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A Rights-based Approach to Landscape Conservation
George Monbiot

It wasn't easy for the townspeople who watched it go past to work out exactly what the huge Countryside Rally in March 1998 was all about. The proposed ban on hunting with hounds was, of course, a major theme, but the organizers were at pains to explain that it was about more than just that, that the very existence of the countryside was at stake. The rally, organized by such bodies as the Country Landowners' Association and the Scottish Landowners' Federation, had been called, we were told, to defend the countryside from the town, whose tyrannical and uncomprehending governance of rural areas was leading to the collapse of rural employment and the smothering of farmland by new housing developments. Deferential as ever, we townies were careful not to display our ignorance of rural life by asking who had sacked the agricultural labourers whose demise the landowners so publicly lamented, or who had sold the land to the housebuilders. If the rural environment has been destroyed, rural livelihoods lost and "country values" dissipated, then, our urban leader writers all agreed, it must be the fault of the cities.

Our culpability is plain for all to see. We are impertinent enough to spend only £10 billion a year in agricultural subsidies and price support. Single mothers in Bradford and Gateshead are so stingy that they donate only two and half pence over and above the market price to the struggling landlords every time they buy a pint of milk. City people spent just £3 billion rescuing farmers from the BSE crisis which, of course, was entirely the fault of what the rally organizers so aptly described as "the urban jackboot".


Worse still, we are responsible for polluting the rustic purity of the countryside's most eminent representatives by trapping them in our dens of urban iniquity. The Duke of Westminster, the rally's main funder, who, as his title suggests, is a horny-handed son of rural toil, has been so thoroughly browbeaten by urban domination that he is forced to spend his weekdays suffering the indignity of working in London, where he has to manage his Mayfair and Belgravia estates and battle the undemocratic tendencies of the urban oppressor from the benches of the House of Lords. Happily, he has managed somehow to find one or two other country landowners in the Palace of Westminster. He can, if necessary, take refuge with other cowering rural folk in the headquarters of the Country Landowners' Association, conveniently situated in Belgrave Square.

But, hesitant as we were to question the rural wisdom of our social superioirs, some of us townies couldn't help wondering how many of those country people who did not attend the march sympathised with its objectives. To what extent were the ten million rural inhabitants who are neither landowners nor the servants of landowners, who neither work for nor follow the hunt, represented on this rally? There's no question that hunting is scarcely more popular in the countryside than in the city. A Gallup poll commissioned by the Daily Telegraph in 1997 showed that only 21 per cent of rural people approved of hunting foxes with hounds, while 77 per cent disapproved. My own vox pops, conducted for a television programme, found far more vociferous support for a right to roam (which the march organizers opposed) among country people than among urban people. Rural people have always been at the vanguard of efforts to protect landscapes and rural wildlife (which again, confusingly, were cited as urban obsessions), largely from other rural people - farmers and landowners - seeking to destroy them.


In truth there is a huge and growing gulf between what most British people, whether urban or rural, want to see happening in the countryside and what is taking place there. A tremendous public enthusiasm for landscape protection, for example, has failed to prevent the recent loss of most of our semi-natural farm landscapes. In the past 60 years, according to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, 82 per cent of the wet grassland in England and Wales has disappeared. We have lost 40 per cent of our heathland since 1950, and our native pinewoods have declined to just one per cent of their original area. The Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions calculates that 45 per cent of our Sites of Special Scientific Interest have been damaged in the last 10 years. Perhaps most distressing are the injuries inflicted on our definitively non-renewable resource: archaeology. No firm figures have yet been published, though Bournemouth University's forthcoming Monuments at Risk Survey should help, but archaeologists hazard that something in the region of half the historical record has been erased since World War II. New farming methods are responsible for the majority of the recent losses of both habitats and archaeology.

It is becoming hard to see what intensive agriculture in Britain is for. Land-based rural employment is collapsing. A smaller proportion of the population is engaged in farming in Britain than in any other agricultural nation: the city state of Hong Kong has twice as many farm labourers per head of population. Yet, though farmers' incomes are rising, we continue to shed farm labour at the rate of over 10,000 people a year. There is a massive and widening disparity of wealth between surviving rural labourers and those who live in the countryside but work somewhere else.

Farm animals are treated abominably. Researchers at Bristol University found that 90 per cent of the intensively reared broiler chickens they studied could not walk normally. Twenty-six per cent were believed to be in chronic pain and discomfort. The regulation battery cage is at no point wide enough for a hen to stretch its wings. One quarter of the dairy herd suffers from lameness; over 30 per cent of milking cows contract mastitis (a cripplingly painful inflammation of the udders) every year.

