A particular joy of my involvement with Ramblers GB has been the opportunity to go to the AGMs of Ramblers Scotland and Ramblers Cymru. Although I am no longer a member of the board of trustees, I was fortunate to attend both meetings this year.
Ramblers Scotland’s AGM had not been held in person since early March 2020, when it got in just before covid. This year the council met at the university of Stirling, to the north of the town. The campus is close to the Wallace Monument, and next to a sinuous lake. I was up early on a frosty March morning to walk around the lake and enjoy the views.
A little later, before proceedings started, I joined Ramblers GB chair Rebecca Dawson, and Inverness Young Walker and Scottish Ramblers ambassador, Louise Harker, to climb to the base of the Wallace Monument (which was not open).
The way to it on paths, as opposed to roads, is not obvious, but by using Ramblers Scotland’s Scottish paths map, about which I wrote last year, we crossed fields to the visitor centre.
From the top the view was expansive, towards the Trossachs and across the town.
We walked back through the woods, listening for bird song.
We returned to the university as people gathered from all parts of Scotland for the Scottish Council AGM. The business was conducted swiftly, efficiently, and with good nature by the convener, Alison Mitchell. We were sad to bid farewell to outgoing president Lucy Wallace, mountain leader and wildlife guide, who has been a brilliant advocate for Ramblers Scotland.
We welcomed our new president Zahrah Mahmood, who will introduce us to new audiences, and watched a video from her as she couldn’t be with us.
Alison was standing down as convener after decades of service to Ramblers Scotland and the board of trustees, and she was warmly thanked by all present. Rebecca gave her an engraved vase. Malcolm Dingwall-Smith was elected as the new convener. He is a great choice, having formerly worked for SportScotland. He has climbed 246 Munros.
Alison made a presentation to Alistair Cant, who last year was elected a vice-president after stepping down as treasurer after more than 25 years.
I was overjoyed and honoured to be elected as a vice-president, and hope I can be of some help with the many campaigns in which Ramblers Scotland is involved. I am in excellent company with Dennis Canavan, Alistair Cant, Ben Dolphin, John Holms, Andrew Murray, and Lucy Wallace.
At the lunch break we had time for a walk around the lake, and I took the opportunity to record a video.
It was lovely to walk with Iqra Mahood and Heather Thomson, young ambassadors for the Out There Award, and to learn of their experiences with Ramblers Scotland, discovering the outdoors and gaining confidence to walk and camp.
In the afternoon we had presentations and then discussions on a range of topics. It’s 20 years since the ground-breaking Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 gave us freedom to roam responsibly throughout Scotland, but that access is being threatened and eroded in places. We discussed how we can make politicians take action, and lobby for improvements.
Iqra and Heather gave us a lively talk about the Out There Award and what it meant to them. They explained the many barriers for young people to gain access to the outdoors, not least the cost of equipment and training to acquire skills, a family culture of not visiting the outdoors informally, and not knowing how to start. Out There had broken down these barriers. It was an eye-opener.
Finally, we had two presentations. One was from Gordon Millar, one of 300 volunteers working on Scotland’s path map—they are making excellent progress. The other was from Gary Linstead, Glasgow City Council ranger, who has helped volunteers to create the Magnificent 11, an 11-mile walk connecting Glasgow’s green spaces, with Catherine Watt of Glasgow Ramblers as the lynchpin. It was opened last year by Cameron McNeish.
There is so much happening in Scotland, and so much to campaign about—the protection and improvement of access; the need to reopen the Dalwhinnie level-crossing; the fight against the revived Coul Links golf course near Embo, and, vitally important, the ambition to enable young people everywhere to enjoy the outdoors.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) wants it both ways.
It is more than 12 months since the government agreed to scrap the 2026 deadline for recording historic paths in England—a hugely welcome announcement. However, that needs legislation, and path-user groups have been pressing environment ministers to get on with it. The Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill provides an opportunity. We suggested this and were told that it was probably too short notice to place amendments there.
