Agriculture Bill

Written evidence submitted by the Ramblers (AB27)

1. Executive summary

1.1 The Ramblers is Britain’s largest walking charity, with over 100,000 members. Agriculture is the primary land use in the UK and this land contains a majority of the nation’s paths. The Bill will therefore set the agenda for our countryside, and those seeking to enjoy the outdoors. Our ambition is for an Agriculture Bill that delivers:

a. A public rights of way network that is enhanced, through improvements or additional routes, where these are in the public interest and needed most; and

b. A public rights of way network that is better maintained.

1.2 The Bill is a positive step towards a system that delivers on the principles of public money for public goods, and we welcome the Bill’s inclusion of public access as a public good. However, the Bill needs to be strengthened if it is to protect and enhance public access to the countryside in practice. We would like to see the Bill strengthened through three amendments:

a. Duties not just powers - Clause 1 (1). The Bill currently includes a range of powers relating to public goods, but no responsibilities. We believe a new clause should be inserted to give the Secretary of State explicit duties to establish a framework for the delivery of public goods.

b. Enhancing public access – Clause 1 (1) (b). The Bill gives the Secretary of State the power to provide financial assistance in connection with supporting public access. We believe the Bill should be amended to make explicit reference to enhancing public access.

c. Establishing a regulatory baseline Clause 2 (2). The Bill should include a provision for ministers to establish a ‘regulatory baseline’ of minimum standards that are expected of farmers and landowners who receive public funds. Meeting these standards - including existing duties to maintain public rights of way - should be a condition of receiving financial assistance for the purposes outlined in Clause 1.

2. Introduction

2.1 As Britain’s largest walking charity, with over 100,000 members, the Ramblers helps everyone to enjoy the outdoors on foot. We support Britain’s nine million walkers by protecting and expanding access to the places people love to walk – whether that’s along the public rights of way network, in towns and cities or on open access land like mountains, moors and heaths. Our 26,500 volunteers play a significant role in making this possible: from leading walks and clearing paths, to organising local campaigns to protect and promote local routes.

2.2 We recognise that agricultural production is one of the most important activities taking place in the countryside and that farmers work hard to make sure their businesses succeed while delivering wider benefits for society, the environment and the economy. The Agriculture Bill will therefore need to ensure the stability and future success of the farming industry. It must however be remembered that the impacts of the Bill will be felt far more widely. Agriculture is the primary land use in the UK [1] and this land contains a majority of the nation’s paths. The Bill will therefore set the agenda for our countryside, and all those seeking to enjoy the outdoors.

3. The Ramblers’ aspirations for public access in the Agriculture Bill

3.1 The public rights of way network in England and Wales extends to some 140,000 miles. It is one of the primary means by which the public can enjoy free access to the outdoors and is a national asset delivering a range of benefits for society, for our health and wellbeing, for the environment and for rural economies. It helps connect people with nature and improves their understanding and support for the nation’s farming industry.

3.2 However there are significant gaps in the network and barriers for those less physically able. Our own data [2] also indicates that there are places where the existing network is poorly maintained and, in places, impassable. This means that accessing the countryside is often far from guaranteed.

3.3 It is therefore our ambition that the Agriculture Bill will help address these issues. Doing so requires the Bill to secure the following outcomes:

a. A public rights of way network that is enhanced, through improvements or additional routes, where these are in the public interest and needed most; and

b. A public rights of way network that is better maintained.

3.4 The reference in the Bill to payments for public goods, including public access, is a step in the right direction in securing outcome (a). However, amendments (see sections 4 – 6, below) are needed to strengthen the Bill and ensure it really does protect and enhance public access to the countryside for generations to come.

4. Strengthening the Agriculture Bill: Duties not just powers

Context

4.1 The Bill is a positive step towards a system that delivers on the principles of public money for public goods, and away from direct payments based on land ownership. Public goods are not provided by the market, yet we all benefit from their availability. The ‘consumption’ of these goods by an individual does not reduce the ability of others to derive the same benefits. Although the Bill currently includes a range of powers relating to public goods, it places no duties on the Secretary of State in this regard. We believe the Bill should give the Secretary of State explicit duties to establish a framework for the delivery of public goods.

