– in the House of Commons at 11:42 am on 18th May 2023.
I remind the House that the judgment in relation to Darwall and Darwall v. Dartmoor National Park Authority, the Dartmoor wild camping case, has been appealed and the case is therefore sub judice. Members must avoid making reference to that case in this and any other debates.
I beg to move,
That this House
has considered public access to nature.
It is a pleasure to open this debate on increasing public access to nature and I thank the Backbench Business Committee for supporting it. In an age where we are increasingly isolated from the natural world, and in a country that ranks lowest in Europe for nature connectedness, improving access to green space could not be more important. Yet that very framing somehow suggests that we are separate from the world around us and that nature is simply something to be visited on occasion. In reality, nothing could be further from the truth. Others have pointed out that it has been around 7 million years since our ancestors started evolving into the modern humans we are today. During that process of evolution, we have spent more than 99.9% of our time living in a natural environment. Our bodies are adapted to nature.
In debating the urgent need to improve access to nature and to reforge our connection with this precious earth, it is also important to reframe that relationship so that we no longer see nature as something other, but something of which we are a part and which is also part of us.
Wildlife and Countryside Link has made a number of recommendations for improving public access to nature, including the expansion of the right to roam and investment in widely publicising the countryside code. Does the hon. Member agree that by realising those recommendations in tandem, the Government can aid more people to enjoy the UK’s natural spaces responsibly?
The hon. Member will not be surprised to know that I agree entirely with her points. Indeed, I will come to them a little later.
In my introductory remarks to the debate, I will set out the many benefits of increasing access to nature, identify where the Government could amend and update existing legislation to achieve that, and, indeed, make the case for a new comprehensive right of responsible access in England. Before I do so, I pay tribute to the many organisations and individuals who have done so much to promote that idea, and I single out Marion Shoard in particular, who I believe is watching us from the Gallery today. Marion has done more than perhaps any other individual to push land on to the agenda in Britain, and to advance cogently and fearlessly the case for a right to roam.
I am extremely grateful to the hon. Lady for initiating the debate and for allowing me to intervene. I wonder if her interest in nature extends to water and blue spaces. On the rare occasions when parliamentary duties and childcare allow, I seek joy from canoeing, but there is an unfettered right of access to only 7% of appropriate inland waterways in the UK. Voluntary access arrangements are clearly not working in any significant way. Does she agree that, at a minimum, the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 needs to be extended to cover water as well as land?
I agree entirely with the hon. Member. It is slightly unfortunate that the phrase “right to roam” does not automatically include the right to access water, but that is exactly what is understood by it. I will in a moment pay tribute to canoeists for their work in setting up a voluntary code of conduct on how they treat the water to which they have access. They need a lot more access, however, and that is certainly part of the proposals that I will set out.
On the benefits of access to nature, we have long known that being in the outdoors is good for our soul, but the evidence increasingly demonstrates that it is vital for our health as well. First, for our physical health, beyond the obvious health benefits of walking or running, the very act of being in green space has been found to lower blood pressure, reduce the risk of diabetes and heart disease, and boost our immune systems.
I thank the hon. Lady for giving way once again. It is understood that exercising in the fresh air can also ease mental health issues such as anxiety. Polling by the Mental Health Foundation highlights that 70% of adults find that being in nature improves their mood. Clearly, those benefits cannot be overlooked. Does she agree that widening public access to nature could be instrumental in responding to the country’s mental health crisis?
Indeed, the hon. Member anticipates my very next point. She is exactly right: the benefits of being in nature are not limited to our physical health; they very much affect our mental health as well, easing anxiety and increasing positive emotions. Spending time in nature has been proven fundamental to good mental health. Indeed, the growth in green social prescribing shows that that is increasingly being recognised more widely.
Does the hon. Lady agree that part of the problem with health and income inequalities is that access to nature is not equally distributed in this country? Some of the wealthiest constituencies have far greater access to nature than some of the poorest. That goes along with the historic theft of land by the very wealthiest—facilitated by this place—who stole it from the poorest communities. That has never been properly readdressed.
I agree very much with that point. Inequalities go right through from start to finish in terms of access to the countryside, and I will say more about that, but he also rightly points to the fact that this is nothing new; this is part of a history of land grabbing that has been going on from the enclosures onwards, if not before that. It is something that we need to address if we are serious about wealth inequalities in this country as well as health inequalities, because unless we address the issue of the distribution of land, we are not going to solve that problem.
There is economic sense in increasing access to nature, too. Figures suggest that the NHS could save around £3 billion in treatment costs every year if everyone had access to good-quality green space. Despite the importance of access to nature to the nation’s health, and that significance only being underlined throughout the covid pandemic and subsequent lockdowns, there is no national strategy for ensuring that everyone can enjoy access to nature. My first question to the Minister is whether she will look to rectify that and to direct and co-ordinate policy action and resources across Government.
As Lloyd Russell-Moyle set out, we know that access to nature remains incredibly unequal, and covid underlined that. Black people and people of colour, as well as poorer households, are far less likely to live close to green space. Friends of the Earth research suggests that 40% of people from ethnic minority backgrounds live in the most green space-deprived areas, compared with just 14% of white people.
While I welcome the Government’s goal outlined in their environmental improvement plan to enhance engagement with the natural environment and the commitment that everyone should live within a 15-minute walk of a green or blue space, the Minister will know that, as it stands, that commitment is not legally binding. It urgently needs to be accompanied by ambitious legislation, together with funding for local authorities to help achieve it.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this important debate, of which I am a co-sponsor. Does she agree that, along with access to nature, we need restoration of nature? Local authorities can lead the way, but they need the money, and it is so important that our urban communities in particular can benefit from local authorities restoring nature where they can.
I thank the hon. Member for her intervention and very much agree with the point she makes. Local authorities have a vital role to play, and yet their budgets have been slashed over the past 13 years.
To return to the issue of how the lack of access has played out in different constituencies, new research by the Wildlife and Countryside Link shows that in more than one in 10 neighbourhoods, between 90% and 100% of the population currently have no access to nature within a 15-minute walk. The Right to Roam campaign recently calculated that 92 constituencies in England currently have no right to roam at all, with many more than that having very little access.
The Minister might be aware that when the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill was going through the Commons, I tabled an amendment on Report that would have created a right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment and required public authorities to increase equitable access to nature. That call is backed by the public, with 80% of people wanting to see a legal right to local nature. With that Bill now going through the Lords, I urge the Minister and the Government to pick up my amendment and show the level of ambition that is needed.
I know that Ministers are, rightly, extremely proud of the English coastal path and the establishment of the coast-to-coast national trail. I welcome these efforts, which undoubtedly improve ease of access, but I am concerned that they do not begin to address the scale of the challenge at hand—not least because, for example, much of the English coastal path, which involves essentially a pretty thin strip of land along the coast, was already accessible through existing rights of way. The coast-to-coast route has long been an unofficial long-distance path linking east and west coasts across northern England. Last year it was designated as an official national trail, but as a result, it needs to be better signposted, better maintained and better publicised.
The bottom line is that much more needs to be done to improve public access to nature. As such, I urge the Government to look closely at other proposals, such as giving national park authorities a range of new purposes, including one to improve people’s connection to nature, which would also implement a key proposal from the Glover review of protected landscapes. Will the Minister look again at embedding public access into the new environmental land management schemes, which would help farmers to create more opportunities for people to enjoy the outdoors? Will the Government remove the new 2031 deadline for recording historic rights of way? The reimposition of that artificial deadline risks losing thousands of footpaths.
Will the Government urgently conduct a mapping review of existing open access land? Ministers have tabled a further amendment to the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill to defer that review until the end of 2030, which is more than 25 years after the first maps were produced, despite a legal requirement that they be updated every 10 years. Will the Minister bring forward new funding for local authorities to maintain public rights of way? Finally, will the Government support local councils and national park authorities to improve access to the countryside for everyone, including those with disabilities and those who do not own or have access to a car? For both those groups of people, much of the countryside remains out of reach—a situation that has undoubtedly been exacerbated by cuts to local bus services.
Having said that, I am just going to give a quick shout-out to the Brighton & Hove bus company and its “Breeze up to the Downs” service—I am sure the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown will agree. That service is supported by the council, the National Trust and the South Downs National Park Authority. Those kinds of models, which enable people to get into the countryside affordably and easily if they do not have a car, need to be supported. I will also use this opportunity to congratulate the former Green administration in Brighton and Hove, which blazed a trail with its transformative city downland estate plan. That plan contains commitments to consider proposals to designate every site under the council’s management as statutory open access land.
The hon. Lady raises an important point about the ability for councils to use their own estate. Is she looking forward to the exciting plans that we might have in Lewes, as I am?
I am indeed looking forward to exciting plans in Lewes, and I pay tribute to local councillors there.
However, we must go further to truly transform our relationship with nature, with access to wilder spaces where we can marvel at the wonders around us and be fully immersed in the natural world. Those who organised the mass trespass of Kinder Scout in 1932, which so many of us have taken so much inspiration from, knew the value of access to our dramatic Peak district, and their actions united the campaign for access to the countryside.
At the start of this millennium, the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 finally gave us a right to roam in certain areas, over mountain, moor, heath and down, designating them as open access land. However, that designation still covers only 8% of land in England, and much of it is remote. Too often, tracts of legally accessible open country land lack any legal means for the public to cross other land to access them, rendering them effectively off limits. Just 3% of rivers in England and Wales are accessible, and even that is only provided by voluntary agreements with landowners and can therefore be taken away.
