Currently the public is unable to access 92% of land and 97% of waterways in England by laws of trespass. Writer and activist Nick Hayes argues that access to green spaces is vital for our physical, mental and emotional health and that land needs to be reframed as a public good. His new book, The Book of Trespass, unpacks the history of these laws, unearthing the tales of the few powerful agents who have managed to secure land for themselves and worked hard to bar everyone else from it. Most of all, it is a story of citizens who have creatively, devotedly challenged the power structures around land ownership. Here Helene Schulze interviews Nick Hayes on how trespass laws relate to land ownership and what citizens can do.
Could you give us a sense of what the law of trespass dictates and how we got here?
The law of trespass is based on the ancient idea that the ownership of land includes the right to exclude other people – no matter how large the area owned, or how much the community needs its access. It is the result of almost a thousand years of law making developed and designed by the few. This includes the French barons that invaded England with William the Conqueror, and Tudor lawyers and surveyors, right through to the unreformed parliament of the Georgian era, where you had to own a significant swathe of territory just to be an MP. Though it currently resides in common law, it looks set to be made a crime by the government this autumn.
What is the right to roam campaign?
The campaign was set up by two writer-activists, myself (The Book of Trespass) and Guy Shrubsole (Who Owns England?). We are seeking an extension of the Countryside and Rights of Way (CRoW) act brought in by the Labour government in 2000, which allowed for a Right to Roam across 8% of England. This is not enough. For most of England, these areas that fall under the CRoW are inaccessible, both in terms of how secluded they are but also the associated costs incurred in order to get there. This relegate free roaming in nature to an occasional holiday, instead of part of our everyday lives. For the mental and physical health of a nation, we desperately need to extend the right to roam over rivers, woodland, greenbelt and downland, while extending the activities it encourages, including mountain biking, swimming, kayaking, paddleboarding, climbing, foraging, or simply walking.
You argue that social inequality has roots in deeply unequal land ownership. Could you share more on this?
Race, gender, class, nationalism, all of these deep-set divides in our country can be traced to the property concept and the idea that some people should have a better share of land than others. The moment property became exclusive to its owner happened at a time when women were still defined as property of their husbands. The wealth of slave estates directly contributed to large scale land enclosure and privatisation of common land in England. In turn, this also meant divesting the livelihoods of most citizens and sending them to workhouses. With the landed gentry still owning a third of England, class is still very much linked to land ownership today. By giving citizens more access to space, we allow them more autonomy over their lives, with benefits ranging from improving health to championing diversity and equality.
What can we do as citizens to accelerate the shift towards land justice?
Sign up to righttoroam.org.uk. With a combination of messaging and direct action, we changing the conversation of land in England, giving citizens greater access to the wealth and health benefits of land. Right to Roam is the first foot over the line – once a nation understands how much land there is in England (by experiencing it), we can open our eyes to all other associated benefits, including community ownership, growing, tenants’ rights, This is the kind of future sketched by the Land Justice Network and Land In Our Names, to name but two. But first, we must burst the property bubble, and give greater access to the public.