It is hard to believe that during such a wet start to 2021, we continue to see access hitting the headlines, and not always for the right reasons. The latest lockdown has, once again, seen members of the public keen to get outdoors and into the countryside, particularly with most other activities curtailed. Visitors should be welcomed and encouraged to learn more about the countryside; however, a lack of understanding became clear very quickly into the new year.
With increased use, some of our public footpaths and bridleways came, and continue to be, under great strain. Many walked routes have become far wider than the legal line of the route, resulting in a muddy expanse across farmland with many metres of productive land lost.
The current access issues which our members are reporting follow on from those experienced in 2020. Attending many branch committee meetings in the autumn to discuss the CLA’s access strategy paper was a great opportunity not only to listen to your comments and suggestions concerning public access but also to share best practice and ideas amongst members and colleagues.
Feedback from these meetings formed the basis of a next steps paper that was discussed at the CLA’s policy committee last November. There were six key areas of priority and concern: Education and signage, online mapping apps, diversions (both temporary and permanent), the 2026 cut-off for claims for ancient rights of way and water access.
The CLA continues its engagement with the government on rights of way reform. There is much talk about ancient rights of way being claimed. The Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 (CRoW Act) provides a cut off of 2026 for adding these rediscovered paths to the definitive map.
We, and other land management representatives, continue to resist calls for this to be extended to 2031 (which is possible under the CRoW Act). User groups are fighting for such an extension on the basis that reforms from the Deregulation Act 2015 have not yet been brought into effect. These reforms were meant to streamline the process for processing these claims for new routes based on historic rights of way.
Secondary legislation is needed to bring reform proposals into effect. In addition, amongst the proposed reforms, two of the important issues from members’ perspective are whether there will be a presumption for diverting paths where privacy, safety or security are an issue and the implementation of the Right to Apply. This will give landowners the ability to require local authorities to consider applications to divert/extinguish paths, and to take it to the Planning Inspectorate if there are objections. Currently, there is no duty on authorities to consider applications for diversions they receive.
January saw another round of access reform meetings held by Natural Resources Wales, together with further work by the inland water access subgroup. Reports will be produced to go before the Senedd shortly for debate and consideration. Once the Welsh Government has decided the direction they will take, a consultation will then take place. However, there is also an election to consider in the middle of all these plans.
A review and revamp of the Countryside Code is underway, which the CLA is very much involved in. There was broad agreement on many aspects of the Code at a recent stakeholder meeting. Once agreed, the refreshed version is likely to be used in Wales.
There is much to be positive about in the existing Code, but everyone involved in the review process agrees that much more needs to be done around education and communication of the Code. Rural Affairs Minister Lord Gardiner is keen to have a renewed push of the Code before Easter to try to avoid many of the issues experienced during the first lockdown last year.
Public access, with all of its challenges and opportunities, is under intense pressure and scrutiny and the public has high expectations
Lastly, the CLA is hoping to see more detail soon about potential permissive access schemes in relation to the new Environmental Land Management scheme.
Members on CLA committees have voiced their support for any additional access through the scheme to be on a voluntary, incentivised and permissive basis. We hope this will be an opportunity for landowners to receive incentives for providing, for example, educational access, signage, infrastructure and for the maintenance of it.
There will be ongoing work through this year and beyond relating to the areas mentioned above. In terms of activities, based on a key area of concern, the CLA organised a national livestock and access event. Last year saw a number of tragic incidents. In September alone, three walkers were killed by livestock while out in the countryside and we are always keen to help reduce the risks and save lives.
The webinar, held on 1 March, was run in association with the NFU with support from the TFA and Countryside Alliance. To watch a recording visit the past webinars section of our website here. Later in the spring, we will also be running interactive regional access roadshows, which will cover the key issues members encounter and include a surgery time for queries and discussions.
In addition, we are reviewing the guidance available to members through our handbooks and guidance notes. New and revised publications will be released throughout the year.
The countryside is a welcoming place that has invaluable benefits for people’s mental and physical wellbeing, especially during the current pandemic.
However, the CLA continues its media campaign to urge those visiting rural areas to do so responsibly and respectfully. Public access, with all of its challenges and opportunities, is under intense pressure and scrutiny and the public has high expectations over access to the countryside.
Your concerns and priorities will be developed into a range of actions that will be implemented over the coming weeks and months. We will keep you updated on this work, and in the meantime we continue to be available to help with any queries.