That is why last year, I tabled a Bill that would have extended the right to roam to woods, rivers, green-belt land and more grassland. In doing so, it would have provided access to nature on people’s doorsteps, as those landscapes are found in almost every community, and it would have extended access to approximately 30% of English land. Since I drafted that Bill, the momentum behind the campaign for access to nature has only grown, and I believe now is the time to be even bolder and more ambitious. It is time for a reset of our very relationship with the natural world around us, one that re-establishes the intimacy and connection that is essential if we are to restore the state of our—quite often literally—scorched earth.
I believe it is time to expand our minds and our horizons and look north of the border to Scotland, where the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 enshrined the right of access to most land and water, providing that the right is exercised responsibly. Of course, there will be some sensible exclusions such as fields where crops are growing, seasonal restrictions for sensitive nature sites, school playing fields and even gardens. However, that is essentially a much more expansive approach. It designates a universal right to roam with exclusions carved out, rather than the opposite approach that is taken in England, which is based on a universal exclusion with access only to some very specific landscapes. The Scottish approach is far simpler, meaning that we are no longer reliant on confusing and often outdated land designations that no longer reflect the nature of our countryside, and it is more equal, meaning that everyone has shared access to this island that is our home.
The Government made a number of welcome commitments in their environmental improvement plan, but legislative change is needed to deliver on those commitments. Does the hon. Member agree that the Government now need to advance policy that successfully expands public access to nature?
I hope that everything I have said so far demonstrates that I entirely agree with the point that the hon. Lady makes.
I believe it is time to consider a comprehensive right of responsible access in England. With two decades of lived experience, Scotland provides an important model for us to learn from and emulate south of the border. It is important to note that Scotland is not alone in its approach; in countries such as Norway, Sweden and Estonia, the right to roam has long existed as a common right and a defining concept of nationhood that has only recently been codified into law. In America and Australia, there is free access to all navigable rivers. Why should we in England be denied that right to enjoy, know and protect our shared world?
In recent months, the Opposition have announced that they would pass a right to roam Act in government, and I welcome that, but when the Opposition spokesperson, Alex Sobel speaks, I would be interested to know what exactly their version of a right to roam Act would entail. Would it be a fully expanded right to roam, or a partial one based on specific designations? I am arguing for a new approach: an extension of the right to roam in the context of a wider recentring of our relationship with nature—moving to a relationship built on community, care and reciprocity, with a deep love and understanding of the world around us, rather than one defined by extraction and exploitation. Re-establishing our connection with nature is essential if we are to effectively address the terrifying biodiversity crisis that sees a million species on the brink of extinction.
The Minister will no doubt be aware that target 12 of the global biodiversity framework agreed in Montreal in December was to:
“Significantly increase the area and quality and connectivity of, access to, and benefits from green and blue spaces”.
The public can be partners in that endeavour and become guardians of the natural world, but only if they and we are given the opportunity to better know, love and protect it. That so many are not able to delight in the blackthorn bursting into blossom in the spring, the sight of fledglings making their first leaps to freedom, or the sound of grasshoppers singing in the heat of summer is a personal tragedy, but it is also profoundly concerning for the future of the species with which we are blessed to share this one planet. In the words of one scientist, Robert Michael Pyle,
“What is the extinction of the condor to a child who has never known the wren?”
While greater access to the countryside obviously cannot solve the ecological crisis, I genuinely believe that it is nevertheless a precondition to our ability to try. I know some Members will be concerned about the impact of a renewed right to roam, and in particular the irresponsible behaviour of a few. Let us be clear that those are the actions of a very small minority among a nation of nature lovers. The response to David Attenborough’s “Wild Isles” demonstrates how fiercely the public love nature and want it to be not just conserved, but restored. I welcome initiatives such as the “People’s Plan for Nature”, which sets out the public’s vision for the future of nature and the actions we all need to take to renew it.
Secondly and crucially, the right to access has to be balanced with responsibilities. No one is suggesting that a right to roam should be absolute. It has to be balanced against other rights, such as the rights of wildlife to be protected and the rights of landowners to gain a living from their land. However, arbitrarily applying rights to some classes of land but not to others is no way of securing that proper balance, and that is why it has to go hand in hand with a renewed outdoor access code that clearly sets out the responsibilities of the public and landowners.
The Scottish outdoor access code has been instrumental in successfully establishing a right to responsible access. It makes it clear that visitors must respect the interests of others, care for the environment and take responsibility for their own actions, and it enjoys widespread public awareness. That simply is not the case with the countryside code in England. The work that has gone into updating it has sadly not been matched by work to promote it. Wider education has a vital role, whether that is public information campaigns or making sure we are teaching the countryside code in every single school so that children grow up with a much clearer understanding of their responsibilities in our countryside. In that respect, I am encouraged and inspired by examples such as the new paddlers’ code, produced by British Canoeing, which sets out guidance for canoeists, kayakers and paddlers on how to enjoy our waterways responsibly.
Let me be very clear that there will be some times and some areas where a right to roam is simply not appropriate, whether that is to protect sensitive sites and rare and endangered species such as the wood calamint or the ghost orchid, or to avoid disturbing ground-nesting birds such as nightjars and woodlarks. Our remaining biodiversity is immensely precious, and we must be vigilant in protecting it. I also want to acknowledge that there are particular concerns about dogs, especially for wildlife. Even if they are on a lead, their presence can not only cause birds stress, but disrupt their behaviours and even cause them to leave their nest. We therefore do need a proper debate about whether a right to roam should be extended to dogs, and I will look at this very closely when I present a revised Bill in future.
As I draw my comments to a close, I want to challenge the idea that it is somehow the public who are a threat to nature and that that is why they have to be kept away from it. The UK did not become one of the most nature- depleted countries in the world, where 15% of species are at risk of extinction, because some people are dropping litter. To borrow some words from author and campaigner Nick Hayes:
“It’s not the wild swimmer who poisons our rivers, nor the rambler who burns the moorland. When they took away our right to access the land, they took away our ability to protect it.”
No, we know it is the greedy water companies that relentlessly pump sewage into the rivers and seas while handing billions to their shareholders, or it is the landowners who burn our precious peatlands, a vital carbon source, for blood sport and profit. Frankly, it is also this Government, who have failed to give enough support to farmers to transition to agroecological farming when nature restoration and food production can go hand in hand.
In closing, I pay tribute to the work that has been done by campaigners from right across the access movement. Fifteen years ago, Marion Shoard wrote of her concerns about new barriers to the countryside—not just the landowners’ fences, but the new shutters that she argued have closed people’s minds against the very idea of being able to roam freely in the countryside. Today, thankfully, that is changing. There is now a vibrant and growing movement, with those such as the Right to Roam campaign, spearheaded by Guy Shrubsole and Nick Hayes, asserting their rights—our rights—to the land. My hope is that we can work together for our health and wellbeing, for our happiness and fulfilment, and of course for the love of life on Earth, because nature needs us to know it, love it, restore it and defend it, and, frankly, we need nature if we are to learn to be fully human.
It is a pleasure to follow Caroline Lucas, and I congratulate her on securing this very important debate. I want to focus most of my remarks on the importance of access to nature for children and for education. The hon. Lady and I have worked together on campaigns on these issues. However, I also want to touch on some local matters relating to developments in Worcestershire and Herefordshire to do with how we ensure that the children in all our schools benefit from the fantastic countryside and the fantastic nature around us, and how we protect those special places.
Last Saturday, I was on a sponsored walk for my local hospice up in the beautiful Malvern hills. It is a historical place for conservation, and the work of the Malvern Hills Conservators to protect the landscape of the area goes back over a century. We can see three counties from up there, including that of my hon. Friend Richard Graham. We cannot quite see Gloucester, but we can certainly see Gloucestershire, as well as Herefordshire and Worcestershire. It is an incredibly valuable landscape, and it was great to see, as we went on with our miles of walking, that scouts and guides were up on the hills and enjoying them as well. I pay tribute to all the voluntary organisations that provide access to nature for children of school age, including of course the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award scheme, and the very important work that they do in getting kids out into the natural environment.
It was very interesting during my time as schools Minister to visit schools in the inner cities of London and Birmingham that were doing really important work, recognising the benefits of nature for the mental health of pupils, in trying to connect their pupils with nature. I remember one visit to a school in a very built-up area of Lambeth, where the teachers had determined to use the resources they had available to develop a garden, create a natural environment and have a pond in the small urban space they had, so that children could engage with nature. They talked about the mental health benefits of that. When we face such a huge mental health challenge in our schools and in our education system, I think we should see access to nature and engagement with nature as one of the solutions. It is certainly not the case that only schools in the countryside can deliver that—schools in urban environments can deliver that, too—but it needs to be something that we consider as part of our curriculum.
The hon. Member makes a great case for young people needing to have access to nature, but because there is so little directly accessible in their local area, they often have to travel a very long way. Does it not make sense to open up more nature, so that people do not have to travel, but have it on their doorstep?
I absolutely recognise that, which is why it is important that councils work together with voluntary groups to make sure that we signpost those green spaces. In my own consistency, which is an urban constituency— Worcester is surrounded by beautiful countryside, I accept —we have seen a fantastic local project by the Worcester Environmental Group and the council to develop the Wild about Worcester Way, a walking route around the city. It connects green spaces in the city and accessible areas such as the Worcester Woods country park, Nunnery wood and Perry wood, where Cromwell allegedly met the devil, to our primary schools, so that there are walking routes for children to enjoy. In areas where they might not enjoy great parks and facilities, to link schools, through active travel, to such places is important.
