Petitions and the campaign for the 1949 Countryside and Rights of Way Act
29 March 2019
This month, the Ramblers' James Austin looks at petitions and the Countryside and Rights of Way Act.
This year is the 70th anniversary of the 1949 Countryside and Rights of Way Act. For many, this is one of the most beloved and enduring, but perhaps under-recognised, legacies of the 1945-1951 Labour government. It fundamentally changed the nature of the English and Welsh countryside, charging Councils with creating definitive maps of rights of way in their areas, establishing 10 National Parks and laying the groundwork for the creation of National Trails, Sites of Special Scientific Interest and Areas of Outstanding National Beauty.
The Act was the culmination of a long campaign to protect and increase the rights of ordinary people to access the countryside which had its roots in the walking boom of the late Victorian era. The 1870s and 1880s saw dozens of walking and rambling clubs set up throughout the UK, as people sought to get away from the increasingly crowded cities to walk in the countryside. These clubs soon ran into issues with access – as much of the countryside was closed off to the general public.
Thus the access movement was born, and in 1884 a bill to increase access was introduced. It was voted down but was reintroduced in the next year, and similar bills were presented, and defeated, annually until 1914.
At this stage, there was no collective voice for walkers in the UK and thus walkers' ability to support these bills in Parliament was limited. However, many did reach for the only way of expressing their views they had: petitioning. Dozens of petitions were submitted to Parliament throughout the 1800s, supporting bills to increase access. In the 1892 Access to Mountains bill debate James Bryce MP paid tribute to these: “I know there is a disposition to underrate petitions as a method of expressing public opinion… but where people have no organisation at all, where the petitions have been nothing but the natural and spontaneous voice of the people, it is fair to attach some weight to them”.
The access movement developed and gradually become more organised throughout the early decades of the 20th century and continued to push for access legislation in Parliament, with bills being submitted regularly, supported by petitions. Regional Ramblers federations were set up to coordinate activities, supported by other sympathetic organisations including the Youth Hostel Association, the Campaign to Protect Rural England, and footpath preservation societies.
While the access campaign slowly grew through the 1920s, it really took off in the 1930s with the iconic Kinder Scout mass trespass in 1932. There had been mass trespasses before, most notably those organised by Sheffield Clarion Ramblers at Winnats Pass. But the scale of the Kinder Scout trespass, and the outrage at the draconian sentences handed down to its organisers provided huge impetus to the access campaign. Within weeks, 10,000 Ramblers assembled for a rally at Winnats Pass and momentum slowly built. The Ramblers (which brought together all the regional Ramblers associations) was formed in 1935, the Standing Committee for National Parks was formed in 1936 and the Dower Report, which recommended national parks be set up, was published in 1945.
The focus now moved to keeping up the momentum and ensuring that the report was acted upon. Various stunts were conducted to ensure this – including further trespasses, a well-publicised walk along the proposed Pennine Way route by MPs, and a mass petition to show the continuing public demand for access. This was coordinated by the Ramblers Association and Youth Hostel Association and - when it was presented to Parliament in December 1947 - contained over 100,000 signatures, demanding that a bill be brought forward.
In 1949, a bill was put forward. On 16th of December of that year, the Countryside and Rights of Way Act was passed with all-party support. Over the last 70 years, supplemented by additional legislation, it has fundamentally changed the way we interact with the British countryside - leading to the creation of twelve national parks in England and Wales, sixteen national trails, and the definitive map. The long campaign which had started with those petitions in the 1880s had succeeded and ordinary people's relationship with their countryside had fundamentally changed.
James Austin is a Delivery Officer at the Ramblers, a charity dedicated to protecting and expanding the places people love to walk. This year is the 70th anniversary of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act.