Chris Witter comments on how austerity is impacting land access for climbers and hillwalkers, in the context of recent land sales within National Parks and public campaigns such as 'Mend Our Mountains.'
I’m walking with a good friend up Grisedale valley to have a crack at a ‘wintry’ Pinnacle Ridge, and he’s talking animatedly to me – of the commons, the Magna Carta, and of ancient rights to pasturage and estovers, turbary, piscary and pannage. Strange words to my ear. He goes on to describe the grouse, bred stupid to be shot, and dry stone walls, originally built by cooperative communities around the valley floors to keep grazing animals off cultivated land, later built as an act of enclosure.
The next week I’m at Wasdale, planning a winter walk around the central fells, and my eye is caught by the straight lines of dry stone walls, driven up the steep slopes of the fellsides. My limbs feel leaden just looking at the angle. What perverse logic could lead someone to plot such a course for a wall? What power would be sufficient to build it? I can hear my friend’s voice in my ear: the reckless irrationality of private property; the originary violence of a people dispossessed of their land by act of Parliament, transformed in a blow into a landless proletariat. Those walls are the materialisation of class division – our socio-political history inscribed upon the landscape. Everyone likes to imagine they’re descended from royalty, but go back half a dozen generations and you’ll find your ancestors amongst the dispossessed.
This history is easily forgotten or ignored, but it is there encoded in our sense that we should have rights to the green spaces and countryside of the UK, and in our struggles to secure access – both as local residents and as walkers, climbers, cavers, canoeists and so on. In Lancaster, where I live, local residents have been fighting since 2012 for rights to Freeman’s Wood – a scrap of land between the working-class Marsh Estate and the old industrial estate on the river, which is now being torn down to make way for new ‘starter homes’. Wasteland to some, locals have enjoyed this area since the 1960s as a valuable space for walking and recreation, unaware that it was legally owned by an investment firm based in Bermuda. The global politics of financialised capitalism, property markets and tax havens manifested in deindustrialised Lancaster in new palisade fences and ‘Keep Out’ signs around this green space. This modern day act of enclosure was met with anger and resistance from locals, who continued to trespass and defaced signs with seventeenth century lyrics from the anti-enclosure movement:
They hang the man and flog the woman
That steals the goose from off the common
But let the greater villain loose
That steals the common from the goose.
Freeman’s wood is far from the only place where a public sense of ‘the commons’ and private property are clashing. In Peterborough, the city where I grew up, a place where austerity and urban regeneration are creating real inequalities, debates over land use have been focused by a community garden known as The Green Backyard. Council plans to sell the land for a short-term cash injection to strained budgets have been resisted by local people. Whilst the council appears to have taken locals’ concerns onboard – partly because they put themselves forward as buyers – the continued use of this space as a common resource has come to hinge upon the local council signing off on its ‘financial viability’. With seeming inevitability, the voices of locals are being lost amongst the jargon of business plans and bureaucratic due process. Hollowed out as our democratic institutions have become, they often remain impenetrable to ordinary people suddenly galvanised into action by the threat of losing spaces they love.
The Green Backyard demonstrates how austerity is being used to justify expanding market logic into all areas of public life and offloading public space for short-term profits. It also shows how redevelopment projects around the country are being used to privatise public space and to turn people off land that has long been considered a common resource. The Canary Warf redevelopment of the 1980s was a model for an escalating trend toward the creation of privately owned public spaces – or ‘POPs’. Under the rhetoric of ‘urban regeneration’, public space is being sold to private companies, such as the enormous More London estates on the South Bank, which were sold in 2013 for £1.7bn to a property and investment company representing the State of Kuwait. This privatisation not only leads to urban developments that are of little benefit to ordinary people, but to new forms of control over space. One of the characteristics of these spaces are restrictions on use that include a ban on protest – a reaction in part to Occupy London, which sought to question the very forces that are behind this wave of privatisation.
Although the connections are not immediately apparent, it is in relation to this broader historical and political scope – from seventeenth century battles over the commons to the creeping enclosure of the public by contemporary capitalism – that we should view the access issues faced by walkers and climbers, from our occasional skirmishes with landowners for access to crags and outcrops to the emerging threat of publically owned and managed land being sold off.
If we look back to the post-war period, this can be glossed as a time in which ordinary people, following a brutal war, demanded a redistribution of wealth and a more egalitarian society. Around the country, reconstruction led to the building of good quality council homes for ordinary working-class people. Key industries were nationalised. The NHS was created in 1948. The following year the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act, 1949, was passed. In short, the public itself was reconfigured, in the interest of ordinary people.
The public is currently being reconfigured once again – but this time to the benefit of private interests. This is a trajectory that goes back to the late 1970s, when Thatcher kicked off a ‘privatisation revolution’ on a scale not seen since the enclosures, with key public assets being sold off, from British Petroleum to British Steel, including gas, electricity, water and telecommunications. Council housing stock was also offloaded under the Right to Buy scheme. Not only was this a way of empowering private interests, it was also a way of dividing the propertied from the unpropertied (playing out today in the housing market and rents crisis) and of undermining the power of organised labour – euphemistically applauded as ‘submitting to the discipline of the market’.
