Backword from Westminster

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Our general secretary, Kate Ashbrook, reports on the latest backsliding from the Westminster government.

There is a north-country phrase ‘to give backword’. In a devastating move, environment secretary Thérèse Coffey has done just that, reversing last year’s decision by environment minister Richard Benyon to repeal the 2026 deadline for recording lost paths in England. Instead, she has delayed the cut-off by five years.

Mr Benyon decided to abandon the deadline because of lack of capacity in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra); he appreciated that the detail of implementing the cut-off is complex. Defra has no greater capacity now, but Ms Coffey does not care. This threatens the loss of countless historic paths for ever.

It’s not a problem in Wales where in 2019 ministers agreed to repeal the deadline.


The Westminster government, unlike the Welsh, is apathetic about public access, if not hostile. Witness its failure to provide any new access under the environmental land management scheme—another undertaking broken.

There has been no further word about the government’s January pledge, that everyone should live within a 15-minute walk of ‘green or blue space’, vital for the 21.5 million people who do not have that opportunity. To kick-start action, the Better Planning Coalition (BPC), which includes the society, is promoting an amendment to the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill in the house of lords.

This would require planning authorities to contribute to a new health and well-being objective by providing access on foot to essential facilities, and securing green space for public enjoyment.

Nor has government acted in response to the recommendations of the 2019 Glover review, for stronger protection of national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty (AONBs). Again, the BPC is doing the government’s work by promoting amendments to the Levelling Up Bill.


In Wales we have the visionary promise of a new national park, the Clwydian Range and Dee Valley—a stride forward. But what about AONB status for the precious but threatened Cambrian Mountains, rich in common land? Confirmation of this national park was snatched away 50 years ago without even a public inquiry because the Welsh secretary, Peter Thomas, caved in to landowner and local-authority objections to the Countryside Commission’s designation. AONB status now would go some way to redressing that sad mistake.

As the cost-of-living crisis bites, access to nature has never been more important. Let’s start near home. We have set out how local councils can use their powers on paths, commons, and open spaces to protect and promote the public interest. We can press those councils to act in defence of these vital local amenities—despite repeated backwords from Westminster.

Header image: Magda Vrabetz

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