Labour government would pass right to roam act and reverse Dartmoor ban

The Labour party will pass a right to roam act if it comes to power, the Guardian can reveal, after widespread outcry when wild camping was outlawed on Dartmoor.

Helena Horton 

In the bill, which is currently being drawn up by the party amid widespread but careful optimism that the next general election will see Labour return to office, there could be a new law that would allow national parks to adopt the right to wild camp, as well as expanding public access to woodlands and waterways.

Jim McMahon, the shadow environment secretary, said the court decision earlier this month to overturn the long-held right in the national park – the only place in England and Wales the ability still existed – shows that there needs to be a rethink of land access.

While the right to roam has been narrowly defined as the right to walk from A to B, he said this was missing the point and not in the spirit of those who first proposed the idea.

He said: “What I am interested in is the right to experience, the right to enjoy and the right to explore,” meaning that people should be allowed to fully enjoy an area, including taking part in activities such as swimming, camping, climbing and birdwatching rather than simply walking.

Visiting Hay Tor in the national park, McMahon said: “It’s not just about the right to pass through and explore. I think we do need to go beyond that, to look at the enjoyment aspect of it as well, which really hits at the heart of the Dartmoor case. The current right to roam gives people the right to pass through, but what about actually experiencing it, and to enjoy it? Our policy needs to give people more rights to do that.”

As ponies trotted by on the moor, he said a Labour government would create more national parks and open more of the countryside for people to explore.

“There are still huge parts of England and Wales that are off limits when it comes to the right to access, whether that’s woodlands, cliffs, rivers, where the rights that we are afforded in open countryside aren’t then mirrored in those places. That needs to change.”

Only 4% of waterways give people an automatic right to canoe or swim, and McMahon plans to significantly expand this in government. He said: “This is a scandal. A Labour government would clean up the UK’s waterways for all to enjoy – if people don’t have a stake in their environment they won’t fight to protect it.”

Alexander Darwall, a hedge fund manager and Dartmoor’s sixth-largest landowner, took the national park to the high court last month, arguing that the right to wild camp had never existed. The judge this month ruled that the right to roam means just that – the right to walk or horse ride on the common, not to camp.

Darwall, the owner of the 1,619-hectare (4,000-acre) Blachford estate on southern Dartmoor, offers pheasant shoots, deerstalking and holiday rentals on his land.

The court case has reinvigorated the right to roam movement, with 3,000 people last weekend travelling to protest on his land.

It’s a hot topic in parliament, too, with Luke Pollard, the Labour MP for Plymouth Sutton and Devonport, calling for a new law enshrining the right to wild camp on Dartmoor.

Caroline Lucas, the Green MP for Brighton Pavilion, has her right to roam bill returning to parliament this spring, and Richard Foord, the Liberal Democrat MP for Tiverton and Honiton, has tabled a bill that would protect the public’s access to national parks.

Foord said: “Wealthy landowners should not seek to move in and overturn the ways in which our national parks have been used.

“If people choose to buy land in a national park, they must accept all the responsibilities that come with it. They should not be seeking to prevent respectful wild camping, or worse still, expecting taxpayer-funded organisations like the Dartmoor National Park Authority to pay the landowners for continued access.”

The park is in talks and deciding whether to risk appealing against the decision to overturn wild camping, which could mean spending vast sums on Darwall’s legal costs if they lose. It has to submit its decision by a week tomorrow.

McMahon called on the park to appeal against the ruling, and said the case showed the right to roam law needed to be clarified and strengthened.

He said: “Part of the reason we’re coming here, of course, is because of wild camping, but the case also poses an existential threat to what we’ve taken for granted, really, which is the access rights that we all enjoy, which were enshrined by the last Labour government in 2000. I think they’re under a fundamental threat if this is allowed to go unchecked. So then, the law needs to be basically clarified and strengthened.”

McMahon said a Labour government would enshrine the right to wild camp on Dartmoor in law if there was no successful appeal. He said: “Ultimately if an appeal isn’t successful, it isn’t right that this right can be taken away by one landowner. So it’s parliament’s job to make sure it is enshrined in law.”

Campaigners have asked the park authority to appeal. Lewis Winks, from the campaign The Stars Are for Everyone, said: “Dartmoor was the only place in England where the right to wild camping existed. We don’t want this to become a quirky historical anomaly, we want to see the same rights afforded to people in other national parks, so what happens today is of crucial importance to the newly reinvigorated right to roam movement. We need Dartmoor national park to step up and be courageous.”

