A walk through the next 25 years

In January, the Government launched its long-awaited 25 Year Environment Plan (for England) with great fanfare.

On the face of it (quite literally) the plan is supportive of access to the green environment. There is a wonderful vista of Mam Tor, in the Peak District, on the cover showing a path stretching away over the sunlit ridge and, in launching the Plan, the Prime Minister reminded us that she and her husband “love walking in the countryside”. So, over the next few weeks, we’ll be looking at what the plan actually offers to those of us who love to walk.

Our environment at the centre of government thinking

It’s encouraging that the Plan was launched by the PM herself and also that it’s an HM Government document. It’s been said for many years that making a real improvement to our environment will need commitment from a number of other departments, not least the Treasury. Previous environment plans have tended to be seen as the preserve of Defra, so we hope that this signals a step forward in putting our environment at the centre of government thinking.

The Government says in the plan, “we know how much the countryside and scenery mean to people: nearly 60% of adults surveyed in 2015 said these were what made them most proud of Britain”. It sets ten encouraging goals for improving the quality of our environment. These range from having thriving plants and wildlife to eliminating avoidable plastic waste by the end of 2042 and mitigating and adapting to climate change.

Significantly, the commitments include reviewing National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty - and assessing whether more may be needed. All of these sit well with the Ramblers mission to ‘protect landscapes for all walkers to enjoy’, from expanding our legally protected landscapes to helping keep our countryside (and seas) beautiful and litter-free.

Even better, the sixth goal is “enhancing beauty, heritage and engagement with the natural environment”, noting that “connecting more people with the environment will promote greater well-being” and “make sure [the environment] can be enjoyed, used by and cared for by everyone”. It expresses the Government’s aim to “make sure that responsible attitudes towards the environment become the norm”. This captures the essence of the Ramblers work on responsible access to the countryside and it’s great to see the importance of connecting people to the outdoors recognised in this way. The more people experience their environment (urban and rural) by walking through it, the more they enjoy it and understand how it works, the more they will care for it and support the work of those who look after it.

Access to woodland 

The 25 Year Plan is less forthcoming on exactly how people should be able to access the outdoors. It makes no mention of open access - under the Countryside and Rights of Way (CRoW) Act of 2000 - and only a passing comment on our amazing Rights of Way network. It does, however, acknowledge the value of woods and forests for public access as well as the host of other benefits they bring to society.

Last year, the Ramblers campaigned for better public access to our country’s woods and forests, so we are delighted to see a commitment to creating more accessible woodland. Using a process known as ‘natural capital accounting’, the Government has estimated the value of these benefits at £2.3 billion and noted that, of this, “only a small proportion – 10% – is in timber values. The rest derives from other benefits provided to society, such as human recreation and carbon sequestration”. While woodlands have many functions such as timber production, carbon capture, habitat creation and natural flood management, we believe that they should also be publicly accessible wherever possible. Only then can they reach their full natural capital potential.

In the plan, the Government also committed to supporting a ‘new Northern Forest’ which will “deliver accessible community woodland”. It’s important that the Government works to create more accessible woodland/forest. Some of the new woodlands are likely to be on mountain, moor, heath and downland, where we currently have a ‘right to roam’ under the CRoW Act (2000). We’re keen to help the Government find ways of meeting their ambitious tree planting targets without reducing the amount of land where people can roam using their right of open access.

So what can the Ramblers do to help? 

The 25 Year Plan gives us lots of opportunities. The Government will be consulting on setting up “a new independent body to hold government to account and a new set of environmental principles to underpin policy-making”. We will use this opportunity to make the case about how important it is to keep the balance and interrelationship of conservation and access management in any new regulatory body.

The Plan says that the Government wants to “invite bodies and people to reduce the environmental impact of their actions, and do more to help communities and individuals to engage with nature and enhance what they find there”. Walking is one of the most sustainable forms of transport, increasing exercise, reducing the need for car travel for short journeys and getting people out into their local environment on foot. This is why we will be making the case for investment to make the walking environment better.

The Plan points out that “we all have a stake in our environment. Everyone can play a part, because government and environmental organisations cannot achieve the necessary improvements on their own”. The Ramblers is ready to be part of the solution.

If you want to help us shape the future of access in England, you can sign our petition that calls for increased woodland access.