2024 – a year of opportunity for walkers in England?

In the run-up to the election, we look at how political parties can unlock the outdoors for everyone

23 February 2024

In the run-up to the general election, we will be calling for a bill that unlocks the outdoors in England for everyone. We are developing proposals that would create access to nature close to home, unleash the potential of the path and access network, and build a future plan for access to nature that stands the test of time. 

We will share updates as we develop our campaign, but here, our Policy and Advocacy Officer, Stephen Russell, looks ahead at the potential for improving public access in England in 2024. 


Access to nature on the agenda 

The stage is set to get public access to nature onto the political agenda this year. We have new government ministers, appointed in November, who are indicating an interest in taking steps to improve access before the next general election, and opposition parties who have made public pronouncements about their intention to improve access should they win that election and form the next government.

Also this year we are promised progress on the government’s plans to achieve its ambition for everyone to live within a 15-minute walk of nature, integration of access options in the new farm payments schemes, and we have a milestone anniversary: 75 years since the National Parks & Access to the Countryside Act was passed in 1949.

However, in recent years, the need to improve public access has frequently been neglected by ministers, squeezed out by what have been viewed as more pressing concerns such as farming and environmental reforms. There have been a handful of welcome initiatives, such as the Coast to Coast National Trail (due for completion in 2025), or the King Charles III England Coast Path (which should be complete by the end of this year). But these do nothing for communities across the country who are missing out because of a lack of opportunities on their doorstep or the neglect of the existing path network.


Time to act

Time and time again research is published confirming what we already know to be true – that access to nature brings a host of benefits for our health and wellbeing, for the economic value it brings to rural communities, and its role in fostering a sense of responsibility for the natural world.

But we also know that for many people easy access to the outdoors is far from guaranteed, with the government’s own estimates suggesting that almost 40% of people are currently more than 15 minutes’ walk from nature. People may live far from the path network, open access land and other green spaces, or may be unable to enjoy opportunities that already exist. Years of financial constraints in local government have taken their toll on the path network, and public access has been low down on the list of priorities for successive Westminster administrations.

The case is compelling.  What we need now is for political parties to commit to doing something about the fact that so many people are unable to enjoy the outdoors. Something sustainable, something transformative.

Politicians are starting to get this message, and how important it is to people. The general election is an opportunity for them to commit to action, and so in the months ahead we’ll be ramping up our engagement with political parties and candidates to secure their support.


The New Opportunity

As we celebrate the anniversary of the National Parks & Access to the Countryside Act 1949, the foundation of so much of the access that we enjoy today, we want political parties to commit to introducing new access legislation to address the pressing issues facing walkers in England.

New legislation is needed to:

  • Create new opportunities for people to enjoy the benefits of walking and experience nature closer to home, by expanding the freedom to roam and creating more green routes in our cities.
  • Unleash the potential of England’s path network by repealing the 2031 deadline for recording historic rights of way and making paths more accessible for disabled people.
  • Establish a clear plan and legally binding national frameworks and targets to provide a more sustainable future for public access, one less vulnerable to political whim.

We recognise the current pressures in terms of public spending. But this shouldn’t prevent new access legislation from laying the foundations for the changes we need to see, so that when the economic outlook is brighter, the next government has all the tools it needs to deliver for walkers in England.

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A field fence with barbed wire wrapped around.

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