Brexit - why the fuss about public access?

With the New Year we saw the return of MPs to Parliament and the long-awaited meaningful vote on the Government’s Withdrawal Agreement. Given the magnitude of the decision faced by MPs, and amid endless speculation and uncertainty about whether the Government can get a deal over the line, it is easy to forget that there is other significant legislation currently passing through Parliament which, while receiving very little media attention, will matter a great deal if and when the UK leaves the EU.

One of these, the Agriculture Bill, was published in September 2018. Outside of the EU, the UK will no longer be part of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), meaning a domestic alternative needs to be in place by 29 March. But what does this have to do with public access? Well, given that agriculture accounts for 70 per cent of land use in the UK, the answer is a great deal! The decisions made by MPs as they debate the Bill in the months ahead will not only have a huge impact on the farming industry but will also set the foundations for how our countryside is managed for generations to come, including access to the outdoors.

So naturally we have been keeping a close eye on the development of Government policy and have been working hard over the past 18 months to make sure that the Bill represents a good outcome for walkers. So far we’ve been encouraged by the Government’s decision, set out in the Bill, to move away from the current system which sees landowners and farmers paid subsidies simply based upon the amount of land farmed. In its place, the Bill proposes a system which involves landowners and farmers receiving financial support where they deliver public goods – essential ‘services’ that are not provided by the market – such as cleaner air and water, better soil quality and, (we hope) at least partially as a result of our efforts, improvements in public access. There is however more work to do to ensure that, in terms of public access, the Bill is the best it possibly can be before it receives Royal Assent and becomes an Act of Parliament. So what is it that we want exactly?  

Firstly, we want the Bill to enhance public access to the countryside by enabling farmers and landowners to receive payments from the public purse where they go above and beyond their legal duties. This could include the provision of new routes that will be useful and enjoyable to the public, or measures to make the existing network more accessible to more people through, for example, improved access infrastructure. We believe that the Bill needs to be amended to reflect this aspiration.

Secondly, we want the Bill to help protect the existing public rights of way network by requiring farmers and landowners, as a condition of receiving public funds, to ensure they are compliant with their legal obligations to keep paths clear on their land. To this end, we believe that the Bill should establish a ‘regulatory baseline’ detailing the minimum standards expected of farmers who receive public money.

Taken together, we believe that these changes to the Bill would help more people connect with the countryside and also enable a better understanding of the important work that farmers do. And we’re really fortunate that there are parliamentarians who agree with us on this. Caroline Lucas and Angela Smith have tabled two amendments to the Bill which reflect our aspirations and, in advance of the next debate in the House of Commons, we need as many MPs as possible to show their support.

One way we can achieve this is by showing MPs the strength of public feeling behind this, which is where you come in. If you haven’t already done so, please write to your MP to ask them to sign up to the amendments. While it may seem that there are bigger, more important issues at Westminster we must remember that the Agriculture Bill is a once in a generation opportunity to better connect people with nature, farming and food and all the benefits that this brings.

Write to your MP and join us in calling for an Agriculture Bill that protects and enhances public rights of way >