We also need to look at routes through the countryside. I do not represent many farmers and I am not going to get into the detail of the debate about the right to roam, but I do think we should be exploring more greenways—more long-distance travel routes from area to area. I am interested in proposals for a Hereford to Worcester greenway to enable both active travel and engagement with nature for people. For that to work, there needs to be join-up between different Departments—the Department for Transport, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities—to make sure we have an approach that can support these things with proper funding.
I touched on this earlier, but there is also the importance of having nature as part of the curriculum. I have spoken before about the amazing work being done by the Rivers multi-academy trust in my constituency, which is promoting a curriculum based on the sustainable development goals. Right at the heart of that curriculum is engaging children with nature and making sure that they understand their responsibilities to nature. I was interested in what the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion said about the balance of rights and responsibilities when it comes to access. It is absolutely key that children have the opportunity to learn those responsibilities at an early stage in their education, and they are not going to do that unless we connect them with nature and give them those opportunities to be outside and to be engaged with nature.
As someone who spent the first 18 years of their life in Great Malvern and spent a lot of time on the Malvern hills, I appreciate the hon. Member’s words about that. I have been enjoying his speech very much, but is he going to come on to the natural history GCSE? We have worked together with the wonderful Mary Colwell to try to make sure there is a natural history GCSE in the curriculum, which would absolutely give young people that empirical exposure to the nature around them.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right and pre-empts my very next point. I did have very interesting meetings with the hon. Lady, Mary Colwell and Tim Oates discussing the case for a natural history GCSE. I have to honest and say that I was initially sceptical. Going into those meetings, I had extensive briefing from officials as to all the questions to ask and all the reasons why we might not approve a natural history GCSE, and I felt that the campaigners, collectively, were able to answer those questions in an incisive way. That demonstrated the academic benefits of restoring subjects such as botany to the curriculum, and the opportunity to engage students at a crucial time and to make sure that we fill the gap between the primary science curriculum, which includes good elements of nature, and the A-level in environmental studies, which the Government have put forward. The conversations I have had in schools since taking the decision that we should go ahead and develop that, show there is enormous appetite for it. I will be writing to the Minister for Schools to urge him to come forward with the detail needed to ensure that the natural history GCSE can be delivered at the earliest possible opportunity. It is important that we move forward with that. I know that many groups, including The Wildlife Trusts, are interested in contributing to the work on that. I think it is possible to deliver an academically rigorous, challenging and interesting natural history GCSE, which will also widen opportunities for students in our schools to undertake field work.
It is so important to have a natural history GCSE. People say, “Well field work is covered in biology and geography”, but not every student takes those subjects. Many students will opt out of geography before they choose their GCSE courses, and many will take combined sciences and might not have the opportunity to take part in field trips. A natural history GCSE will give students another opportunity to engage in field trips and outdoor activity, and to develop some of the skills that we as a country will need if we are to meet our long-term ambition of leaving nature in a better state than we found it.
We have recently seen in Worcester the establishment of the Office for Environmental Protection. It has been interesting talking to it about the job and skills opportunities there are for people who can understand and monitor levels of nature, biodiversity and environmental issues. Some hard skills are required for that, such as data science and scientific knowledge, so we must ensure that we take advantage of those opportunities. We must look at careers guidance in schools and prepare children for a greener, more environmentally aware future, in which increasing the quality of our natural environment and biodiversity is a key goal shared by all parties across the House. That is also a good reason for stepping forward with access to nature for schoolchildren in general, and with the natural history GCSE in particular.
A couple of things have improved in recent months and years, one of which is the conversation around environmental land management schemes. I have met my local wildlife trust regularly, and our discussions have led me to think that the Department is now in a much better place on ELMs than it perhaps has been sometimes in the past. Some of the concerns that the trust raised strenuously regarding the direction of travel about a year ago seem to have been met, so I am grateful to Ministers for their ongoing engagement with The Wildlife Trusts on that.
A number of constituents have written to me recently about the so-called Save the Shire campaign and the interesting challenge of saving literary landscapes. When that first came in, I imagined that it might refer to the view from the Malvern Hills, which I have always understood was very much the inspiration for Tolkien’s Shire. It turns out, however, that it is to do with another part of Worcestershire, which the Tolkien family had connections with, in the constituency of my hon. Friend Rachel Maclean. It is an example of some of the tensions between access to nature and other environmental issues, because it is a campaign against the development of a solar farm. People are saying that they do not want the development of the solar farm because it will change the nature of the countryside and change access. that is a challenge. I will not wade into the planning area. Of course it is important that we protect our rural landscapes, and it is also important that we develop renewable technologies and renewables, but access must be a key part of that and one concern is that, if we have large renewable installations on land, they will restrict access. We should ensure that we enable access, both for nature and creatures, but also for people, to those sites and that we do not allow rights of way, which are important, to be shut off.
We need to continue to work on this area. Some of the figures on the health benefits have been cited. I suspect those understate the reality. The £2 billion figure I have seen in a Natural England report about health benefits largely focuses on physical health. As a country we face such huge challenges with mental health, particularly among our young people. Engaging people with nature and ensuring that they have that opportunity to reflect and engage with nature—as the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion ably pointed out, that has very much been part of our natural development as human beings over the millennia, let alone the centuries—will be better for people’s mental health and in the long run it can save the health system a fortune.
I congratulate Caroline Lucas on securing this important debate and the Backbench Business Committee on granting it. Research in 14 different European countries has shown that the UK’s record is woeful, with biodiversity, wellbeing and natural connection the worst among those countries. Among the G7, we come bottom and across our world we are in the lowest 10% of countries. So today’s debate should kickstart the Government’s thoughts, as well as drive forward the Opposition’s ambitions to establish a plan for nature. I welcome that the Government this year published the environmental improvement plan, but its 10 goals lack ambition and teeth, and the rigour we need to ensure that the commitments in that project are delivered in a timely way.
In the south-west, only 5% of land is accessible to the public. A lot of green-belt land is privately owned and therefore not accessible to them. Does the hon. Lady agree that part of the plan should be to open up green-belt land to the right to roam?
I absolutely agree. The historic injustice in who owns our land across our country has to be addressed. We have much work to do on that. The environmental improvement plan does not address those issues, which must be addressed, so that everybody can have access to our natural environment.
The plan also lacks ambition when it comes to addressing inequality. The word “inequality” is not sewn through the plan and it must be. Inequality is why we are standing here today, whether that involves the historic injustice of who owns the land in Britain, or the diversity of our communities, where access is far more restricted for those from the most deprived communities—something I recognise within my constituency. Just 8% of England is covered by the right to roam, and 3% of our rivers and 15% of our woods.
We are indebted to Chris Smith, and the work he did in bringing in the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 to open up access to mountains, moors, heaths, downlands and common land. However, even after those efforts, most of our country locks us out. We need a fresh start and I believe my hon. Friend Alex Sobel will have that ambition when a Labour Government come in. Even in York, with our incredible bioeconomy, pathways are still closed to the public as developers buy up land and lock them out. We need to address that injustice too.
I personally have known the enrichment that access to nature gives. It is my place to go for restoration. It is a privilege to walk many national trails, over hills and mountains, to be lost in complete wilderness when finding myself, and to cycle the breadth of the country. Even in my constituency, each day, I seek to have a brisk walk to enjoy the rivers and strays, and the environment that comes into the heart of York. I always say that the most important skills I ever learnt were to ride a bike and use a map and compass, yet many of our young people today have no access to either. It is so important that young people learn those vital skills as part of their formal education process. Many youth organisations such as the Brownies, Guides, Scouts and Cubs teach those skills, but every child should have that enrichment.
I will never forget talking to a teacher at Carr Junior School in Acomb in my constituency, who talked about how the children in her school had never seen crashing waves at the seaside and never felt the “sand between their toes”. We have incredible assets across our country, but our children cannot necessarily access them unless their schools have proper funding to afford those trips, or unless we have a strategy that really focuses on young people getting that love of nature.
I agree with the hon. Lady’s point. One visit that I did during my time as Schools Minister was to a primary school in Hastings and Rye, which was all of a mile and a half from the sea—admittedly up quite a high cliff—and I was struck by the headteacher saying that probably two thirds of the children there had never been to the seaside. That is an extraordinary example of how, even with very small distances, communities sometimes get locked in and do not have that opportunity to go and enjoy the natural resources right on their doorstep. It is crucial that schools are resourced but also challenged to provide that engagement with those natural resources, which might be close by but are still considered inaccessible.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that point and could not agree more. It often comes down to funding in schools and being able to afford those opportunities for young people to experience the natural environment. That should not be the case, because we know how that further bakes in inequality. Of course, at a time when children really need to access nature, they are denied it. We have such incredible assets all around us, so we need to provide that opportunity to young people.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. Will she join me in congratulating Second West Kirby Sea Scouts on the work they do to take children out on the water and give them the experience of enjoying water sports? I met them recently at a May Day fair, where they said they were sure that they would have about 15 children sign up to go kayaking and so forth, but they were looking for volunteers. Does she agree that the work of volunteers is invaluable in that regard?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. As a former Beaver Scout leader and someone who is much involved in the scouting movement, I know the value that scouting and guiding bring to many of my constituents. Of course, we need scout and guide leaders—that is always the issue. Volunteers gain so many skills as well, so I urge people to come forward and enjoy that too.
