Hebden Bridge Land Justice Network camp 10-13 May 2019 Impressions of the action camp on the grouse moors

By Dave Dewhurst

Ever come back from an event, met someone who was there too, and it’s alternative reality?

For me it was brilliant, mostly.

Since 2017 LJN had quietly debated and researched where the best place was to have a land occupation and effectively show up the farce of English land control. A lot of explorers got muddy. Warley Moor rose out of the mists. Hebden Bridge locals said that its owner, with twenty-five square miles of grouse moor to their north, was regularly flooding them. The RSPB and others had already sued against burning the moor for the grouse (highland chickens) between their release from domestic pens and getting riddled with lead shot. Richard Banister, owner of the Boundary Mill discount store chain, had spent a million for a mob-handed team of barristers to defend himself – successfully.

Grouse moors are ecologically hazardous and problematic on many levels. They have an online reputation level with ocean plastic. If you worry about your blood pressure don’t search it.

The protestor’s problem with them is that they have poor public transport links and dropping a campsite there has ecological issues. So you really want a nearby grass field, and if you are going to supply over a hundred people for a Friday to Monday weekend you want heavy duty vehicles too – at least a minibus.
On the Thursday an advance team brought in big tents and supplies. I’d borrowed my mum’s Nissan Micra and met the minibus at the nearest car park (Hardcastle Crags – scenery ***** ). I followed the minibus with my cargo of banners, sphagnum moss and some boxes. Soon we passed the National Trust notice saying, ‘Authorised Vehicles Only.’ As a Member I decided to authorise myself.


I have often wondered how occupations like ‘Reclaim the Power’ might persuade a farmer that their field is just right for their purpose. Being there helps. I guess charm, clarity and a clear departure date contribute too. And you’re not going to choose a site where livestock and humans would threaten each another. But the tenant farmer will have a landowner who sees things more starkly. They seem to line up with Marx about inevitable class conflict. We have to choose who we upset least. Protesting about an inconvenient reality is inconvenient.

The geography from Hardcastle Crags to two kilometres north is increasingly rugged. Ahead was a farmhouse with dogs and double gates across the path. I hid (I think) the transport behind a wall and continued with rucksack, pop-up tent, furled banners, a box and our eight metre New Putney Debates timeline trying to look legitimate. It worked with the dogs, and after quarter of a mile I found an abandoned wheelbarrow with some camp-like stuff in it. This implied I was on the right track and let me ferry my burden less like a Mr Bean tribute act.

Just short of the camp was an average one-in-two, rock-strewn slope probably designed to test camels, so I was impressed to see the main tents up, one big enough for a circus. Respect to everyone for just negotiating their own baggage there, even more to those with the energy to trundle in water, food and all the gear for over a hundred people over a long weekend. On Friday night there were already over sixty tents.

The first evening’s entertainments were the usual obscure (to me) and brilliant performers plus the famous Commoners’ Choir. (Yeah, this is meant to get you to search it.) As there was a no drugs policy and limited alcohol (I know) it is a tribute that they achieved the usual merging with humanity euphoria supposed otherwise to be exclusive to religion and football.

Most workshops ran in pairs throughout Saturday. – Land Reform in Scotland, Hunt Saboteuring, Farming and Food Sovereignty, Ending Public Land sell-offs, Political Parties’ statements on Land Reform, Greening Rojeva, art etc. When you’re performing it’s hard to remember or absorb which bits who in the rest of the line-up delivered, and it all merges into an unattributed revision of political ‘common sense’ and a collective high. Trawling our website & LJN’s gives you the gist. As Lao Tsu almost said, the best workshops have you thinking that you figured it out for yourself. I remember the NEF talk on the economics of housing complemented the joint session with David King and myself; we were working towards a consensus on necessary land reform legislation.

We billed it as ‘identifying priorities for action’ so as not to scare people who thought drafting parliamentary legislation wasn’t utterly joyful. Trouble is when you’ve got thirty-five bright committed people in a circus top – all ages, multinational–they’ll be on different squares and not all in the same game. To start with a vote on our menu of 18 reforms which we’d elicited (or inserted) in earlier consultations would be cargo-cult democracy.

Before you start a topic, teachers and trainers are told to find out what the group knows or believes already. The collective intelligence of the audience is more than the platform – but it can embrace more nonsense as well if you just add the lot up. It’s easier for the platform (actually David and I squatted on the ground too) if people feel faintly ignorant; it’s harder if they’ve already found magic bullets (Land Value Tax, land nationalisation, veganism ..) that you have nuances over (especially as they might be more right than you are).

So facilitators try to modify the control and teaching model of political education to something like ushering or herding but have the implicit fear of being stampeded. The full democracy feature is tricky. Equal air-time just doesn’t happen for groups over seven; the number of direct, one-to-one links between thirty-five people is 595 (for 1000 it’s 499,500). But hey, our tribes negotiated this for millennia before oligarchy set in; even Machiavelli said democracies work better, just about.

Tentatively we started with a ‘go-round’ giving people a sentence to introduce themselves and say why they were here. Next, we told people to get into groups of five with people they didn’t know already, and many of them did. We handed the seven groups our eighteen-point list to discuss, enlarge, ignore or prioritise. For twenty-five minutes David and I hovered, looking wise, and got ourselves tea.