But it was not too short notice to table amendments which defer the review of the access maps under the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 for another eight years, and absolve Natural England of any reviews thereafter. Defra has submitted these amendments at the end of the bill’s passage through parliament.
The access maps, which became conclusive in 2004 and 2005, should (by section 10 of the 2000 act) have been reviewed in 2014 and 2015, but ministers introduced two sets of regulations to defer this, so now the dates are 2024 and 2025. The law does not allow any further extension. Instead of doing the review, ministers propose (without consultation) that the law be changed.
If these amendments are passed, the first review need not be carried before the end of 2030, ie more than 25 years after the conclusive maps were published. Thereafter, Natural England is not required to carry out further reviews. While we had accepted that more time was needed, we never envisaged a delay of eight years. There are many additions to be made to the maps, for instance the commons which the Open Spaces Society is re-registering, and we also want the inclusion of more downland which was wrongly omitted first time round. Public access needs to be extended, not blocked.
And while the 2026 paths-guillotine remains on the statute book, it is at risk of being commenced. On 9 March, environment minister Trudy Harrison replied to a parliamentary question from Tim Loughton (Conservative MP for East Worthing and Shoreham) that ‘the 2006 cut-off date is currently under review’—which sounds ominous.
So it could be bad news for paths and for freedom to roam. We shall battle on.
Last Sunday’s Dadima’s Walk in the Chilterns was along the Ridgeway, between Lewknor and Watlington—and it was an intergenerational walk with a difference.
Geeta Ludhra, our leader, invited us to take photographs of nature which interested us, it was an encouragement to notice the small things around us.
Priya Ganatra gave a brief talk on the benefits of aromatherapy. She volunteers for Spread a Smile, a charity which brings joy and laughter to children in hospital, and their families, and her aromatherapy gives comfort and relief. Priya passed round aromatic sticks, and we had to guess the oil. She asked us to describe the smell and people volunteered ‘woody’ and ‘furry’. It was juniper, which grows on the hills around. The smell was an invigorating, bright start to the walk.
We walked through the woods and stopped to take photos, of leaves, branches, lichen, sunlight through trees, berries, mosses or wider views, the children eager to join in.
I enjoyed chatting to new friends; I always learn so much on these walks. I took photos of trees and ivy.
I sent ‘old hedgerow’ to Geeta: Old hedgerow is the remnant of the old hedgerow bordering this ancient track. The ivy grows on the tree trunks and they are symbiotic, just as we all depend on each other, our friendship and camaraderie; and as we depend on nature, so nature needs us to respect and appreciate it.
I also sent her this view to the escarpment.
Freedom of the hills: looking over the cultivated land to the Chiltern escarpment, where we have fought for freedom to roam responsibly, and achieved it to some extent—but there is more to be won, so it gives a feeling of hope.
We walked down to the Spire and Spoke pub on the edge of Watlington and sat in the tepee. Geeta and Subash generously bought us all drinks, and we watched the red kites flying low over the field behind.
Then we retraced our steps, stopping at the Ridgeway sign for a photo.
We took more photos on the way back.
When we returned, Geeta reminded us to send her two or three of our best photos with a story of what interested us about them. There would be an award for the best. But, as bright young Arjun said, it’s not the award that matters, it’s the fun.
On a glorious February day, volunteers returned to Common Wood to make a better habitat for butterflies.
We were fortunate to have with us not only six from the dedicated Dartmoor Preservation Association team, but ten students and two lecturers (Fiona Fraser and Jen Rolfe) in occupational therapy from Plymouth University. Our maestro, Derek Collins, brought the ‘Happy Wagon’ (the DPA vehicle, registration APY), to the Hillbridge farm gate to provide us all with tools and red hats if needed, and then returned later to collect them.
For the students this was a day out to experience volunteering, and to think about the effect of a day in the outdoors on their own well-being, and that of others.