We often talk about these things in this place, but if we do not see that opportunity hardwired into legislation and Government strategy, it often becomes talk and not action. For example, I spent six months on the Bill Committee for the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill, bringing forward amendments that aimed to provide greater access to nature, whether by developing one of the missions to focus on nature or by bringing forward opportunity for access to nature and protection of nature, which is vital at this time.
In that Bill Committee I made arguments about how we use our brownfield sites. I would like the Minister to respond on this. In debates in this place, we often hear that we must drive development on brownfield sites. However, I have witnessed in York how a brownfield former rubbish dump has been turned into St Nicks nature reserve, providing real access to nature in an urban environment. When we are developing brownfield sites, we need to think about opportunities to create wildernesses and parks. We even need to be thinking about exchange with green- belt land so that we do not push everything into the urban centres, denying access to nature to people living in urban environments while there is so much for everybody else. We could look at that policy to ensure that we get a fairer share. With that legislation, we talk about using little pockets of land for development, but those are often where people in those communities have the opportunity to enjoy nature. We should look at protecting those areas for community interest purposes.
I thank those who have campaigned long and hard to provide access, right back to the Kinder Scout movement and to this very day. In York, I see the work that York Cycle Campaign and Walk York are doing to open up access. It is not always just about getting there. That is a major issue, and for that I thank the dales and moors buses who take people out, including facilitating day walks for people from the urban environment, giving them an opportunity to experience the natural environment while ensuring that there are things to do.
That is where i-Travel York comes in. It has created interactive maps so that as people go on cycle routes and walks, they can know what places to go, what they are looking for and what kind of nature to spot. That is why we must ensure that we facilitate the travel. I welcome reducing the cost of buses that go out into the environment, but there is too little infrastructure. We need to address that. People also need to know what to do when they get out into the natural environment and how to enjoy and get the most out of it.
We recognise how during lockdown so many people were trapped in flats and urban environments. Getting that reconnection is really important. Social prescribers are doing fantastic work by opening up opportunities, but we must ensure that they are properly funded and that that programme can be built up even more. We know that when people access nature, their physical and mental health improves. We have heard how about £2.1 billion could be saved, but I agree with Mr Walker that it could be far more. There is talk of £7.4 billion to the wider economy, and of course there is the difference that could make to people in our communities. The mortality gap in my constituency —just in York—is 10 years, so we know that inequality is clearly embedded in people’s ability to walk and enjoy the natural environment; that must be closed.
We need that programme of nature recovery to be integrated with human recovery. I think hard about what happened after the pandemic in many schools and getting that focus on children’s wellbeing. Some independent schools put farming and engagement in the natural world on their curriculum. However, in many state schools it was a case of young people having to work harder at the core subjects, which the Government identified, in order to catch up—as opposed to being able to catch up with themselves. In fact, that caused greater harm to those individuals rather than the replenishment that nature could bring.
We also need to look at where people can stay when they are out in the community. We have heard much about the opportunity to visit places, but I would argue that people should have the right to wild camp and stay in locations. There is nothing like waking up to the dawn chorus or seeing a spectacular sunset in a wild area and getting that connection with nature. The opportunity to wild camp is therefore really important. Of course, we must preserve that land and take care of it while there. In just a week’s time, I will be packing up my tent and walking the hills with my father, who is now well into his 80s. We are both really excited about spending time together, recharging and climbing those hills once again. It is such a privilege, and I want everyone to enjoy that.
I want to raise with the Minister the decline in youth hostels across the country. I am a life member of the Youth Hostels Association. Rural hostels have been in decline and disappearing, and it is really important that we deal with that so that all ages can engage. In fact, the Government could do so much more to ensure that people have those stopping points. Certainly, for those walking a national trail without the infrastructure there, trying to find somewhere to stay can be a nightmare. I think about the Pennine way—I think it is 276 miles—where several of the youth hostels on the route have now disappeared, which makes it a difficult journey. It is really worth looking at where people can stay, whether camping or indeed in a youth hostel, so that everyone can access nature and enjoy those rural retreats.
In this debate we have talked about such joy, such opportunity and the amazing landscapes we have. Before I close, I want to touch on one more issue: bringing nature into the urban space. In York I want to see a city farm. I have long talked about the therapeutic benefits that could bring. We know from research that when animals are brought into care homes, it has helped residents and older people re-engage, re-live memories and feel connected. I want young people to be able to learn the basics of animal welfare, and for people with mental health challenges, and indeed all of us, to enjoy the opportunities and enrichment that a city farm can bring. We need those facilities in our urban environments to draw out the interest of young people to help them find themselves and to connect.
We need to see so much more ambition. We have a Labour Government coming, and I am excited about that because we can create wonderful connection and restore our rhythm of life.
I must say that, although I have no policy views, I am delighted to represent the Ribble Valley during this debate, and I cannot wait to get back there this afternoon.
This is a rare debate, is it not, Mr Deputy Speaker? It is becoming an ode to nature; a long series of prose poems of colleagues’ enjoyment of nature and what it brings to us and our constituents.
I very much enjoyed listening to Rachael Maskell describe her upcoming walk with her father, now in his 80s, and the joy that will bring them both. My father is now 94. Sadly, his walking days are very much behind him, but they are strong in his memory. He can still vividly describe landscape, nature and birds from throughout his long life. I am sure that is true for everyone here and across the country. I welcome this debate, opened in style by Caroline Lucas, with strong support for things that she and so many of us believe in.
My starting observation would be that my sense of nature and public access to it is slightly less central and less driven by Government fiat; it is more about the joys of volunteers, charities and individuals incrementally improving the landscape around us, to hand it on to our children and grandchildren in slightly better shape than we inherited it. It is more a conservative vision of what human involvement with nature is all about. That is what I want to touch on today.
In many ways, one would expect the representative of the city of Gloucester to talk about access to the great nature all around our city. We are so close to the Cotswolds escarpment, Crickley hill, and all of the lands that Laurie Lee and Ivor Gurney described so beautifully. Whether up in the hills or looking the other way to the Forest of Dean, May hill and even to the Malvern hills —which we can see clearly from quite a lot of Gloucester, and where I vividly remember as a small boy tobogganing from school through the snow—we are part of a wider landscape around us. That includes the River Wye, which, despite everything that one might read, is still a wonderful place to go swimming, whether from Lydbrook or Symonds Yat. It has some of the most spectacular country for walking, swimming and canoeing, arguably. That is a free advert for my right hon. Friend Mr Harper.
It is about recognition that in each part of the country that we represent, we have very special nature all around us. As a couple of Members have already said, that came to the fore during the pandemic, when at one stage we were able to go five or six miles for our daily exercise. Five or six miles from Gloucester leads to spectacular places, including Haresfield Beacon, close to where Beatrix Potter used to draw. Aren’t we lucky?
I want to focus on what is happening within my own urban environment in Gloucester. There are lessons and opportunities for the whole country from what is happening in the small city, which the Minister knows so well—she was there not long ago. We could not find a better champion for nature and everything that it can bring to us than the Minister and her colleagues in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.
What is Gloucester all about? It is 5.5 square miles of urban environment, which happens to include the Robinswood hill, and water in the shape of both the River Severn and the Sharpness to Gloucester canal, as well as other things that I will come to. It has many parks, most of them enhanced considerably over the past dozen years, often with playgrounds—the city council has doubled the number playgrounds in Gloucester over the past 12 years. Playgrounds are often the entry point for small children to first visit and be around nature with their parents and grandparents.
In the same sense, we are lucky to have the headquarters of Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust on Robinswood, which has understood that amazing asset and now taken over its management from the city council. That is a really good example, if the House will tolerate this, of what some people would call privatisation but I would call simply a more imaginative management of important resources, better done by a specialist charity. In the same way, the Canal and River Trust has done such a good job of looking after our major canals all around the country, although there are one or two things about that I will come to. It was handed over from British Waterways by a very good Minister in DEFRA at that time, Richard Benyon, who is now in the other place and still doing great work on the environment for his country. We are lucky, geographically, to have those amazing assets. We are also lucky to have good partnerships that make the most of them.
Thematically, I am looking at ways in which we can preserve, enhance and create. Preservation almost speaks for itself, but preserving and enhancing together is a theme that every wildlife trust in the country should—and no doubt is—looking at. The Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust, under the leadership of its recently moved on chief executive Roger Matlock, who is now taking over the Council for the Protection of Rural England, led some important steps forward to use Robinswood as a place for education and enjoyment. Sustainable wooden playgrounds and enhanced car parks have been used as a way of bringing families in from all backgrounds.
Colleagues have made points about people from ethnic minority communities who live further from nature than others. That is true in some parts of the country, no doubt, but in a city our size of only 5.5 square miles, where we have a primary school that has more than 50 nationalities, we are all very close to the extraordinary combination of the canal, the hill, the river and the lakes. The question is, does everyone have equal inspiration and drive to go and find, use and draw pleasure from those great natural assets? That is where schools play a major part.
