How important is outdoor recreation to Scotland’s political parties?

With just a few days to go until the next Scottish elections, all the political parties are ramping up their activities.  But it was actually last summer when we started working with other outdoor recreation bodies to develop a Manifesto for the Outdoors and discussed our ideas with the main parties as they drew up their own manifestos.  

Among the manifesto's key aims were calls for:

  • A new Outdoor Recreation Champion role to be created within the Scottish Government
  • A guarantee that every primary and secondary school pupil has at least one week away at an outdoor centre
  • Long-term strategic investment in infrastructure such as facilities, ranger services, education and skills training
  • More support for BAME communities and people in deprived areas to engage with the outdoors
  • The creation of a standalone fund for outdoor recreation, including paths and signage

Of course, we all vote for a whole range of reasons, but let’s take a look at how far we have been able to influence them.  

What we were calling for 

The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted and made clear what we already knew, that outdoor recreation can have a transformative role in improving and maintaining people’s health and wellbeing. It keeps us fit, healthy and resilient while often helping us keep in contact with people and learn new skills too. We also knew that outdoor recreation makes an important contribution to Scotland’s economy, especially in rural areas.  

Covid-19 has illustrated that message clearly, with people across Scotland recognising how important it has been for their wellbeing to be able to get outdoors into nature. We’ve all enjoyed spending time with friends and family in local greenspaces as well as Scotland’s magnificent wilder landscapes – even in wet and cold weather! 

But the pandemic also demonstrated something else we’ve been reporting for many years, and that was the long term reduction in investment to support all this activity. We’ve seen the loss of access officers and ranger services, the closure of toilets and lack of maintenance of paths and visitor facilities like our urban parks and greenspaces, car parks and signage.  When people were finally able to get out last summer, the impact of this lack of management and infrastructure was clear with many places unable to cope with the pressure of visitors. 

So our Manifesto for the Outdoors set out a list of actions that would help to turn this situation around, to address both the short term impacts of the lifting of restrictions and the longer term aspiration to improve Scotland’s amazing opportunities for outdoor recreation. And a key part of this is to do with education, whether that’s in formal school settings or in a friendly chat with a ranger while out camping. 

So were the parties listening?   

Overall we’ve been really heartened by the recognition from all the parties of the importance of helping people to be more active and supporting that activity with investment. While there are obviously differences in emphasis, there’s a very welcome focus in all manifesto on various aspects of our own, particularly in relation to leading a recovery from the pandemic. Here are some examples: 

Commitments to ensuring that all school pupils have at least one week at a residential outdoor centre, with some parties also agreeing with us that there should be a week each for primary AND secondary students. 

Recognition of the unique and valuable role of rangers, with parties committing to increasing investment in the ranger service. 

Promises to invest in parks and greenspaces and visitor infrastructure, and in particular to ensure that there is more equal access to nature for everyone across our society. 

Strong commitments for greater investment in active travel, so that everyone has the option to walk or cycle for short journeys. 

Clear recognition of the role of outdoor recreation and physical activity in improving public health. 

In addition, three parties specifically picked up our suggestion of an Outdoor Recreation Champion to work across government and ensure that every department is contributing to this agenda.  This is particularly important because with outdoor recreation the benefits aren’t always felt by the department which spends the money. For example, Transport Scotland may use its budget to improve walking and cycling routes but it’s public health which is boosted by higher levels of physical activity. An Outdoor Recreation Champion can help to make that case for joined-up thinking.

After the election is over, delivering on the promises will take much longer to achieve. This will take ongoing engagement with the political process by all organisations involved in our manifesto. Our work is just starting! 

Check out each of the five main party manifesto for yourself here: