There are concerns that government are considering moves to turn trespass from a civil offence to a criminal one. In a public consultation that is currently out for comment, it has been suggested that police powers could be strengthened to force people to move on from unauthorised encampments. The BMC is concerned however, that there could be unintentional consequences of the proposals around issues such as wild camping.
The BMC, with a membership of over 85,000, is the representative body for climbers, hill walkers and mountaineers in England and Wales. All of our activities typify the concept of quiet enjoyment of the countryside and bring significant benefits to users, local communities and society in general.
Opportunities for recreation and tourism have enormous potential to deliver not only rural growth but a range of benefits, including improvements to public health, well-being and an increase in public understanding of the environment. Access to the countryside on foot for quiet, informal recreation should be a basic right to be enjoyed by all. The BMC will object to any new legislation or powers that could potentially threaten this. In particular, the move to criminalise trespass, which would be a concerning change in the law.
In relation to the government consultation on ‘Strengthening police powers to deal with unauthorised encampments’, published in November 2019, the BMC will be making the following key points:
• The BMC would like to see the term “residing” clarified in order to be able to answer the consultation more accurately. The Oxford dictionary says residence (in this sense) means ‘a usual or regular place of abode’ and embodies a degree of permanence. This definition therefore could not be applied to those staying (wild camping) in the outdoors for one or two nights in one location.
• The BMC is concerned however, that an unintended consequence of the consultation may be to penalise those who are ‘wild camping’ or ‘van camping’ for a short period of time, and may deter those who are genuinely exercising their rights to be outdoors. Access to our countryside and green spaces has wide reaching benefits from a better understanding of the natural environment to increased well-being and a prosperous rural economy. The freedom to enjoy the access rights set out in the CROW Act 2000 and the MCAA 2009 alongside our network of rights of way must be recognised and respected by all.
• The intended aim of this consultation and future legislation is clearly to deter long term occupation of land - essentially travellers. The BMC would like further assurances that the legislation should not be too wide as to capture anyone but the intended targets.
• The creation, implementation and enforcement of new powers is likely to be a costly exercise for the public purse, with uncertain outcomes of monitoring and enforcement.
• Government priority should be to make our countryside and green spaces easy and accessible for all. Promoting outdoor recreation and access to the outdoors is essential in tackling physical inactivity and the mental health crisis as well as helping to raise awareness of the value of our natural environment.
Wild camping is not permitted by right on open access land in England and Wales without express permission of the landowner. However, it is permitted in Scotland on the proviso that you follow the Scottish Outdoor Access Code (SOAC) and provided that you do so responsibly. In the vast majority of cases trespass on the land would be a civil matter rather than a criminal one.
Under the Criminal Justice & Public Order Act 1994, Section 61 it is possible that two people or more wild camping could be criminally trespassing if they had been violent or abusive when asked to leave, had damaged property, or if they had not left after having been asked to do so by the senior police officer present. The current proposals do not appear to have the intention to change this nor should they.
The BMC believes that wild camping should encompass the freedom to choose where to camp, without any regulations, to be self-sufficient and to do so in a discreet and responsible manner, in wild places away from civilisation. Many people wild camp discreetly in our hills and mountains, following a strict 'leave no trace' ethic. This appears to function well in practice.
The BMC's full response can be downloaded here.
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