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Debate: Right to roam

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Is there a right to roam the countryside (even over private prop)?

Background and context

Walking in the countryside is an enjoyable activity but in many countries it is restricted to recognised footpaths and national parks. Many believe that open countryside should be just that; open for all. Britain has recently passed a ‘right to roam’ bill forcing a reclassification of the countryside into open and closed areas. This provokes many questions about what ownership of land actually means. Traditionally land ownership has never been totally free of restrictions. In countries with monarchies all land was originally held at the gift of the monarch and often a legacy of large landowners among the aristocracy can remain. Should this private ownership of land be retained or can its national character be regained?

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Argument #1

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Yes

The countryside is an important national resource. Often the type of land in a country is intrinsically linked to its national character. It is this natural character that people wish to access when they exercise the right to roam.

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No

The right to own property is intrinsically linked to the right to exclusive use of that property. Regardless of what you use your land for (shooting, walking, grazing animals, riding etc.) it is unfair that other people accessing your land could disrupt your pursuit of these activities. You are not expected to share your car or living room so why should other people share their land? Similarly the privacy of individuals, particularly those of interest to the press is placed in jeopardy if the public can enter their property.

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Argument #2

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Yes

Land is different from other possessions because there are finite quantities of it and vast inequalities in its ownership. Not everyone can own a beautiful mountain or valley but they are large enough for many people to use them at once. Providing the right to roam allows a fairer degree of access without completely depriving the owner of his property.

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No

The public already has access to the most important parts of the countryside through national parks. These government-designated areas provide full access to the public while buying-out or compensating landowners. Granting the right to roam is cheaper than establishing proper national parks and therefore may provide an easy way out for governments, rather than properly protecting areas of natural interest.

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Argument #3

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Yes

Access to the countryside helps to instil an understanding and love for nature among the population in general. This is important for environmental protection as well as for general educational benefits. Such access is also of benefit to landowners and others who live and work in rural areas, as greater understanding of the countryside and of rural issues will in the long term influence the views of voters, and so of politicians and policy-makers.

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No

Heavy access along popular routes can lead to erosion of footpaths and drainage routes. Similarly it is difficult to protect the natural habitats of plants and animals if visiting humans constantly disturb them. Not only can the presence of humans disturb breeding and pollination but also many leave further environmental hazards with their rubbish and dog litter. Overall the right to roam can do substantial damage to conservation efforts.

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Argument #4

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Yes

In an era of growing obesity every opportunity for exercise must be seized. Providing a large, free and attractive arena for walking, jogging and getting fresh air can only assist government health campaigns and individual well-being.

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No

There is already a network of established public footpaths in Britain, most of which are underused. If we are keen to increase the numbers of people taking exercise, we should concentrate on urban areas where most people live, rather than on the countryside. In any case, occasional walkers will want to keep to well-marked paths, not strike out into open country with only a map and compass to stop them getting lost or falling into danger. Only a few rights zealots want such a right to roam.

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Argument #5

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Yes

The right to roam will have little impact upon the countryside. No one believes ramblers should have the right to trample crops or disturb farm animals, but much of the open land in Britain is not under the plough and occasional access by a few walkers will do no harm. Reasonable restrictions could be imposed upon the general right of access - for example, areas could be closed during nesting season on grouse moors, or during lambing.

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No

Adventuring over open terrain, whether for exercise of not can be a potentially dangerous endeavour. In litigious societies it would not be surprising for a landowner to be held responsible for accidents on their land. Making paths safe, dealing with accidents and tidying up after walkers places a huge uninvited burden upon the owner.

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Argument #6

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Yes

Farming as an industry is massively subsidised by the taxpayer, both directly through the government and indirectly through the European Union's Common Agricultural Policy. Citizens deserve to get something back in return for these higher taxes and higher food prices, especially as much farmland today is "set-aside", where farmers are paid not to grow crops.

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No

Not all farming is the same - much of it is unsubsidised and financially precarious. If farmers face bankruptcy because the right to roam brings them extra costs, will the government compensate them? Even where subsidy does exist, it is given because of the economic and environmental value we place upon agriculture, and the right to roam compromises these benefits.

See also

External links and resources

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