Environment, Food and Rural Affairs CommitteeFurther written evidence submitted by the Open Spaces Society

1. The Open Spaces Society, formally the Commons, Open Spaces and Footpaths Preservation Society, is Britain’s oldest national conservation body, founded in 1865. We campaign to create and conserve common land, town and village greens, open spaces and public paths, in town and country, throughout England and Wales.

Does the White Paper set out an accurate assessment of the barriers to public engagement with the natural environment and make the most effective proposals for re-engagement?

2. The White Paper is accurate as far as it goes. However, there are omissions.

3. It does not mention public paths as the most important means for people to gain access to the countryside. It is vital that these are well-marked, signposted and in good condition so that people can use and enjoy them. Public paths are an important part of our heritage and culture—indeed our history is written in the public paths across our landscape, the ways that people used day to day, to go to work, school or church.

4. The law and history of public paths should be taught in every school, so that people can not only be encouraged to use and enjoy them from a young age, but also to defend them. Highway authorities must have sufficient funding to carry out their statutory duties of protecting the path network for the public.

5. We are pleased with the pledge to implement the recommendations of the stakeholder group on unrecorded rights of way, which will streamline the processes for adding paths to the definitive map and ensure that historic ways are not loss—provided the necessary resources accompany this change in the law.

6. The White Paper does not mention coastal access, currently being delivered through the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009. This legislation will bring health and happiness to thousands of people. Yet so far the government has only committed to finalising the routes and access land for the pilot sites. We need an assurance that these will be completed for the whole English coastline within the next few years, otherwise England will lag behind Scotland and Wales in having inferior coastal access. Furthermore, coastal access will bring much-needed income for coastal communities so it is a worthwhile investment.

7. There is no mention of England’s 400,000 hectares of unique common land. This provides a wealth of public benefits, for wildlife, landscape, history, archaeology and public enjoyment: 88% of common land has a designation reflecting public benefit, and all commons have a public right of access. Defra needs to move swiftly to “roll out” nationally part 1 of the Commons Act 2006 which provides for updating of the commons registers and will allow addition of land which was wrongly omitted, thereby providing new access for walkers and horse-riders. At present part 1 has only been applied to seven pioneer commons registration authorities.

8. We are also concerned that Defra has removed funding for annual permissive access payments from Higher Level Stewardship. This is a retrograde step and will lead to a reduction in public access, yet public payments should of course secure greater public access.

26 September 2011

Prepared 16th July 2012