The feedback was far too good to summarise neatly. The points were all affirmed pretty much. Land Reform from the Ground Up If we agree that we want to work towards a situation where land is used and managed for the common good what do we need to do?

  1. Community, co-operative, non-profit organisation Right to Buy, with Land Fund.
  2. Right to roam and access for non-motorised recreation in rural areas, limit private space in urban areas.
  3. Land in public hands: Stop sale of public land to developers and use this land for the common good, e.g. public housing, gardens, farms, co-operatives, end right to buy for individuals.
  4. Agricultural tenants’ right to buy? Or encourage co-operative farms?
  5. Food strategy for local authorities including the provision of more allotments.
  6. Challenge large landholdings: limit the amount a landowner can own, taxation to make it less viable to own large tracts of land.
  7. Establish a Land Commission with an aim to promote land reform and develop a land use strategy.
  8. Democratise land decision-making, e.g. landowner engagement and community planning. Make it easier for communities to participate in planning and to challenge decisions.
  9. Reform subsidy system so that it encourages smaller farms.
  10. Tax incentives or penalties to deliver public environmental benefits on all land, e.g. agriculture based on agro-ecology principles, preservation of wild land, peat bog restoration, afforestation, limit grouse moors.
  11. Stabilise the price of land by limiting speculation or investment demand, e.g. land banking, hoarding and taking up options, buy to leave, buy to let, higher taxes on investment properties and second homes, change inheritance tax in agriculture so that it is not exempt
  12. Decriminalise squatting.
  13.  Rent controls and tenants’ rights.
  14.  Land value tax on empty, derelict or unused buildings, e.g. empty homes and land to discourage unproductive land use.
  15. Taxation to capture increases in land value.
  16. Free and easy to use land registry so that anyone can see who owns or has a controlling interest in land.
  17. Tax incentives and subsidies to promote land use that benefits the wider community, e.g. get rid of any subsidies or exemptions for sporting estates
    Residency requirement for ownership of land and/or banning ownership of land by companies based (and or beneficially owned) in tax havens and secrecy jurisdictions
  18. Other?

Unusually, nobody had a strop for or against Land Value Tax. The most memorable ‘Other’ was ‘Massive Rewilding’. Different clusters of points got prioritised. One group hardened the language. Some began to unpack the details. One reminded us of the waterways in ‘right to roam’. Another reminded us that instilling and protecting legislative changes was a mass cultural enterprise and that who actually sat on the Land Commission was crucial. No dukes wanted.

People were gratifyingly enthusiastic and stayed talking at the end even though the hail had stopped. In one promo draft I had written, ‘Expect to leave both clearer and more confused’ – which I bottled and changed to ‘critical’. Either way I reckon we all did. If you’ve really got the grit to get in the water now check the joint LJN/Monbiot document commissioned by John McDonnell and hopefully to be endorsed by other parties. It’s good stuff but more to think through.

Then there was Sunday, and it was. This was mostly a walk on the moors. We’d hoped to elevate the ecosystem by planting the sphagnum moss but technical questions, like the right time of year, suspended this. We toured the grouse moor noting the amazing number of traps around designed to kill anything else that might kill grouse apart from humans. What the moral response is when encountering usually painful instruments of death you can imagine.

Basically I had a lovely walk, except that at some remote promontory two of the group broke into an argument about transgender rights. As it looked like this could go on for hours my fell-walker safety training internally cried out, ‘For God’s sake get the group somewhere safe; then sort it.’

You listen. You hope you’re learning. You wonder if you could intervene to get a more constructive tone. I shut up….and walked on. Eventually the group moved. Different people later evidenced various stress,– or anger? Certainly uncertainty.

There are only so many competing narratives where you’ve time to think it through yourself. Earlier discussions and decisions had preceded the outbreak. There was brief debate at the last morning assembly on Monday, with I suspect, more people concerned about the logistics of getting away. Mostly we await the contemporary consensus. I can say nothing dispositive (good word, check it). You can glean perspectives on line if it’s actually going to change your stance. Human rights and responsibilities are crucial; land rights are part of that. There’s no consensus without all parties feeling they are really heard. Otherwise oligarchy wins. Figure what you will do best.

What other realities were there? Austerity seems to be making the police a threatened species but there were sightings. People were assigned to talk to them. They went away. They came back and no one wanted to talk. They went away. I don’t know. I guess deploying hordes to a moor is down to the landowners following the privatisation agenda.

The entertainments schedule diverged a little due to a social media squall, but most of us were oblivious, conserving our batteries. A row arose about the plight of the tenant farmer whose field we used. People claimed that the land owner was some peer, not Mr. Bannister. As the ownership is still not publicly registered you can only make your best guess. Various people saw it as unfair on the farmer. My feeling is that it was a lot less hassle than being a tenant and having to comply with your boss. How would you make effective protest convenient?

Two of us had a brilliant swim towards the end of the fell walk, doubtless made more brilliant by its stress cure virtue. I hope we’ve brought the world closer to land justice but the vibe that stays strongest is the great human beings (and occasional dog) you encounter, agree to contact and do things later, and sometimes actually do.

My appreciation to the farmer (and possibly sheep) who shared their field. He probably didn’t need us to say we would leave more fluently if the blockades were shifted. The clear-up was meticulous. I’d planned an extra night to help clear up but it was fast enough to leave it to the core crew, for whom also mega appreciation.

They made a wicked omelette.

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