When countryside campaigners were invited to meet government ministers and share “big, creative ideas” for “structural and systemic changes” around access to green spaces, they thought it could be too good to be true. Was the government listening, and were England’s archaic laws on countryside access about to change?
Last summer, groups representing more than 20 million people who are active outdoors, including ramblers, canoeists and mountaineers, were asked to speak to officials from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Treasury to explain how people are shut off from accessing green space because of trespass laws and other barriers.
They were told that their responses would be collated and included in a groundbreaking government review into access to green space. This would be spearheaded by the then minister Lord Agnew.
After the meeting, many groups submitted painstakingly collated reports, hoping that as promised the Agnew commission would soon release its review, including exciting proposals to allow people to enjoy England’s woodlands and waterways.
But this was not to be. Ben Seal, the head of campaigns at British Canoeing, said: “After [the meeting] we heard nothing. I wrote to Lord Agnew and Stephen Barclay [the then Treasury secretary]. Neither responded. I hassled Defra and nothing really came back. There was mention of meeting notes from the stakeholder call being shared, but nothing ever materialized. Everything went quiet.”
A few months later, the Treasury’s spending review came out, with great fanfare about proposed increases to green space. But to those who attended the meeting say what was announced fell far short of what was discussed.
Seal said: “Something like £9m was allocated to ‘pocket parks’ and football pitches. This was a shocking climbdown from the ambition laid out for the commission. And then it all disappeared.”
They were calling for increased access to nature, as there is a right to roam over just 8% of England. Ninety-two per cent is privately owned. The Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 gives a legal right of public access to mountains, moorland, heaths, some downland and commons, alongside the more recently created England coast path.
Campaigners have asked for this to be extended to cover rivers, woods and green belt land. Ninety-seven per cent of rivers are off limits to the public, and tens of thousands of acres of woodland have benefited from public subsidy, yet remain publicly inaccessible. There was a hope that this commission could improve access to some of these green and blue spaces.
But the sudden shelving of the commission has caused many to believe the government is putting the desires of large landowners over the right for people to go on walks and picnics in the countryside.
Green MP Caroline Lucas has twice asked the government to put the Agnew review in the Commons library, and twice the government has refused.
The Guardian has asked the government both through its press offices and via freedom of information requests to see submissions to the review – and it has refused, using FoI exemptions to claim that searching for the submissions would take too much time and money.
Now, those invited to that meeting last year have written to the government asking to see the review they were a part of. The letter, seen by the Guardian, is signed by the Ramblers, British Canoeing, the British Mountaineering Council, Swim England, and the Open Spaces Society.
Kate Ashbrook, the general secretary of the Open Spaces Society, said: “The Agnew commission was a huge disappointment. It intended to make recommendations for the spending review which would achieve a ‘quantum shift’ in access to the outdoors and nature, and it failed – but keeps the detail secret.”
Some of the organizations passed their submissions to the review to the Guardian. Their calls were far more ambitious than anything yet announced by the government.
A Ramblers spokesperson said his suggestions “included setting ambitious targets to focus efforts where they are needed most, rewarding farmers for improved countryside access under the new farm payments regime, and more support for green routes in towns and cities”.
Other ideas from the Ramblers included new paths connecting towns and cities to local green spaces, and more legal access routes in the countryside.
Similarly, the British Mountaineering Council asked the government to set itself targets for improved access to nature. Its submission says: “We need to create a significant shift in thinking on Defra policy on targets, which thus far have regrettably failed to include any consideration of access to the outdoors.”
British Canoeing asked for a right to paddle and swim in England’s waterways, pointing out that barriers to activities in the water particularly affect people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, ethnic minorities, disabled people and women.
Its submission said: “The lack of clarity in law surrounding access to our waters in England and Wales represents a massive inequality in access provision, excluding millions of people from being more active in the outdoors, more often.”
Campaigners have vowed to keep pressing the government to release the review and its response to submissions.
Guy Shrubsole, from the Right to Roam campaign, said: “Why on earth have ministers squashed this Treasury-commissioned review into access to the outdoors? Are they listening more to landowners than to access groups and the public?
“The government should publish the findings of the Agnew review, and extend the public’s right to roam to woodlands, rivers and green belt land.”
A government spokesperson said: “The access to the outdoors commission findings were incorporated into the spending review, which is providing more than £30m across government to improve public access to green spaces in support of health, wellbeing, and the environment.
“Local green spaces will also have an important role to play in the Nature Recovery Network, boosting access to nature close to where people live.
“From working to complete the England Coast Path, to investing in urban green spaces through the £9m leveling up parks fund, we continue to help connect people to the outdoors.”
It remains to be seen whether continued pressure – and mass trespasses – will put pressure on the government to release or act on the review. Or whether, as a minister recently said, the countryside will remain first and foremost a “place of business”.