15 August 2019 by Gemma Cantelo
Gemma Cantelo, Ramblers’ head of policy and advocacy, reflects on what we need to see from the new government.
We face a climate emergency, catastrophic nature loss and widening health inequalities. Even life expectancy, so long on an upward trajectory, is faltering. In his last speech as Environment Secretary, Michael Gove spoke of the urgent need “to repair the damage we as a species have done to the planet that we have plundered” and the “critical duty” of government to act. And, it’s bold action we need: to reduce carbon emissions, get more people active, create more green nature-filled spaces, and design neighbourhoods that are healthier places to grow up and grow old.
But, bold action and political uncertainty are not natural bedfellows. Two-thirds of us believe the new PM should put climate change at the top of his agenda, but almost the same proportion believe government is not yet doing enough to prioritise it. If we want our politicians to act, it’s clear that citizens, including those of us who love the outdoors, and civil society organisations like the Ramblers need to keep the pressure up. So, what do we need to see from our new government?
Increase spending on walking and cycling
Walking - and protecting and creating places where people love to walk - is part of the solution to the problems we face. Transport contributes to 34% of carbon dioxide emissions. To achieve the government’s target of net zero carbon emissions by 2050, we need (at least) a 10% shift away from travel in cars towards walking, cycling and public transport. Yet, the government’s current spend on active travel accounts for a measly 1.5% of overall transport spending. If it’s serious about getting people out of their cars, government needs to get serious about its spend on walking and cycling.
That’s why the Ramblers - together with our partners in the Walking and Cycling Alliance – has called on government to increase spending on active travel to 5% of overall transport spending, moving up to 10% from 2025. That increase in funding should be supported by more ambitious national targets for walking – a call echoed by last month’s Transport Select Committee’s report on active travel.
Get more people moving
The benefits of creating safe, convenient and attractive conditions for walking reach beyond mitigating climate change. Creating more walkable neighbourhoods improves air quality, enhances health and wellbeing, boosts local economies and helps to combat social isolation. In fact, every £1 spent on walking and cycling yields an average of £5.50 of benefits.
It’s easy to see how: physical inactivity now costs the UK £7.4 billion each year. As the government’s newly-published Prevention Green Paper recognises: “One of the easiest ways to get active is to build physical activity into your daily commute to work or school. Walking and cycling are 2 of the top ways that people in England keep physically active and are the most accessible and cheapest forms of transport.” Although lacking in ambition, the Green Paper includes welcome proposals to expand and promote social prescribing, which enables primary care professionals like GPs to refer people to non-clinical services - such as schemes in the Ramblers’ walking for health programme.
The health and wellbeing benefits of nature also feature strongly and have been a regular feature of news headlines – from evidence that spending two hours each week in green space can boost your health and happiness to new research that links greater tree cover to better health outcomes. The Chief Medical Officer is due to publish new physical activity guidelines in the autumn – but perhaps it’s time for government guidelines on ‘recommended time in nature’ too?
Invest in green space
It’s heartening to see departments across government recognising the huge economic, human and social value of our green spaces. And it’s backed by evidence: new data from the Office of National Statistics estimates the value of Britain’s mountains, moorlands and heaths at £20.1 billion in carbon capture, air quality and recreation benefits. Research from 2015 has pegged the overall value of our green spaces at mind-blowing £761 billion.
That’s some return on investment – a point not lost on the chairs of Natural England and the Environment Agency, Tony Juniper and Emma Howard Boyd. In a blog for the Green Alliance, they urged the new PM to “make the recovery of our environment a priority, including for the Spending Review”. It’s a message the Ramblers will be pushing over coming months too - let’s hope the Treasury are listening.
With our public bodies feeling the effects of ten+ years of austerity, there’s much to do. We need to secure funding for national parks and increase investment in Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty – points made in the interim findings of Julian Glover’s review of designated landscapes. Our National Trails, including the England Coast Path, need to be properly funded too. Not to forget our local rights of way – you’d be hard pushed to find any part of the public sector more affected by funding cuts than local government.
Connect more people to nature
If we want government and departments to take serious action, we need to hold them to account. That’s why an ambitious Environment Bill is so important. In her first public speech as Defra minister, Theresa Villiers reasserted government’s commitment to a “ground-breaking” Environment Bill. For the Ramblers, that means a Bill underpinned by legally-binding targets for public access and connecting people to nature. We need to move towards a system in which public bodies have a duty to ensure that new policies and schemes result in no net loss of access rights and access land, and a presumption in favour of public access.
When the Agriculture Bill was first laid before parliament nearly a year ago, we were pleased to see public access recognised as one of the public goods for which farmers could receive payment. Government now needs to ensure that the agricultural payments regime introduced by the Bill requires those in receipt of public money fulfil minimum standards, including existing duties to maintain public rights of way. The new payment regime is also an opportunity to direct money towards schemes that enhance our existing public rights of way network and make the countryside more accessible.
Our landscapes need to be viewed and managed as a joined-up network of green spaces and green corridors, reaching from people’s doorsteps to wild open spaces. We know that parts of the country are poorly served for both green space and public access, and that ‘green poverty’ disproportionately affects our most deprived communities. We need urgent, coordinated action, not only to stop nature’s decline, but also to reconnect people and communities to nature. Information about where people can walk needs to open and transparent – not hidden away in hard-to-access databases or behind-the-curtain deals with landowners. People need to understand their rights (and responsibilities) and have the confidence to get outside and explore, from childhood and throughout their lives. That takes national leadership.
What would you like to see from the new government? Let us know! Email the Ramblers’ policy and advocacy team at firstname.lastname@example.org.