I want to highlight Meadowside and Clearwater in Quedgeley, which has its own town council in the city of Gloucester. Those two primary schools—both rather different, one very new—have embraced the opportunities that using the green spaces and exploring outside can offer children. They are joined by many schools in Gloucester—Abbeymead Primary School was the first to take up my offer for every child in our city to plant a tree at the new Hempsted woods on our recycling centre, where we hope to plant 100,000 trees. Almost 8,000 have been planted so far by five schools. We have a long way to go, but the opportunity is huge and some schools are seizing it fast, particularly the local Hempsted primary.
Creation is important, too, and it can be done in lots of different ways. After the terrible floods of 2007, which hit Gloucester, Tewkesbury, Worcestershire and all around the River Severn, the Environment Agency, encouraged by the Government, created a new balancing pond that will become a diversion for the Sud Brook, rather than it flooding the suburbs of Elmbridge and Longlevens, in particular. That balancing pond serves the functional task of protecting humans, but it has also become an incredibly attractive area for birds, ducks and marine life. It now provides a wonderful leisure opportunity for people to walk and picnic with their families and dogs, with some areas protected so that dogs cannot disrupt nesting birds, ducks, moorhens and coots. That is a creative way in which a government agency has prevented the flooding that had badly impacted thousands of people’s lives, as flooding does, and provided a huge new natural resource that everybody can enjoy.
On a more micro level, in Barton and Tredworth ward, which has the least green space and the most ethnic diversity, last year we were able to open a new community garden—the Sudbrook Community Garden—which I have wanted to do for a long time. With the help of several partners, including businesses, the city council and a housing association, we were able to deliver. I know on the Minister’s next visit to Gloucester this little pocket park will inspire her, as it excites me and provides wonderful opportunities for people living nearby. It includes a little brook beside it.
My hon. Friend is making a wonderful speech. Last week, I had the pleasure of a walk around Poulshot, in my constituency, with Dave Yearsley and Tim Lewis from the Wiltshire Ramblers. They showed me a series of brilliant interventions to make the countryside accessible, most of which had been done by volunteers. Does my hon. Friend agree that if we empowered local councils, particularly parish councils, and encouraged landowners to do their duty to keep paths open and properly accessible, we could bring in a huge number of volunteers who would also step up and we could open up all those wonderful lanes and paths to a far greater part of the population?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, as he so often is on issues to do with communities, volunteering and the big society, which many of us were inspired by when first we came to this House. That is true in practical ways, as well, because the joy of charities being involved is that they have access to funding and foundations that city or parish councils do not necessarily have. When there are partnerships between private landowners, communities, such as the ones he described, and charities, all sorts of good things can happen.
A good example of that is the Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust’s Severn treescapes project, a 60-mile walk along the edge of the River Severn that crosses five, if not six, constituencies. It provides a walk along the riverbanks from which people will derive huge pleasure—it is a massive opportunity. The project has been supported by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which funded the trees, but it is also a collaborative, community effort. If we can get one plus one plus one to equal about five and a half, that is definitely the way forward. I am sure we will hear more about that from the Minister in due course.
Let me continue on my brief tour around scenic Gloucester, Mr Deputy Speaker, which I hope will inspire you and others to visit this most spectacular small city. I pay tribute to the Gloucester Urban Greening Project, a collaboration between the county council, a couple of borough councils, the University of Gloucestershire and the Environment Agency. The project has delivered some remarkable and tangible incremental improvements.
For example, in no particular order, in Quedgeley, in the south-west of my constituency, the Quedgeley orchard now has an area left as meadow, with paths cut through it. This is an increasingly fashionable thing for people to do in their gardens, as well as in bigger spaces. Many councils are adopting the No Mow May approach, not in order to save money on mowing, of which some accuse them, but in order to allow for greater biodiversity. Wild flowers can be seen on the edges of roads such as Eastern Avenue and the entrance to Westgate, and there is much greater enjoyment of those areas by humans as well as by bees, damselflies, dragonflies and others. The fruit trees in Quedgeley are available for anyone to harvest and eat, which is always attractive.
We have the Friends of Saintbridge Pond, whose founder and former chairman, Ken, has sadly just died. He leaves the great legacy of a wonderful wildlife space that is rather hidden from many people’s knowledge, but which is right in the middle of Gloucester. It benefits from grants provided by the county council.
I touched on the Sud Brook, where it comes through Barton and Tredworth, but in Barnwood and Abbeydale the re-naturalisation of the Sud Brook has created more wild flower meadows and wetland features, and we have greater numbers of moorhens and coots, as well as bees and dragonflies. In Barnwood Park, the wetland areas beside the balancing pond are much more biodiverse than they were a decade ago, as is the balancing pond at Appleton Way.
The land around the Clock Tower, on which there was a mental health institution years ago, has been spectacularly reinvented as a centre for native tree planting and wild flower meadows, providing great enjoyment for residents.
At the King George V playing fields, which has been a large sports area for almost 100 years, we have added a huge amount of tree planting around the edges. The spoil removed for the swales will be used to create butterfly banks, which will provide habitat for other pollinators. That is good news for primary schools on the edge of the King George V playing fields.
At Matson and Robinswood, towards the great hill, we have done a huge amount. When I say “we”, I mean everybody collectively. Nobody should try to take individual ownership, because we must encourage everybody to create and to take individual and collective community ownership to make these projects sustainable and successful for more generations. Matson Park has improved, as has Haycroft Drive. We can see similar trends across the constituency of allowing more wild flowers and meadows, with paths through them. That greatly increases the amount of insects and birds that we can all see on our walks or cycle rides around the city.
Part of the success of an active wildlife trust is stimulating friends of parks organisations, whether that is the Friends of Gloucester Park, the Friends of Tuffley Park or others. There are more such groups and the Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust co-ordinates them. There are sessions where they can share best practice, look at how best to access new seeds, talk about tips on planting, and look at the management of friends’ groups, so that the finances are in good order and the governance is safe and accountable. All those things add to a greater sense of ownership. It is less about, “Why hasn’t the council done this, that or the other?” and more about, “What can we do, as friends of the park close to where we live, to help improve the state of the park, to litter- pick it ourselves and to take much more ownership and joy in what is being done?”
That can include restorative justice. Some 18 months ago, I planted 20 cherry trees—the sakura tree—donated by Japan in Gloucester Park. Just as they came into blossom, in spring last year, sadly all 20 of them were cut down by an individual. That was captured on CCTV and we know who the individual is. I am going to ask him to come and plant another 20 trees, which have again generously been donated by Japan. We will do that this autumn. I hope that the individual involved will come and take ownership and want to protect these trees, rather than to attack them, forever after.
I could talk about lots more, but I want to touch on two things, because not everything is rosy. Opportunities also have challenges. What is great about having water can mean floods or drought. We have work still to do on Alney Island with the Environment Agency, particularly to try to protect the Showmen’s Guild community who have lived there for a very long time and who travel around the country for many of their fairs. We need to do a bit more to protect them. I will be seeing the Environment Agency soon to discuss progress.
Likewise, we have had problems with our canal because of the severe drought in the River Severn. Water lifted and taken into the canal had a heavy amount of silt. Dredging has gone on for longer this year and been less satisfactory than it should have been, which has led to difficulties for narrowboats coming to moor in the basins of the canal in Gloucester, and to some friction from businesses that feel they have lost out as a result. I have had encouraging meetings with the chief executive and others in the Canal & River Trust, and I believe that all the problems should be resolved by
Sometimes, of course, human needs will clash with the needs of nature. There is what I consider to be a sensible plan to develop a sports hub and some playing pitches in the large open field at Blackbridge, in Podsmead. That will be good for children living in the area—they will no longer have to travel several miles for their sports, which will also reduce carbon emissions and improve air quality—but it will slightly reduce the space available for dog walking and so on. We have to manage the different interests in a way that means the green spaces are still there, but human needs are taken into account as well.
I know that the Government will play their part in all this, working with charities and statutory agencies such as the Environment Agency to ensure that those of us who treasure what nature offers in our constituencies—paddleboarding, walking or cycling in Gloucestershire, which I spend so much of my time doing—have opportunities to pass on to our children and grandchildren, providing the best public access to nature that we possibly can.
I congratulate Caroline Lucas on securing such an important debate.
One of life’s great pleasures is to be able to enjoy the natural world, but for many it is a pleasure denied. Goal 10 of the Government’s recently published environmental improvement plan is
“Enhanced beauty, heritage, and engagement with the natural environment”.
The Government say they will ensure that the
“natural environment…can be enjoyed, used by and cared for by everyone.”
However, there is a great deal of work to do in that regard. For example, the Government must address the fact that in recent years numerous studies have found that there is unequal access to green spaces across the UK, and that people from less affluent areas and those in ethnic minorities are less likely to enjoy easy access to local green space.
In 2020, 57% of British adults who responded to a survey carried out for The Ramblers said that they lived within a five minutes’ stroll of a local park, field or canal path, but just 39% of people from ethnic minority backgrounds said that they enjoyed the same proximity to green space. Fewer than 50% of those with household incomes of less than £15,000 a year lived close to a green space, but 63% of those with annual household incomes of more than £35,000 could find a green space within five minutes’ walk from their homes. I should be grateful to hear from the Minister what recent assessment the Government have made of the inequality of access to green spaces, and what specific steps they are taking to increase engagement with the natural world among disadvantaged socioeconomic groups and people from ethnic minority backgrounds.