We set off along the leat in spring sunshine.
We crossed the leat and climbed up the slope a short way. Unfortunately, Jenny Plackett of Butterfly Conservation couldn’t be with us, but our leader Sylvia Hamilton explained what we needed to do. We were to clear gorse and bramble to create a warm, sunny slope for Pearl-bordered and Small Pearl-bordered Fritillaries to breed.
We began by pulling out fairly small pieces of gorse, to get our eye in.
Claude Williams did some useful strimming to make paths through the vegetation. This made it easier for us then to move along the slope and tackle some of the bigger gorse and take it down to the windrow, or natural hedge, which we had created along the leat. We had been on this stretch before but not for some years—and keeping Common Wood in order is like painting the Forth Bridge.
The students got through a lot of work, as well as chatting happily. Soon large piles of gorse were appearing, to be dragged down to the windrow.
John Viant likes to have a chunky task, so Sylvia asked him to remove a particularly large gorse bush. He achieved it in no time.
We stopped for lunch by the tree we had designated as base camp.
It gave us a little time to admire the view.
We were soon back at work. Jodie and Mosa determined to remove a really large gorse bush. It took them some time but they kept at it with vigour. Ben helped them pull it out.
We bagged up the rest of the gorse and threw it onto the windrow.
Then it was time to head back to the farm.
The students told us how much they had enjoyed the day. They were pleased to get away from their desks and experience volunteering, and feel the nurturing effect of exercise outdoors. They made a big difference at Common Wood, clearing a mass of gorse. Everyone benefits—the volunteers, grazing ponies, walkers and, of course, the butterflies.
Michael Dower, an important figure in British and European rural policy, died last November aged 88. His friend and colleague, Adrian Phillips, wrote an obituary for The Times but sadly it was not published due to ‘a lot of competition for space around Christmas’. Adrian has kindly agreed that I can publish the obituary here. Adrian was, among much else, Director General of the Countryside Commission from 1981 to 1992.
Being born into a family whose name is associated in the public mind with formidable intellect and high moral values can be an intimidating start in life. Michael Dower had to contend with this on both sides. He was the grandson of the Labour Education Minister, Sir Charles Trevelyan MP, whose daughter Pauline was a committed campaigner for national parks; and the son of John Dower, the author of the post-war blueprint for national parks in England and Wales. Michael, who died on 7 November 2022 just short of his 89th birthday, met this double challenge. His Dower and Trevelyan ancestors would have been proud of his achievements as one of the most important actors in shaping British countryside and rural policy over many years, and with a big influence in Europe later in life.
He had to be kept apart from his father as a child because John Dower suffered—and eventually died—from TB. But Michael got to know the Trevelyan family home at Wallington well, and enjoyed the austere delights of the Northumberland countryside around. This, and his parents’ values, helped shape his career.
All through his working life, there were both intellectual and practical threads. Thus, with university and national service behind him (his chief memory of the latter was rescuing people and cows from the East Coast floods of 1953), Michael first made a name for himself nationally at the Civic Trust, organising working parties of young people to demolish wartime eyesores and thus pioneering what we now know as conservation volunteers. It was at one of their camps that he met his wife, Agnes (Nan) Done. In 1967, he wrote Fourth Wave, a report on the wave of car-borne leisure, which was seen as a threat to landowning interests and traditional hiking and hostelling. Michael argued that the pressures unleashed by a newly-mobile urban population would destroy the very countryside people had come to see: this line of thinking led to the 1968 Countryside Act, with its focus on country parks as honeypots to draw the crowds away from more sensitive places.
