In 2005, when the Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill was in the House of Lords, Lord Haworth won an important concession. The Bill would create ‘designated sites’ where trespass, normally a civil offence, would become a criminal offence. Alan Haworth won a valuable assurance from Baroness Scotland, then spokesman for the Home Office, that it was very unlikely that the public would be denied access to any land which they currently enjoyed.
The bill became an act, and it was a worrying moment when the designated sites were laid before parliament, and we saw that they included part of Beacon Hill at Ellesborough in the Buckinghamshire Chilterns.
This hill, from which you can just see the rooftop of Chequers, the Prime Minister’s country residence, had been mapped as access land under the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 (after quite a campaign). It seemed that, no sooner had we won access here than we were to be banned from it – and it is a wonderful place, on the prow of the Chiltern escarpment with views from the old Berkshire Downs round to the Bedfordshire greensand.
However, the Home Office swiftly rectified the error by redrawing the map to exclude the access land, and laying a new order before parliament. It was clearly not the then government’s intention that trespass should become a criminal offence on public-access land.
But this government is different. It has published its draft Anti Social Behaviour Bill, which includes ‘public spaces protection orders’. These can be applied to spaces where the public has the right of recreation, such as commons and greens. There is no restriction on the size or locality of the land. The bill proposes to make breach of an order (ie trespass) a criminal offence.
Only limited consultation is proposed for such an order, and the local authority who makes it is not required to consider the responses. This measure, which is to replace the current gating orders, is far worse than gating orders (which are bad enough, being imposed by highway authorities without proper regard to objections or the need to hold a public inquiry).
The Ramblers and Open Spaces Society submitted joint evidence to the Home Affairs Select Committee which is scrutinising the proposed law. Unfortunately, the committee did not invite the organisations to give oral evidence and although in its report it recommends that there be ‘a six-monthly interim approval’ of the public spaces protection orders, it does not condemn them.
We shall have to lobby hard to ensure the bill is not introduced as drafted. It could too easily be misused in curbing the public’s rights to land.