It is beyond dispute that access to nature is immensely important to our health and wellbeing. The mental health charity Mind has said that spending time in green space or making nature a part of everyday life by, for instance, growing food or flowers, exercising outdoors or being around animals can benefit both mental and physical wellbeing. In his 2010 Review “Fair Society, Healthy Lives”, Michael Marmot observed:
“'Well designed and maintained green spaces can encourage social interaction, exercise, play, and contact with nature. Well designed, car free and pleasant streets encourage feelings of well-being, chance interactions and active travel;
good quality and good access to public spaces contributes to pride in the community, integration and social cohesion.”
Spending time outdoors was one of the key factors enabling people to deal with the stress of the covid-19 pandemic; there were countless reports of the importance of that. Nearly half the respondents to a survey by the Mental Health Foundation—about 45%—said that throughout the pandemic, visiting green spaces such as parks helped them to cope.
People in my constituency can enjoy beautiful parks, farmland and beaches. Off the coast of West Kirby are the picturesque Hilbre Islands, which sit in the Dee estuary site of special scientific interest, an area of international importance for migrating birds and a favourite place for seal-spotting. The estuary has been at risk of industrialisation through underground coal gasification. I led a campaign against that, and on previous occasions I have raised in the House the importance of protecting the Dee estuary. I should be grateful for a commitment from the Minister that there will be no underground coal gasification in the Dee. Remarkably, the Government have not categorically ruled it out; they have only said that they are not minded to support the technology, so the threat remains. I therefore hope that the Minister is able to give a cast-iron assurance today.
Across the estuary are the scenic Welsh hills, and if weather conditions allow, one can see as far as Anglesey and even Snowdonia, one of the UK's 15 national parks. Of course, the national parks are a proud Labour achievement, as they were created by Clement Attlee’s Government through the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949. We are also indebted to Beatrix Potter, who bought up great swathes of Cumbria for all of us to enjoy, and was closely involved in the early days of the National Trust. In Wirral West, Caldy Hill, Thurstaston Common, Irby Hill and Harrock Wood are all owned and cared for by the National Trust, which does an extremely important job in maintaining the sites so that they can be enjoyed by local people and visitors alike.
My constituency is fortunate to have much-loved areas of green belt, but they are under threat of development by Leverhulme Estates. Residents are campaigning passionately against that development, and I fully support them. The threat to the green belt is a threat to the very character of Wirral West. People care deeply about the natural world, and it is vital for us to ensure that it is accessible and unspoilt. It is important to create opportunities for children and young people to enjoy the natural world as well, and the growth of the Forest School movement is an indication of the growing awareness among parents and educationists of the value of access to that natural world. Ganneys Meadow Nursery School and Family Centre on the Woodchurch estate in my constituency does excellent work in this regard, supporting children’s play and exploration and giving them hands-on experience in a natural setting. Children, parents and staff enjoy flower planting and an area that includes an orchard, willow dens and paths that encourage the children to explore the natural environment.
Access to nature is something that has been fought for, and it is vital for us to recognise the importance of protecting and enhancing the right to roam. The Kinder Scout mass trespass in 1932 was aimed to highlight the fact that walkers were denied access to areas of open country. It is generally agreed that hundreds of people took part, and those of us who enjoy the great outdoors today are hugely indebted to them for their actions. Remarkably, some of those trespassers were arrested, and some were given prison sentences, but it was the actions of those who trespassed on that day that led to positive change, and we need to see more change. The Government should introduce legislation to extend the right to roam, and to improve promotion of the countryside code.
It is no surprise that artistic expressions of the natural world are a major part of our cultural heritage. Its beauty has inspired numerous writers and artists, including poets such as Wordsworth and Keats and painters such as Turner and Constable. Their popularity is due not just to their genius, but to the beauty of the natural world that they evoke. It is extremely important for people of all ages and backgrounds to be able to access nature and enjoy the many benefits that it brings. We all have a responsibility to address inequality in access to nature and to care for the natural environment, and I urge Government to address that as a matter of urgency.
I am going to look at access to nature in relation to protection of the natural world—and, indeed, access to it—through the prism of my constituency, which means that I will be very parochial, but I am also going to pitch a series of arguments to the Minister, as I have done in addressing previous Ministers. I thank Caroline Lucas for securing the debate; it is also nice to see the Minister here, and it is great to see a fellow co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on Ukraine, Alex Sobel on the Opposition Front Bench.
First, I will explain why I believe that the Isle of Wight, for the purposes of the natural world and human access to it, should be seen as a single whole rather than, as is currently the case, a patchwork of designations with some undesignated land. Secondly, I will make the case for a specific island designation. There is no national park on the Island, but I should like to see an island park, which would be slightly different. That could possibly be introduced on other islands as well, such as Anglesey and the Scottish islands. I may have misunderstood, but I thought that there was to be primary legislation following the Glover review. We were looking at the idea of city parks, and I should like that to be extended to the idea of an island park. Thirdly, in support of those two points, I shall explain why the remarkable depth and diversity of animal life, marine and landscape habitat and geology on the Isle of Wight, which is unique in the United Kingdom, should be much more valued by policymakers in London. First, however, I will make my argument in a little more detail.
The Island is said to represent England in miniature. The east resembles Sussex and Kent, with its thick hedges and coppices; the stone walls around the Undercliff on the south side of the Isle of Wight resemble Cornwall, as do the sandy little coves; in the south-west, where I live, the windswept chalk downs somewhat resemble parts of Dorset; and the creeks of Yarmouth, Newtown and Wootton on the north of the island resemble those in Devon. Importantly, being an island, we have not had the invasion of non-native species such as deer, grey squirrels and escaped mink from mink farms—we are free of those.
The Island has a series of internationally and nationally important nature conservation sites, which I will list. We have special areas of marine conservation; as part of an island designation, we would include marinescape as well landscape. We have the Newtown national nature reserve. We have a remarkable 41 SSSIs and 395 local wildlife sites. We have two of the south-east of England’s four heritage coasts, and just over half of the Island is an area of outstanding natural beauty. It should be much more. Someone turned up in 1963 from the Ministry, spent half a day on the Island, threw a few splotches of AONB on the map and left; it was not a well-conducted exercise.
We are again applying for dark skies status for the south-west of the Island. I got back from London last Friday morning at 2 am—I got the midnight ferry down. Even with a partial moon, the intensity of the night sky in the south-west, where I live, is breathtaking. Having dark skies and being able to see the night sky—sadly, in our light-polluted civilisation, fewer and fewer people are able to—is humbling and uplifting at the same time.
Let me put all those explanations and categorisations into terms that geographers might recognise—again, I apologise for listing, but I am using the geographical terms from Natural England and other organisations. Our landscape and seascape include: broad-leaf mixed and yew woodland; maritime cliff and slope; lowland calcareous grassland; coastal and floodplain grazing marsh; lowland meadows; reedbeds; lowland dry acidic grassland; fens; lowland heathland; the chalk downs that provide the spine of the Island, from Bembridge on one side to the Needles all the way over in the west; saline lagoons; mudflats; coastal sand dunes, and coastal vegetated shingle.
I will mention specifically our chines, which are mostly unique to us, although I believe there are a few in west Dorset too. Those are spectacular steep-sided gorges where rivers and streams flow down to the sea and, over thousands of years, have carved their way through soft sandstone. Shanklin chine, celebrated by Keats, is one of the more famous, but there are chines all over the Island, including near me on the south side.
What does all this mean? With our English landscape in miniature, our range of different habitats and our role as an island, we are pretty unique geologically and geographically—I will say a little more about that in a second. We are also home to many different species, some of which are unique to the Isle of Wight. Importantly, we have species on the Island, some of them flourishing, that are near-extinct in other parts of the United Kingdom. Those include red squirrels, dormice and water voles, because we do not have grey squirrels or lots of escaped mink. I thank the Isle of Wight Red Squirrel Trust for its great work looking after injured red squirrels, which we sadly see occasionally on the roads.
We have some of the UK’s rarest bats. I think 17 or 18 species have been identified on the Isle of Wight, including the greater horseshoe bat, which those who know their bats—I do not, but I read the work and talk to people who do—tell me is very rare nowadays. We also have the Bechstein’s bat and the grey long-eared bat. I thank the Isle of Wight Natural History and Archaeological Society for the information.
Our specialised flora includes early gentian, which is found in Wiltshire, Dorset and the Isle of Wight; field cow-wheat, which is present in only a few locations in the country; and wood calamint, which we have in a single dry chalk valley on the Island. For insects, the Island is the sole British location of the Glanville fritillary butterfly and the reddish buff moth. About a decade ago, we rediscovered the bee hawk-moth in part of the Island. I am sorry to list stuff, but I want to get it on the record, because it is important to the arguments that I am going to make.
For birds, the Solent as a whole, including our marshes, is a Ramsar designated site—a wetland of international importance. Brading marshes and the Newtown and Western Yar marshes and estuaries are internationally important for migrating and wading birds, and for the insects and plants that exist in that saline estuary— I think that is the geographers’ term—habitat. The sea eagle—the second largest in the world—was reintroduced in England on the Isle of Wight, and there is now a nesting pair, I think at Brading marshes. Buzzards, which were once rare, are now relatively plentiful, especially in the middle of the Island.
The areas surrounding the Island are protected by marine conservation zones, special protection areas and special areas of conservation. There are two species of seahorse that can be seen—sadly, often to a lesser extent nowadays—around the British coast. Those are the spiny seahorse and the short-snouted seahorse—a bit of an alliterative struggle, that one. Both exist in and around the shores of the Isle of Wight. We have other rare or semi-rare marine species, including native oyster, peacock’s tail and stalked jellyfish. There is a plan to reintroduce the white-clawed crayfish, the English crayfish having died out in many parts of the UK because of the bigger American crayfish, which we find in Pret A Manger sandwiches and so on. I thank the Wildheart Animal Sanctuary for that potential work.
