Wales could be on the cusp of becoming the greatest outdoors destination in the world, if a review of legislation by the Welsh Government goes the right way. Combining the freedom to roam with a national network of celebrated footpaths, the new access arrangements would allow outdoors enthusiasts to walk, swim, camp and climb responsibly across the entire country. But not everyone is excited by the prospect. We investigate what options are on the table, and how close the dream scenario for walkers is to becoming a reality.
At the time of going to press with this feature, the Welsh Government announced that the Green Paper on Access and Recreation would only focus on rights of way legislation and would not address broader access rights across the country. For the latest about the decision and Ramblers Cymru’s ‘Wales for Walking’ campaign, visit www.ramblers.org.uk/wales
It’s summer 2020, the weather’s nice, and there’s a Welsh weekend to pack for. In goes a small tent, matches for our camp fire, and food for a couple of days. We’re free to go pretty much anywhere but, for old time’s sake, we pack an old OS map too. These days, it’s a quaint reminder of when walking meant worrying about keeping to lines on paper.
Things are different now. It all changed when Wales reinvented itself as completely walker-friendly. Maybe it was the fashion for all things Scandinavian (remember those Sarah Lund jumpers?), but the 2014 rethink of countryside access took the Nordic way as its model. Allemansrätten, or ‘everyman’s right’, is at the heart of the Swedish constitution, and neighbouring countries enjoy similar rights. It gives every citizen the freedom to walk, camp, swim or paddle his or her own canoe just about anywhere. Picking berries and mushrooms is also permitted.
Wales chose to do something very similar (but without the berry picking). It also maintained and improved its historic network of footpaths and other rights of way, so walkers could enjoy the best of both worlds.
From walking to wild swimming
All that is, of course, a flight of fancy – but not entirely. The Welsh Government is currently rethinking access to the countryside and is being urged to do something really bold – if not the Swedish model, then at least emulating Scotland’s general right of public access to all land.
Last November, the Welsh Government announced a review of existing legislation and guidance on access and outdoor recreation. It said it would look at everything from walking to wild swimming (taking in angling, canoeing and climbing along the way) and said: “Carried out responsibly, these activities can coexist with each other, and with land uses such as farming and forestry, and bring substantial benefits to Wales’ economy.”
That review was due to produce a set of proposals for debate in a Green Paper in spring 2014, opening the way to formal legislation. At the time of writing, the Green Paper hasn’t yet appeared, but that hasn’t stopped outdoors groups beginning excited discussions about access to Wales’ countryside.
However, these discussions are happening in something of a knowledge vacuum. The Welsh Government won’t yet say what it has in mind, although it has indicated that it wants to “secure better access to the outdoors for recreation”. And it’s an area on which the Labour-led administration has a good track record. It understands the economic and health benefits that outdoor recreation delivers, and lists the creation of the Wales Coast Path as one of its major achievements. The Coast Path has shown that creating opportunities for walking is a force for good, improving people’s lives and health, and boosting the economy (to the value of £32m a year, according to the Welsh Government).
The current review is being led by the Minister for Culture and Sport, John Griffiths. When I interviewed him for Walk last autumn, he was certain that the time had come for a major shake-up, saying: “I think all parties understand that what we currently have in place isn’t fit for purpose for the modern age.”
His review has been working to a set of principles that includes meeting the needs of the widest possible range of activities. There’s also that presumption in favour of increasing access for what it calls “responsible recreation”.
Ramblers Cymru would like to see something bold. Its ‘Wales for Walking’ campaign has been urging the Welsh Government to take full advantage of what it sees as an historic opportunity, and argues that opening access in a Scandinavian way, while improving and maintaining the footpath network, would be a game-changer.
“This is huge for Wales – England is watching with bated breath,” says Angela Charlton, director of Ramblers Cymru. “We could have it all. The footpath network plus open access would offer something for everyone. We could make Wales the best walking country in the world.”
Swedish or Scottish style access?
It’s no surprise that not everyone shares that enthusiasm. For the most part, the many groups that have an interest in the countryside in Wales are keeping their heads down and waiting to see what’s in the Green Paper. But the farming lobby has already made it clear that it will resist any change to the status quo.
As things stand, public access in Wales (and England) is largely limited to the network of long-established linear rights of way, including footpaths and bridleways. The Countryside and Rights of Way Act of 2000 has extended access by creating a limited right to roam over open country, such as moors, heath and downland. The Welsh Government says that, altogether, walkers have a right of access to about a fifth of the land area of Wales.
