In the wake of the Labour Party potentially ditching a Scottish-style right to roam, the BMC speaks out in defence of wider access rights and promises to continue lobbying.
It is clear that Covid awakened people’s appetite for the outdoors and exploration - our green and blue spaces became the new place to meet up with friends, exercise, and forget, at least for a short time, the craziness of the pandemic. But Covid also threw the spotlight on how our outdoor spaces are not currently accessible to everyone. There still remain a multitude of barriers that affect underrepresented and underserved communities the most – an astonishing 2.69m people don’t live within a 10-minute walk of any green space.
More recently too, the decision to overturn the controversial ruling that made camping illegal on Dartmoor without landowner permission was a real coup for public rights and public access (although this has once again been challenged by the landowner). The court case sparked a huge backlash and has thrown a much-needed spotlight on wider access rights to all our green and blue spaces. There is now renewed political will (or so we were led to believe), renewed campaigning and a renewed public appetite for a broader, responsible right to roam, enshrined in law, and for our natural environment to be accessible to all.
Access in England over the past 12 years has often been kicked into the long grass with broken promises on farming schemes providing public funding for improved public access; recommendations in the Glover review around expanding open access rights to provide additional recreational opportunities being ignored, and the Government decision to re-instate the deadline to record all historic rights of way, now set at Jan 2031 after which time rights over them will be lost forever. Significantly, there have also been cuts in public funding to Local Highway Authorities to maintain our Rights of Way network and to our protected landscapes (National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty) for other forms of access maintenance. This, despite the rise of 'social prescribing' as an aid to health and well-being.
Similarly, in Wales, we have faced years of delay on meaningful access reform, despite repeated promises and a substantial consultation recommending extending the right to roam. All at a time when outdoor activity has never been more important for our health and well-being.
For outdoors organisations like the BMC who represent the interest of climbers, hill walkers and mountaineers, now is the time to take stock and consider if the only way of improving matters is to change the system at a fundamental level.
It is over 20 years since public rights to access open countryside commenced in England and Wales (Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000) which gives a right of access on foot to mountain, moor, heath and down, alongside the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009 which provides a series of long-distance routes around the coast of England (a coastal path), and a margin of access land along the length of the English coast (a coastal margin).
These were both landmark pieces of legislation at the time, but they have not been without their problems. Most significantly they only allow access to 8% of England and 20% of Wales, to areas which can often only be reached by car and only allow for walking, running and climbing (there are no rights of access for activities such as cycling, caving, canoeing or backpack camping). Our rural areas are becoming increasingly exclusive.
Importantly, CROW is complicated and is now outdated. Areas were mapped at a considerable cost and yet the maps today showing where the public have a freedom to roam have not been updated in England since 2000. There were inconsistencies in the way land types were mapped (based on predominant vegetation), errors were made, and in some places, ‘islands’ of inaccessible open access land now exist. The legislation also remains poorly understood by the wider public. Extending CROW to other areas risks expanding the patchwork of accessible landscapes, exacerbating confusion and strengthening the idea of ‘trespassing in’ and ‘keeping out’ of those areas between.
Many outdoor organisations have been lobbying MPs and policymakers in the build-up to the election manifesto’s being published. Strong hopes had been pinned on the Labour Party who under their previous shadow environment team, led by Jim McMahon MP and Alex Soble MP, had committed to a Scottish-style right to roam. Replacing the default of exclusion with a default of access. They seemed to understand no one should have to travel far or make a big effort to experience the enormous health and social benefits of being in nature. The Guardian is now reporting however, that Labour have U-truned on its plans to bring a new Right to Roam.
The BMC still believe new legislation is required that will:
1. Expand our freedom to access and enjoy our green and blue spaces, including public access rights to waterways, woodland, riversides, and grasslands.
