On 14 September, Lord Blencathra (David Maclean), deputy chair of Natural England, opened the National Land Access Centre at the Aston Rowant National Nature Reserve in Oxfordshire. Natural England tends to focus far more on its biodiversity role than its access one, so it was a very welcome speech indeed. However, only a short extract has been posted on the government website. Here it is in full.
John Howell Member of Parliament. Ladies and gentlemen.
I’m honoured to be asked to participate in the opening of this unique facility today – the first of its kind in the UK.
So why are we here?
Natural England research shows that there are around 519 million visits to paths, cycleways and bridleways in England each year.
However, mobility issues can be a major barrier to people heading to the countryside. Over 20 per cent of England’s population cannot use public rights of way, either because they cannot use stiles or kissing-gates themselves, or they are accompanying someone who can’t.
So we decided to do something about it and this project is the culmination of many years of partnership working and determination to ensure that our countryside can rightfully be enjoyed by everyone.
I am delighted to see our partners in the project alongside Natural England represented here today—The British Horse Society, Centrewire and the Pittecroft Trust and I thank them for their work.
Natural England has been working with the British Horse Society to improve the design of self-closing gates for a number of years following complaints that many were not safe and were reducing access to the countryside. We took the opportunity to widen this work to include all user groups, including those who were less able, as part of our Equality Duty under the Equality Act 2010.
The partnership undertook a ‘Trial of Self-Closing Bridlegates’ in 2015. This involved live testing of ten gates incorporating different design features by approximately 150 people, including horse-riders, disabled users, cyclists, walkers and landowners to find design features that made the gates easy and safe to use.
This new National Land Access Centre has been designed by access specialists to offer a secure environment to test gates and other access infrastructure meeting the new British Standard for Gaps, Gates and Stiles. This seeks to ensure use of ‘the least restrictive option,’ aimed at opening up the countryside to all, inclusive of walkers, cyclists, horse riders, mobility vehicles, wheelchairs and push chairs.
Fencing, gates, stiles are all part of the British countryside but not all existing barriers are necessary. Many that are necessary could improve access eg by tying a gate open if livestock are not in the field.
However gates, kissing-gates and self-closing gates are necessary and we would like landowners to install these new ones when they are replacing old ones so that the countryside can be enjoyed by all, not just the able bodied.
Every time a new structure like those you will see today is installed it has the potential to change lives for the better.
But we say that there is an obligation on users too.
The Bridlegate Report recommended that horse riders should be trained on the use of gates. It also recognised that there was a lack of understanding of ‘access furniture’ which needed to be addressed, and that organisations should work together to spread information about the revised standard.
Training courses will be available to try out designs, hear about construction and maintenance; see, touch and test real examples in situ to find out how they can provide improved access for all, and identify the most appropriate for their needs.
From what I have seen today I hope the team will come to the House of Lords and install easy opening doors since wheelchair users have awful problems there.
The launch today marks the sixtieth anniversary of Aston Rowant national nature reserve which itself was made accessible to all in the 1990s.
One of the five statutory duties of Natural England is to promote access to the countryside.
Improved access will help to connect more people with their natural environment, giving them a chance to enjoy our countryside and improving mental health and well-being —all key aspects of the Government’s 25-year Environment Plan.
I am delighted that Natural England has played a key role in the partnership responsible for developing the National Land Access Centre, and I congratulate our Natural England staff and all our partners and everyone involved in this excellent initiative which I now launch.
Thank you, Lord Blencathra, for those welcome words. I hope we can work with Natural England to ensure that the Agriculture Bill really does encourage more access to the countryside, and ensure that farmers and landowners comply with their legal responsibilities on paths and access land.