Michael, Nan and their three small boys moved to Devon in 1967, when he set up the Dartington Amenity Research Trust. DART was a rural think tank with a reputation for quality, timeliness and value for money. Its most important client was a government body, the Countryside Commission: so good was DART, that the commission struggled to avoid giving it all the contracts. However, writing reports did not satisfy Michael’s wish to do practical conservation work. He alighted on a long-forgotten place on the River Tamar called Morwellham (emphasis should be placed, Michael insisted, on the last syllable) that had once been an important port to serve local copper mines. He developed it into a pioneer of tourism based on industrial archaeology: it is now part of a World Heritage site.
It was at DART that Michael realised that he was more than countryside protector. He certainly believed in protecting wildlife, the landscape and the history and archaeology within it, but he was equally committed to supporting the rural economy and rural communities. He advocated ‘sustainable rural development’ long before those ponderous words became fashionable. His synoptic view of the countryside was an intellectual standard he applied to all his work. He was the last man to want to labour in a silo.
Given his parents’ interests, it was no surprise that Michael would want to enter the national park world at some point. The opportunity arose in 1985 when he was appointed as the national park officer at the Peak District, England’s first national park. At that time, there were signs around Bakewell saying: ‘Abolish the Peak Park’. Michael relished this challenge. He got alongside the malcontents and listened to their complaints. Within two years, half the park’s farmers were benefitting from a pioneering grant scheme for environmental care, and the park’s rangers were being deployed to help farmers and visitors resolve their differences.
His synoptic approach went beyond farming. He encouraged small businesses to market goods as made in the park; created a showcase for Peak District artists that flourishes to this day; set up a Peak Park Trust to revitalise derelict historic buildings; and supported affordable housing for local people. Truly Michael was ‘Mr Peak Park’.
He moved from local to national in 1992, taking over as Director General of the Countryside Commission, which was based in Cheltenham in John Dower House (which had been named for his father). He was now able to deploy his approach at an England-wide scale. The annual reports of the commission of that time are full of accounts of innovative schemes, from the National Forest in the English Midlands to pioneer work on agri-environmental projects. Perhaps it was all too much for Whitehall: a few years after Michael’s time, the commission was rebranded as the Countryside Agency and then largely swallowed up in Natural England. It is hard to imagine any government these days being ready to give an agency the independence to operate in the way the Countryside Commission did under Michael and his predecessors.
Tall, impressively clever, quick minded and fearless, he led both the park and the commission from the front. He demanded a lot of others but even more of himself. He was gifted as a communicator, expressing himself orally with great clarity, and having an unusual ability to synthesise ideas during a conference; and in writing too, he rarely needed to do a second draft as it all came out first time in neatly organised paragraphs. So, he should have been a gift to bureaucracies, but he did not suffer fools and could be impatient with the workings of local and national government, leading to confrontations with politicians at both levels. In the last few months of his life, he recalled a row with the then environment minister, Michael Howard, who, he felt, had shown indifference to the exciting opportunities offered by the National Forest scheme. Michael could be irked when confronted by those he felt did not share his enthusiasms.
Well into his sixties, he left the commission in 1996 and embarked on what he called his ‘first retirement job’. Based at the University of Gloucestershire, his canvas now was rural Europe. Though no great linguist, his force of personality, a skill in finding common ground among divergent views, and a sense of fun (a quality that can transcend generational, language and national divides) made him a very effective designer and leader of several Europe-wide NGO rural initiatives. His energy seemed endless, though as a tall man he hated the cramped seating in aircraft and returned exhausted from his European forays which took him as far afield as Ukraine and Georgia. His reward was not only a number of European alliances dedicated to the welfare of rural communities and the environment, but a bunch of ardent admirers from every corner of the continent, most of whom were less than half his age. A Belgian friend and colleague called him ‘an Englishman for Europe, a believer in European democracy, cohesion, integration, cooperation, and volunteering’. Michael loathed Brexit and felt that much of his work was damaged by it.
