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Our general secretary, Kate Ashbrook, criticises the Westminster government for its lack of action on public access.
At the end of February we still awaited action on access in the environmental land management scheme (ELMS). Defra officials are now seeking our views, but it doesn’t feel like the outcome will amount to much.
In December, the environment secretary, Thérèse Coffey, was quizzed by the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee. Barry Gardiner, Labour MP for Brent North, asked her whether the public-access element of ELMS had been dropped. She said ‘I haven’t seen quite that level of detail so I can’t give you a comment either way’. This despite the numerous promises made by ministers that access would be one of the public goods to be funded by ELMS.
Miss Coffey said he should wait for the ‘entire prospectus’ to be published in January. But that prospectus proved to be a disappointment, presumably because she never did bother with that level of detail. On money for access it says: ‘We are also exploring how we can pay for actions covering permissive access, managing existing access pressures on land and water [which means less access], and expanding education access’ (which is already being funded).
The total government spending on farming is £2.4 billion a year, and for more than six years we have been pressing in vain for more money out of this budget to be spent on new and better access. Now government has suddenly adopted a new pledge in its Environmental Improvement Plan, a five-year scheme to restore nature and to improve the environmental quality of air, water and land. The pledge is that everyone should live within a 15-minute walk of ‘green or blue space’.
Brilliant! But the fact is that 38 per cent of the population of England lives beyond the 15-minute range. The prospect that ministers who have repeatedly broken their promises for access under ELMS, and who have made it harder to register town and village greens, will magically place 21.5 million people close to green space within a half decade is incredible.
Government’s apathy, if not hostility, towards access is out of step with the times. The Dartmoor camping case has catalysed action for freedom to roam. Those involved may be vague about exactly what they seek, but the threat to camping and the eloquence of their message have captured the public’s imagination and caused the Labour Party to promise a right-to-roam act.
This gives us the welcome opportunity to work with sympathetic politicians, influence their manifestos and then, depending on the outcome of the next election, help them introduce measures which really will provide fair access, close to where people live.
Fortunately, many politicians, unlike Miss Coffey, know that access is far more than ‘a level of detail’.