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Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 (Amendment) Bill

Volume 721: debated on Friday 28 October 2022

Second Reading

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Hastings and Rye (Sally-Ann Hart) and the debate on her important Bill.

It is a real delight to open the debate on this Bill, otherwise known as the right to roam Bill. It has backing from all sides of the House, including from Government Members, and has the potential to transform our relationship with nature. It is particularly special to be joined today by members of the Right to Roam campaign, including the author Guy Shrubsole, who are watching from the Gallery and who have developed that vibrant campaign from the ground up, galvanising the public’s shared passion for nature and their desire to be immersed in it. I also want to acknowledge those giants of the environment movement, such as Marion Shoard, who have done so much to build the campaign, alongside organisations such as the Ramblers and the Open Spaces Society. The Bill builds on a lot of work that has already gone ahead.

A Bill of this kind could not be more urgently needed. We are in the midst of an ecological emergency, with the latest Living Planet report published earlier this month revealing that globally wildlife populations have plummeted by almost 70% in the past 50 years. Closer to home, 15% of the UK’s species are now threatened with extinction, with a horrifying decline in our biodiversity which has left our dawn chorus quieter and our fields still. Indeed, Britain has one of the worst rankings in the world for biodiversity, placing it in the bottom 10%, and it also ranks lowest in Europe for nature connectedness.

I would argue that those two facts are related. The less relationship we have with nature, the less our ability to fight for it and protect it. We are more alienated from nature than we ever have been, all too often trapped in our individual concrete or brick boxes, cut off from the beauty that these islands hold: our amazing woodlands, our rivers and, of course, our beautiful wildflower meadows. That crisis of connection is one in which half of children surveyed just a few years ago could not identify simple species such as brambles, bluebells or stinging nettles. That is not just a personal tragedy, but a profound concern for the future of our planet. In the words of scientist Robert Michael Pyle:

“What is the extinction of the condor to a child who has never known the wren?”

In other words, that intimate connection with nature is a prerequisite for learning better to love, protect and restore it.

If the covid-19 pandemic taught us anything, it is that that connection is also critical for our collective health and wellbeing, calming our minds, bringing solace to our hearts and re-energising our souls. A survey by Natural England in May 2020 found that 90% of people agreed that natural spaces are good for mental health and wellbeing. Many felt that access to nature was even more important now than before the pandemic, when restrictions eased and our use of parks and public green spaces soared. Indeed, that sense of being immersed in nature, that sense that it is essential to our wellbeing, is something that campaigners have known all along.

Earlier this year marked the 90th anniversary of the Kinder Scout trespass, an action that united the campaign for access to the countryside and eventually contributed to the establishment of our treasured national parks under the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949. As Benny Rothman, one of the key organisers of that trespass, said during his trial at the Derby assizes:

“we ramblers, after a hard week’s work, in smoky towns and cities, go out rambling for relaxation and fresh air. And we find the finest rambling country is closed to us.”

Much has changed since then, but so many of us remain cut off from most of this green and pleasant land. The Government have often spoken of the importance of a greater public relationship with nature, most recently in the Environment Act 2021, but we have still not seen enough action to deliver it. For example, the powers in the Act to set public access targets are not currently being used. Back in 2019, the Government-commissioned Glover review urged Ministers to

“look seriously at whether the levels of open access we have in our most special places are adequate”.

It argued that

“it feels wrong that many parts of our most beautiful places are off limits”.

Three years later, there is still no response from the Government to that aspect of the Glover review. More recently, the Agnew review asked a similar question, but its results have not been published.

We need urgent action and that is what the Bill provides. The right to roam Bill builds on the success of our national parks and on the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000, which at the start of this millennium finally gave us a right to roam in certain areas over mountain, moor, heath and down, designating them as open access land. That landmark Act meant that, finally, ramblers could wander more freely without fear of trespassing, but it still gave legal access to only 8% of English land, much of it remote. As for rivers, just 3% are accessible in England and Wales, but only when that is provided for by voluntary agreements between landowners and, for example, kayakers or anglers—it can therefore be taken away again.

Access also remains vastly unequal across the country. The Campaign for National Parks estimates that while 60% of the Yorkshire dales is open access, the public have the right to roam across just 0.5% of the broads in Norfolk and Suffolk. Worse, people from ethnic minorities or with low incomes are much less likely to live near accessible green space. Just 39% of black people and people of colour live within a five-minute walk of green spaces, compared with 58% of white people. More than two fifths of people from ethnic minorities live in England’s most green-space-deprived neighbourhoods, compared with just one in five white people. This week, the Prime Minister said on the steps of No. 10 Downing Street that he remained committed to levelling up. That is great news, and here is a tangible example of how to achieve it.

Let me now turn to the specifics. My Bill would amend the Countryside and Rights of Way Act to include more landscapes—more rivers, woods, grasslands and green belt— extending access from the 8% in England that I mentioned earlier to approximately 30% of English land, as well as permitting recreational activities such as swimming and camping. Many countries, including France, Finland and Hungary, already allow a general right of navigation on all rivers, and in America and Australia there is free access to all navigable rivers.

The Dartmoor National Park Authority has vowed to defend the right to camp in Dartmoor, which is one of the remaining places in England and Wales where camping is allowed. That right is currently under attack, but the authority has said it will try to defend it, because it believes, as I do, that it would be a profound tragedy if people were denied the joy of seeing the stars shine clearly in the night sky and the mist rise over the moor at dawn. The vast majority of wild campers leave without a trace, and this experience allows people to connect with nature in a way that would otherwise be off limits. Rather than curtailing this right, my Bill would enshrine it in primary legislation and extend it beyond this single national park, opening it up for more to enjoy.