2. Protect and improve the existing paths and access network, removing the 2031 cut-off date for registering historic rights of way and ensuring the network of paths together with areas of public open space provide links between urban and rural areas
3. Establish a cross-government framework and investment strategy to support public access in the long-term.
We believe a country-wide responsible right to access land and water, with exceptions and exclusions where necessary, offers a much better, cheaper and more workable model. A Right to Roam approach.
The BMC has recently conducted an access survey in which we posed a series of questions about the types of recreational activities members are currently undertaking outdoors and their vision for the future of public access. In particular, we asked if members would support or oppose extending the ‘right to roam’ (similar to a Scottish Land Reform Act) to most land and water. 90% of respondents supported this approach, with only 6% opposing and 4% remaining undecided. The majority of respondents were also supportive of access to our natural environment being governed by an access code.
The results of this survey and wider consultation across the BMC, therefore give us the mandate to continue to lobby for amendments to or the introduction of new legislation in England and Wales to significantly extend rights of access, similar to the regulations governing access in Scotland. This will create more areas for us to enjoy both on land and water, with many more and better-connected spaces close to where people live. The fact that the Right to Roam has been discussed at Westminster over the past few months indicates it remains the right time to lobby, and we need to bring as many people as possible with us on this journey if we are to make meaningful change. The BMC has recently written to the shadow environment secretary, Steve Reed, endorsing a Right to Roam approach and we hope to secure a meeting with him and his team soon.
We accept there are several key challenges ahead requiring more discussion and understanding - we are in no doubt this will be met with strong opposition from landowning bodies and we must listen to and understand their legitimate concerns. We are also aware of the need to find a balance between increasing access to nature and minimising any related environmental impacts - but it is clear that expanding access to nature is good, not only for wellbeing but to promote pro-conservation behaviours. The BMC already supports restrictions to access to allow vulnerable species to recover or thrive in certain areas. Education needs to be developed (and taught in schools at an early age) to encourage a cultural shift towards respect and responsibility for nature and the countryside. People care for what they love, but they only love what they know. That connection is also crucial if we are to tackle the climate and biodiversity crises.
There are many lessons to be learnt here form north of the border with the roll out of the Scottish Land Reform Act and in particular, the strong foundation of the Scottish Outdoor Access Code. Here, visitors and land managers feel secure in their rights with a code that helps guide everyone to make informed decisions about exploring and caring for the great outdoors in a safe and responsible way – a social contract between visitors, owners and local communities alike. It is essential that land owners and managers are assured that visitors are acting under clear best practice guidelines, as custodians of our remote and wild places. Advice on challenges such as dogs, wild camping and protecting wildlife will all need to be addressed but the issues are the same across the border and good practise already exists. If an access code governs new access rights in England and Wales, it needs to be flexible enough to respond to new or emerging pressures, and in some situations, access needs to be curated to match the complexity of the landscape.
Policies that enable people to be active, to lead healthy lifestyles and support mental and physical wellbeing are often the very same policies that help promote a sustainable economy, build stronger communities and protect our environment. None of this will be possible however, without commitment and resources. Extending access rights and at the same time delivering on nature recovery will require government commitment and clear targets for both, as well as a fit-for-purpose Ranger Service. The exact costs involved in extending a right to roam are still to be understood but it will cost far less than the potential savings the NHS could make each year – an estimated £2.1 billion. As well as promoting a healthy nation, outdoor recreation also drives the visitor economy, and creates jobs and skills worth over £25 billion.
So, with it all to play for, the BMC believes that a responsible ‘right to roam’ remains the future of access in England and Wales - we need to allow access to more spaces for everyone to be able to connect with nature, foster a culture of understanding and caring for our natural environment and know that we are all welcome to share the space and enjoy the outdoors in a responsible way. We want to move from a model that relies solely on mapping certain land types, to one that is more inclusive in the way of the Scottish model, and allows us to enjoy more of our green and blue spaces responsibly by following a clear access code – our woodlands, waters, green belt and more grassland in particular. We will be working with other like-minded organisations to lobby for just this.