A report released yesterday by the Country, Land & Business Association (CLA) on their vision for the future of countryside access in England and Wales has drawn heavy flack from leading outdoor bodies.
The report, The Right Way Forward: The CLA's common sense approach to access in the countryside, calls for deregulation in the public rights of way system and a much greater emphasis on voluntary agreements - in effect public access by permission, say critics. Its talk of efficiency and cost savings chimes with the Government's ongoing 'Red Tape Challenge'. So are walkers' and climbers' representatives right to worry about the future of our rights of way?
The CLA report says it is "highly desirable" to improve access in a way that enhances the system, boosts efficiency and gets better value for money. But who gets to define these terms?
Yesterday CLA President Harry Cotterell said:
'The public rights of way system in England and Wales is governed by a failing bureaucratic and legislative system which is long-winded, expensive and completely incomprehensible to most people.'
'Even to call rights of way a 'system' suggests an order and logic not apparent in reality. Many thousands of pounds of public money can be spent pursuing claims for paths which have not been used for centuries while present-day users struggle along overgrown paths because there is not enough money for maintenance. This cannot be right.'
Mr Cotterell went on:
'Public access is a minefield of legal complexity, a tortuous and archaic system beloved only by those who can turn its convoluted procedures and subtleties to their own advantage.'
'It is absurd that authorities are required to go through the same drawn-out bureaucratic process to correct small errors on the definitive map as they would have to follow to make significant alterations such as a path closure. It can take many years to process a rights of way claim, resulting in enormous cost and ongoing uncertainty for all. Even once fought and won, cases can be reopened and examined all over again – hardly a sensible use of resources.'
'Although local authorities have seen their budgets cut, the grand plan for an all-England coastal path, complete with 'spreading room', remains a key objective of Natural England.'
Greater emphasis should be placed on voluntary agreements and permissive access, say the CLA, and the system rebalanced to better meet the needs of landowners. Recommendations include (but are not limited to): much tighter terms and a much reduced timescale over which claims of right of way can be made; no further claims to be made after 2026; making it easier to divert footpaths; paths should be waymarked; footpath wardens or countryside rangers should ensure 'proper use' of public rights of way; the temporary or permanent closure of paths where persistent illegal or anti-social use occurs; and restrictions on path width.
In addition the CLA would 'support the withdrawal of the new [English] coastal access provisions and encourage proper recognition of existing coastal access or new access similar to that provided in Wales.' The CLA is particularly concerned about the provision of a 'coastal margin' which includes the right to climb, to the extent that they even imply this threatens a basic human right of landowners.
The immoderate tone of the report is striking. Taken as a whole the proposals would represent a seismic shift in access policy in England and Wales; but for whose benefit?
Groups that campaign for public access are unimpressed.
The BMC believes the report presents a partial and unrealistic view of access requirements. They point out that permissive access agreements are often short lived, are not protected by changing agricultural and management practises, are poorly maintained and could lead to further bad feeling between the recreational user and the landowner. They say the voluntary mechanisms advocated by the CLA, which theoretically allow greater access, have to date been ineffective in practice.
Catherine Flitcroft, BMC Access & Conservation Officer said:
'If Government were to accept many of the recommendations outlined in the report, the gap between the recreational user and the owner would be further widened. It would remove the legal protection of many of our footpaths, ancient highways and green spaces we currently rely on. How, when and where the public would be able to enjoy much of the countryside would be down to the will of the landowner'.
The CLA's proposals for coastal access draw particular criticism. The BMC point out that an integral part of Natural England's coastal access scheme is that landowners have the opportunity to walk the area in question and raise any concerns with the authorities prior to any agreements being put in place. They say experience of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 (CROW) suggests that fears at the time of a major surge in use were unwarranted, and that the majority of problems with increased public access were perceived rather than actual.
'Instead of a coastal margin, the CLA would have Government adopt the approach taken in Wales' says Cath Flitcroft. 'The Wales Coastal Path, by contrast, is simply what it says it is, a designated walking trail, mostly along existing Rights of Way. However, objections from landowners mean that in some places the Wales coast path turns inland to circumvent their property, sometimes by as much as two or three kilometers and does not provide for a right of access for those wishing to explore a coastal margin.'
'The BMC will oppose any attempts to undermine our access rights and will continue to lobby for the coastal access provisions to be rolled out in full around the whole of the English coast. In Wales, we will continue to lobby the Welsh Assembly Government to match suit and extend their scheme to include a margin of coastal land where users can practice there recreation in a quiet, responsible way.'
The Ramblers are equally dismissive, claiming the CLA's 'common sense approach to access in the countryside' is anything but.
Benedict Southworth, Ramblers Chief Executive, said:
'We reached agreement with the CLA on many of these issues two years ago as part of a working group set up to look at the future of rights of way and we are disappointed that this report reneges on many of those jointly agreed commitments. It's a shame that the CLA have chosen to make what looks like an opportunistic bid to keep close to the government, at the expense of everyone who loves the countryside.'
'With announcements expected any day now from government on reducing environmental 'red tape', and plans already unveiled this week about reducing farming regulation, we feel that this represents a further attack on our rights to walk in and enjoy the countryside.'
'At the moment there is a system which manages the fine balance between respecting the needs of the landowner against the enjoyment of those wishing to walk in the countryside. If these changes were implemented by the government that balance would be destroyed.'
'Walking is one of the most popular recreation activities in this country and the outcry over the forestry sales shows the level of feeling people have towards using and protecting their local green spaces. We shall resist any reduction in our ability to enjoy the great outdoors and so will all those who cherish this important part of our heritage.'
Perhaps the strongest words of opposition come from the Open Spaces Society, who accuse landowners of plotting a public path grab.
'The CLA wants landowners to have powers to move ancient highways when it suits them, away from farmyards, gardens or businesses' says Open Spaces Society general secretary Kate Ashbrook. 'There is no mention [in the report] that paths were there long before these modern activities. It's the activity which should accommodate the path, not the other way round.'
'Our paths have existed since time immemorial. Yet too many are abused by cropping, ploughing and obstruction, all too often by landowners and their tenants. The CLA is big on what the local councils and path users should do—signposting, waymarking, good behaviour, etc. It doesn't mention landowners' bad behaviour in blocking paths, planting crops on them, and intimidating users with big gates and CCTV cameras.'
'The CLA uses weasel words like "simplifying" and "modernising" the system. But most of their proposals cut the protection which the system provides to the users.'
'What we need is for landowners to respect public paths, and acknowledge that the paths were there first, and for government and local authorities to recognise the immense public, health and economic benefits of the path network and to invest in it, in the interests of all.'
Under the Government's Red Tape Challenge environmental regulation and planning are expected to be simplified - some say watered down.
What are the implications for walkers and climbers?
The traditional Conservative party of the shires is friendly to the interests of rural landowners; the modern party of business and the City shows great enthusiasm for free market deregulation. The CLA report seems to mirror Conservative thinking both old and new, indeed some of its recommendations match those of the review of farming regulations on which the Government commented earlier this week - making it easier to divert footpaths for instance, or ensuring that no further footpaths can be claimed after 2026. So how might the Government respond to the CLA's other calls? If the two strands of Conservative ideology were to find common hunting ground on the issue of public access in the countryside then the future for rights of way in England and Wales might be far from secure. Perhaps the fears voiced by access campaigners are well founded.