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Right to Roam

Volume 836: debated on Wednesday 21 February 2024


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government, in the light of reported plans for mass trespass on Dartmoor on 24 February, what assessment they have made of the case for the right to roam.

My Lords, I declare my farming interests, as set out in the register. The Government have not undertaken any assessment of the case for the right to roam. The Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 already provides a right of access to large areas of mountain, moor, heath, down, registered common land and coastal margin in England. In our environmental improvement plan, we committed that everyone should live within a 15-minute walk of a green or blue space and to work to reduce barriers that prevent people accessing such spaces.

I tabled this Question because there will be a mass trespass, and the reason for it is that there are places that people are allowed to access but cannot get to because they have to trespass to access them. I understand that it is a difficult problem when half the country is owned by less than 1% of the population, but, quite honestly, the first duty of this Government—of any Government—is the health of the people, and being able to get out into nature is part of that. Will the Minister look at updating this and at having a logical right to roam Act?

The noble Baroness raises a good point regarding connecting to lost land and open spaces. The Government are aware that in the original mapping of open access land, some areas were identified to which there is no legal route. We are committed to undertaking a review of this position, and legislation to facilitate this review was recently passed into law in the Levelling-up and Regeneration Act.

My Lords, we all welcome the Minister’s answer about open access land, and I am encouraged by it. The previous Government proposed that it be mountains, moorland, heath, et cetera. In addition to that, the Forestry Commission decided it would open up its forests wherever possible. Can the Minister give me an assurance that there will be no pressure at all on the Forestry Commission to weaken its provision of access for the people?

My Lords, public access is already available to over 1 million hectares of England’s open access land, including areas of coast, heath, moor and mountains, as I said, as well as 258,000 hectares of public forest estate. That commitment remains.

My Lords, like me, my noble friend will know that there is a right to roam in Scotland, so he will also be aware that, with the right to roam, comes responsibilities. Can he give the House an assurance that, if the Government are minded to look at any right to roam, the aspect of responsibilities—such as keeping dogs on leads, particularly in farming areas, and the setting of fires—will be given due consideration?

My noble friend raises a good point. There are issues around responsible access, such as illegal parking, livestock worrying, disrupting wildlife, damage and littering—a favourite topic of mine. The issues in Scotland are obviously devolved to the Scottish Government, but, if the Westminster Government were ever minded to look at this again, establishing a proper code of conduct for accessing the outdoors, and linking that to a proper consultation and a proper plan for education on this issue, would be absolutely critical.

My Lords, it was over 20 years ago that we last had this reviewed, under the Countryside and Rights of Way Act, so I am pleased that that will happen. We have to end this piecemeal approach, which causes completely unnecessary divisions between landowners and people who want to walk. Will the review look at existing footpaths? I can think of a number of footpaths in Cumbria that are completely impassable now. It is really important that we keep existing routes clear and open for people to use.

The noble Baroness makes a good point. Maintaining access to all these routes is at the forefront of the Government’s agenda at the moment. I will certainly take away her specific point regarding Cumbria and see whether we can do something about that.

My Lords, I am a small farmer, and just as the last ministerial Answer said that it was very difficult to make decisions about parking on pavements, this is also a very difficult area, and it is not helped by slogans. There is a difficult issue around balancing the demands in the countryside, and many of us have noticed that, particularly during the flooded periods when the land is extremely vulnerable. Will the Minister make sure that he gets the balance right between those of us who produce the food and those who want to use the land for roaming?

As a small farmer as well, I sympathise with my noble friend. Getting the balance right between responsible access and the other legitimate uses of that land is critical. In future, I hope that we can strike that balance correctly.

My Lords, a recent survey showed that there were 32,000 blockages on our public footpaths. Further to the points already raised, it is extremely important that our footpaths are clear and accessible. Will the Government therefore consider providing long-term funding to local councils, which have the legal responsibility but not the resources to keep our public footpath networks open?

The noble Lord is quite right that local authorities have that responsibility. I can certainly take away his suggestion that we provide additional funding for that, but it is not part of the programme at the moment.

My Lords, given what we know about the parlous state of the mental health of children and young people, and what we know about the restorative properties of spending time in green space and open countryside, does the Minister agree that getting on with this should be done expeditiously and urgently?

I completely agree with the noble Baroness on the restorative qualities of access to nature, for not just young people but people of any age. The Government have spent considerable amounts of money on improving access for the public to not just our urban spaces but wider spaces, with the creation of new national parks and other areas. I completely agree with the noble Baroness on her point.

My Lords, will the Minister find time today to look at the damage being done to various tracks and byways open to all traffic—so-called BOATs—where, quite often, off-roaders are not just causing damage to the local environment but disturbing walkers, riders and other people who want to enjoy the countryside?

It seems like a similar issue to bikes on pavements—bikes on paths in the countryside. This is a really difficult area, and one I come across a lot in my private life, with people accessing the countryside in inappropriate ways. Paths are narrow, and it is often quite dangerous when someone on a mountain bike, or a group of people on mountain bikes, is coming down that path. It is intimidating, and it is very challenging to find a safe place and a safe way to make those two meet. I sympathise with my noble friend.

My Lords, traditionally, people in Scotland have been allowed freely to access the outdoors. I am 71 years of age, and all my life I have known that I was free to walk anywhere, as long as I did not do any damage. This was codified in the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003, which set out the conditions that you must observe if you do so. Can we not just adopt the same here and let people enjoy this? it does not cause any problems.

As a resident in Scotland, I would not necessarily agree with everything that the noble Lord has said. It is a devolved issue, and Scotland is entitled to make its own decisions on this.

My Lords, as a young boy, walking in the countryside and coming across a sign saying, “Trespassers Will Be Prosecuted”, my father assured me that it was a bluff. There is no law against trespass in this country, as long as you do not do damage to crops, livestock or property. That was why Mr Fagan, when he climbed over the wall into Buckingham Palace and got into the Queen’s bedroom, could not be sued for trespass but had to be convicted of stealing half a bottle of wine.

I am not entirely sure what the question was, but if my noble friend wants me to agree with him about Mr Fagan, I am very happy to do that.