I shall miss John Humphrys, who yesterday presented his last Today programme after more than 32 years. On the occasions when I was interviewed by him, on public paths and access, I found him to be sympathetic and helpful, with his robust manner reserved for those in authority. As Justin Webb said yesterday, he was a terrier rather than a rottweiler.
I found a transcript I made of an interview with John on Today on 14 August 2000 about the obstructed footpath, Framfield 9, in East Sussex. This was the notorious ‘van Hoogstraten path’. Six months before the Ramblers had prosecuted Rarebargain, van Hoogstraten’s company which owned the land, for blocking the path with a barn, refrigeration units, locked gates and a barbed-wire fence. Rarebargain was found guilty, and was fined and ordered to pay the Ramblers’ costs, but nothing had been paid.
Shortly after this, East Sussex County Council, rather than enforcing the law, had promoted a diversion around the obstruction to which there had been thousands of objections. John Humphrys evidently agreed with the Ramblers that East Sussex County Council should clear the path.
I was on Today with Mike Skinner, the then deputy leader of East Sussex County Council.
John Humphrys: Four thousand ramblers have told their local council in East Sussex to clear an ancient footpath so they can walk on it. The path is on the estate of Nicholas Van Hoogstraten who’s very rich and doesn’t like ramblers. He’s been issued with a court order to come up with an alternative route but the ramblers aren’t happy with that. Kate Ashbrook of the Ramblers’ Association is with me, Mike Skinner is the deputy leader of East Sussex County Council.
So, Kate Ashbrook, it’s not just Van Hoogstraten you’re not happy with, for entirely obvious reasons; you’re not happy with the council either?
KA: No, the council issued an order to ask him to clear the obstructions within 90 days, they then connived with him to come up with an alternative route, which is lousy. Four thousand ramblers have objected to that. We expect the council to carry out its legal duty and clear the obstructions, otherwise they’re giving a message to all landowners everywhere that they can get around blocking paths by just moving the path.
JH: Councillor Skinner, why did you connive with him?
Mike Skinner: I think that’s probably not the right thing to say. The trouble with footpath law, like many other laws, is it takes no account of how horrible the applicant is, so we have to deal with the application on its merits, regardless of Mr Hoogstraten.
JH: … The man who has done it is Hoogstraten.
MS: The applicant for the footpath diversion is a company that everybody believes has some connection with Mr Hoogstraten
JH: Right, quite, and they are the people who are horrible in your terms?
MS: … We all agree. I’ve had Mr Hoogstraten on my patch for about 15 years and I think we have managed him through a policy of managed appeasement, so I’ll accept that criticism.
KA: Well, it’s time you took him to court Mr Skinner, he’s blocking the path, it’s a criminal offence and the council has a legal duty to clear the path, and East Sussex County Council should get on and do that and stop talking about moving the path onto a lousy route.
MS: If we take him to court we have to be absolutely rock-solid certain….
KA: Well you are, the magistrates ruled that it was a criminal offence in January this year when the Ramblers’ Association took him to court. We know he is breaking the law. You can take him to court, and you should get on and do it.
MS: But we believe that if we don’t consider the diversion properly he could take us to judicial review.
KA: No, rubbish, he’s breaking the law, you take him to court. You don’t have to worry about the diversion, you came up with that, your staff connived with him at a secret meeting, forget the diversion, just get the path opened up.
JH: Yes, this is the point isn’t it Mr Skinner, why is there a diversion here at all? This is a public footpath, that’s absolutely clear. He blocked it, that’s absolutely clear, I mean he hates ramblers, he calls them scum I think or something doesn’t he?
MS: He doesn’t like a lot of other people either.
JH: He doesn’t like many people at all. He likes Robert Mugabe apparently, but most people he seems to think are scum. Why do you not simply say to him “clear the footpath otherwise we will take you to court”? Isn’t that your duty?
MS: Because he’s put in for a diversion and if we don’t properly consider the diversion we could be held up for a judicial review, and the other thing you do know about Mr Hoogstraten is he has an extremely good record in the English courts.
JH: He’s also got a lot of money, I suppose that helps as well.
MS: Yes and there’s also a number of local government officers who are frightened to death of him.
KA: Yes, but we know the police will give protection when you go in and clear the obstructions, I’ve checked that with Sussex Police. They will protect you.
JH: I mean it is outrageous that they should be scared of him, good heavens alive!
MS: Well, that’s their perception, whether they are right or wrong is another matter.
JH: But shouldn’t you as the political leader say, ‘do it, just do it’?
MS: Yes but I want to make sure we do it correctly.
KA: Do it today, Mr Skinner.
JH: All right, there we are, do it today she says. Mike Skinner, Kate Ashbrook, thank you both very much indeed.
Of course East Sussex never did act, and in 2002 I won the case in the Court of Appeal on the grounds that East Sussex had failed to follow its own policy in seeking to divert the path. Eventually I opened the path in February 2003. I am grateful to John Humphrys for giving the council a hard time.