U-turn on farm payments to improve public access would be another blow to people’s rights to nature

Last week’s high court ruling to outlaw the long-held custom of wild camping on Dartmoor saw people coming out in droves to defend their rights to access the countryside.

But it appears DEFRA may have underestimated the public’s desire to protect an improve access to nature. As the department prepares to set out long-awaitedplans for how it will invest £2.4 billion pounds of public moneyannually to support agriculture, the signs point to broken promises from ministers around supporting farmers to make the countryside more accessible to the public.

Environmental Land Management (ELM) was heralded by the government with great fanfare as one of the benefits of leaving the EU. It is set to replace subsidies – long-criticised by ministers as poor value for money for taxpayers – with a new approachthat rewards farmers for delivering benefits for the public.One of these, as outlined in the government’s landmark Agriculture Act, was to be improved public access to the countryside. This could includeimproving the surface of existing paths;replacingbarrierssuch as stiles with gates; creating new paths that divert walkers away from dangerous country roads and also connect rural communities; and better signage.

Why access to nature matters

Reams of scientific evidence support what we all know instinctively – that connecting with nature and the countryside is good for us physically, mentally and emotionally. Covid-19 brought this into even sharper focus, with millions experiencing the benefits of getting outdoors. But the pandemic also exposed stark inequalities in many areas of public life, including the reality that easy access to nature for all is by no means guaranteed.

Research by the Ramblers during the peak of the restrictions found that only 57% of adults questioned said that they lived within five-minutes’ walk of green space, be it a local park, nearby field or countryside. That figure fell to just 39% for people from a black, Asian or minority ethnic backgrounds and 46% for those with a household income of under £15,000 (compared to 63% of those with a household income over £35,000 and 70% over £70,000). We also know that over 20% of England’s population cannot currently use the nation’s path network due to mobility issues.

Broken promises

ELM could have been a fantastic way of overcoming some of the problems that prevent more people from getting outdoors and connecting with the countryside.Farmers could have been paid for new paths between communities and the countryside, or for the creation of more accessible routes for disabled people. And over the past few years we’ve heard from a changing cast of ministers that public access improvements would be secured through the new payments regime, summed up by Lord Benyon,Minister of State at Defra:

“There is an imperative, which has been particularly noticed during the Covid lockdown periods, when more people sought access to our countryside. We want to see that continue and be encouraged. That is why, in the schemes that we are bringing forward under Environmental Land Management, there will be a very clear access commitment, backed by funding”.

A clear access commitment? Backed by funding? Despite the drip-feeding of ELM policy announcements over the past two years, no detail has been provided by Defra setting out how genuine public access will be improved through ELM. All we know, and have been told to expect in the upcoming announcement, is that Defra will “continue to pay for access through existing schemes’and that they“…are expecting to continue that level of funding and support going forward”.

But this is misleading, and ministers know it (we’ve told them, frequently). Educational farm visits for schoolchildren are indeed paid for through existing schemes. But this is not a public good, unlike genuine public access to the countryside available to all sections of society to enjoy. And the level of funding for these visits? Our estimates based on figures from ministers and the Rural Payments Agencyis that last year this stood at about £400,000. Out of a total spend on farm support in the region of £2.5bn.That’s 0.017%.With about 0.39% of the total pupil headcount benefitting from the experience last year. A far cry from the improvements in access that were promised.

A new contract between farmers and the public

It is right that public investment supports the sector. Farmers play a vital role as producers and as stewards of the landscapes we know and love. But given the scale of this funding, it is reasonable to expect tangible benefits as part of a new ‘contract’ between taxpayers and the farming community. And nothing is more directly and immediately beneficial to the public than a combination of new and improved opportunities to connect with the outdoors.

Of course, the total ELM spend needs to provide farmers with options to support other equally important agendas – biodiversity loss, water quality, soil health to name but a few. But the level of provision for public access looks set to be, frankly, abysmal. Especially when set against all the evidence on why it is so important in improving health, wellbeing, supporting local economies and enabling people to better understand and care for the natural world.

What’s more, we know that the farming community also wants to be given an option of public funding for improved public access. Reports and statements from the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) and the Country Land and Business Association(CLA) point to a desire for a system which enables farmers and land managers to decide for themselves what works best for their own businesses and landholdings, and being given a range of choices to select from makes sense. For some, there may be no interest in payments for public access. But for others there is, and for these there should be an opportunity to benefit financially.

It’s not too late to put things right

Lessons must be learned and if Dartmoor’s anything to go by;decisions that restrict people’s access to nature will not be toleratedby the public. With one year left before ELM is rolled out in full, ministers still have timeto revisit their promises and work with the access sector and the farming community to develop options which can benefit all concerned. For us, this means farmers being given an option to be paid to improve the existing path network to make it safer and more accessiblefor everyone to access nature,including people with pushchairs and those in wheelchairs.