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‘We must make sure post-Brexit agricultural payments are used to improve public access and the landscape, so that places like the South Downs National Park will benefit.’
So said our general secretary Kate Ashbrook at the rally to celebrate the seventh anniversary of the South Downs National Park, in Midhurst, West Sussex on Saturday 15 April.
‘Public money must be spent on public goods’ Kate continued, ‘and that means improving our enjoyment of the countryside, by better paths and more access land, and restoring the downs and heaths for people and wildlife.
‘The public-path network is at risk of neglect and deterioration from lack of funding, as the county councils have other priorities even in the national park. We have seen local authorities threatening to sell off their precious downland—Worthing Borough Council, then Eastbourne and Brighton. Fortunately they backed down in the face of public pressure, but not before Brighton sold some land. And the future of these downlands is still uncertain.
‘We call for an agricultural-payments scheme post-Brexit which benefits both landowners and users of paths and access land. The basic elements are as follows.
- Payments for new access, either along defined paths or as freedom to roam, or both. It must be well publicised, and targeted where people want it, and ideally it should be permanent.
- Rewards for enhancing existing access, for instance by making wider paths, removing stiles and gates, and providing additional access-points to access land.
- More effective enforcement when farmers and landowners block, plough or crop paths, with an efficient, swift procedure to dock the agricultural payments when the law is flouted.
‘There should be incentives for the recreation or restoration of down and heathland, for their beauty, wildlife and opportunities for public enjoyment. Eventually this land may be mapped as access land under the Countryside and Rights of Way Act, giving us the right to walk there.
‘We are delighted that the South Downs National Park has Heritage Lottery Funding to restore and reunite areas of heathland, but we believe that this kind of work should be funded from the post-Brexit agri-environment package because it gives public benefit.
‘All this chimes with Natural England’s conservation strategy for the 21st century, Conservation 21, which sets out ‘how Natural England will work to protect England’s nature and landscapes for people to enjoy’. We trust Natural England will join us in calling for an effective payment-scheme which improves public enjoyment.
‘And where better to start this new scheme than in the South Downs National Park, which is close to where millions of people live and which is such a popular destination for those seeking quiet recreation?
‘The Open Spaces Society will argue for a bright future for our enjoyment of the South Downs National Park.’