29 October 2021 by Stephen Russell
After publishing our review of the government's poor performance on access to nature, Ramblers' policy officer Stephen Russell talks about why access to nature is so important, and how the government can make connecting people with nature a priority
Some of my earliest, and happiest, memories are of countless hours spent outdoors walking the paths around the village in the far south of the Isle of Wight where I grew up. I didn’t realise it at the time, but on reflection the days spent winding my way along the coast, across downland and farmland and through woodlands were foundational journeys of learning and discovery. They helped me to understand and respect the natural world, and my place within it.
Walking and nattering with dad was a chance to learn about his own childhood exploring the same area, and our family history (our family goes back a long way – some might say too long – in the same village). I had the freedom to explore, to play in the open air, to breathe.
It’s because of these early experiences that I still, to this day, take so much pleasure in getting outdoors and connecting with nature wherever I am, even if nowhere beats the countryside of my childhood. And it’s clear to me that none of this would have been possible without the paths and green, open spaces I was so lucky to have on my doorstep when I was growing up.
The benefits of access to nature
The benefits I gained from these experiences are, of course, not unique to me. Reams of scientific evidence support what we all know instinctively – that connecting with nature wherever we are is good for us physically, mentally and emotionally. Covid-19 brought this into even sharper focus, with millions experiencing the joy, and comfort, of getting outdoors. A plethora of articles and opinion pieces popped up in the media extolling the virtues of going for a walk in nature as a way of making it through the unprecedented restrictions on our daily lives.
However the pandemic also exposed some stark inequalities across society, including the reality that easy access to nature for all is by no means guaranteed. But at the Ramblers we believe that it should be, and that the ability to connect with the natural environment shouldn’t be a result of some ‘postcode lottery’. So, with the worst of the pandemic (hopefully) in the past, now is the time to really learn the lessons it has taught us and plan for a better future. This includes identifying, and acting on, opportunities to help everyone access nature – and reap the benefits – as part of their daily lives.
How to improve access to nature for everybody
Different actors have their roles to play in realising this ambition. And this includes the government in Westminster, whose policy and spending decisions have a huge impact on the ways in which our landscapes – whether outstanding or everyday, in towns, cities or the countryside – are planned, used and enjoyed.
On the surface the government agrees with our aspirations. Its 25 Year Environment Plan includes a commitment to ensure that “the natural environment can be enjoyed, used by and cared for by everyone”. But is the government actually ‘walking the talk’? Is it making the most of the opportunities within its grasp? Sadly, and frustratingly, after a review we’ve undertaken and published this week the answer is a resounding ‘no’.
The problem is that the government is failing to recognise that policy and legislative changes it is bringing forward have huge potential to improve access to nature.
- The Environment Bill doesn’t compel government to set targets or develop plans to focus improvements where they are needed.
- The new farm payment scheme, introduced by the Agriculture Act, shows no sign of rewarding farmers for improving access on their land, despite repeated promises that it would.
- Proposed changes to the planning system don’t prioritise nature-rich walking environments.
With the exception of some progress in delivering the England Coast Path – a legacy stemming from long before the current administration came to power – our scorecard points to a government that is failing to show the leadership that is required to deliver change on the ground.
The good news is that there is still time for the government to improve on its performance. But as laws and policies are finalised, the window of opportunity is closing. Which is why we need you to support our petition calling on the Government to make connecting people with nature a priority – something that shouldn’t be a luxury by virtue of where you live of who you are.