Ben Goldsmith calls for government to drop plans to criminalise trespass

Emma Gatten
·3 min read
The Brue Valley, home to Ben Goldsmith's working farm
The Brue Valley, home to Ben Goldsmith's working farm

Ben Goldsmith has welcomed walkers and nature lovers who stumble onto his Somerset farm, and urged the Government to drop plans to criminalise trespass.

Writing in the Telegraph today Mr Goldsmith, who is a non-executive director at Defra, said it was “concerning” that the Government is considering plans to make trespassing a criminal, rather than civil, offense. 

He said the right to roam should be extended and seen as a Conservative issue of freedom, not the preserve of the Left. 

“I understand that Conservatism stands for property rights, but it also stands for freedom, for not being told what to do by others, and particularly not by the state,” said Mr Goldsmith, who is also chair of the Conservative Environment Network.  

Speaking of his own 200-acre working farm in south Somerset, he said: “On the odd occasion people have strayed from the public footpath or bridleway I’ve never once felt the urge to march up and ask how dare they."

Mr Goldsmith, who is the brother of Environment Minister Lord Goldsmith, rears rare-breed cattle, sheep and Tamworth pigs on the family's Cannwood Farm in the Brue Valley. 

“I’ve always found it quite reassuring, in a way, to find a young family walking the woodland edge, or a couple in matching beige anoraks beneath a pair of outsized binoculars tittering at flycatchers in the woodland canopy above,” he said.  

The Government’s manifesto included a commitment to “make trespass a criminal offence” and it is expected to shortly release its response to a consultation on the plans. 

Although the plans are intended to target overnight encampments, critics say they could ultimately criminalise ramblers and holiday campers. 

A debate is due in Parliament on the plans after a petition organised by the activist Guy Shrubsole gained more than 130,000 signatures. 

Mr Shrubsole, who has written a book examining the concentration of land ownership in England among the landed gentry, Church and state, is calling for an extension of the right to roam across the countryside. 

The Countryside & Rights of Way Act, which was passed 20 years ago next month, created a right to roam that covers just 8 per cent of England. 

“The lack of access enjoyed by the English to the natural fabric of their own country strikes me as a terrible iniquity,” Mr Goldsmith said. 

The Government has recognised the value in access to nature, recently announcing a trial to prescribe countryside walks on the NHS to help tackle mental health and the worst effects of the Covid-19 pandemic.  

In a recent speech Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the public should be able to take picnics in British “wild belts” by 2030, but has faced criticism for not doing enough to restore nature and biodiversity in the country. 

Countryside groups are split over calls to extend the right to roam, which has become a growing issue as lockdown has encouraged people to seek out nature and take domestic holidays. 

CPRE, the countryside charity, has welcomed the debate over extending rights in the countryside, but the Country Land and Business Association has spoken out in favour of a law to criminalise trespassing. 

The National Farmers Union is calling for farmers to be rewarded for providing access to the countryside under the subsidy regime that will replace the Common Agricultural Policy post-Brexit. 

The Government said responses to the consultation were still being considered and the results would be delivered “in due course”.

Mr Shrubsole said it was “great to see prominent conservatives making the case for increasing the freedom to roam across our own countryside. 

"Over the past few months we've seen growing support for extending the Right to Roam - from British Canoeing gaining thousands more members, to people up and down the country signing our petition to stop the criminalisation of trespass. Even the Prime Minister enjoyed a spot of wild camping on his summer holiday.

"Extending the Right to Roam would be an historic act to boost the public's physical and mental health - I hope Boris Johnson is bold enough to do so."