Amendment to the Bill

4.2 The Bill should be amended to insert a new clause that:

i. places duties on the Secretary of State in relation to exercising their powers under Clause 1(1), and;

ii. requires the Secretary of State to establish an Environmental Land Management Scheme, in order to provide a clear framework for the delivery of the public goods listed in Clause 1(1).

Rationale

4.3 The Ramblers, alongside other environmental, conservation and access organisations, has welcomed the Bill as an important statement on the principle of public money for public goods. The inclusion of public access as one of the public goods included in Clause 1 is also an important and progressive step.

4.4 However, the absence of explicit duties within the Bill raises significant concerns about the extent to which the Bill will deliver on this principle . This also creates uncertaint y for farmers and landowners. We echo the concerns raised in the recent House of Lords ’ Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee report on the Agriculture Bill :

" The Bill contains only 36 clauses and yet confers 26 powers on Ministers to make law. The comparatively large n umber of delegated powers in an otherwise small-to- medium-sized bill is o minous . " [3]

5. Strengthening the Agriculture Bill: Enhancing public access

Context

5.1 Public access is a clear example of a public good and we welcome its inclusion in Clause 1(1)(b) of the Bill, the accompanying written ministerial statement and policy statement, as one of the public goods for which financial assistance could be given to landowners and farmers. Amendments are however needed to ensure that the Bill really does improve public access to the countryside by providing financial assistance for the purposes of enhancing the path network. The existing wording (‘supporting public access’) is vague and does not guarantee that financial assistance would be given to deliver new paths where they are needed, or enhancements made to existing paths to make them more accessible to more people.

Amendment to the Bill

5.2 We propose the following amendment under Clause 1 (1)(b):

Current text

Amended text

1. Secretary of State’s powers to give financial assistance

(1) The Secretary of State may give financial assistance for or in connection with any of the following purposes –

(b) supporting public access to and enjoyment of the countryside, farmland, or woodland and better understanding of the environment.

1.   Secretary of State’s duties to give financial assistance

(1)   The Secretary of State will introduce a framework to provide financial assistance for or in connection with any of the following purposes –

(b) enhancing public access to and enjoyment of the countryside, farmland, or woodland and better understanding of the environment.

Rationale

5.3 Despite the extensive public rights of way network, there are locations where access to the countryside is far from guaranteed. This can be due to a lack of routes in a particular area or the inability of some groups to access existing public rights of way.

5.4 Financial assistance for additional routes should be targeted and selective, based upon strategic assessments of current and future need. A variety of resources exist which could be used to inform decision-making on the additions to the path network that would be of greatest benefit to users. These include Rights of Way Improvement Plans, Neighbourhood Plans and Local Plans.

5.5 Some specific examples of the types of routes which could be funded include:

- New paths along field margins as an alternative to unsafe, narrow country roads which often truncate existing paths. These would be safer and more enjoyable for users.

- Paths that create circular routes, enabling users to begin and end in the same place.

- Paths that connect places where people live with the countryside and transport hubs.

- Paths that provide people with a means of reaching areas of open access land.

5.6 We believe that additional funding for new routes should:

- Favour those that are permanent, providing best value for money, certainty for walkers and ensuring that spending on necessary infrastructure is not wasted.

- Be adequately promoted to ensure that this new provision is known and well-used.

- Include, where appropriate, signage to explain where additional public goods are being secured through public payments, helping improve the public’s understanding of the multiple ways in which the farming provides benefits to society.

5.7 We believe that financial assistance should be available for improvements to access along existing paths. This should be available to all landowners and farmers, and could include:

- Improvements to access infrastructure such as gates and stiles to alternatives which enable more people, including those with disabilities, to access the countryside.

- Improvements in signage and waymarking.

- Wider paths.

- Mowing of headland paths.

6. Strengthening the Agriculture Bill: Establishing a regulatory baseline

Context

6.1 Under the Highways Act 1980 landowners have existing legal duties, enforceable by highway authorities, to keep clear public rights of way on their land [4] : these duties will remain unchanged when the UK leaves the EU. However, the Bill provides an important opportunity to ensure a joined-up approach to the provision of financial assistance and compliance with existing rules that are in the public interest, including current responsibilities around the maintenance of public rights of way.

Amendment to the Bill

6.2 The Bill should be amended to:

i. include a provision for ministers to establish a regulatory baseline of minimum standards that are expected of farmers and landowners receiving public funds, including duties to maintain public rights of way, and;

ii. make compliance with the regulatory baseline a condition of receiving financial assistance for the purposes outlined in Clause 1.

