Thirty years ago today, 7 May 1989, more than 3,000 demonstrators gathered at Rivington in Lancashire to protest against the government’s plan to privatise the water industry, threatening the public’s freedom of access to the half a million acres of land owned by the water authorities in England and Wales. Those present pledged to trespass on the water lands if our access was not protected in the Water Act.
This was before the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 (CROW) gave us rights to walk on much open country. We relied upon the water authorities’ acceptance of our customary freedom of access to their land.
The Ramblers, led by its brilliant campaigner David Beskine, maintained that the government’s Water Bill, being promoted by the Minister for Water and Planning, Michael Howard, would jeopardise the traditional access enjoyed over open country.
The Ramblers produced briefings for the House of Commons committee on the bill, listing the land owned by the water authorities, the access currently enjoyed, and how this would be threatened. All the opposition parties on the committee (Labour, Social & Liberal Democrats and Plaid Cymru) backed the Ramblers.
However, Michael Howard, who is also a barrister, denied that access was threatened, so the Ramblers had to obtain counsel’s opinion which confirmed its case. Still the government would not admit its failure. The Ramblers kept up the pressure, bombarding MPs and peers with briefings.
A climax was reached on 7 May, when the Ramblers organised a rally at Rivington in the heart of the water-authority access lands.
On the way I stopped off in Blackburn for a live radio interview on BBC Lancashire with Alistair Burt, Conservative MP for Bury North (he is still an MP but now for North East Bedfordshire) followed by a phone-in, about water privatisation and access. Of course he claimed that there was nothing to worry about. My diary records that I accused him of making a party political broadcast.
By the time I reached Rivington a massive crowd had assembled. The speakers included Labour’s water spokesman, Ann Taylor MP; mountaineer Chris Bonington; Ramblers’ chairman Chris Hall; the leader of Lancashire County Council, Louise Ellman, and Kinder Scout trespass veteran Benny Rothman.
The highlight of the event was the mass recital of the Rivington Pledge, led by Chris Hall:
We pledge our lifelong intent to regard ourselves at liberty, in exercise of the simple human freedoms which we rightly claim, to walk with our families and friends for recreation of body and mind wherever public access to open country is presently allowed by the water authorities. We shall cause no damage, break no criminal law, neither threaten nor commit any violence nor intrude upon anybody’s privacy. But if free access to these lands is at any time denied we now declare that the threat of legal action for trespass, which is not a criminal offence, shall not deter us from exercising our traditional right of access to the hills.
At the end we queued up to sign the pledge. This, with 2,500 signatures, was wielded in parliament the next day by Lord (Ted) Graham to demonstrate the depth of public feeling on the issue. The government eventually agreed to a set of amendments which improved the bill although these still depended on the goodwill of the secretary of state to ensure our access was protected.
The amendments included:
- Protection of the legal right to roam which existed over about 20 per cent of water authority land (for instance around Thirlmere and Haweswater in the Lake District and the Elan Valley in mid Wales): the bill had threatened to repeal this.
- The recreation duty placed on the privatised water undertakers was strengthened from ‘have regard to the desirability of preserving rights of access’ to ‘have regard to the desirability of preserving for the public any freedom of access’.
- The closure of a gaping loophole whereby land could be transferred from the privatised water undertakers to subsidiary companies who might then evade the (albeit weak) recreation duties. The undertakers were required to obtain the consent of the secretary of state before disposing of land or any interest in it. Water undertakers in national parks, areas of outstanding natural beauty or sites of special scientific interest could enter into covenants with the secretary of state, which would be binding on successors in title, by which the owners of the land accept obligations with respect to the freedom of access to be afforded to the public.
It was a great campaign victory; and CROW then secured our rights to land which was mapped as open country.