How ministers squashed proposals to extend roaming rights in England | Access to green spaces

WRural activists have been invited to meet with government ministers and share “big creative ideas” for “structural and systemic changes” around Access to green spacesThey thought it might be too good to be true. Was the government listening, and were England’s old laws on access to the countryside about to change?

Last summer, groups representing more than 20 million people active outdoors, including hikers, boaters and mountaineers, were asked to speak to officials from the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Department of the Treasury to explain how people are being prevented from accessing green spaces due to trespass laws. and other barriers.

They were told that their responses would be compiled and included in a leading government review of access to green spaces. This would be led by the then Minister Lord Agnew.

After the meeting, several groups submitted carefully compiled reports, hoping the Agnew Commission would soon release its review as promised, including exciting proposals to allow people to enjoy England’s woodlands and waterways.

But this was not to be. Ben Sell, head of campaigns at British Canoeing, said: “After [the meeting] We didn’t hear anything. I wrote to Lord Agnew and Stephen Barclay [the then Treasury secretary]. Neither of them responded. I annoyed Devra and nothing really came back. Meeting notes were shared from the stakeholder call, but nothing ever materialized. Everything was quiet.”

A few months later, a spending review emerged from the Treasury, with great fanfare over proposed increases for green space. But for those who attended the meeting say that what was announced fell far short of what was discussed.

Sell ​​said: “Nearly £9m has been set aside for ‘pocket gardens’ and football grounds. This was a shocking reversal of the ambition that had been set for the committee. And then everything was gone.”

They were calling for Increase access to nature, as there is a right to wander in only more than 8% of the area of ​​England. Ninety-two percent is privately owned. The Rural and Rights of the Road Act 2000 gives statutory right of public access to mountains, swamps, uplands, some lowlands and commons, along with what has recently been created England Coast Path.

Activists have called for this to be expanded to include rivers, forests and greenbelt lands. Ninety-seven percent of the rivers are off-limits to the public, and tens of thousands of acres of forest have benefited from public support, yet they remain inaccessible to the public. There was hope that this committee could improve access to some of these green and blue spaces.

But the commission’s sudden rejection led many to believe that the government was placing the wishes of large landowners over the right of people to hikes and picnics in the countryside.

Green MP Carolyn Lucas asked the government twice to put Agnew’s review in the Library of Commons, and the government twice refused.

The Guardian has asked the government through its press offices and via Freedom of Information requests to see applications submitted for review – and it has declined, using Freedom of Information waivers to claim that researching the applications would take too much time and money.

Now, those who were invited to that meeting last year have written to the government asking to see the review they were a part of. The letter, seen by the Guardian, is signed by British firm Ramblers Canwing Mountaineering Council, Swimming England, and Open Space Association.

Kate Ashbrook, general secretary of the Open Space Association, said: “The Agnew commission was a huge disappointment. It had intended to make recommendations for a spending review that would bring about a ‘quantitative shift’ in access to outdoor spaces and nature, and it failed — but it keeps the details secret.”

Some organizations have passed their review requests to the Guardian. Their calls were far more ambitious than anything the government had announced so far.

A spokesperson for the Ramblers said its proposals “included setting ambitious goals to focus efforts where they are most needed, rewarding farmers for better access to the countryside under the new agricultural payments system, and more support for green roads in towns and cities.”

Other ideas from the Ramblers included new trails connecting towns and cities with local green spaces, and more legal access roads in the countryside.

Similarly, the British Mountaineering Council has asked the government to set itself goals to improve access to nature. Her submission says: “We need to make a major shift in thinking about Defra’s policy on targets, which unfortunately has so far failed to include any consideration of outdoor access.”

British Canoeing claimed the right to row and swim in England’s waterways, noting that barriers to activities in the water particularly affected people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, ethnic minorities, the disabled and women.

Its submission stated: “The lack of clarity in the law surrounding access to our waters in England and Wales represents an enormous disparity in the provision of access, which excludes millions of people from being more active outdoors, often.”

The activists pledged to continue to pressure the government to release the review and to respond to requests.

Guy Shrobsall, of Right to Roam Campaign said, “Why in the name of heaven have ministers squashed this Treasury-mandated review of access to the outdoors? Do they listen more to landowners than to reach groups and the public?”

“The government should publish the results of the Agnew review, and expand the public’s right to roam in forests, rivers and greenbelt lands.”

A government spokesperson said: “Access to the external committee’s findings has been incorporated into the spending review, which provides more than £30 million across government to improve public access to green space to support health, well-being and the environment.

“Local green spaces will also play an important role in the nature restoration network, enhancing access to nature close to where people live.

“From working to complete the England Coast Path, to investing in urban green space through the £9m Garden Settlement Trust, we continue to help connect people to the outdoors.”

It remains to be seen whether the constant pressure – and collective assaults He will pressure the government to release or take action on the review. or whether, like a The minister recently saidThe countryside will remain first and foremost a “place of work”.