As MPs debate our right to roam, new figures show how racialised the situation really is

Screenshot from Muslim Hikers, showing several Brown women on Snowdon. The right to roam is a race issue as much as it is a class one. Access to nature
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Backbench MPs will debate England’s access to nature on Thursday 18 May. In preparation, land justice group Right to Roam published rankings for every constituency in the country. They revealed how racially skewed our access to nature really is.

League table of access

Green Party MP Caroline Lucas brought the debate, which will take place on 18 May. She told the Guardian that people’s connection to nature is “vital”, but that very little of England’s land is accessible to the public. Furthermore, the land that is accessible is “unequally distributed across the country”. As a result, Lucas said:

The time has come for an extended right to roam in England – and I’m urging the government to adopt it.

Her comments came after Right to Roam published a league table of every English constituency’s publicly accessible land. What the figures show is not only how unevenly distributed that land is, but also how areas with larger numbers of Black and Brown people tend to come towards the bottom of the list. This includes not just fields and woodland, but rivers and beaches too.

At first this seems like a given, as many of the lowest-ranking places are inner-city districts. Of the bottom 10, for example, seven are in London, while the other three are in the centres of Liverpool, Hull, and Leicester. However, as the Guardian highlighted, there are a total of 92 constituencies that have no right to roam whatsoever, and 117 with one hectare or less.

The 117 constituencies almost all fall into regions with England’s largest non-white populations. Those in London, the West Midlands, and the East Midlands are particularly populous on Right to Roam’s list. Meanwhile, the top of the list is a representation of England’s white strongholds. That includes the Lake District, the North West, and the West Country.

A report published by Friends of the Earth in September 2020 highlighted the same issue. It said that people from Black, Brown and other ethnic minority communities were twice as likely to live in areas that have little to no “green space” access.

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Racism is endemic to the countryside

In addition to means of access, Black and Brown people have repeatedly highlighted the direct racism they face while in the countryside. Journalist Natalie Morris recently wrote that Black and Brown people often don’t consider rural spaces safe because of:

experiences of racism, hostility and the pervasive sense of feeling “unwelcome” in the British countryside. Rural racism is real and stands starkly at odds with the perception of peaceful, idyllic green spaces that many would prefer to believe about this country.

Black Girls Hike faced racist abuse online after its 2021 Countryfile appearance, and Muslim hiker Haroon Mota experienced similar attacks after his Countryfile appearance in 2022.

Right to roam is still a class issue

There’s also a crucial class component sitting alongside the racial disparities. As the constituency rankings illustrate, much of England’s accessible land is in further-flung corners of the country. It’s in areas that are already less densely populated, meaning by default they are less accessible for the majority of people.

Wildlife and Countryside Link pointed out this aspect in a statement leading up to Thursday’s debate. It said that “nine million households in England… do not currently have access to nature within 15 minutes of home”, and highlighted research by Groundwork UK that showed:

people on low incomes are nearly twice as likely to live in a neighbourhood without nature-rich spaces as those earning above the average income.

Meanwhile, Britain’s costly rail system and dire rural bus networks create tough barriers for people that want to visit areas covered by existing right to roam laws. This makes the term ‘publicly accessible’ somewhat tenuous.

Right to roam is part of justice for all

Most arguments against expanding right to roam also rest on racist and classist assumptions. Critics complain that increased access will bring dogs, litter, and vandalism, or disturb nature. Similar rhetoric is found across social media, as well as industry media and lobby groups.

Alexander Darwall even used such claims when he won his court case to ban wild camping from Dartmoor. However, as the Canary has previously covered, the landed elite themselves are just as likely to ravage and destroy land – and often at a much larger scale.

In its briefing to MPs before Thursday’s debate, Right to Roam lauded the health benefits of greater access to nature. It also showed that a better connection to the land can help fight the climate and biodiversity crises that we’re all facing. But it’s clear that greater access to nature is also a crucial component of racial and class justice in the UK.

The affluent land-owning minority will continue to peddle myths about our inability to care for the land. They couch this in language that makes it seem like they really care about the environment and wilderness. But in reality, it’s just another power play to maintain their economic and systemic power.

Our relationship with nature doesn’t improve through staying away from it. And we mustn’t let a small gaggle of elites, who are forever scared of losing their grip on power, stop us from re-engaging with wildlife and the land.

Featured image via Active Inclusion Network/YouTube

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