Agriculture Bill

Written evidence submitted by Walkers are Welcome CIC (AB53)

1. Summary

1.1 We welcome the opportunities presented to landowners in this Bill, to encourage much needed enhancement of the environment and countryside and, in particular for the maintenance and improvement of public access.

1.2 We are concerned by the current lack of detail presented in this Bill but are hopeful that it will be implemented with a full understanding of public access, the laws and systems that are in place and their current problems.

1.3 It is important that this Bill will be radical providing for a true improvement to public access and the environment.

1.4 There needs to be a system for effective enforcement and regulation, similar to the current cross-compliance scheme, written in to the Bill.

1.5 This evidence and our response, are concerned, first and foremost, with creating and improving public access. It should not be overlooked that increasing opportunities for access will not only bring direct economic benefits to the areas where that access is well-maintained, but will also allow for even greater indirect benefits through the health (physical and mental) payback recognised to arise when people get out and about in the countryside.

2. Introduction

2.1 Launched in 2007 to encourage towns and villages to be ‘welcoming to walkers’; Walkers are Welcome (WaW) act to enable and assist the development and maintenance of a network of communities across the UK (currently: England, Scotland and Wales) who have demonstrated their commitment to improving the walking environment in their areas. This thereby contributes to their communities’ economic, physical, health and mental well-being. The network has expanded rapidly and there are now over 100 locations that have joined this innovative community volunteer led scheme to benefit from Walkers are Welcome accreditation with phenomenal economic success.

2.2 Our criteria for accreditation include:

‘To ensure that footpaths and facilities for walkers are maintained, improved and well signposted.’

2.3 The system of Public Rights of Way in England and Wales (not Scotland) is the envy of many parts of the world contributing greatly to tourism from other countries. A Walkers are Welcome accreditation scheme has now been established in Japan to encourage city dwellers to experience their own countryside with associated health benefits. We have also been asked to contribute to discussions being held in Spain during January 2019.

2.4 Our members witness a very fragmented system for the protection and maintenance of Public Rights of Way throughout England and Wales. The Highway Authorities have the statutory duty with some delegated powers to National Park Authorities and other organisations but there are vast variances in conditions according to priorities and budgets. Recent reductions in council funding have led to Countryside Access Departments barely meeting their legal obligations with no additional funding for maintenance or improvements. Our communities monitor conditions and like some other organisations, make improvements themselves where possible.

3. Public Money for Public Goods

3.1 WaW fully supports the aims contained in ‘the five main areas suggested in the consultation for future public support’132 which fit into our own members’ sphere of activity in caring for and promoting the countryside and, rural economic prosperity. Living and walking in rural communities encompass all these points and are highly valued by us all.

• Environmental enhancement and protection (including improved air, water and soil quality, increased biodiversity, climate change mitigation and adaption)

Animal and plant health and welfare

• Improved productivity and competitiveness

• Preserving rural resilience, traditional farming and landscapes in the uplands

• Public access to the countryside

3.2 We are pleased to see the recognition that ‘environmental enhancement and protection are of key importance as a public good as well as cultural benefits that improve our mental and physical well-being, while protecting our historic environment’.131 We believe that this also has significant benefits for the local economy of the places where that well-maintained access is given priority and promoted.

3.3 With reference to ‘The 25 Year Environment Plan also refers to a range of particular public goods that farmers can be paid to deliver’,133, there may be a conflict of interests within various grant funded schemes. In the past this may have been subject to an inquiry and local objections, particularly where it was on Common Land and the public were able to comment. For example: Rewilding a section for the benefit of wild flowers could result in the growth of bracken and ticks surrounding a footpath. Planting trees to benefit black grouse habitat could well be to the detriment of Curlews. How will these possible problems be dealt with transparently, particularly without the bureaucracy that the Bill says it wishes to avoid?

More recent CAP schemes have also excluded smaller landowners that manage land for environmental purposes with philanthropic desires, can these be included?

4. Public Access

4.1 The bill refers to ‘access to the countryside’ but a broader definition is required to include public access to and within villages, towns and cities: There are not always safe or legal rights of way or indeed, any obligation to maintain or provide routes and pavements in urban areas. Elsewhere, for instance; access to the seashore may be restricted.

4.2 There are many definitions of public access to be considered. Apart from the list of types of Rights of Way (ROW): footpaths, bridleways, restricted byways, B.O.A.T.s etc., there are also permissive paths, cycle tracks, towpaths and areas of Open Access, the latter mainly on higher fells and moors. There are also areas where access could be made available but is often denied, for instance; in forests and woodland or where there are gaps required for joining existing access routes.

4.3 We believe that to reward landowners for public access measures on their land (and by this, we assume creation, maintenance and improvement) will hopefully bring the landowner and the user onto the same side as allies, rather than in conflict which still exists in some areas.

Including some public education in the budget would be very beneficial creating a wider understanding and alleviating actions that might otherwise result in battles and bad feeling. Examples of awareness raising education would be; dog attacks, Neosporosis parasites, Lyme’s disease, littering, wandering off rights of way, trampling crops, cattle attacks. We believe that increased access will also often provide increased security for landowners, bringing extra pairs of eyes into their land.

We also see that valued walking visitors from abroad have little understanding of our ROW laws and trespass which might be highlighted by VisitBritain. Farmers should also see the benefits of a greater understanding by the public of farming and food production.

4.4 We see no merit in a system of grants similar to previous Natural England stewardship schemes that were only applied to new temporary permissive paths rather than permanent (even if permissive) or existing paths that are added to the Definitive map acting as the best form of promotion. In addition to the problems arising from the limited actions taken by some landowners receiving these grants, problems have arisen when they have ended, to the confusion of those who had become accustomed to using them.

4.5 The following should be included:

· Maintaining and improving ROW and existing public access. This could, for instance include cutting back tree growth, removing fallen trees, maintaining the surface, improving drainage where run off from fields floods footpaths washing away surfacing.

· Providing new public access particularly where needed to link existing paths or attractions. There should be a preference for permanent access that can be added to the Definitive Map. Here might also be included those paths that have been missed off the Definitive Map and are valued.

· Conversion of stiles to disabled access gates and the promotion of Miles without Stiles or wheel-friendly routes to enable access for all.

· More meaningful fingerposts and information boards, for instance; giving distances to or information about destinations or local points of interest.

· Fencing off a ROW to benefit either the public or the landowner: For instance, where cattle are grazing, which some walkers find worrying or farmers wishing to protect crops and livestock.

· A clear system for inspecting and regulating breaches of the law so that those in receipt of funds who do not respect the law on Rights of Way are penalised.

4.6 There is an established legal framework for ROW as outlined in the ‘Rights of Way, A Guide to Law and Practice by John Riddall and John Trevelyan’ often used as a reference, while professional Countryside Access Officers and Rangers should be developed to oversee works rather than the advisory non-compulsory process that now exists for Natural England projects. Any works that are subject to legal requirements should be time limited rather than when time and budgets allow as is now the case with Highway Authority works.

4.7 There are some ROW that do not have registered landowners. This might be because the identity of the landowner has been lost over time or the route is an old County Road that had no landowner other than the King. Who will then maintain these routes?

November 2018

 

Prepared 13th November 2018