The purpose of my listing those species is to show the Minister the variety of the wildlife that exists on the Island but is relatively rare in other parts of the United Kingdom. There is a little bit more of the list and then I shall come to my points.
We have seagrass meadows in Osborne bay, Yarmouth and Bouldnor. Seagrass is very important for carbon capture, which is why a project is taking seeds from those coastal waters around the Isle of Wight and replanting them in the Beaulieu river in the Solent. The relative strength of our natural world—I accept that it is relative—is being or will be used for the benefit of the wider UK, as is exemplified by what is happening with the crayfish, the seabeds and the sea eagle.
All that—thank you for bearing with me, Mr Deputy Speaker—means that the variety, diversity and depth of our habitats, natural flora, and common, rare and unique insects, marine life and animal life are pretty much unique in the United Kingdom.
Let me say a word on geology, too. We have one of the most complex geologies pretty much anywhere in the world, but certainly in Britain. The Undercliff, a breathtakingly beautiful area along the southern tip of the Island, is the most geologically unstable inhabited part of Europe. Sadly, our roads occasionally slip alarmingly towards the sea. The last time that happened, eight years ago, about 75 metres of A road parted company with the rest of the road during a particularly bad storm. Sadly, that road has not yet been repaired.
Along the south-west of the Island, we have a near-complete exposure of Cretaceous coast—of orange Wealden rock. If one looks at the Isle of Wight, one sees white rock and orange rock. They are from roughly the same period, about 120 million years ago. The Wealden rock produces dinosaur fossils in relative abundance, which is why the Isle of Wight is Europe’s No. 1 site for the discovery of fossilised bones of dinosaurs. Indeed, we have dinosaur footprint casts near where I live in Brook bay. I hope that I can say without sounding like a member of the Flintstones that we actually have a family dinosaur. Fossilised bones of an iguanodon were found on my great-great-great-grandad’s farm in about 1870, so there is actually an Iguanodon seelyi. There is some discussion among palaeontologists about whether it is a true species or a subspecies. I will let others argue that point.
The point is that our wildlife is pretty unique and there is not such concentration of different landscapes in any other part of the United Kingdom. That is not to question the beauty of the moors, the lake district, bits of Yorkshire or Dorset, but there is not the concentration of almost every type of habitat in the UK in one place, apart from on the Isle of Wight. There is not the concentration of wildlife—common, rare on the mainland, or unique to the Island—anywhere else, and, frankly, there is not the geology.
Our access to nature is relatively good; we have 500 miles of footpaths. That is probably largely because we avoided enclosures back in the 18th century—we were quite slow to take up those things—so we kept our medieval rights of way, which existed for hundreds of years before that, into the modern era. We also have about 2,000 hectares of open access land, and we have a coastal path, which in most places goes along the coast. We have some 2 million visitors a year.
Frankly, back in the 1940s and ’50s, the case for making the Isle of Wight Britain’s first national park was overwhelming. J. B. Priestley, one of the great authors of the 20th century, argued as much. Unfortunately, it did not happen. I am not arguing for a national park, but I am arguing for a specific island designation because of the uniqueness of our geology and so on.
The Isle of Wight should have a unique role. Indeed, my hon. Friend Mr Walker talked about Save the Shire and how people have written in celebration of the landscape. For its size, nowhere compares to the Isle of Wight on that score. Lord Tennyson used the landscape and the seascape in many different ways, and he used the Solent in “Crossing the Bar”, a breathtakingly beautiful poem about crossing from the mainland to the Island, and metaphorically from life to death—it was one of the last poems he wrote.
John Keats’s most famous poem “Endymion” was probably written about Shanklin Chine:
“A thing of beauty is a joy forever”.
Like many others, he was bowled over by the Island’s natural beauty. Turner sketched and painted on the Island, and the 19th-century Freshwater and Bonchurch sets were hugely influential on the Island’s artistic heritage. Some of the finest collections of pastoral poetry, in which we have tended to specialise, were written in the 19th and 20th centuries, including some breathtakingly beautiful poetry. The daughter of William Makepeace Thackeray asked on a visit to the Island in 1853,
“Is there no one who is commonplace here? Is everybody either a poet, or a genius, or a painter”?
Considering that she was talking about previous constituents, I would undoubtedly say yes, but it shows that our countryside, our seascape and our landscape are widely celebrated.
I now come to my political argument. Thank you for bearing with me, Mr Deputy Speaker. I am constructing an argument, but there is a reasonable amount of detail that I want to get on the record.
The Isle of Wight has a single designation under the UNESCO biosphere, but that has no standing in UK law. How about thinking of ways that it could? I thank Joel Bateman of the Isle of Wight AONB for his great work leading that campaign. In UK designations, more than half our land is an AONB, which I believe is wrongly parcelled into different areas. If we are to treat one bit of countryside as a unified entity, surely it should be an island, and therefore it should surely be the Isle of Wight. I have driven through the Cotswolds AONB and it is very beautiful—do not get me wrong—but it has flat, boring bits. Different lumps of the Cotswolds were not parcelled out. The Cotswolds were taken as a single entity, so why is a much smaller part of the world, the Isle of Wight, not being treated as a single entity? It is effectively a patchwork because someone turned up on the ferry in 1963 at midday and left at 6 o’clock, having pottered around the Island in an Austin 7 and made a few notes. Not only did we not get a national park, but we did not even get a unified area of outstanding natural beauty.
Our protected landscape, although fragmented, is incredibly special. Our finite landscape is in danger of being damaged. Natural England has said:
“Urban development is spreading, with waste disposal sites, extensive holiday and industrial developments and caravan parks blurring the edge of settlements.”
The extent to which rural landscapes on the Island have been disturbed by urban development increased by 27% between 1960 and 2007. Some of our rivers have been badly damaged—we now know of the dirty rivers scandal—and Southern Water is thankfully now using the Isle of Wight as an example of best practice in how to clean up rivers. I hope the rest of Britain will catch up with the Island’s natural regeneration in the years to come. In this area, we are leading the way.
An all-island designation could encompass both maritime and landscape. Why not have both in a single entity? A single protected landscape status for the Island would fit with its single unitary authority and its biosphere status. Frankly, it would also help our branding. The Island is special in many ways, but we are not one of the richest parts of Britain, and we are certainly not one of the richest parts of the south-east. Environmental and ecological tourism would be a significant benefit. The Island’s 2 million visitors already contribute about £560 million to our economy.
If I had a choice, I would choose controlled development that both looks after the Island’s housing needs and protects our landscape, without appealing to a mainland market, because the landscape is important in its own right and it is important for our tourism economy, rather than the endless urban sprawl. Large-scale development is completely unsuited to the Island.
An island park designation would see the Island as a single ecological and environmental entity. Access to nature would be provided wherever necessary, respecting the law, but it would primarily function for the benefit of the nature recovery plan. I thought the Glover review would result in primary legislation.
I assure you that I will be winding up in the next two or three minutes, Mr Deputy Speaker. I normally make concise speeches, so I feel a bit guilty whenever I go for more than 15 minutes.
An island park would effectively function like an AONB. It would rule out large-scale development, so we would no longer build for a mainland market, but we would, importantly, look after the Island’s housing needs, which we have not done for 50 years. We would probably have more affordable housing, more social housing and more housing association housing. That would be our priority to get our youngsters on to the market. If people want to retire to the Isle of Wight, that is great, but the back pages of the Isle of Wight County Press list 500 homes for sale at any one time. If we are building, we should build for Islanders—mainly the young, but occasionally the old when they need to downsize. I would seek a ban on largescale housing development in favour of smaller developments in existing communities, using the few brownfield sites and perhaps mildly increasing the density of our towns.
I am frustrated that, whenever I talk to the Government or Natural England, they say they are looking at extending the Cheshire Sandstone Ridge AONB and the Yorkshire Wolds AONB, as justified as that would be, and potentially creating two new AONBs. We will have to wait 10 years for a review of our AONB. Why? The next time we have a landscape protection Bill for, say, city parks, why do we not consider special island designations for the Isle of Wight, Anglesey, the Isle of Arran and the Outer Hebrides?
The former Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend Boris Johnson, committed to 30 by 30 and to an additional 4,000 sq km, which is welcome, and I assume the current Prime Minister would do the same. In the Isle of Wight, the Government have a natural partner that wants to work with them. The council has committed to an all-island designation, and so have I, because we want to be an example of best practice for how human beings can live in harmony with the natural world and for how we can get the nature recovery we need, because it is obvious that we are becoming less biodiverse. If we can do that on the Island, with its multiple types of species and multiple habitats, we could learn how to do it elsewhere. This is a no-brainer, as the Americans would say, and I would welcome it if the Government wanted to work with me on this.
To recap, the Island should for the natural world, and the human enjoyment of it, be seen as a single whole. There is a very strong case for introducing an island designation in our landscape protection, and I believe it should be introduced first in the Isle of Wight because of the uniqueness of our environment, the uniqueness of our habitats, the uniqueness of our wildlife and the uniqueness of our geology. I look forward to talking further about this with the Government.
I thank Caroline Lucas for securing this debate on an important yet under-discussed subject.
