Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Countryside access must be protected in Government's land sale

On Monday, the Guardian carried a story about proposals to fence off part of the iconic Kinder Scout, the highest summit in the Peak District.  The National Trust, which owns and administers most of the area, wants to erect fences on a temporary basis "to allow new cottongrass, heather and bilberry plants to take root on the eroded plateau."

It is sad that parts of Kinder Scout will be fenced off.  It was the site of the famous mass trespass of 1932, when ramblers wilfully broke the law and trespassed over private land to protest in favour of rights to roam.  Like the rest of the Peak District, it offers beautiful walking and stupendous views.

Yet it does appear to be necessary.  The National Trust's general manager for the Peak District, Mike Innerdale, said in the Guardian, "its future is in jeopardy as a result of catastrophic wildfires, a long history of overgrazing, air pollution and the impact of people."  This photograph (right), which I took from the top of Kinder Scout last year, shows some of the damage, with peat erosion a grave problem on the moutain plateau.

My fears are not, however, for Kinder Scout which, looked after as it is by the National Trust, is in sound and responsible hands.  The £2.5 million, five-years project to restore the landscape will be an inconvenience to walkers in the meantime but the Trust's only intention is to restore full access.

No, my fear is for other public open spaces and rural areas that the Government seems set to sell off as part of the deficit reduction programme.  Charitable organisations such as the RSPB have already indicated that conservationists will not necessarily be incentivised or able to take the place of Defra (or environmental quangos such as the Environment Agency) in safeguarding our landscapes and full right to access them.

Sections of publicly owned forestry and parkland could be sold off to the private sector.  Defra has maintained that the country's most valuable and biodiverse lands will not be compromised and full measures will remain to preserve public benefits and access under any new ownership arrangements.

I dearly hope so.  Since the implementation in 2005 of the Countryside Rights of Way Act 2000, large sweeps of rural land have become open to people to enjoy the great British countryside.  This must be protected, and the Government would be short-sighted not to do so.  All bids for private ownership of valuable rural land must be vigorously vetted for intentions to protect biodiversity, strong environmental stewardship, and right to roam.

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