He took up his second retirement job about ten years ago when he and Nan move to the small Dorset town of Beaminster. Restless for action, he soon became known around town for his love of trees and woodland and for organising schoolchildren and volunteers to plant and care for them. But he was still drawn to the big picture, campaigning for a Dorset National Park and helping to found the Dorset Climate Action Network: its members described him in an on-line tribute as ‘demanding but very generous … a little frightening but marvellously warm’. He was still giving guidance to this group from his hospital bed days before he died.
Michael’s formidable career was made possible by two things. He could always take refuge in painting landscape and flowers, and in creating strange and enchanting artefacts from pieces of wood or flotsam that he found. But mostly he was sustained by the love, patience and cooking of Nan. Because he threw himself into work with an all-encompassing passion, she sometimes had to carry more of the family burden than is right. Only her Yorkshire-born strength made that possible. Her reward was a lifetime with a man of exceptional gifts and seeing their three sons achieve success: John as a film director, Dan as a jeweller, Alex as an actor.
Colleagues will remember Michael Dower not only for his daunting intellect but for singing all the verses of On Ilkla Moor Baht’at with gusto, coming out with (painful) puns in meetings and offering limericks (of varying quality) to conference audiences in need of cheering up. Friends will remember his loyalty and his home-made Christmas cards, each with an individual message and a pressed leaf chosen for its autumn colours.
It is always good to visit my bird haunts with the Bucks Bird Club, and the trip to Little Marlow gravel pit on 5 February was no exception. Our leader was Adam Bassett who frequents the pit and knows what to look for where.
Although we did not see a great deal I learnt a lot. He told us where he sees tree creepers, water rail, and snipe for instance. He is an expert on gulls, visiting the roost here regularly, and was hoping to see a wide range of gulls, but we had to be content with black-headed and common.
The heronry on the far bank is one of the largest in Buckinghamshire.
The herons and cormorants were already nesting.
Many cormorants showed the white breeding patch
A sparrowhawk flew overhead. On the spit there were lapwings and a dozing buzzard. At the slightest disturbance the lapwings flew up.
We walked round to Little Marlow. Just south of the church we had a chance sighting of a kingfisher, a highlight for me and my first this year.
A flock of linnets flew from the birches overhead. Adam said there were redpolls among them but they were too quick for me to distinguish them.
We came back over the fields, enjoying skylarks and linnets, and returned to the lake which was tranquil.
On my next visit I shall look out for the birds in the places suggested by Adam. It is always a pleasure to go there.
Twenty years ago today, 10 February 2003, I donned a hard hat and, wielding bolt-cutters, sliced through the heavy chain which fastened the gates obstructing Framfield footpath 9 in East Sussex. Beyond, a JCB was moving in to demolish the barn and shift the refrigeration units which also blocked the path. It was a blow for freedom.
This was the infamous footpath where the landowner, Nicholas van Hoogstraten, called Ramblers ‘riff-raff’ and ‘scum of the earth’.
The opportunity for the high-profile reopening of the path followed a five-year campaign and at least 13 years of obstruction. First the Ramblers, and then I, prosecuted the offending company, Rarebargain, for illegal obstruction of the footpath. I repeatedly returned to the Lewes magistrates’ court and Rarebargain was found guilty and ordered to pay a total of £93,250 (which was never paid).
Meanwhile, East Sussex County Council (ESCC) tried to move the path rather than the obstructions, making a diversion order to which there were 2,000 objections. When Rarebargain did not remove the obstructions, I took ESCC to the high court and then the court of appeal, for diverting a blocked path instead of opening it. Even after I had won the case, ESCC had no intention of removing the obstructions, but fortunately the land went into liquidation. The liquidator agreed to open the path and allowed the Ramblers to lend a hand. The detailed story is here.
The Hoogstraten affair was wonderful for the Ramblers’ profile, fund-raising, and membership figures—yet there are hundreds of Hoogstratens still at large. They are less blatant, but they are stealing our paths, putting up barriers, and making us feel unwelcome.