In a statement, the Right to Roam campaign said: “We welcome the Labour party’s commitment to legislating for an expanded right to roam as part of their programme for government and look forward to engaging with them on the details.

“Last week’s historic protest on Dartmoor, attended by 3,500 people – following on from a year of mass trespasses organised by the Right to Roam campaign – demonstrates the huge public appetite for increasing access to nature.

“We call on MPs of all parties to publicly support a right to roam act to defend and extend the rights of all people to access nature.”

Roulette is better bet for money-making than development firm

Mid Devon’s development company faces £1.6 million loss.

[After the 2019 election, the council was run by a Liberal Democrat-Independent-Green coalition. However, the Council Leader, ‘Independent’ Bob Deed, removed the three Lib Dem’s from the Cabinet in 2020, replacing them with Tories and in March 2021 removed the only Green from the Cabinet, ensuring a Tory Majority in Cabinet, and effectively creating a Tory Minority Administration. – Wikipedia]

Beware the “Blue rinse” “Indy” – Owl

Lewis Clarke 

A Mid Devon councillor has said going to the casino and betting on roulette would be a better way of making money than relying on the council’s own development company. It follows a meeting of Mid Devon District Council to discuss the business plan for Three Rivers Development Ltd (3RDL).

3RDL is a company wholly owned by Mid Devon District Council. And during the debate, Andrew Jarrett, Mid Devon’s deputy chief executive and Section 151 officer, said the company was looking at an estimated £1.6 million loss on its controversial development at St George’s Court behind Tiverton Town Hall.

He explained: “That includes all costs and projected income; sales, values and interest charges from lending from the council to 3RDL. That potential loss has been included in the financial update reports considered by the cabinet for many months, and most members will be aware of it.”

One councillor though questioned the point of the company. They said that there would be a better chance of making money from going to a casino.

Cllr Jim Cairney (Boniface, Liberal Democrat) said: “If you have a business that doesn’t make money, it folds. If you keep putting money into that business when it isn’t making money, it will fold at some point. Why are we not saying to the people running this business, ‘why are you not doing better?’. If my restaurant doesn’t make a profit, I go under, and I’m finished. I wonder why 3RLD is different.

“I understand it’s a long-term project, but surely we’d be better going to the casino, getting a bag of money and putting it on black and then we’ve got a 50-50 chance of making some money.”

Mr Jarrett took questions from councillors. Councillor Frank Letch (Lawrence, Liberal Democrat) said: “We’ve been going through a series of cutting £10,000 here and £20,000 there to try and make a balanced budget. These are diddly sums in a sense.

“What I want to know is, where in hell, if any money is going to be lent in the near future to 3RDL, where is this coming from? We are so strapped for cash we have to make changes to our budgets, increase fees to leisure centres, swimming and parking. I won’t mention the figure discussed, as it is big, but where will it come from? I am worried, as I don’t want it coming from my council tax.”

Mr Jarrett responded: “We’re talking about a treasury investment decision, not an expenditure decision. You will see in all the budgetary payments in the last months; the money will be coming from temporary treasury holdings the council holds because, from time to time, we are keeping business rate receipts and council tax receipts, and we have earmarked reserves. What the council decided in 2017 when it set up the property development company is that it could make a greater return if it lent that money to a third party, a property development company, which could significantly help the council’s bottom line thereafter.”

Cllr Ben Holdman (Castle, Liberal Democrat) asked: “At what point does the risk become unacceptable to the council?”

Mr Jarrett responded: “After receiving professional advice from me or others, that is down to the council to decide whether that risk is acceptable. It is not down to me to decide; I am just here to advise the pros and cons. I explain the associated risk and consequences of investment or not in the company in Part II of your reports pack.”

Cllr Luke Taylor (Bradninch, Liberal Democrat) asked: “How are the impairments written off, and does this mean there is a loss on our investment?”

Mr Jarrett responded: “You can assume from all of the financial transactions that we are making a return of about 13 per cent on all of the investments made in the company. However, one needs to consider potential, and it is estimated that the company has a projected loss of £1.6million and that is an estimate, which is less than the £2.2million that has already been made by the council for the operation of 3RDL, so there is a profit position at the moment.

“Is that what we estimated from day one of the inception of the company? No, it isn’t. It is less than what we’d anticipated, but it is very much skewed by one project that has been unsuccessful when set against the previous three and one entrained at the moment in Bampton, all delivering estimated profits. While one development has not been a success, you could argue the rest have.”

