade the access zealots to give any ground.
And, not that I would describe the Ramblers as access zealots, it appears that the report has not met much favour in the access camp.
The trouble is, if you keep turning to the right you find yourself walking in circles.