Beware the Infrastructure Bill

Beautiful views across our National Parks and your rights to access them will soon be under threat.

Beautiful views across our National Parks and your rights to access them will soon be under threat.

As I write, the ‘Infrastructure Bill 2014’ current sits in its committee stage before the House of Lords (next due before the Lords on 14 October 2014). You may or may not have heard of it. Its best known component is to introduce the right for companies to ‘frack’ under your home, without first seeking your permission.

There is however an even more insidious aspect to this bill that could undo decades of progress in terms of the formation of our national parks, access to our landscape and the protection of our wildlife.

The intention of this bill is clear. Its primary purpose is to ease the way for corporations and developers to gain unhindered access to any part of our land that they wish to use for development or to frack for shale gas. As a landscape photographer, lover of nature, supporter of public ownership of our nation’s assets and access rights to our cherished landscapes, this bill causes me deep concern.

It is beyond dispute that we need more homes (although an awful lot could be done to assist local authorities bring empty houses back into use) and infrastructure to service those homes. It is however the nature of this bill that shows flagrant disregard for public ownership, public access and local consultation.

Local councils will be ordered to give over 90% of their brownfield land to the Housing and Communities Agency (HCA). Brownfield sites are previously developed sites that have become vacant, but could be reused and include parks, playing fields, allotments, woodlands, public facilities and village greens.

The bill states that, “The Secretary of State may at any time make one or more schemes for the transfer to the HCA of designated property, rights or liabilities of a specified public body.”

It continues,”These transfers are to take effect irrespective of any requirement to obtain a person’s consent or concurrence, any liability in respect of a contravention of another requirement, or any other interference with an interest or right, which would otherwise apply.”

This bill will take away any local power of decision over land use and pave the way for publically held land to be transferred to the HCA, who can extinguish existing protection and rights of way, such as access under the Countryside Rights of Way Act 2000, possibly even protection for Scheduled Ancient Monuments and Sites of Special Scientific Interest, grant permission for new roads and buildings and sell off land as it sees fit.

Any private company that buys the land will no longer be subject to local planning regulations and consultation. The Secretary of State will be able to grant to any development without the involvement of locally elected members or council departments such as planning , simply by consulting a panel of as little as two people.

In short, we could well see our national parks, playgrounds, village greens, woodland, allotments or any other publically owned facility, sold off to private companies to build on, frack, quarry, lay railway lines or do whatever they like. One thing can be taken as a certainty, we will have no say.

As for fracking, that is another matter entirely which would need an extended essay in its own right. Let’s just say that it would be a disaster for our national parks, countryside or communities to have this nightmare imposed upon them. It represents no cure at all for our energy security or economy, will not bring about any appreciable long-term boost for jobs, will not lower energy prices and will be an environmental disaster in terms of its effect on wildlife, water supplies and air quality. I urge you to go and find information on fracking for yourself and not take my word on this matter.

The Kinder Mass Trespass in 1932

The Kinder Mass Trespass in 1932

Rights of access for ordinary people to some of our best loved landscapes could be lost. It would be as if the Kinder Trespass had never happened. The lifetime of hard work by Tom Stephenson, who’s commitment and passion led to the opening of the Pennine Way, undone. Our national parks just a fond memory (massive budget cuts have already seen the Peak District National Park Authority forced to put many of its best loved locations up for lease or sale)and the long fought for ‘Right to Roam’ extinguished. We could well see a return to the days when ordinary people were excluded from their own landscape.

The Infrastructure Bill represents the biggest land-grab since the Enclosure Acts of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. When George Osborne stated that green spaces would be protected, he meant the estates of his wealthy friends. Lands belonging to the Crown are conveniently exempt.

What do Labour have to say about this? Surprisingly little. Surely we can rely on Labour to champion the rights of common people? Unfortunately not, they have no current plans to oppose the bill. It seems that the transformation of the Labour Party from its socialist roots to neoliberal corporatists is complete.