Pesticide residues in fruit and vegetables have shaken consumer confidence in British food. In the latest Ministry of Agriculture (MAFF) Working Party on Pesticide residues report, 13% of UK winter lettuces were found to contain sufficient pesticide residues to indicate what MAFF calls "pesticide misuse". Forty-six per cent of the potatoes they sampled contained organophosphate residues. The prodigious use of farm chemicals, as well as changing patterns of cultivation and the destruction of marginal habitats, has led to an astonishing decline in the populations of farmland birds. According to the British Trust for Ornithology, woodcock and turtle doves have declined by 69 per cent in the last 25 years, spotted flycatchers by 79 per cent, grey partridges by 86 per cent and grasshopper warblers by 91 per cent. Skylarks, song thrushes, lapwings and tawny owls are also in danger of disappearance.


To portray these, as the rally's organizers sought to do, as exclusively urban concerns is to plumb the depths of absurdity. It is rural people who all too often have woken up to find the downlands, watermeadows, barrows or heaths which surrounded their homes ploughed out for seamless monocultures of rape and barley. Changes in the quality of their surroundings exert an enormous impact on the quality of their lives. This is, in truth, a conflict not between town and country, but between impunity and accountability, between the attitude of many landholders - that the land is theirs and they can do what they want to it - and that of many of the rest of us: that the fabric of the nation is our common inheritance, in which we all have an active interest.

Landscape protection in Britain is both inadequate in principle and ill-enforced in practice. Only the stupid or the ill-briefed farmer is prosecuted for destroying a Scheduled Ancient Monument (SAM) or a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). Thanks to numerous loopholes; procedures which seem designed to encourage the unscrupulous landlord; and the congenital ineffectiveness of both English Nature and English Heritage, the crafty and well-informed can destroy the nation's historical and ecological endowment without fear of prosecution. Farmers can even obtain express permission - called Class Consents - to continue ploughing out Scheduled Ancient Monuments.


Moreover, SAMs, SSSIs and National Nature Reserves comprise just a tiny proportion of the country's valuable archaeological remains and wildlife habitats. The great majority, though critical to our sense of place, have no legal protection whatsoever. Landlords can treat the rural landscape as if it were a factory floor. They often boast about doing just this.

Bizarrely, farming and forestry are not classified as development, so they are subject to no form of public accountability or control. The General Development Order even grants farmers exemptions from the building controls to which the rest of us have to adhere: as long as they are no bigger than 465 square metres in area and twelve metres high, clamps, silos and intensive pig units can be raised without so much as a note to the neighbours. As silos and concrete barns blot the most pristine horizons - National Park or Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty designations notwithstanding - the suspension of planning control for built agricultural development become ever more anomalous.

It is time to put the public back into the picture, to make farming reflect the wider public interest, rather than just that of the holder of the land. This necessitates the introduction of two things in which rural land management is peculiarly lacking: transparency and accountability.

No one who has witnessed the incremental loss of SSSIs and SAMs needs persuading that their protection procedures must be strengthened and simplified, but the more perplexing question is how to defend the remainder of our landscape features. Trying to legislate on the basis of farm activities would lead only to a bureaucratic cat's cradle. One could attempt, for example, to make the ploughing of all pastureland subject to some form of planning procedure. But, quite apart from adding to the farmer's burden of paperwork, and the taxpayer's burden of costs, this would hardly address the problem. Many pastures, being seeded with a single ryegrass cultivar, have already lost nearly all their biological and historical value. The diversity of the remainder is threatened as much by muckspreaders or changes in grazing routines as by ploughs. It is clear that, following this approach, you would soon need a planning committee for every farm in Britain.

Blanket planning prescriptions would be misguided not only when applied to activities but also when applied to habitat types. Laws against destroying all heaths, ponds or moorlands, for example, would swiftly run into the sands of definition, as conservationists and landlords fought over whether heath was scrub or old mine workings were ponds.


The only remaining option is the listing of individual features - the documentation of every round barrow, stone wall and watermeadow worthy of protection. The common response to this proposal is that the existing listed landscape features - such as SSSIs and SAMs - cannot be adequately protected, so what hope would there be of looking after many times that number? The task of mapping and defining them, moreover, would be monumental.

To answer the second point first, the bulk of the job has already been done. Most local authorities possess either field-by-field maps of their regions, recording all notable landscape features, or a list of locally important sites. Six hundred thousand archaeological sites have been mapped and documented. All that remains is to fill in the gaps and open negotiations to turn the informal maps into a definitive one, like the definitive map which has largely succeeded in maintaining our 120,000 miles of footpaths. Landholders wishing to alter the management of one of the listed features would then apply for the equivalent of the diversion or extinguishment order they need when altering a footpath.