Facelift for ‘key sites’ in Exmouth to ‘hopefully’ begin in 2024

The district council gears up to hire a consultancy firm to pinpoint where improvements can be made

“Councillor Paul Arnott, EDDC leader, said: “We have received so many ideas and suggestions from residents, the local community and councillors on all levels on how we can improve Exmouth, shaping future developments and giving key sites a good facelift.”

Becca Gliddon

East Devon District Council (EDDC) said it was in the process of hiring a consultancy firm to identify areas in Exmouth where improvements can be made.

The consultancy firm will create a ‘placemaking plan’ – where residents highlight their priorities to improve where they live, and a council strategy is created setting out how the wish-list can happen.

The projects will be shaped by the views and ideas put forward as part of an eight-week consultation, held in the summer of 2022 by The Placemaking in Exmouth Town and Seafront Group – led by EDDC.

The district council said approved projects would ‘hopefully’ begin by summer 2024.

It said the ‘exciting new plans’ would  ‘regenerate and improve key sites across Exmouth town centre and its seafront’.

Councillor Paul Arnott, EDDC leader, said: “We have received so many ideas and suggestions from residents, the local community and councillors on all levels on how we can improve Exmouth, shaping future developments and giving key sites a good facelift.

“There were a number of key themes and characteristics that were highlighted as part of the consultation and I cannot wait to see the draft plans which will be based on everyone’s suggestions – making the area more attractive, welcoming and user-friendly with improved signage to the town centre and seafront.”

EDDC said the selected consultancy firm would take around a year looking at more than 1,400 responses from the Exmouth community – comments received through an online questionnaire, public workshops, and face-to-face street interviews.

An EDDC spokesperson said: “Once appointed, the consultancy firm will spend an estimated 12 months looking at the many options suggested, developing plans based on last year’s consultation results.

“Feedback will be welcomed on both a draft and final plan that will be published by the council, before decisions are made by EDDC. It is hoped physical delivery of projects can begin within 18 months.”

They added: “EDDC’s placemaking plans will be complemented by two separate levelling-up projects for Exmouth, which have secured 15.7million in funding through Devon County Council.

“This included funding for the Destination Exmouth project which will see improvements to the Dinan Way link road, helping to tackle congestion and remove traffic from the town centre.

“This will also help with EDDC’s plans to give the entrance of the town, for those visiting by road, rail or cycle, a much-needed facelift – making the area more attractive, welcoming and user-friendly, improving public transport.”

Devon & Cornwall crime up 10 per cent

Recorded crime in Devon and Cornwall has shot up by more than 10 per cent in the past year, with sexual offences double that and thefts and shoplifting by 50 per cent.

No selfie from Alison Hernandez? – Owl

But the police service says a rise was to be expected, after a dip during the height of the pandemic.

Hello, hello, hello (image courtesy: Devon and Cornwall police and crime commissioner)

And they claim the region remains one of the safest places in England and Wales, given that across those two countries the average rise in crime was higher at 12.3 per cent, 1.3 percentage points lowe than Wiltshire, which ranks as first place for the lowest total number of crimes in the 12 months to the end of September 2022.

When compared to pre-covid crime levels in 2019, Devon and Cornwall has seen an increase of just 1.4 per cent.

Deputy chief constable Jim Colwell said: “These figures are a good indicator of where we need to make improvements to tackle crime across Devon and Cornwall.

“There has been a 19.2 per cent rise in reported sexual offences compared to the same time the previous year. Tackling violence against women and girls remains a priority for the Force, and we are continuing to encourage victims to report crimes. We are committed to preventing these offences, ensuring that victims are fully supported and that crimes are thoroughly investigated.

“We continue to work on making improvements in bringing sex offenders to justice, including our work with the national Operation Bluestone Soteria team to review our response to rape and sexual offences. This work will ensure that we provide the highest possible level of service and standards of investigation when tackling violence and sexual offences against women and girls.”

Victim-based crime in Devon and Cornwall has risen by 11.8 per cent. Theft from the person and shoplifting saw the biggest increase and have risen by 49.1 per cent and 28.8 per cent, respectively.

This increase in theft may potentially be due to the cost-of-living increase and the financial difficulties people are currently experiencing.

Mr Colwell continued: “We acknowledge how distressing it is to be a victim of burglary or theft, and we will continue to develop our response in tackling these crimes.

“Despite increases, as a force we have some of the lowest crime rate of in these offence types. Whilst theft from the person has a 46.9 per cent increase, this number translates to 592 crimes within that 12-month period.

“Theft from the person has a crime rate of 0.3 per 1,000 population, and whilst we have seen an increase compared to previous statistics, our national position has dropped to being the fourth lowest in England and Wales.

