Access to nature in England - how is the government doing?
We assess the government’s performance on improving access to nature
Is the government doing enough?
A government promise to improve access to nature
In 2018 the government committed in its 25 Year Environment Plan to ensuring “our natural environment can be enjoyed, used by and cared for by everyone” in England. This Plan is now part of the Environment Act and is the Environmental Improvement Plan.
Why this matters
The Covid-19 pandemic made us more aware than ever of the importance of being able to access nature. During challenging times, millions benefitted from being active outdoors, engaging with the natural world and experiencing all the health and wellbeing benefits this brings.
But in 2020 our research revealed that only 57% of people had easy access to nature. This fell to 46% for households with incomes under £15,000. And just 39% of people from ethnic minority backgrounds had easy access.
With the government’s focus now on planning for the post-pandemic future, it is time to make the most of every opportunity to bring the joy of walking to more people. So we’ve rated the government’s performance on a range of topics related to access to nature.
Is the Government doing enough?
For decades we’ve fought to protect and expand the places people love to walk. But now is a crucial time where we need the government to take urgent action and deliver on its promises to improve access to nature. We’ve judged its progress in some important areas. We’ve outlined where there is room for improvement that will help ensure that everyone can access nature, whether in towns and cities, the wider countryside or at the coast.
Here’s the detail of how the government is performing, and how it could improve:
National leadership – performance grade: D
What we want
Achieving any ambition, including better access to nature for all, needs a proper strategy, including long-term plans and targets to guide government thinking and focus support where it’s needed most.
There is no national strategy to guide decision-making and the government is failing to make the most of powers in the Environment Act to set targets to improve access to nature.
Long-term targets are needed to improve access and focus resources and interventions in places and communities where it’s needed most. The steps the government will take to improve access must be included in current revisions to the 25 Year Environment Plan.
Access to nature in towns and cities – performance grade: C
What we want
With 83% of people in England living in urban areas, every town and city should have a network of green walking routes enabling people to enjoy nature from their doorstep. Weaving through and beyond built up areas, linking up natural spaces, these routes will help bring the benefits of walking and nature to more people.
Natural England is developing advice for councils on how to make towns and cities greener. This advice will explain how councils can introduce more natural features, like trees and rain gardens, to streets and public spaces. This will not only make routes more attractive to walkers but also create a better home for urban wildlife, improve air quality, reduce flood risk and high temperatures in cities during heatwaves.
The government’s Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill makes proposals for changing the planning system and how the places where we live and work can be developed.
Natural England’s advice for councils on how to make places greener is very welcome, but the government needs to provide financial support to local authorities to make use of it. Without this it risks being just more guidance that sits on a shelf.
The Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill provides a once in a generation opportunity to reform the planning system so that it delivers benefits for people, nature and climate. (Link to our planning pages)
An accessible countryside – performance grade: C
What we want
The public rights of way network is the main way people walk in the countryside. It needs maintaining and protecting, and new routes are needed where there are deficiencies in access to rural landscapes.
The government has said that taxpayer funding could go to farmers to improve public access. But there is no sign it will deliver on this promise, meaning that communities will miss out on new opportunities to connect with nature and the countryside.
The government has recently committed to cancelling the 2026 deadline for historical rights of way to be added to the legal record in England. This is welcome.
Funding must be made available to all farmers who want to improve public access. This can take the form of improvements to existing paths, making them more accessible to more people, or the provision of new routes which would be of value to the public.
The welcome decision to cancel the 2026 deadline for recording historical rights of way must be enshrined in legislation.
Coastal access – performance grade: B
What we want
England has over 2,800 miles of coastline, home to over 3 million people. Improved public access to this fantastic asset will bring benefits to local communities and visitors alike.
Defra and Natural England have published proposals for nearly all of the England Coast Path route. Good progress is being made with opening celebrations planned for 2023.
The England Coast Path has weathered spending reviews, changes in the law and a pandemic, yet work is still ongoing. Now government needs to support coast local authorities to install the path on the ground and give it secure, long-term funding.
Overall assessment: must try much, much harder
Some progress is being made on delivering the England Coast Path and the decision to cancel the 2026 deadline for recording historic rights of way. But there is much further to go. The government must show leadership and integrate the need to improve access to nature across a wider range of policies. All of this is in its gift and necessary if it is to achieve its pledge of ensuring the natural environment can be “enjoyed, used by and cared for by everyone”.
As a charity, you can support our work to protect and improve our paths and green spaces by donating or becoming a member. Together we’ll increase access to green spaces, open up more places to walk and boost Britain’s wellbeing one step at a time.
Once complete, the England Coast Path will be our longest National Trail and the longest continuous coastal walking route in the world.
We want to ensure that walking in our busy towns and cities is easier and more enjoyable for everyone.