Three years ago the Government committed to ensuring "our natural environment can be enjoyed, used by and cared for by everyone" in its 25 year Environment Plan. As the Environment Bill returns to Parliament today (October 20th), we’ve rated the Government’s performance on a range of areas related to accessing nature.
Covid-19 has made us more aware than ever of the importance of being able to access nature. During challenging times, millions have benefitted from being active outdoors, engaging with natural world and experiencing all the health and wellbeing benefits this brings.
Why access to green space matters
Our report The grass isn’t greener for everyone: why access to green space matters revealed that only 57% of people had easy access to nature. This fell to 46% for households with incomes under £15,000 and to just 39% for people from a black, Asian or minority ethnic background.
So, as the country emerges from the worst of the pandemic and the government’s focus shifts from emergency response measures to planning for the future, it is time to make the most of every opportunity to help connect more people to the natural world.
Are the Government doing enough?
For decades the Ramblers has fought to protect and expand the places people love to walk. But now is a crucial time where we need to see Government take urgent action. We’ve seen Ministers make promising noises in terms of access. So as the Environment Bill returns to Parliament for its final stages, we have launched a scorecard outlining what progress has been made on increasing our ability to access nature.
Scoring the government's performance on improving access to nature
We’ve judged the government’s 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 our towns and cities, the wider countryside or at the coast.
Here’s the detail of how the Government are performing, and where they can improve:
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.
Government performance - New legislation to improve the environment, will be finalised in a matter of weeks. But the government has refused to include within this a requirement to support better access to nature.
What’s needed - Long-term targets are needed to improve access to nature for everyone, to focus resources and interventions in the places and communities where it’s needed most. The steps government will take to improve access to nature must be included into long term plans introduced by the Environment Bill.
What we want - With 83% of the population 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. A network of green routes, weaving through and beyond a town or city, linking up natural spaces and features will help to bring the benefits of walking and nature directly to people.
Government performance - Natural England is developing advice on greening existing spaces and streets, resulting not only in better access, but also supporting wildlife, improving air quality, cooling during heatwaves and reducing flood risk.
The government’s planning white paper set out an ambition for reform that delivers beauty, biodiversity, preserves and enhances nature, addresses climate change and boosts democracy.
What’s needed – Natural England have started on some excellent work, 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.
On planning, we believe the new Secretary of State should set a vision for planning that delivers the sorts of places people want to live and work, that prioritise health and wellbeing and access to nature.
What we want - The public rights of way network is the main way people connect with the countryside. It needs maintenance and protection, and additional routes in areas where there are deficiencies in access to rural landscapes.
Government performance - The government has said taxpayer funding could go to farmers to improve public access. But there is no sign that it will deliver on this promise, meaning that communities will miss out on new opportunities to connect with nature in the countryside.
From 2026, it will no longer be possible to add historical rights of way to the legal record in England. The government can delay this by 5 years, giving more time for this critical work.
What’s needed - 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 2026 deadline should be extended by at least five years, which is entirely within the government’s gift.
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.
Government performance - Defra and Natural England have published proposals for nearly all of the England Coast Path route. Good progress is being made and the Path is likely to be completed in 2022/3.
What’s needed The Coast Path has weathered spending reviews, changes in the law and now a pandemic, yet it’s still going. Now government needs to support coastal local authorities to install the path on the ground and give it secure, long-term funding as befits a national asset.
Download a more detailed overview which outlines how the Government is performing across these different aspects of improving access to nature.
Persuade the Government to take action
To show there is widespread support across society for change, the Ramblers has launched a petition calling on the Government to make connecting people with nature a priority and to invest in the infrastructure that enables everyone to enjoy walking in nature.