Landowners buy properties and erect imposing gates and CCTV cameras, intimidating walkers. Cross-field paths are not reinstated, and headland paths are destroyed, so people don’t have the confidence of knowing where to go. Countless stiles are obstructions because they are impossible for the elderly or infirm. There is overgrowth and undergrowth hiding the paths. Highway authorities with reduced funding have ever-increasing backlogs.
Ramblers Cymru reckons that about half the paths in Wales are blocked or difficult to use. Thirty per cent of Anglesey‘s paths are said to be unusable. So much more could be done, not least by funding public access through the Environmental Land Management Scheme in England, and the Sustainable Farming Scheme in Wales, with effective cross-compliance so that grants are withdrawn if any public right of way on the applicant’s land is not in good order. The public should not pay for law-breaking. But none of this is yet happening.
Battles still rage in the countryside, not least over backpack camping on Dartmoor which is catalysing a new movement for greater rights to roam. Twenty years on Framfield footpath 9 is, as far as I know, still open and easy to use, a testament to a great campaign. But it takes constant lobbying, problem reports, self-help, and legal action to protect our rights and to create new ones. We can never let up.
‘Rivers are agents of change’, earth scientist Anjana Khatwa told us as we set off on Dadima’s walk on 29 January, to explore the Thames between Hambleden Lock and Henley-on-Thames. This was one of Geeta Ludhra’s inter-generational, multi-cultured, story-telling walks, in partnership with the Open University.
‘Rivers carry sediments, clay and pebbles; they travel across landscapes moving minerals; they meander finding the easiest course; where there are obstacles they change direction’, Anjana explained before making the parallel with our lives: we too have overwhelming moments and then settle to a balance.
Anjana comes from the Dorset Jurassic coast where the sea bashes the rocks and great chunks tumble into the sea. Today would be a different experience.
We started in the car park at Mill End in Bucks, and crossed the Thames at Hambleden lock where the water boiled noisily,
and then continued upstream alongside the peaceful river.
We stopped and Marcus Badger, lecturer in earth science, told us about the Thames’s predecessor rivers. Five hundred thousand years ago we would not have been by the Thames. The Ancestral Thames flowed to the north and met the sea at Clacton in Essex. The Bytham flowed through Warwick and Coventry into the Wash. The Ancestral Thames was pushed south by an ice sheet 450 thousand years ago. We know this because of the gravels still to be found on the old line of the rivers.
I talked about the 184-mile-long Thames Path National Trail, which we were now walking; the campaign for this was spearheaded by David Sharp, and it became a national trail in 1996.
We continued along the Thames, past the stretch where the landowner erected fencing a few years ago, meanly narrowed the path. This makes it difficult for a group to negotiate and allow room for people coming the other way.
We stopped near the Upper Thames Rowing Club for the traditional food and drink, a great feature of Dadima’s walks. I can never believe how capacious the Ludhras’ rucksacks must be as thermoses, cups, and cake boxes emerge.
After walking a short way up Remenham Lane we turned off through woods to the edge of a big field where the farmer has left a nice wide path. As we looked over the valley of the Thames, Clare Warren, professor of metamorphic geology, told us about the minerals carried by rivers. For instance, those which rise high in the Himalayas, where the rocks contains micas, release arsenic, as was found to people’s cost when wells were dug downstream in Bangladesh and Pakistan. Fortunately the Thames rises in limestone.
We climbed to the top of the rise and stopped at the seat in memory of David Bounds, which I had unveiled with David’s colleague Dave Ramm in 2021. I spoke of David’s lovely walks guides; the walk we were doing that day was number 20 in his Rambling for Pleasure along the Thames.
We descended to Aston, passing Highway Cottage, former home of the late Lord Hunt of Everest, president of the Campaign for National Parks and a friend of mine.
We returned to the river and stopped opposite Hambleden Place, where Yoseph Araya, plant ecologist, told us of his homeland, Eritrea, on the Red Sea coast. Here dried riverbeds provide transport routes but one has to take care because flash floods can occur in a matter of minutes, washing away people and livestock. He showed us a photo of the River Barka in the dry season.
