Confusion over right to roam legislation

The tallest tor on Dartmoor is now out of bounds to the public after an inquiry inspector ruled for the landowner. Chris Baker tells of the anger and confusion over right-to-roam legislation

Early guidebooks described Vixen Tor on Dartmoor as looking like the Sphinx - its huge blocks of stone forming the beast's body and a single, gnarled outcrop its head. From most directions, the rock does indeed look eerily impressive, but closer inspection suggests something is wrong. Fading notices sprayed in yellow paint on the granite wall around the tor read: "No Access".

A stile that once invited walkers to inspect the great rocks close up has vanished. The gates are locked. The wall is topped by lines of barbed wire, forming a kind of a palisade to warn away intruders from the open country beyond and around. The tallest tor on Dartmoor, a national park noted for its rugged scenery, is now out of bounds.

Last week, a public inquiry ruled that the controversial decision two years ago by landowner Mary Alford and her son Daniel to close the tor to the public was not a breach of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 - also known as the right to roam, which was designed by the government to open previously closed mountain, moor, heath and downland to the public following more than a century of battles between landowners and walkers.

The inspector last week ruled that the area was not "wholly or predominantly unimproved" moorland and, although the decision was finely balanced, he found in the Alfords' favour.

His decision has prompted outrage. John Bainbridge, chief executive of the Dartmoor Preservation Association, says: "I don't think anybody who knows anything about Dartmoor would think Vixen Tor is not moorland. Anybody who thought they were getting a right to roam on moorland and went to look at Vixen Tor and was told it did not apply would be absolutely astonished."

John Skinner, Ramblers' Association access officer in Devon, says: "It is a splendid lump of rock and people want to go and visit it and have a look at it, to enjoy the beauty of it close-up, as they used to."

It is the phrase "wholly or predominantly unimproved" - the main test for open countryside - that is causing the problem, because nobody is quite sure what it means. Vixen Tor indeed looks just the same as the wide open landscape nearby, with the same litter of boulders on spongy moorland turf.

But the Alfords, in common with other landowners, argued that three-quarters unimproved should be the yardstick. An inspector elsewhere has said two-thirds, something the Dartmoor inquiry dismissed, saying it was for the courts to decide what parliament meant.

An ecological survey by the Ramblers' Association reckoned 55% of the disputed land at Vixen Tor was unimproved - but this was too small a margin to convince the inquiry.

"The public's expectation of what would be achieved by this act has not been met, particularly in the south and east of the country," says Kate Ashbrook, general secretary of the Open Spaces Society.

"At least at Vixen Tor, we have had it all spelled out so we can maybe now take it to judicial review. In many cases, people did not have the information. This is the tip of the iceberg. It exposes what has been going on and people were not aware of it."

Without a right to appeal against the inquiry's decision, walkers are now hoping the Dartmoor National Park Authority, which in the past has pledged to reinstate access, will flex its muscles. It could try to defuse some of the anger by seeking an access agreement with the so far intransigent landowner or, as many hope, pursue a very rare, and probably costly, statutory access order.

Mary Alford says the land is a working part of Vixen Tor Farm, a "real, traditional" small hill farm. Citing concerns about the insurance liability if visitors were injured, she said she did not intend to reopen the area to walkers. "It has been proved it is not mountain, moor or heathland, so why should I?" she says.

Unlike, say, the Peak District, there has never been a tradition of mass trespass on Dartmoor. There has never needed to be. But that could be about to change, according to Bainbridge.

"People are livid, absolutely livid. Unless the national park authority steps in and does something, there could be fairly massive civil disobedience," he says.

The inquiry fits into a pattern that is now worrying access groups. Although there have been fewer appeals by landowners against the legislation than originally expected, the majority that have gone that far have found in favour of landowners. In places such as the Yorkshire Dales, Northumberland and the Forest of Bowland, Lancashire - where huge areas are already or are about to be opened to public access - problems have mostly been on the fringes and on heathland.

But on the downs of southern and eastern England, where very little land is being opened up, appeals have frequently hinged on what type of grass is being grown - within the spirit of the law, but, hardly surprisingly, a disappointment for walkers looking forward to their right to roam.

One Wiltshire landowner has now asked the courts to rule on what constitutes "wholly or predominantly", a case that ramblers' groups hope may offer some clarification. Members of the public do not have an automatic right to challenge the appeals, many of which, unlike Vixen Tor, have not involved public hearings.

In the meantime, walkers out on Dartmoor continue to be confronted by those fading yellow "No Access" notices. What Vixen Tor thinks about the furore nobody knows. The Sphinx of Dartmoor remains as inscrutable as ever.

The GuardianTramp

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