Sunday, 19 September 2021

Three decades of fighting to protect common land

KATE ASHBROOK has been fighting to defend Britain’s footpaths and commons for exactly half her life.

KATE ASHBROOK has been fighting to defend Britain’s footpaths and commons for exactly half her life.

She is general secretary of the Open Spaces Society, which is based in Bell Street, Henley.

She took on the job in June 1984, when she was 29, and says she is proud of her achievements and has no plans to step down.

Miss Ashbrook, who lives in Turville with her partner Chris Hall, played a pivotal role in lobbying for the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000.

The landmark legislation gave people the right to walk on certain areas of undeveloped land, even if it is privately owned.

In 2002, she won a court case to force property tycoon Nicholas van Hoogstraten to re-open a public footpath on his estate in East Sussex.

This month, the society won an international Elinor Ostrom Award, which recognises the achievements of conservation groups, and Miss Ashbrook flew to Japan to be presented with it.

She began campaigning at the age of 16, when she attended a public meeting over plans to build an eighth reservoir on Dartmoor.

At the time, she was living with her parents in Buckinghamshire but regularly enjoyed riding holidays in the national park.

She was inspired by outspoken conservationist Lady Sylvia Sayer, who stood up that evening to decry the scheme.

Miss Ashbrook said: “I remember sitting at the back while she was making this wonderful speech and thinking, ‘I could be doing that’.

“I met her at her home the following year and we struck up this great friendship. She was very generous with her time and taught me most of what I know about campaigning.

“I learned that you have to be courageous and stand your ground — you must not give up and must never start by compromising.” After school, she went to university in Exeter to study biology. During this time, she became closely involved in the fight to protect Dartmoor. She began volunteering for the society, then called the Commons, Open Spaces and Footpaths Preservation Society, in 1974 while she was still a student.

She said: “When I was at university there was a big public inquiry into military training on Dartmoor so I must admit to skipping a few lectures to be there. However, it was an incredible experience. I cross-examined a major-general and was cross-examined in turn — it was just wonderful and a fascinating education.

“I tended to put campaigning first but I still got a 2:1, so I think I did all right. People thought I was a bit mad because I would run around the students’ union with petitions for various causes.

“In those days, that wasn’t the done thing and it was quite unusual. It wasn’t as normal as it is now for young people to be involved in campaigning. But I never cared what people thought about me. I just did what I believed in.”

In 1978, Lady Sayer nominated her for a place on the society’s national organising committee. She successfully applied for the job of general secretary six years later.

She met Chris through the Ramblers’ Association, of which she became president last year, in 1985 and they bought their house in Turville in 1987.

The association, now called Ramblers, fights for walkers’ rights and Miss Ashbrook’s position is voluntary.

It has successfully fought for a series of laws that protect village greens from development.

It set legal precedents by successfully defending Oxford’s Trap Grounds allotments and the village green in Sunningwell, near Abingdon, from being built on.

But when Miss Ashbrook took East Sussex County Council to court over the van Hoogstraten affair, claiming it had failed in its duty to intervene, she fought alone.

She said: “There was a lot of money at stake and I couldn’t risk the society’s finances. Fortunately, I was able to find some lawyers who shared my beliefs and acted pro bono.

“It was a big gamble but I was always clear that I was going to go ahead. Whenever I decide to do something, I just do it and won’t be put off.” The developer dismissed Mrs Ashbrook and her colleagues as “perverts”, “flashers”, “closet lesbians” and “the dirty mac brigade”.

She said: “The Ramblers took van Hoogstraten to court before I did and I appeared as their witness because the local people felt intimidated by him. I had no personal run-ins with him, although I read the things he said about us in the press.”

Miss Ashbrook continued: “It’s tremendously important to protect land in which the public has an interest. Open spaces and paths are places where people can go for fresh air, recreation and rejuvenation. To be able to enjoy them improves the quality of people’s lives, particularly if these places are right on their doorsteps.

“They’re places we have the right to enjoy and far too often they’re stolen from us, either by people fencing in bits of land that aren’t theirs or putting up intimidating signs to make people feel unwelcome.”

Under Miss Ashbrook’s watch, the society’s membership has grown to 2,000 and it must now be notified by law when plans are submitted that could affect public footpaths or commons.

She said: “It has been hard to get credibility but we have always put out high-quality publications and shown that we are prepared to go to court if necessary.

“We are lucky, however, that our members are both incredibly loyal and incredibly generous.

“It does get a bit depressing sometimes. It’s as bad as ever now we have a government that values development over anything else. I don’t believe they’re serious about protecting public space.

“It has also been very rewarding and tremendous fun because you never know what’s going to come up every day.

“We tend to jump in where other organisations wouldn’t. We often need to act fast and if there’s an opportunity to help someone in desperate need we will take it.”

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