The Welsh government has announced a review which could fundamentally change the way hill walkers and climbers experience the countryside in Wales, and could even result in an open access charter similar to the Scottish system. We take a look at what this means.
People familiar with the law surrounding public access to the countryside will know that Scotland has a very different system to England and Wales.
In Scotland the law guarantees “a statutory right of responsible access to land and inland waters for recreation”; in simple terms, you can go where you want provided you behave. In England and Wales, however, rights are much more limited. If land is not designated as ‘Open Access’ – principally mountain, moor, heath, down and common land – you do not have a right to be there unless on a right of way or permissive path.
In Wales, at least, that could be about to change. In an exciting move the Minister for Sports and Culture (Mr John Griffiths AM) has instructed his staff to review the whole legislative framework that allows for access to the countryside of Wales for informal recreational and non-motorised access.
Alongside this, the Welsh Government has started consulting with recreational users groups, landowners, farming unions, local authorities and other stakeholders on how they feel access to the countryside should work.
In their scoping document the Government of Wales state that they want to “secure better access to the outdoors for recreation, modernise and simplify the current regulatory framework, and provide clarity and certainty over where people can go and what they can do there. This will enable us to take forward the Programme for Government commitments to improve access to the outdoors.”
The work will focus on three main areas:
• Increasing access to the outdoors, both in urban and rural areas
• Improve Wales’ extensive public path network
• Increasing the amount of land available for allotments and community gardening
The BMC are regarded as an important stakeholder and along with other user groups have been involved in a number of workshops, meetings and seminars with officials from the Welsh Government over the autumn months. In order to fully understand the implication, opportunities and possible pitfalls of the review the BMC brought together a small but informed group of BMC members and access specialists to consider its response.
The Welsh government is being careful to play down direct comparisons with Scotland, but in essence it is suggesting that they would consider creating a new law in Wales that could allow a right of access to all undeveloped land for informal recreation (but specifically not including motorised transport). This would extending and improving the rights granted under the Countryside and Rights of Way (CRoW) Act to areas mapped as Open Access to a much larger area, including the coast, sea-cliffs, forests and even the inland waters and rivers of Wales.
Access would be conditional upon following an access code or charter that would be legally enforceable, similar to the current model in Scotland and some other European countries.
Currently there areas of land in Wales of great value to climbers and hill walkers which are technically only accessible by trespass or de facto (or tolerated) access, such as most of the sea cliffs, crags on private woodlands, outcrops on enclosed or semi-enclosed land or land on mountains and moorland that is not mapped as open access.
For example, access to the great sea cliffs of Gogarth (while currently welcomed by the occupiers, the RSPB) is not legally secure. A change in the attitude of the landowner towards climbing could easily lead to climbing being prohibited. Only a few months ago BMC access officers had to negotiate hard with land agents at nearby Rhoscolyn in order to prevent climbing being banned without a licence from the landowners. And of course there is that banned but not forgotten brilliant little limestone crag in North Wales called Craig y Forwyn.
And for hill walkers, even on the slopes of Snowdon, walkers were recently and aggressively asked to leave land they were walking over while trying to gain access to some Open Access land.
On the face of it, this review is really great news for climbers, hill walkers, mountaineers and other user groups and BMC are very pleased that the Welsh Government recognises the value of access both to the economy of Wales and for the social, health and wellbeing of its citizens.
However there are a few key points in the discussion documents that also cause concern, including the suggestion that the duties currently placed on local authorities to maintain rights of ways could be reduced, that the legal protection granted to public rights of way could be reduced and that the current network of rights of ways could even be abolished, as they would be deemed unnecessary if there was a general right of access.
The BMC have produced a comprehensive response to the discussion, including a modified Access Manifesto for Wales. We are seeking a meeting with the Minister in order to express our support for much of the content of the discussion, but also to ensure that any new legislative framework does not undermine or reduce the access we have secured to date under the CRoW Act and the Rights of Way laws.
Understandably, most landowning organisations have voiced concerns at these proposals and some of the more vociferous opponents have embarked on a strong campaign of lobbying Assembly Members against the proposals. However, for many landowners there are significant benefits in the package being discussed, including easing the very complex and bureaucratic process for minor diversions to rights of ways, enabling short term temporary closures of footpaths for land management purposes, and reducing further the burden or threat of liability towards recreational users of their land.
What happens next?
The government will review all the responses to its discussion document and the feedback from the workshops it has held across Wales and in all likelihood will produce a “Green Paper” proposing changes to existing legislation and creating a new access law for Wales.
This would then be open to a formal consultation before being debated by Assembly Members at the Senedd (the Welsh Assembly) and, if supported by enough AM’s, would proceed to become law in Wales and in all likelihood obtain Royal Assent some time in 2015.
The BMC intends to be fully involved throughout this process and along with colleagues from other recreational groups will continue to lobby and campaign to protect and improve the rights and freedoms of hill walkers, climbers and mountaineers in Wales.
How can you get involved?
BMC will soon be producing guidance for individuals and clubs on how they can get involved in supporting this process. It's important that the Welsh Government and Assembly Members recognise the value and importance of outdoor recreation to both the economy and the well being of the people of Wales. With considerable and concentrated opposition to the review from some parties (notably the fishing and shooting groups) its vital that recreational users also make their voice heard in order that a balanced debate is had on this radical and exciting development. This topic will also feature in the next round of Area Meetings in Wales...so come along to air your views!