For the first time in public Michael Gove, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, has acknowledged that public access is a public good. He was speaking at the Oxford Farming Conference last Thursday (4 January) on Farming for the Next Generation.
Those words were not in the prospective speech which was released on Thursday morning. However, when he spoke, he added the words ‘so public access is a public good’ to the end of the section about access as a part of the post-Brexit payment scheme.
Mr Gove said that I want to develop a new method of providing financial support for farmers which moves away from subsidies for inefficiency to public money for public goods and I want to ensure that we build natural capital thinking into our approach towards land use and management so we develop a truly sustainable future for our countryside.
And what he said about access was:
Public access I know can be contentious and I won’t get into the weeds of the debate on rights of way now. But the more the public, and especially schoolchildren, get to visit, understand and appreciate our countryside the more I believe they will appreciate, support and champion our farmers. Open Farm Sunday and other great initiatives like it help reconnect urban dwellers with the earth. And they also help secure consent for investment in the countryside as well as support for British produce. So public access is a public good.
We know he believes that schoolchildren should have the opportunity to visit the countryside; he spoke about that last July in answer to questions. But now he is talking about the public generally so government thinking is moving on. And he even said I am moved by the beauty of our natural landscapes, feel a sense of awe and wonder at the richness and abundance of creation …
The user groups (walkers, horse-riders and cyclists) are developing ideas for access post-Brexit. Farmers should be rewarded for providing new access where people need it, and improving existing arrangements. Not only could there be new definitive paths and dedicated access land and village greens, but we could see existing paths maintained to a higher standard, with wide headlands and fewer stiles. There could be more ways of getting on to access land, and they could be properly publicised.
There must also be a proper system of cross-compliance, with an efficient mechanism for ensuring that farmers who receive public money respect any rights of way across their land, with penalties for those who infringe the law.
The prospects are exciting, and Mr Gove has opened the door for further discussion—provided that he survives today’s cabinet reshuffle. I hope he does.