Yoseph said that flooding is good because it brings sediments; the frozen floodwater keeps the ground beneath warm so plants survive the winter. He held up a plate made from the doum palm and filled it with a mixture of roast wheat and peanuts, called kolo, which we all enjoyed.
Anjana then rounded off the walk, bringing us back to the beginning. We had seen today how rivers are creative and destructive, but through destruction there is opportunity. The two must be in balance, and we need to find that balance within ourselves, and align with nature so that we understand it.
We returned beside the tranquil river to Hambleden Mill, where the water still rushed and roared. I felt refreshed from a morning outdoors with friends. Dadima’s walks are the most welcoming ever.
More detail of this walk is on the Open University blog here.
After a busy week it was a delight to wander around the RPSB reserve at Otmoor on a grey Saturday. There were few people, and not many birds, but even so I was able to boost my rather pathetic year list.
Everything was quiet until I reached the oak trees near the hide, which were noisy with linnets.
Reed buntings were perching in the hedgerows.
Alongside the hide, a mass of reed buntings, linnets, dunnock, and chaffinches was feeding on seed which had been thrown down. At the slightest disturbance they all flew up, hung about in the nearby trees, then cautiously returned.
They were watched by a kestrel.
At the first screen there are usually lots of ducks. Today, far out on the melting ice, there were only some snipe.
On the way to the second screen I saw my first bullfinches, and my first golden plover feeding with lapwing.
At the second screen there were a few more birds: a couple of swans, and some mallard, gadwall and tufted duck. And then a male hen harrier made a brief appearance, and a buzzard perched on the telegraph pole.
I did in fact clock up 31 species, eight of them firsts for the year. Good old Otmoor, always worth a visit.
Last month the environment secretary, Thérèse Coffey, was quizzed by the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee on the environmental land management scheme (ELMS) for post-Brexit farm-payments. Ministers have repeatedly promised that these schemes will include payments for new and improved public access. Ms Coffey’s messages to the EFRA committee, when questioned by MP Barry Gardiner on 6 December, were that access was a level of detail which she had not yet seen, and that she was saving her answers for the prospectus to be published in January.
That 100+-page prospectus was published on 26 January, and there is precious little about public access, presumably because Ms Coffey never did bother with that level of detail. Under the heading ‘Access and Engagement’ the prospectus sets out ‘What we will pay for’. It lists the items which it already pays for under countryside stewardship, the woodland creation offer, and the Farming in Protected Landscapes scheme (which only runs to March 2024). Finally we reach a miserable last paragraph: ‘We are also exploring how we can pay for actions covering permissive access, managing existing access pressures on land and water, expanding education access beyond groups of school pupils and care farming visitors.’
So out of a farming budget of £2.4 billion the public is thrown the crumb of some possible permissive access, alongside money for managing existing access pressures (ie restrictions). And where is the new access for which user groups have been pressing for the last six years, and which has been promised by ministers? This is not public money for public goods.
User groups proposed that money should be paid to improve existing routes, by leaving cross-field paths unploughed, and mowing headlands for instance; to create paths where they are needed, to avoid busy roads or provide circuits; and to provide legal means of reaching ‘islands’ of access land. Natural England could assess local need and act as a broker. There is no hint of such suggestions in the document.
User groups tried to get a legal target for access in the Environment Act 2021, with an amendment from Baroness Scott during the Lords committee stage in June 2021, but ministers fobbed her off with a claim that such a target could not be objectively measured. It would, of course, have enabled us to hold ministers to account.
The Dartmoor camping furore has demonstrated how much the public wants more access. We know that money is tight, but there is plenty in the farming budget to be spent on public goods. Access is an essential good for everyone. It’s time Ms Coffey turned her attention to what she dismissed as a ‘level of detail’, honoured past promises, and gave us the access improvements we all need.