“Whilst these figures are one measure of performance, public confidence in policing from our communities is equally important and we appreciate their support as we continue our work to tackle crime that affects our communities in order to keep them safe.”

Police and crime commissioner for Devon, Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly, Alison Hernandez, said: “I am pleased to represent the people of Devon, Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly with a police force area which has consistently achieved one of the lowest recorded crime rates in the country. This has been delivered through our largely law-abiding residents and visitors alongside many years of close collaboration between policing, partners and the communities we serve.

“However, these figures tell me and new Chief Constable Will Kerr, that there is much work still to be done, particularly in relation to the worrying rise in violent crime. We must continue our efforts to prevent violence and continue our work on focusing on young people to build this out of our community for the longer term.

“A more connected and accessible police force will ultimately deliver safer communities for us all and that is what we are focused on delivering. We have reopened six police stations to the public this financial year and plans for 2023-24 will see six more police station front desks reopened across Devon and Cornwall.

“Combine this community presence with our many hundreds of new police recruits and we are presented with a once in a generation opportunity to prevent crime at a neighbourhood level and create a policing model that will be the envy of the country.”

England’s coast faces ‘multiple threats’ of dredging, sewage and pollution

Dredging is likely to increase around the English coast, while pollution and sewage are piling pressure on coastal ecosystems, and an increasing number of people are at risk of coastal flooding, the Environment Agency has warned.

Fiona Harvey 

Three-quarters of shellfish waters around England failed to meet “aspirational” standards for environmental protection in 2021, the report by the agency’s chief scientist’s group found.

Dredging and pollution have come under increasing scrutiny, after a mysterious big die-off of crabs and lobsters was recorded around Teesside on the north-east coast in the autumn of 2021. A report published last week found that dredging was unlikely to be the cause of the die-offs, suggesting an unidentified new pathogen could have been to blame, but the findings have been criticised by some scientists.

The EA report paints a bleak picture of England’s coastal regions, with fewer than a fifth of the UK’s estuaries judged to be at good ecological status. Only 45% of the marine areas assessed met the standard in 2021, according to the report, published on Thursday.

More than nine in 10 of the estuaries sampled had nitrogen levels that were too high in 2019, as did nearly half of coastal waters. Nitrogen pollution comes from agricultural runoff and sewage, and can cause harmful algae blooms that kill off marine life and smother seagrass and saltmarsh.

The report found that there had been “widespread damage to coastal defences, properties and infrastructure” during storms, with about 100,000 people at risk of significant coastal flooding.

Sand dunes were being lost to erosion, and wetlands were drying out under the influence of the climate crisis, the report found. About 85% of England’s salt marshes, a major carbon store, have been lost since the 1800s, along with about half of seagrass meadows and 95% of the native oyster population.

Added to this, many people in coastal regions are enduring economic hardship. Alan Lovell, chair of the Environment Agency, told the Coastal Futures conference on Thursday morning that coastal towns were among the most deprived in the UK.

“We need to work together with coastal communities to identify the best possible way to keep them safe and prosperous,” he said. “We need a concerted effort to better protect coastal communities and economies while enhancing the marine environment.”

More than a third of the UK’s population live within 3km (1.9 miles) of the coastline, Lovell noted. He said there had been some progress in combatting the multiple threats to the coastal environment, including an initiative to restore 15% of coastal and estuarine habitats that are judged to be priority areas by 2043, but that much more needed to be done.

About 1,200 hectares (2,965 acres) of salt marsh and mudflats have been created since 2005, the report found, and there has been progress on overfishing, with about half of stocks fished at sustainable levels in 2019 compared with about a tenth in 1990.

Charles Clover, executive director and co-founder of the Blue Marine Foundation, said that was still far from good enough. “The ocean faces numerous threats, and this report highlights that one of the largest is simply removing far too many fish from the sea – collapsing stocks and preventing recovery. The report also stresses the important role that the seabed can have in storing carbon, yet in the UK trawling is allowed in most of our so called protected areas.”

Rebecca Newsom, head of politics at Greenpeace UK, called for urgent action and stricter regulation. “Our seas are facing a perfect storm of rising temperatures, sewage discharges, plastic and chemical pollution and destructive industrial fishing. This is an existential threat to both marine life and the communities that depend on healthy seas for their survival,” she said.

“What we need are legally binding targets to cut single use plastic in half by 2025, a full and immediate ban on destructive fishing in all marine protected areas, and stricter penalties for water companies responsible for the sewage scandal,” she added. “The time for rearranging deckchairs is over – we need a joined-up, ambitious and properly funded plan from this government and we need it now.”