Benny Rothman of the Kinder Trespass (left) and Tom Stephenson, creator of the Pennine Way (centre)

Benny Rothman of the Kinder Trespass (left) and Tom Stephenson, creator of the Pennine Way (centre)

So there we have it, all nicely stitched up for a foregone conclusion. Private companies win and the rights of ordinary people are trampled over once again. Once these measures are passed into law, they will be very hard to reverse, even if the will from any future government to do so is there and all current indications point to that being unlikely.

What can we do to stop this? In all probability, not an awful lot but we must try. You can write to your MP or councillors and express the strength of your opposition. With next year’s general election on the horizon, your local politicians will be keen to gain your support, especially in marginal constituencies. Let them know how much of an important issue this is. You can get involved in your local community groups, rambler’s groups or outdoor sports groups and spread the word, or get involved in your local anti-fracking group. But most important of all, keep the spirit of Benny Rothman, Tom Stephenson and all of those men and women who fought for our right to protect and access our beautiful landscape alive!

Kinder Trespass, 80 Years On

Rock on the slopes of Kinder Scout, overlooking a moody William Clough.

Rock on the slopes of Kinder Scout, overlooking a moody William Clough.

For by Kinder, and by Bleaklow, and all through the Goyt we’ll go
We’ll ramble over mountain, moor and fen
And we’ll fight against the trespass laws for every rambler’s rights
And trespass over Kinder Scout again…

Trespass song based on a parody of ‘The Road to the Isles’.

The Right to Roam

Sunday 24th April 1932 is a date that resonates in the history of the Peak District. As this was the day when more than 400 ramblers took to the then private Kinder Scout, to challenge the landowner (the Duke of Devonshire) over access rights. As we approach the 80th anniversary of this watershed moment in the history of countryside access, it is a good point to assess what progress was made after the trespass and how we currently approach the subject. The 1932 Kinder Trespass has become an iconic event in British history. A demonstration that people power can really work and a small part of the over all movement for a fairer and more equal society. Benny Rothman, one of the trespass organisers who were imprisoned for their part, became the movement’s figurehead. He campaigned about access and environmental issues for the remainder of his life.

Successive enclosure acts throughout the 18th and 19th centuries had snatched swathes of what was once common land. Much of the moorland of the Peak District was privately owned and used for only a few days of the year for grouse shooting. A few footpaths allowed access to about one percent of the Peak District, access to the vast majority of moorland was forbidden. Rambling associations tended to be composed of the middle classes, with Dukes and Earls amongst their patrons. Climbers at Stanage Edge used to bribe gamekeepers to turn a blind eye to their activities with barrels of beer. By the 1920’s and 1930’s however, rambling was becoming a much more popular pastime amongst the working classes. It is thought that tens of thousands of ramblers would head for the Peak District every Sunday. Resentment began to build to the landowners who barred access and the slow lobbying of the official rambling associations. In 1927 a mass trespass took place at Winnat’s Pass, organised by the Sheffield Clarion Ramblers.

The initial spark for the 1932 trespass happened at the British Worker’s Sports Federation’s (composed largely of members and supporters of the British Communist Party) Easter camp that year, held at Rowarth, a few miles west of Kinder Scout. A small group headed for an organised ramble over Bleaklow. Benny Rothman recounted:

“The small band was stopped at Yellow Slacks by a group of gamekeepers. They were abused, threatened and turned back. To add to the humiliation of the Manchester ramblers, a number of those present were from the London BWSF on a visit to the Peak District, and they were astounded by the incident. There were not enough ramblers to force their way through, so, crestfallen, they had to return to camp.”

A Singsong and a Scrap

Flyers distributed around Manchester called for attendance at a rally in Hayfield Recreation Ground on 24th April. This was changed to Bowden Bridge Quarry at the last minute to avoid the police and the Parish Council, who had posted copies of local bylaws forbidding meetings there and supplied the Parish Council Clerk to read them if anyone attempted to make speeches. About 400 ramblers met at the quarry, and after short speech by Benny Rothman, who stepped in when the scheduled speaker decided to pull out, set off along the legal footpath towards William Clough at 2.00pm.

