Opening up the great outdoors

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Countryside campaigners welcome a new plan for greater public access to the great outdoors Reporter Charlie Bullough looks at proposals to improve access for walkers and other outdoor enthusiasts.

Ramblers, cyclists and horse riders are hoping plans for a ‘Green Brexit’ will deliver a series of new pathways.

Environment Secretary Michael Gove

Environment Secretary Michael Gove

A new Agriculture Bill is wending its way through Parliament and greater public access in the countryside is on the cards.

The legislation aims to reward farmers and land managers who provide the greatest environmental benefits.

Environment Secretary Michael Gove said: “After nearly 50 years of being tied to burdensome and outdated EU rules, we have an opportunity to deliver a Green Brexit.

“This Bill will allow us to reward farmers who protect our environment, leaving the countryside in a cleaner, greener and healthier state for future generations.”

Public paths and access to land are vital for our physical and mental health, as well as benefiting local economies

Kate Ashbrook

The plan is for the current system of Direct Payments, which pays farmers based on the total amount of land farmed, to be gradually phased out.

The Government claims these payments are skewed towards the largest landowners and are not linked to any specific public benefits.

Various outdoor groups have lobbied for agricultural payments to go to those providing more public access.

The Open Spaces Society, The Ramblers (formerly Ramblers Association), the British Horse Society and other outdoor organisations have all campaigned for it.

Kate Ashbrook

Kate Ashbrook

Kate Ashbrook, general secretary of the Open Spaces Society, Britain’s oldest national conservation body: said “We are delighted that the environment secretary has listened to the combined voice of bodies representing those who champion public access. Public paths and access land give people the opportunity to explore the outdoors, and are vital for our physical and mental health, as well as benefiting local economies.”

Miss Ashbrook said the groups would continue to campaign as the Bill progresses through its parliamentary stages.

She said: “We will work with Ramblers, the British Horse Society and outdoor user groups to draft improvements to the bill and move amendments.”

They hope to gain assurances from the minister on various issues.

Miss Ashbrook added: “Now we need to work on the detail of the bill, to ensure that the payments give the best possible results. For example, we want to see payments for new and improved access, such as paths created to enable people to walk and ride off-road, to avoid dangerous road-crossings, or to link with existing paths to provide longer routes.

“We also want to see robust enforcement so that those receiving funds fulfil their legal duties on public paths and access land.”

Plans for greater public access have also been welcomed by The Ramblers. Its chief executive, Vanessa Griffiths, said: “As Britain’s walking charity, protecting the places we walk is at the heart of everything we do, so the Government’s commitment to supporting easier access to the countryside in the Agriculture Bill is a very welcome step in the right direction.

“However, to really make a difference to the millions of people who enjoy the outdoors every year, getting the detail right will be critical. We are pleased to see the intention to give financial support to farmers for improved public access.”

But she wants measures in place that ensure farmers and landowners keep existing paths clear.

Horse riders and cyclists have also voiced support for the Bill. But the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) has wider concerns about its implications, like food production.

NFU president Minette Batters says: “The NFU alongside, the whole food supply chain, has been absolutely clear about the essential ingredients for a progressive, profitable, and sustainable food and farming sector post Brexit. These include comprehensive measures to improve the environment and productivity and tackle volatility alongside free and frictionless trade and access to a competent and reliable workforce. The Bill, as described in the announcement, falls short of our aspirations in these regards.

“It is vital that in the future British farmers can continue to meet the food needs of a growing population. A future agricultural policy that ignores food production will be damaging for farmers and the public alike. The public demand and deserve safe, high-quality, traceable affordable food, whatever their income. And moreover they want British farms to supply that food.”

The union boss said UK farmers will need to compete with farmers all over the world, nearly all of whom are supported financially to produce food.

She wants the Government to be empowered to pause the new system if it is proves unmanageable for farmers, and if our domestic food supply and food security comes under threat.

The union boss concluded: “We are entering an historic period for farming with legislation setting the path for the next generation of farmers and the countryside. With critical decisions still to be taken in the months and years ahead it would be foolhardy for the Government to embark on such a path without knowing trading environment in which it will be set. A free and frictionless trade deal with our biggest trading partner, the EU, is absolutely critical to the farming industry.”

What is the Open Spaces Society?

The Open Spaces Society was founded in 1865 and is Britain’s oldest national conservation body. It campaigns to protect common land, village greens, open spaces and public paths, and people’s right to enjoy them. Its founders and early members included John Stuart Mill, Lord Eversley, Sir Robert Hunter and Octavia Hill. The last two founded the National Trust in 1895 along with Canon Rawnsley.

Agriculture Bill Factbox

The Agriculture Bill sets out how farmers and land managers will in future be paid for “public goods”, such as better air and water quality, improved soil health, higher animal welfare standards, public access to the countryside and measures to reduce flooding. This will replace the current subsidy system of Direct Payments, which the Government says is ineffective and pays farmers based on the total amount of land farmed.

It claims these payments are skewed towards the largest landowners and are not linked to any specific public benefits.

The top 10 per cent of recipients currently receive almost 50 per cent of total payments, while the bottom 20 per cent receive just two per cent.