6.3 This could be incorporated within Clause 2 (2), which allows the Secretary of State to attach conditions to which the financial assistance will be subject, or take the form of a new clause within Part 1 of the Bill.

Rationale

6.4 The existing public rights of way network is one of the primary means by which people can get outdoors, learn about the countryside as a working environment and better understand the important work undertaken by farmers. Ensuring the Bill secures a better maintained path network should help secure public consent for continued investment to support the sector.

6.5 Our Big Pathwatch survey [5] found that 14 per cent of problems on the existing public rights of way network were the responsibility of landowners. In 2015, Farmers Weekly [6] also reported that failure to meet these duties was in the top ten breaches by landowners. We regularly hear, from our members and the wider public, of problems relating to the ploughing and cropping of fields, where paths should have been reinstated, and inaccessible or poorly maintained access infrastructure. For some these represent real barriers to getting outdoors.

6.6 It is right to expect that those receiving public funds comply with existing legal obligations which are also in the public interest. This principle is supported by the public: a recent YouGov / Ramblers poll [7] , found that 65 per cent of adults support the idea that farmers should receive less funding if they fail to maintain public footpaths on their land.

6.7 The current system of payments includes cross-compliance, which outlines what is expected of recipients of direct payments. Cross compliance requires recipients to, among other things, fulfil their existing legal duties relating to public rights of way. Failure to do so can result in penalties being imposed by the Rural Payments Agency (RPA).

6.8 This system has drawbacks, including a lack of resources at the RPA and a low number of inspections per year. However, it is a useful incentive for landowners to comply with their duties and many local authorities have told us that its introduction had a positive effect on the quality of the existing public rights of way network. The prospect of penalties from the RPA is a significant help in their enforcement work and enables them to use a greater proportion of their resources to undertake proactive work in relation to public rights of way. This was summed up by one authority we spoke to:

"Public rights of way management benefits from a proactive approach from occupiers in understanding that a failure to comply with legislation may result in a deduction in payments. It is also a useful where authority staff have to remind occupiers of their obligations to ensure public rights of way remain open and available for use on their legally defined routes and reduces the instances of enforcement action required thus being of benefit to users of the network in terms of availability and usage of local government funding."

6.9 Neither existing cross-compliance rules, nor our proposed amendments to the Bill, place additional burdens on landowners. Rather, they intend to promote compliance, streamline the system of enforcement and create a level playing field for farmers and land managers. The outcome of this financial assistance will often be enhanced where there is well-maintained existing access. This ‘multiplier effect’ means that the public can benefit from, for example, environmental improvements, climate change adaptation and enhanced cultural heritage.

6.10 We are aware that the Farm Inspection and Regulation Review is currently underway, and also that the policy statement accompanying the Bill itself refers to the Government’s commitment to maintaining strong regulatory standards. However this should not prevent provisions in the Agriculture Bill that will establish a regulatory baseline.

7. Conclusion

7.1 The Agriculture Bill is a real opportunity to reconnect people with nature, the countryside and the critical work that farmers and landowners undertake, as custodians of the landscape. This will require amendments to the Bill which ensure greater compliance with existing public access legislation. It also requires greater precision in the language used in the Bill so that farmers and landowners are properly rewarded where they add to, or improve, existing public access. Taken together, the amendments outlined in this evidence will provide a solid foundation for public access to the countryside to be enhanced future generations

October 2018


[1] https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/AG.LND.AGRI.ZS

[2] https://www.ramblers.org.uk/get-involved/pathwatch/the-state-of-our-paths-report.aspx

[3] https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld201719/ldselect/lddelreg/194/194.pdf

[4] https://www.gov.uk/guidance/public-rights-of-way-landowner-responsibilities

[5] http://www.ramblers.org.uk/get-involved/pathwatch/the-state-of-our-paths-report.aspx

[6] https://www.fwi.co.uk/business/10-common-cross-compliance-breaches-avoid

[7] Total sample size was 2020 adults, of which 1,848 were from England and Wales. Fieldwork was undertaken between 23rd - 24th August 2018. The survey was carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all England and Wales adults (aged 18+).

 

Prepared 25th October 2018