At Nab Brow, they caught first sight of the keepers dotted along the slope beneath Sandy Heys. A whistle was sounded for the troupe to stop. On a second whistle they turned right to face Kinder Scout. When the third whistle sounded, they began to scramble up the steep slope towards the keepers. Although a few minor scuffles ensued and in some cases, the gamekeeper’s sticks were taken and turned against them, there was only one injury (a gamekeeper knocked unconscious suffered a twisted ankle). In the majority of cases, the protesters just walked through the line of keepers, where they reformed and headed for the plateau. Once at the top, they were greeted by a smaller group from Sheffield (possibly from the Clarion Ramblers, another Socialist inspired walking organisation), who had made their way up from Edale. This account was later challenged by one of the gamekeepers, who claimed that no other party had been present that day.

They then pressed on to Ashop Head, where a short rally was held to congratulate the participants on a successful trespass. It was suspected that some may be fined upon their return and a hat was passed around for donations. The party then began to make their way back to Hayfield, retracing their steps along the path down William Clough. They were met by the police at the Stockport Corporation Water Works and an attempt was made to grab someone from the crowd but was chased off by the ramblers. At the beginnings of Hayfield village, they were met by an inspector in a police car, who suggested that they form a column behind him to lead them into the village. They did this and sang as they marched into Hayfield.

It was of course a trap, as when they reached the centre of the village they were stopped by police who began to search amongst them, accompanied by gamekeepers. Six arrests were made (five on the return to Hayfield and another later that afternoon). Benny Rothman was one of those arrested. They were first of all detained at Hayfield, then taken to New Mills, due to the crowd gathered outside calling for their release and charged with unlawful assembly and breach of the peace (notably not trespass, which was a civil offence), as the Duke of Devonshire insisted on pressing ahead with charges.

All pleaded not guilty, so Benny Rothman, Tona Gillett, Harry Mendel, Jud Clyde, John Anderson and Dave Nesbitt were committed for trial at Derby Assizes. It was said that the jury was composed of a cross section of the Derbyshire country establishment, including two brigadier generals, three colonels, two majors and two aldermen. Despite an impassioned speech by Benny Rothman, they were handed jail terms of between two to six months each.

A summer sunset at Kinder Scout, looking towards Ashop Head.

A summer sunset at Kinder Scout, looking towards Ashop Head.

Steps in the Right Direction

The sentences, seen as draconian even then, caused outrage and probably did more to promote the cause than the trespass itself. The trespass also caused division amongst rambler associations, who had been petitioning for an Access to Mountains Bill in Parliament since 1884 and held rallies at Winnat’s Pass since the mid 1920s. They were of the opinion that access could be negotiated and were very different to the young trespassers who saw access as a matter of right. A few weeks after the trespass, 10,000 ramblers assembled at a rally at Winnat’s Pass. It was clear that momentum was beginning to build.

The years following the trespass would see slow steps towards access. Throughout the 1930s, moves were made towards the creation of national parks, an idea first raised by Ramsay MacDonald in 1929 and the subject of the Addison Report in 1931, although it would be another 19 years before the establishment of the Peak District National Park. The Addison Report was kicked into the long grass during the depression of the early 1930s but resurrected at a conference in 1935. The Standing Committee for National Parks was formed in 1936 and published ‘The Case for National Parks in Great Britain’ in 1938.

In 1939, the Access to Mountains Act finally passed through parliament as a Private Member’s Bill, introduced by Arthur Creech Jones (Labour MP for Shipley) but in such a mutilated form that it was described as a landowner’s charter and for the first time, made trespass a criminal offence in certain circumstances. It was bitterly opposed by the newly formed Rambler’s Association, who sought to repeal the long fought for bill.

Throughout the 1940s, the momentum towards the establishment of national parks continued, including the publication of the 1947 Hobhouse Report, suggesting 12 potential national parks. This resulted in Clement Atlee’s visionary post-war Labour Government passing the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949. The Countryside Commission and the Nature Conservancy Council were formed under the new act. Both merged in 2006 to form Natural England. On 17th April 1951, the Peak District National Park became the first of its kind in Britain. In 1955 the first access agreement for Kinder Scout was signed and in 1962, access to Stanage Edge was agreed.

Alongside these gradual steps towards the creation of the national parks, a special mention must be given to Tom Stephenson, who in 1935 set into motion the idea of the ‘Jubilee Trail’. Many long years of negotiation followed and his dream was eventually realised when in 1965, the Pennine Way opened, stretching from Edale to Scotland.