I imagine that, in his response, the Minister may point to our wonderful network of footpaths, or indeed to the England coast path. I absolutely agree that those footpaths are wonderful and I celebrate the England coast path, but on their own they are not enough. Many communities in England are barely serviced by them, making them strangers in lands in which they may have lived all their lives. In the powerful words of the Right to Roam campaign:

“Why should our love of nature, our knowledge of our environment—and through it ourselves—be limited to thin strips of legitimacy…across a sea of wonder?”

As well as campaigning for the maintenance and extension of our precious footpaths, we need to make provision for real immersion in our wild spaces.

I should emphasise that my Bill is just a starting point, and that while it would increase public access to many more landscapes, others have argued for a more expansive approach. They include the naturalist Dave Bangs—local to me in Brighton—and the highly acclaimed author and conservationist Marion Shoard, who wrote about “A Right to Roam” in her landmark book of that same name more than 20 years ago. Indeed, they argue for a universal right to roam across these islands, with exclusions carved out, in opposition to the existing model of universal exclusion except where access is permitted. This is a much more fundamental right, and it follows the approach taken in Scotland, where the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 enshrined the right of access to land and the countryside, provided that it was exercised responsibly.

These are important debates to be had, and I simply say that I hope this Bill is the beginning, not the end, of an important debate about how we reset our relationship with the land. What we need, I believe, is a serious and inclusive conversation about how land is used, who can access it, and how we balance access and conservation in a way that recognises our desire to care for the natural world.

Although my Bill is simple in its drafting, I would argue that its benefits would be far-reaching. First, in extending the right to roam to the rivers, woods and green belt, it would provide access to nature on people’s doorsteps, with these landscapes found in almost every community. By broadening the definition of downland, it would put an end to the ludicrous situation in which walkers must trespass across fields to reach a patch of open access land, which is a consequence of much of our downland being ploughed up during the second world war.

Secondly, it comes with a multiplicity of wellbeing benefits. There is growing scientific evidence that immersion in nature is good for our mental health, reducing loneliness and isolation, easing stress, lifting our mood and improving confidence and self-esteem, in addition to the benefits to our physical health, where it has been found to reduce blood pressure and the risk of diabetes and heart disease. It has even been shown to boost our immune systems. It also makes economic sense. It has been estimated that the NHS could save around £2 billion every year if everyone had more access to good quality green space. That is presumably why the Agnew review on access to green space was commissioned not by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, but by the Treasury.

Thirdly, I would argue that my Bill would be good for our environment itself and that society’s disconnection from nature is a key factor in the ecological crisis we face. Not only would the Bill help to tackle that disconnection, but it has been argued that greater public access would benefit nature itself by exposing the environmental destruction that has often been hidden away behind high walls and fences where it cannot be seen. It is no coincidence, for example, that the uptake in wild swimming has coincided with public outrage about the state of the UK’s rivers and seas, polluted by a toxic cocktail of chemicals and effluents.

I am conscious that the Bill has tapped into the fears of some stakeholders, notably within the farming community. I emphasise again that no one is advocating a right to roam freely over farmers’ fields where crops are growing, for example. In addressing concerns about the irresponsible behaviour of a tiny minority of the public, I point again to Scotland, which, following the introduction of the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003, did not experience the negative consequences that some had warned about. On the contrary, in Scotland the Act helped to revive tourism in rural areas following the foot and mouth outbreak and to educate the public that the countryside was a living place of work where people strove to earn a livelihood.

The right to roam is thus not some futuristic, unknown policy idea. We have a blueprint for how it could work from our very close neighbour across the border. Crucially, the success of establishing the right of responsible access, as it is called, comes in no small part from Scotland’s outdoor access code, which makes it clear that visitors must respect the interests of others, care for the environment and take responsibility for their own actions.

I urge the Government to increase investment in promoting the recently revised countryside code and to do far more to publicise it. It should be taught in every school, so that children grow up with a clear understanding of their responsibilities in our countryside. Simply shutting people out is not a sustainable solution. To borrow some words from author and campaigner Nick Hayes:

“It’s not the wild swimmer who poisons our rivers, nor the rambler who burns the moorland. When they took away our right to access the land, they took away our ability to protect it.”

I welcome the Right to Roam campaign’s vision of a countryside in which people leave a positive trace rather than simply no trace. In other words, when they go out rambling, they collect litter if they find it on their way, they make sure that invasive species are removed, and their impact and legacy are positive. The public can become guardians of the natural world. They can become the ears and eyes of the countryside. But they cannot do it without access, and they will not do it without the love born of familiarity. It is no coincidence that the most vigorous recent campaigns in defence of rivers have come precisely in places where, as in the case of the River Wye, there is a rare statutory right to access them.

To conclude, I urge the Government to look seriously at this Bill and allocate time for it to be properly debated and scrutinised in this House. I appreciate that there will not be time to do so today, so I am happy to roll the Bill over to a future date. I end with this: while access cannot solve the ecological crisis on its own, many of us believe that it is a precondition for our ability to try. It is time for a culture shift that makes us a part of the natural world as well as its greatest advocate. These are common rights that our neighbours in Scotland, Norway and Sweden have enjoyed for years. It is time that we in England and Wales enjoyed them too.

Ordered, That the debate be now adjourned.—(Rebecca Harris.)

Debate to be resumed on Friday 24 March.