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Our general secretary, Kate Ashbrook, writes of the need to get tough in these times of austerity.
In September I spoke to the Gower Society, as part of its 75th anniversary celebrations. The society played an important role in securing Gower as the first area of outstanding natural beauty (AONB) in 1956. And on its inception in 1948 it had joined the OSS. We still share our aims.
Those were heady days when the post-war government appreciated our environment, and got things done. The National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949 (‘the People’s Charter’), whose 75th anniversary we celebrate next year, was ground-breaking, giving us national parks, AONBs, definitive maps of rights of way, and much more. Good things flowed in a time of austerity.
We have austerity today, but there aren’t too many of the good things. True, the Westminster government has at last conceded a long-overdue amendment in the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill by placing a duty on public bodies to further national park purposes (thanks to tireless lobbying by the Campaign for National Parks). This replaces the useless requirement merely to ‘have regard to’ park purposes.
It is encouraging too that government has lost votes on the bill in the house of lords; for instance its attack on democracy and public involvement in planning has been reversed. But overall, the outlook is bleak—and time for us to toughen up.
Public paths and open spaces suffer when local authorities are starved of resources. We shall hit them with legal notices to force action, taking them to court if necessary, to show that they must prioritise spending on paths and access, which are so crucial to people’s health and well-being.
The society believes in legal action. Our intervention in the Dartmoor backpack-camping case was effective, although the matter may yet go to the supreme court. It sparked a wider debate about freedom to roam which means that we must be ready for a change of government.
We need more access close to home, to help those without the means, confidence, or ability to reach the natural environment. Legal access to woodlands and watersides, and on water would be admirable. Developers must be mandated to register spaces as town and village greens, to guarantee local people’s rights there and protect them for ever.
Public paths, the most important means of gaining access to the outdoors, must be properly recorded, protected, and maintained. A new government must repeal the cut-off for historic-path claims; use agricultural money for new access; and provide enough funds to get our rights of way fully open and usable—among much else. This is vital for levelling-up—and a fitting way to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the People’s Charter.