Public resistance, in the late 1980s and early 1990s slowed down the privatisation push, but Blair’s New Labour followed Thatcher’s lead with Private Finance Initiatives (PFI), which introduced privatisation into schools, hospitals and the London Underground. However, it is the 2008 financial crisis that has handed the Conservative Party an excuse to engage in the wholesale gutting of public services and offloading of public assets under the jargon of ‘fiscal responsibility’. ‘Tightening our belts’ has meant driving the NHS into crisis; subjecting the unemployed, disabled and ill to humiliation and deprivation; and cutting local council budgets to the point that all non-statutory services are being abandoned, in a desperate attempt to balance the books, despite regressive council tax rises. Less visible is the determined drive toward marketization and outsourcing in all spheres. Local councils are no longer responsible for providing social care, but for encouraging the creation of social care markets. Schools are being academised, tout court. Adult education institutions are being mothballed, whilst private providers step in. Companies like Atos, G4S, Capita and Serco are given lucrative government contracts, whilst other countries’ governments bid for profitable contracts running UK transportation and energy production, amidst rising fares and bills.
In line with this austerity strategy, the National Park Authorities and local authorities have seen their budgets slashed, leading to them seeking to sell off public land. In 2010 the story broke that the coalition government planned to sell off forested areas, although a vigorous public campaign led to backtracking. In the context of losing almost a quarter of their budget, the Lake District National Park Authority announced in 2015 that seven important sites within the Lake District were up for sale, including Stickle Tarn in Langdale (£20,000), Yewbarrow Woods in Longsleddale (£130,000 ono) and Blea Brows on the shore of Coniston Water (£90,000 ono). Likewise, local authorities, such as Lancashire County Council, are seeking to save money through offloading sites they manage, closing facilities they offer, and cutting staffing levels. This trend threatens local crags, such as Warton and Trowbarrow; even where land is not sold, floated cuts to staffing by local authorities and National Park Authorities will have detrimental effects upon ranger services and on conservation, education and enjoyment of these spaces.
This is the background to the recent ‘Mend Our Mountains’ campaign: as participation in hiking, biking, climbing and other outdoor activities increase, budget cuts are creating unsustainable situations, leading to environmental damage. It is important to recognise that this is a deliberate strategy on the part of the government: as public sector services are cut, voluntary work and private interventions are necessitated – ‘Mend Our Mountains’ is the so-called ‘big society’ in action. What this positive gloss neglects is that this is also about redistributing social wealth – away from ordinary people, in the form of public services and assets, and toward the private sector, in the form of tax breaks and asset stripping. It is also about a transfer of control – from the more or less democratic structures of government and public organisations to the more opaque governance of private companies. Finally, it creates situations of uncertainty as solutions to cuts are patched together and carefully brokered agreements, rights and regulations are overturned.
This is the context for the recent purchase of Crookrise by the BMC; in the face of enormous budget cuts, the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority is selling off tracts of land. The BMC stepped in to buy the crag, apparently after no other appropriate parties were prepared to take on management, and with rumours circulating that other buyers, perhaps with grouse shooting in mind, were interested. If the land had been obtained for grouse shooting, this might have led to restrictions on access for climbers – as well as creating conservation issues, with rare birds such as the Hen harrier under particular threat.
Given this situation, buying the crag was exactly the right move for the BMC to make, as a representative body for walkers and climbers, looking to secure access and conservation. Unfortunately, bearing in mind that central government is demanding even deeper budget cuts of local councils and other public bodies, we can only ask – where will be next? This may only be the start of a trend, which will put pressures on civil society to respond. Here we run into problems, again, however, as austerity has created severe funding challenges for many organisations. The BMC, for example, looks set to lose 40% of its Sports England funding. In the face of funding cuts, civil society organisations are asked to make cuts themselves and to put forward profitable business plans, often as a condition of funding bids. In this way, the logic of the market is extended into every nook and cranny. This is part of the context of the recent controversy over the BMC re-branding exercise, and of the BMC’s recent poll of its membership on whether or not the BMC should enter into partnerships with private companies. These debates are not simply internal BMC governance issues: they are attempts to respond to the encircling of ‘public ethos’ organisations by neoliberal austerity and marketisation policies.
And there’s more. Looking to the future, storm clouds appear to be piling up on the horizon in the form of Brexit. Whatever one thinks of the EU and the decision to leave, there is no doubt that it adds further uncertainty to the issue of conserving and protecting public land and public access to land. Many conservation projects rely on EU funding streams, which will soon dry up. Regulations may also be undone, in coming years. Agencies from Natural England to the RSPB are in a turmoil, trying to divine the future amidst the contradictory rhetoric. And this is not to begin to untangle the macro-economic and political effects Brexit will have, though so far Brexit certainly seems to be empowering the political right and their divisive austerity politics.
What I’m arguing for, then, is an open-minded and holistic conception of the issues that are at stake, which does not shy away from the political character of these issues. As a community – of walkers and climbers and fell runners, but also of residents, workers, and ‘gig economy’ freelancers (I’m thinking here of the zero-hour contracts used to employ many, from distribution workers to part-time university teachers to climbing instructors) – we need to be asking themselves how this puzzle fits together. It’s crucial that we map out and keep track of the changes that are occurring, in order to figure out together how we can manage these and resist the damage being caused.
For my own part, I hear my friend’s voice again – a favourite quotation of his, from the radical fourteenth-century priest, John Ball:
“My good friends, things cannot go well in England, nor ever will, until everything shall be held in common.”