[UPDATE: on 31 July 2023 the Court of Appeal allowed Dartmoor National Park Authority’s appeal against the judgment considered in this post. It is interesting to note the similarities between the line of reasoning followed by Sir Geoffrey Vos MR at §55-§57 of that judgment and some of the arguments made below. This is a welcome development and it is hoped that the attention brought to the issue of public access to the countryside by this case will result in future reforms in this area.]
“The principal issue in this case is whether section 10(1) of the Dartmoor Commons Act 1985 (“the 1985 Act”) confers on the public a right not only to walk or ride a horse on the commons but also to camp there overnight.”
That Friday the 13th was indeed unlucky for the wild camping community, if not wider society. For with the handing down of that judgment, the last remaining rights to wild camp without the permission of the landowner in England and Wales were extinguished.
This case, therefore, represents more than just a landowner seeking to prevent campers using their land without permission. Rather it is a further step in the seemingly inexorable privatisation of the English Countryside for the benefit of the few, to the detriment to the many, and with the full-throated support of the law.
In considering this unfortunate development, I will first set out the background to thecase, then examine the reasoning underpinning the judgment. I will then situate this case in the wider context of public access to the countryside, and ask whether and how this public good can be reconciled with the private property rights of landowners in England and Wales.
The Queen (on the application of Newhaven Port and Properties Limited) v East Sussex County Council and Newhaven Town Council  SC 7 25 February 2015- read judgment
Late February is not necessarily the best time of year for a bit of UK sea swimming. But the Supreme Court has just come out with interesting judgments about whether there is a right to go to the beach and swim from it. For reasons I shall explain, they were anxious not to decide the point, but there are some strong hints, particularly in the judgment of Lord Carnwath as to what the right answer is, though some hesitation as to how to arrive at that answer.
It arose in a most curious setting – East Sussex’s desire to register West Beach, Newhaven as a village green under the Commons Act 2006. But a beach cannot be a village green, you may say. But it is, said the Court of Appeal (see Rosalind English’s post here), and the Supreme Court did not hear argument on that point.
The Queen (on the application of Newhaven Port and Properties Limited) v East Sussex County Council and Newhaven Town Council (Interested Party)  EWCA Civ 673, 276, 14 June 2013 read judgment
This case came before the Court of Appeal earlier this year (read judgment of April 2013, and Rosalind English’s earlier post giving the background), when the landowner Port’s attempts to exclude members of the public from West Beach, Newhaven were unsuccessful. They were defeated by the beach being registered as a “village green” – improbable though that description may sound to those not versed in this arcane bit of the law. The lawfulness of this registration in turn depended on it being established that members of the public had used the beach for at least 20 years “as of right” – i.e. “without force, without stealth and without permission” – an age-old lawyers’ mantra that has mercifully been translated from the original Latin in recent times.
But the earlier hearing before the CA left over for determination one issue, the Port’s contention that they had been deprived of property rights in breach of Article 1 of Protocol 1 (A1P1) of ECHR, because of a retrospective change of the law adverse to them. This is what last week’s decision is about.
The Queen (on the application of Newhaven Port and Properties Limited (Respondent)) v East Sussex County Council (Appellant) and Newhaven Town Council (Interested Party)  EWCA Civ 276 – read judgment
This is a tale of common law rights, open water swimming, and individual freedoms. It is about the flip side of codified human rights: the time-honoured principle, that that which is not specifically prohibited, is – or should be – permitted in English law.
Our current preoccupation with certain sorts of intolerance must not allow us to lose sight of another threat to our individual freedoms: the encroaching requirement that our use of wild spaces is subject to the permission of the public authority who happens to be vested with certain statutory power over the land in question. This ruling confirms, if it needed confirming, that “toleration” does not mean the same as “permission”. If we allow the one to collapse into the other, the inference will become widespread that use of such land is permissive by virtue of an implied licence, a licence which can be easily withdrawn at any time. Continue reading →
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