The 1968 Countryside Act placed a duty on every minister, government department and public body to have, “due regard for conserving the natural beauty and amenity of the countryside.” In 1970, the Peak District National Park purchased the North Lees Estate, including Stanage Edge. In 1982, the National Trust bought Kinder Scout and declared it open for access in perpetuity.

When the Countryside Rights of Way Act was passed in 2000, it signified the final realisation of over a century of struggle for the Right to Roam. At the 70th anniversary celebration of the trespass on Kinder in 2002, Andrew, the 11th Duke of Devonshire, publicly apologised for his grandfather’s actions:

“I am aware that I represent the villain of the piece this afternoon. But over the last 70 years times have changed and it gives me enormous pleasure to welcome walkers to my estate today. The trespass was a great shaming event on my family and the sentences handed down were appalling. But out of great evil can come great good. The trespass was the first event in the whole movement of access to the countryside and the creation of our national parks.” 

It is a source of great happiness that Benny Rothman lived to see this act passed. He lived to celebrate his 90th birthday, passing away in January 2002, just a few weeks before the 70th anniversary of the trespass.

The Long Road Ahead

Since it’s creation, the Peak District National Park Authority has worked to improve access, biodiversity, learning, safety, management and planning. However, the current government’s assault on public funding has also effected the PDNPA, whose budgets have been slashed. The effect of this is that much of the small percentage of the Peak District that the authority actually owns, is now up for sale or lease.

Recently the PDNPA agreed a lease partnership for the Eastern Moors with the National Trust and the RSPB (who also lease Dovestones Reservoir and it’s surrounding moorland from United Utilities). The authority has also found it necessary to offer up the Roaches and Stanage Edge, in the hope of attracting similar lease deals. Of course, it is a condition that any partners will maintain the natural habitats and access that goes with these iconic Peak District locations.

Although there seems to be no immediate threat to access at these locations, or any current danger of the break up of the PDNPA, it is always worrying when those things that were previously held in public ownership are passed on to private control and one cannot help but fear that this could just be the thin end of the wedge. Already the current Tory led government have floated the idea of selling off the nation’s forests, to be met with a backlash so furious (thanks in part to the petitioning website that they immediately backed down. Had this policy not been met with such overwhelming opposition, it is almost certain that the national parks would have been next.

It is concerning that other legislation could have a negative effect upon our green spaces, such as the recent Localism Act that places our countryside in real danger. It places profit and national economic policy before conservation. It dictates that the default position for any planning application is to be “yes”, planning authorities are obliged to “meet local development needs” and deliver a 20% increase in land available for new build housing. The act is the result of intense lobbying by the construction industry. In towns and cities, there could well be enough brown belt land to meet these needs (although Kirklees Council have just ear-marked a considerable amount of green belt for development), the countryside however, without reserves of ex-industrial brown field sites, will probably have little choice but to make green belt available to developers.

Although many victories have been won over the long course of the struggle for access, it would be easy for us to become complacent in thinking that as access to some of the country’s best natural spaces are currently enshrined in law, that these rights are secure. This regressive government’s mood is one of rolling back public funding under the guise of austerity and it would come as no great surprise that, if access laws were judged to be an obstacle to private profit, there is every possibility that they could be repealed. As with our hard won rights in other areas of society, we owe it to our forebears to keep ourselves informed and ensure that their centuries of struggle for social progress are not undone. That we avoid sleepwalking into a future, where our rights to the land that we all cherish are taken away from under our feet once again.

The next time that you walk on the moorlands of the Peak District, or further afield, remember that raggle taggle band of ramblers, who came to Kinder Scout from the mills and factories of Manchester and Sheffield 80 years ago, and thank them and those that followed for the fact that you can now walk freely where you choose in these high places of beauty. And if ever it is suspected that any government minister, landowner or company executive is attempting to take those rights away from you, just ask yourself, what would Benny do?

This article originally appeared on Peak District On-line.

Over looking the trespass site at William Clough towards Sandy Heys (in cloud).

Over looking the trespass site at William Clough towards Sandy Heys (in cloud).