Of course, Sweden’s allemansrätten may not be right for Wales. The third largest country in Western Europe, Sweden is around 22 times bigger than Wales and much more sparsely populated. So, how about the Scottish way?
In Scotland, the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 codified the age-old tradition of the right to universal access to the land. It established a right to cross land and to be on land for non-motorised recreation, including walking, cycling, swimming and wild camping. But the arrangement borrows something of the Scandinavian spirit of community because, to enjoy your right of access, you have to be on your best behaviour and exercise those rights responsibly. What amounts to ‘responsibly’ is clearly spelled out in the Scottish Outdoor Access Code.
The Welsh Government wants a system that will increase public access, improve the existing rights of way network, and cut costs. Could that be something like Scotland’s responsible access? It could open up Wales in a way that would improve people’s quality of life and make their country more attractive than ever to visitors, says Angela Charlton. A big part of the increase in recreation would come from the simplification of access that it could deliver.
“People want to be confident about where they can go,” says Angela. “As things currently stand, they aren’t, because the legislation is just too complicated.”
But a rethink that puts an emphasis on more open access would miss the point, argues Rhian Nowell-Phillips, Deputy Director of Agricultural Policy at the Farmers’ Union of Wales (FUW). “Generally speaking, just saying we have a commitment to extend access doesn’t look at what people actually want,” she says. “They want more access close to where they live and more waymarked areas; they’re not generally interested in wild spaces.”
The British Mountaineering Council (BMC) is, of course, interested in wild space and is calling for an open-access charter for Wales. Its access and conservation officer for Wales, Elfyn Jones, says that Wales has some of the best sea-cliff climbing in the world, but access to those cliffs is often only by way of a favour from the owner, or by trespass. He sees responsible access as the “utopian dream”. It would give climbers and walkers a right of access to cliffs and crags, as well as sweeping away rights of way legislation that he calls “archaic, confusing, cumbersome and bureaucratic”.
The economic argument
Opening up more of the Welsh countryside could also help boost the rural economy, believes Elfyn – helping to sell Wales to the world. “We’ve seen something similar happen with the Wales Coast Path, which has brought in tens of millions of pounds since it was opened,” he says.
But Rhian Nowell-Phillips believes the economic argument is overplayed. “Our members get so angry when people start saying how many millions of pounds visitors spend in the rural economy – they don’t see it,” she says. “For the most part, people turn up in a car, look at the view and then go home. They don’t spend money, and why should they? Any increase in access impinges on farmers’ livelihoods, especially in Wales, where we rely on livestock.”
But Angela Charlton suggests increased access could offer new opportunities for Rhian’s members. “They might want to take advantage of the new access,” she says. “If you had a farm shop, for example, you could improve your business by developing paths and trails that would encourage people to visit.”
She sees responsible access as an opportunity for landowners and recreational users to get along better. Free to roam, people would use their own “sensible” routes, she says. “Where there’s a ploughed field, people would naturally go around it rather than straight across. It’s common sense, and would be better for the farmer and for walkers.”
At the heart of the change would be education, says Angela. In Scandinavia, children are taught to respect the environment and the rights of others when they’re in the countryside. In Scotland, a code of conduct spells out what’s OK and what’s not.
The BMC is also convinced of the need for a code and argues that a responsible access system would actually make life easier for landowners. Elfyn Jones says the current system makes it difficult for landowners to deal with problems, such as directing walkers away from lambing ewes. The new system could allow for local temporary or seasonal restrictions to protect livestock or wildlife.
Whatever the Government’s review decides, John Griffiths has said that public access in Wales should be both easier to understand and cheaper for the taxpayer. Ramblers Cymru is concerned about the idea that more could be done for less, worrying that it could lead to neglect of the existing footpath network. It’s a concern that’s shared by the BMC and FUW.
“Extending access shouldn’t be seen as an excuse to cut funding for the rights of way network,” says Elfyn Jones.
Rhian Nowell-Phillips says farmers think the network is already under-resourced. “The focus should be on spending money better,” she says. “Rationalisation should be all about putting something in place that actually works by improving the existing network.”
How far the Welsh Government is prepared to go will only become apparent when the Green Paper is finally published. It then faces the challenge of finding a middle way between different countryside interests – and doing it before its legislative time runs out ahead of campaigning for elections in 2015. But if they manage to pull off that magic combination of embracing Scandinavian-style access while preserving the existing path network, Wales could indeed become the best country for walkers in the world.
WORDS: Julian Rollins
ILLUSTRATION: Nina Hunter