Today, 30 November, we celebrate 20 years since the Countryside and Rights of Way (CROW) Act obtained royal assent. Part one of the Act was a great milestone in the history of the access movement, giving the public the right to walk responsibly on all registered common land and mapped mountain, moor, heath and down in England and Wales. No longer could landowners command the public leave their land if it was mapped for access and people were behaving responsibly—a big turnaround.
With others, the society had long campaigned for such rights and freedoms. In particular we had argued for a right of access to all common land, when giving evidence to the Royal Commission on Common Land in the late 1950s; the commission recommended the right but it took another 50 years to implement it.
The society’s role in campaigning for freedom to roam on open country was recognised by Baroness Miller, spokesman for the Liberal Democrats, at the close of the debates (third reading) in the House of Lords on 23 November 2000:
The noble Lord, Lord Brittan, said that John Stuart Mill and Gladstone would have turned in their graves to hear the contribution from the Liberal Democrat Benches. That is not so. John Stuart Mill was a founder of the Open Spaces Society, which is Britain’s oldest national conservation body founded in 1865. It has consistently campaigned for the freedom that people should have to the open countryside ever since. Gladstone, of course, used to go for long walks in the Highlands. I think they would be proud of this day.
While the CROW Act access is a great achievement, it does not go far enough. For instance, too little land was mapped as down, no one is legally required to provide entry points to access land which is not served by a public highway, and there is insufficient access land close to where people live. The England Coast Path and adjoining spreading room, which is gradually being opened around England, and the Wales Coast Path are great assets, but the society would like to see the CROW Act’s reach extended. What about woodlands, watersides, lakes and rivers, for instance? We set out some thoughts for the future here.