The Queen's Speech: what it means for walkers

With today’s State Opening of Parliament the coalition government has published legislation it intends to pass into law before next year’s General Election. The legislation outlined in the Queen’s speech contained bills which are already going through Parliament as well as newly-introduced legislation which could both affect our walking environment.

The Ramblers is already heavily involved in current legislation including the High Speed Rail Bill and the Deregulation Bill.

Railway trackWe've lobbied on the High Speed Rail Bill, raising our concerns about the new line’s impacts on both the landscape (particularly in the Chilterns Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, where we believe the line should be fully tunnelled) and on public rights of way.

Current proposals here for phase one will badly affect 22 paths, with permanent diversions on unsuitable alignments, or long-term temporary ones on dangerous roads. 

We're also campaigning strongly on the Deregulation Bill, which is shortly to pass from the House of Commons to the House of Lords. It is vital that the full package of agreed measures is voted through as they stand and that Ministers successfully resist any new amendments which would allow for the diversion and closure of popular footpaths without reference to long-established checks and balances.

The Queen’s speech today also introduced the Infrastructure Bill, which contained measures to change the planning system in order to speed up development and the building of major roads and garden cities as well as fast-track the extraction of shale gas by ‘fracking’.

We're concerned here about potential impacts on both public access and our beautiful countryside, particularly in national parks and Areas of Oustanding Natural Beauty (AONBs), and we will be studying the Infratructure Bill carefully to ensure the new legislation protects them.

The bill also contains measures to give the Highways Agency more commercial freedom by turning it into a government company. We will press the new body to pursue a policy which favours public transport over road-building, and will look for opportunities to ensure that both proper provision is made for non-motorised users in the construction of new roads, and that a programme is introduced to improve crossings for existing roads.

We also note the introduction of a Social Action, Responsibility and Heroism Bill which includes measures to strengthen legal protections for people who have acted for the benefit of others. With over 25,000 volunteers we welcome the additional protection the bill will provide for negligence claims against volunteers, and we hope these measures will reassure those people who are currently put off volunteering for fear of legal claims being made against them.

The Draft Governance of National Parks and the Broads Bill is also of interest to us, providing as it does for direct elections to key positions in England's 10 National Park Authorities and the Broads Authority. We will be looking carefully at the draft bill to make sure that it does not erode representation of the national interest on National Park Authorities.

WoodsFinally, and somewhat surprisingly, the Queen’s speech didn’t contain the much anticipated Forestry Bill, not even in draft form. Any bill will now have to wait until after the General Election, causing further delay to the creation of a new public forest management body for England, a key recommendation of the Independent Panel on Forestry.

We're concerned that this will also stall progress in implementing the Independent Panel’s other findings (such as increasing public access) and add further pressure to the Forestry Commission’s already-stretched budget. In the short term Defra can assure us that no public woods will be put up for sale, but we will have to wait until a full bill has been passed before we can get sufficient assurance that the long-term future of our forests is on a sustainable footing.

With the government having now set out its legislative programme for the final year of this parliament it is more important than ever to make a strong case for walking and our walking environment. And with less than a year to go until Election Day we'll be reminding politicians of the importance of this and encouraging them to adopt the policies set out in our Manifesto for a Walking Britain.