What happened to access in the government's ELM plans?

The government announcement on farm payments is the latest kick in the teeth for our ability to access nature.

 27th January 2023

The government had a golden opportunity. If it had stuck to its promises, its Environmental Land Management (ELM) scheme could truly have been one of the successes of Brexit. It would have been a win-win for the public and landowners alike, improving access to nature for all while also supporting farmers.

But on Thursday 26 January, it made an announcement on ELM that fell woefully short. This means £2.4 billion of taxpayers’ money will be spent with little or no improvement in access to the countryside.

As recent events in Dartmoor have shown, the public care deeply about access to the countryside. Now is the time to expand opportunities to get outdoors and connect with nature, but it seems the government disagrees.


ELM in a nutshell

The replacement for EU farm subsidies, the plan for ELM was to link financial assistance for farmers to actions that would be of value to wider society. ‘Public payments for public goods’, as they put it. One of the actions that farmers should have been able to take in return for support, one that the government promised, was widespread improvements in  access to the countryside in England.

ELM could have seen farmers rewarded for actions such as putting up signage, improving path surfaces and replacing stiles with gates. Almost 1/4 of England’s population can't currently use the nation’s path network, so these interventions would be a big step forward.

However, following yesterday’s announcement it’s far from clear if any of these improvements will be delivered, and it seems that the government is failing to live up to its promises.


Tell the government not to miss this opportunity 

This is another sign the government, despite warm words, is not interested in ensuring everyone can get outdoors. And we know how important that is, for physical and mental health and wellbeing, as well as nature’s recovery.

Out of a total of £2.4bn put aside for farmers to manage their land, the level of support and ambition for public access we were promised is missing. What’s more, much of the money earmarked for access appears to relate to educational farm visits, which isn’t a public good, rather than genuine improvements in public access to the countryside available to all.  


There’s still time to do the right thing

We fully recognise that the total ELM spend needs to provide farmers with options to support other equally important matters like biodiversity loss, water quality and soil health. But the commitments on public access are pitiful, and the detail is still lacking.

This was, and is, a fantastic chance to connect people with the land around them. But it seems ministers are determined to squander it.

We’ll continue to make it clear to government that by including access, ELM could enrich England’s natural environment and give more people an opportunity to enjoy it, while also helping farming communities to thrive.

There is still a year left before ELM is fully rolled out. Ministers, don’t miss this opportunity.


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