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Agri-environment Schemes: Permissive Access

Volume 812: debated on Thursday 27 May 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what, if any, new measures they plan to introduce regarding permissive access to footpaths across farmland being used for agri-environment schemes.

My Lords, I declare my farming interests as set out in the register. Support for public access, including paying to create new permissive access or rights of way, could potentially be funded under new schemes that reward environmental benefits. The agricultural transition plan sets out examples of the types of land management actions that we envisage paying for under these schemes. We are working with stakeholders and users to determine the specific actions that will be funded, and further details of these will be set out later this year.

I congratulate the Minister on his appointment. Defra’s own figures indicate that there has been a reduction of some 38,000 miles in permissive footpaths on land that was previously eligible for grants under the CAP-funded stewardship schemes. Given that Covid has shown how much people value access to the countryside on their doorstep, will the Government act quickly to bring in again schemes to reward farmers for access and, hopefully, reverse the footpath closures that have been taking place?

The noble Baroness is absolutely right: there is an imperative, which has been particularly noticed during the Covid lockdown periods, when more people sought access to our countryside. We want to see that continue and be encouraged. That is why, in the schemes that we are bringing forward under environmental land management, there will be a very clear access commitment, backed by funding.

My Lords, will the Government guarantee specific funding for farmers for disabled access through the environmental land management scheme?

Access for disabled people to the countryside will be funded under these schemes. Funding could be available for, for example, improving footpath surfaces, gates and access to footpaths. We are looking at this in the tests and trials that we are carrying out at the moment.

My Lords, my noble friend will be aware that it is extremely difficult to reroute an existing footpath or bridleway. Under ELMS, might it be possible to simplify the rerouting process where existing paths interfere with cropping regimes—perhaps by utilising headlands as the route, instead of ingressing through growing crops? It would be much easier for those using the paths and would interfere less with the efficient farming operation. Is he aware that there really needs to be a review of footpaths and bridle paths to make them compatible with current farming methods and to the benefit of the general public good?

I can assure my noble friend that this is being addressed outside environmental land management. We are bringing forward legislation this year to streamline the process of recording and changing rights of way. Under environmental land management schemes, it will be possible to find permissive routes that are more attractive to walkers and are mutually beneficial to the landowner and farmer as well.

My Lords, I pay tribute to my colleague Lord Greaves, who in the past would have spoken on this Question. Following on from the question of the noble Earl, Lord Shrewsbury, it is important for the public to have access to the countryside. However, in order to achieve the aim of ELMS to encourage the return of insect and animal species, especially around field margins, which have already been referred to, does the Minister believe that rights of way may need to be constrained?

I echo the noble Baroness’s tribute to Lord Greaves. Alongside the crisis of species decline, a crisis of lack of engagement with nature by large proportions of the public is of equal concern to me and to this Government. I do not believe they are mutually exclusive; I think we can find an increased permissive paths system which does not compromise the desperate desire to find improved habitats for vertebrates, insects and wider species. So I can only assure her that we are looking at this as part of the tests and trials process.

My Lords, I remind the House of my interests as set out in the register and am very cheered by the Minister’s response to the noble Baroness, Lady Quin. Many rural roads were not designed for the volume and types of traffic that they now carry and are becoming increasingly dangerous, especially for walkers, cyclists and riders. So what plans do the Government have to increase and finance access for off-road recreation and to provide facilities to increase the areas that the number of people who we now encourage to visit the countryside need to use to access those footpaths and bridleways?

Under what we hope will be an increasing network of permissive footpaths that can be used by not just walkers but cyclists and horse riders—with greater access, as I said, for disabled people— it is hoped that we can design them with farmers and land managers. We will be taking people who are currently walking on roads into a safer place for them and rewarding the farmer for providing that facility. There is an opportunity. I am aware of the problems that have been caused, particularly in recent months, with increased access, where road users are not safe, and we want to make sure that farmers and land managers are helping us solve that problem.

My Lords, the rights-of-way network tends to reflect historic usage and is often not very useful for new developments and towns. To address that, we need co-operation between landowners and local communities. Will funding be available for partnerships, such as those created by local access forums?

Local access fora are absolutely vital in this, and what is decided at governmental level is often unimportant when you get down to the ground. Local access fora have been brilliant at bringing together farming and landowning interests with the desires and needs of walkers. I will also say that we are also encouraging farms to group together in clusters as part of the environmental land management scheme, so we can get improved access across a landscape, rather than just across an existing farm.

My Lords, can my noble friend confirm that 2026 is still the cut-off date for mapping historical rights of way—footpaths? Is he aware that the stakeholder group In All Our Footsteps refuses to communicate with a number of people who have written to it? Will he please ensure, if he wants proper consultation, that he gets such groups to do their job properly?

I will look into the latter point that my noble friend makes, but I can confirm that, at present, 2026 is the cut-off date for recording historical footpaths. There is provision under the legislation to extend that by five years, but I think most people want to get on with this and get it recorded. That will provide clarity for the farmer and land manager, and an opportunity for walking groups as well.

My Lords, I welcome the Minister to the Dispatch Box. In a recent Written Answer, the noble Lord, Lord Gardiner, was able to give details of only six tests and trials for the new payment scheme which were focused on public access, and some of them were only incidental to other projects. Is the Minister confident that these trials will give enough data to shape access policy for the future? How can we be assured that the resulting funding regime will indeed deliver the much-needed increase in public access that everybody wants?

In addition to the six schemes which I suspect are the ones the noble Baroness heard about from my predecessor, my noble friend Lord Gardiner, we are also looking at around 1,000 farms, we hope, that will be coming into the sustainable farming initiative pilot that will start in October. There will be an access element to that as well. But I would draw attention to some of those six, which are very extensive indeed. They will offer groupings across landscapes, as I said, and will really inform how successful we can be in getting more people into the countryside.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his very constructive answers. As there are more and more people from cities using footpaths across farmland for the first time, will the Ministry encourage clear signs with codes of behaviour, especially if there is livestock around, as protection for all?

My Lords, we would encourage clear signage, and the Countryside Code, the revised version of which was published last month, gives advice to land managers, along with the Health and Safety Executive advice. Like my noble friend, I am concerned by the number of injuries and tragic deaths of members of the public caused by cattle. We want signage and a clear understanding of the risks. Under environmental land management, it will be possible to get funding for, for example, a fence to separate walkers from cattle.