The major flaw in current protection mechanisms for SSSIs and SAMs is that they rely almost exclusively on an understaffed bureaucracy, and make little use of the huge public enthusiasm for landscape protection. Footpath monitoring, on the other hand, while legally the concern of local authorities, largely relies upon ordinary people, who report illegal obstructions to their councils and, especially through the Ramblers' Association, ensure that they are removed. Not only does this work, it also allows ordinary people a role in the countryside - essential if we are to believe that the nation belongs to all of us, and all of us belong to the nation. But this mechanism cannot work for landscape protection without a right to roam.


Opponents of a right to roam claim that access would destroy the very resources that visitors value. The hidden beauties of the countryside, exposed to the unkempt and ignorant mass of humankind, would rapidly wither away. It is true that there are places, like Derwentwater and Dovedale, where the pressure of numbers does damage the land, and there are others where the fauna or flora is so vulnerable that it can tolerate no intrusion, but these conditions are rare and localized. They fail to justify our exclusion from uncultivated land in the rest of Britain. Indeed, looking at most of the places in which access is allowed, it is hard to escape the conclusion that public participation protects wildlife and archaeological sites, rather than destroying them. If damaging change takes place where people walk, there is a public outcry. But what no one sees, no one grieves - or not, at any rate, until it is too late.

When we are physically excluded from rural land, we are also excluded from participating in its development. It is pertinent, therefore, to look at the other reasons given for keeping us out. Landlords often claim that access to their land would represent an intrusion on their privacy. Gamekeepers will confront trespassers with this argument even when they catch them out of sight of the house, or on an estate owned by an absentee landlord. Why some people's privacy should extend across a substantial proportion of Britain, while most of us are content to let people walk past our front doors, is never adequately explained.

Visitors, it is claimed, do not understand the countryside, and will therefore cause chaos to farming, forestry and field sports. It is true that some visitors do, as landholders suggest, damage hedges or frighten livestock. But restricting these activities (and there are plenty of laws with which to do so) surely does not necessitate excluding the harmless majority, any more than stopping people from spraying graffiti or breaking shop windows means keeping everyone off the streets. In an empty countryside, vandals can set to work with little fear of detection. With a right to roam, they can never be sure that they are unobserved. If people are ignorant of the countryside it is surely because they have been so successfully kept out.


We are told that we have an adequate network of footpaths, from which there is no need to stray. Regrettably, many of the most charming and engaging corners of Britain are wholly inaccessible by public path. Perhaps more importantly, one visits the countryside to escape the constraints of dedicated space, the narrow regimentation imposed by the pavement, the office or ten square metres of garden. Keeping to the footpath does little to relieve our sense of confinement.

In truth, excluding people from the land is not, as landlords suggest, a duty, but a privelege. In buying a swathe of Britain you buy the right to exclude other people from it. The exclusive use of land is perhaps the most manifest of class barriers. With physical exclusion, one obtains a guarantee of social removal from the common herd. The rest of us are, quite literally, pushed to the margins of society. We must sneak around the countryside like fugitives, outlaws in our own nation.

We have, as a nation, forgotten one of the oldest principles of English law: that property and land are different things. Property is a bundle of rights pertaining to a piece of land, not the land itself. Indeed the only true landowner in the country is the Queen, which is why we describe land as real, or royal, estate. All the leaseholders or freeholders have is a licence allowing them to reap certain benefits from that land.

Until two or three hundred years ago, there was scarcely a field in which only one person had property. Through enclosure of different kinds, both direct and indirect, the holders of the land have subtly appropriated more and more of those rights for themselves, until we, the rest of the population, are excluded from any stake in our inheritance. Landholders opposing a right to roam have argued that all the public wants is rights without responsibilities. In truth the landlords have successfully secured almost total rights, without any meaningful responsibility towards the public interest.


Today's needs are, of course, very different to those of three hundred years ago. But it seems to me imperative that the pre-enclosure principle is re-asserted: that people's active interest in the land should be matched with rights. We need rights of access, of engagement, of participation in the land-use decisions which affect not only the holders of the land but also their neighbours and the wider community.

All over the world, the leaders of undemocratic states argue that good decision-making can take place only when the common mass of the population is excluded. With embarrassing regularity, the opposite proves to be the case. The same, of course, applies to land use policies in Britain. The wider is public involvement in decision-making, the better and longer-lasting the emerging decisions are likely to be. Without a role in determining the future of our most fundamental resource, we will continue to suffer from the justifiable impression that full citizenship is the preserve of the fortunate few.

by George Monbiot
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