“one of the world’s most nature-depleted countries”.
Those are not my words but the words of Lord Goldsmith, a Government Minister. Research by the Natural History Museum has revealed that the UK ranks at the bottom of the G7 in biodiversity preservation. In fact, we find ourselves languishing in the bottom 10% of all countries. There will be people in this place today who have repeatedly heard that statistic from me and others so, although I apologise for sounding like a broken record, I want the House to consider how serious the situation is for our beloved natural environment.
For nature to recover and thrive in the UK, we need to manage our land and ecosystems in a way that restores biodiversity and leaves room for nature, part of which involves having a stronger connection to nature. Research shows that people with a strong connection to nature are more likely to behave positively towards the environment. Establishing a long-lasting connection between people and nature would play a crucial role in ensuring the conservation of precious wildlife, habitats and species in the future. It is quite simple: the more people engage with nature, the more likely they are to protect it.
The green space we currently have access to provides significant benefits, especially for our physical and mental health and well-being. Research suggests that access to nature saves the NHS approximately £110 million a year in fewer GP visits. That fact was starkly reinforced during the pandemic, when many people gained a greater appreciation of nature, green spaces and local parks.
My hon. Friend Rachael Maskell was spot on when she talked about the environmental improvement plan, the need for more ambition and the lack of discussion of equality within the EIP. She was also right to acknowledge Chris Smith’s important role in opening up access to nature, which we need to expand, delivering much more of it. My hon. Friend Margaret Greenwood rightly linked access and health, reminding us of the Marmot review and of those great and brave pioneers who climbed Kinder Scout. I climbed there myself just after the pandemic restrictions were lifted.
However, accessible nature is distributed unfairly across England. In 2020, Friends of the Earth’s “green space gap” report highlighted that 40% of people from ethnic minority backgrounds live in the most green space-deprived areas, compared with 14% of white people. We heard a great tour of constituencies and their surrounding areas from Conservative Members, including the hon. Members for Worcester (Mr Walker), for Gloucester (Richard Graham) and, perhaps most expansively, for Isle of Wight (Bob Seely). He knows that I lived on the Isle of Wight for a year. I particularly recall the dark skies there and the ability to see the beautiful starscape. Again, the Glover review recommended giving young people access to those dark skies. He made some excellent points that I am sure we will discuss in future.
The Government commissioned the Glover review to assess the 70-year-old protections that led to the creation of England’s national parks and AONBs. The review was clear in calling for a stronger focus on natural recovery and improving the state of the national parks in the UK. It also called for greater access to our countryside, citing the barriers to access for children, minority ethnic groups and those living in the most deprived areas of England. It was a comprehensive and important review.
National parks were created in part to provide a healing space, both mentally and physically, for the many who had given so much to protect our country during the second world war. They were meant for everybody. The Glover review recognised that, stating that
“it feels wrong that many parts of our most beautiful places are off-limits to horse riders, water users, cavers, wild campers and so on. We hope that”— the Government—
“will look seriously at whether the levels of open access we have in our most special places are adequate.”
It is perhaps unsurprising that the Government failed to address the adequacy of open access rights in their lacklustre response to the Glover review when their interests so closely align with those seeking to prevent it. The Minister will no doubt extol the virtues of the EIP, which promises to ensure that everyone lives within a 15-minute walk of blue or green space, but there has been no detail on how that will be achieved. I hope that she will give us some of that detail today. Currently, nearly 2.8 million people in the UK live more than 10 minutes’ walk from green space. So where is the road map to achieve that goal? Where is the road map to achieve 15-minute access?
We need a robust strategy that goes beyond the Conservative’s ambition for ambition’s sake. That is why Labour will take tangible action to ensure every Briton is able to access the nature our country has to offer. We will introduce a right to roam Act, a new law allowing national parks to adopt the right to wild camp, as well as expanding public access to woodlands and waterways. As has been said by the shadow Secretary of State, my hon. Friend Jim McMahon, Labour will give the
“right to experience, the right to enjoy and the right to explore” our countryside, as opposed to the current right to roam, which gives people only the right to pass through.
Labour will improve the quality of our national parks and expand the area of national parks, AONBs and SSSIs that the public can experience, enjoy and explore. A Labour Government will also ensure that there are sufficient responsibilities and protections to manage and conserve our natural environment for all.
It is interesting to hear the plans from the Labour party, which I welcome, but could the hon. Member answer a question about the kind of right to roam Labour is supporting: is it the universal right, based on the Scottish model, or is it a more specialised one, based on exclusions?
The hon. Lady is prejudging the conclusion of my speech, but perhaps I will get to that now and put her out of her misery. Like in Scotland, Labour’s approach will be that our right to roam will offer access to high- quality green and blue spaces for the rest of Britain. We will replace the default of exclusion with a default of access and ensure the restoration and protection of our natural environment. I hope that that answers her question.
The hon. Lady seems to indicate that it does, so I will try to find the space further back in the speech and not repeat that point.
Currently, only 3% of our rivers are accessible to the public, although perhaps that is not such a bad thing for swimmers, given the state of our waterways under the current Government. Labour will end 90% of sewage discharges by 2030 and introduce strict penalties for water bosses who fail to comply. Only the Labour party will ensure access to clean rivers, lakes and seas, so that those swimmers and other water users can enjoy them. Of course, it is important that any expansion of access encourages responsible behaviour, with measures to protect our most vulnerable habitats and species from harm. By incorporating responsible practices into our access rights, we can ensure the wellbeing of our environment for generations to come. That is a far cry from the attitude of the Government, who currently spend less than £2,000 per year on promoting the countryside code.
In conclusion, Labour will create a future where nature thrives, people have a deeper connection to the environment and everyone has equal access to the benefits of green spaces.
Thank you very much, Mr Deputy Speaker. I think you are a very lucky fella, because so often you are in the Chair for these fantastic debates and today’s has been no exception. It feels like Parliament’s own version of “Wild Isles” or perhaps “Wish you were here…?” Where shall we go? I know that for you the answer will be Ribble Valley. I was preparing for this debate with my Parliamentary Private Secretary, my hon. Friend Chris Loder, who was so disappointed not to be able to contribute because his constituency equally has many wonderful attributes in nature that people can enjoy. But of course there is a serious point here and there is a significant challenge. I welcome the successful debate we have had and the contributions on constituencies across the country. I echo the thanks of Caroline Lucas to the folks involved with the “People’s Plan for Nature”. I have been working on that with non-governmental organisations and others in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.
Many Members have contributed and I wish to run through some of their comments. I commend my hon. Friend Mr Walker for his work when he was Schools Minister in the Department for Education to make sure that that GCSE will come in in 2025. I will join him to ensure that the current Education Minister absolutely makes that happen and that DEFRA can be part of it as well. While he was walking the Malvern hills last Saturday, I was walking the Eskdale fells. I also enjoy hiking, biking and kayaking, which we have heard about today. In fact I was awoken on the wonderful Fisherground campsite in Eskdale not rudely, but wonderfully, by the dawn chorus. I would recommend the outdoors and enjoying nature to anybody.
My hon. Friend mentioned the importance of schools. So many of us visit schools in our constituencies to learn about forest schools and eco schools. When I was chair of governors at Captain Shaw’s C of E School, we ensured that the children got out into nature as much as possible. I pay tribute to Bikeability. He referred to the need for children to be able to access active travel—it has been a theme throughout today’s debate—and Bikeability does a tremendous job.
My hon. Friend also referred to the Rivers multi-academy trust. Today in Grizedale there is an event celebrating women in forestry. It is important that we have these schools providing the education so we can continue the legacy in eco-tourism and ecosystems services.
The Minister is making a strong case for encouraging people to access nature. As I mentioned in my speech, in Wirral West, we have Hilbre Island in the Dee estuary. It is incredibly important for international bird life and very much enjoyed by people who live in the area and people who visit the area. It has been at risk of underground coal gasification. I am seeking a commitment from Government that they will rule out underground coal gasification. Can she give me an answer today, or write to me with such a commitment, having consulted with colleagues?
The hon. Lady is right that I would need to consult with colleagues on that point. I am happy to do so and write to her.
I also wish to raise the important role played by Active Travel England—it is headquartered in the constituency of Rachael Maskell, which is a very good thing—ensuring that we have access to nature. My hon. Friend Richard Graham mentioned my visit to his constituency. It was wonderful to hear his effective promotion of Gloucester. Surely he could send an invoice to VisitEngland for that. We learned about the wonderful nature in his beautiful area and the many reasons to visit it. He also talked about the benefits that children enjoy in schools such as Clearwater Academy, Meadowside and the many others that he mentioned.
I completely agree with my hon. Friend Danny Kruger about the benefit of community involvement and pay tribute to the enormous amount of charities, not-for-profit organisations and trusts across this country that are helping us to protect, preserve and ensure that we have access to nature. But the Isle of Wight is perhaps the winner here today for the promotion of nature. I know that the constituency of my hon. Friend Bob Seely hosts red squirrels. I also share his appreciation of dark skies. I have Wild Ennerdale in my patch, which is a dark sky site.
I am not quite sure how long the Minister is going to speak, but I am anxious that she will come to answer the questions. I counted eight or nine of them in my opening statement and, although I appreciate her eulogy of everyone else’s speeches, I just hope that she is leaving herself enough time to answer those eight or nine questions.
Of course, Mr Deputy Speaker. I was just going to reflect on the variety of references that we have had—from Beatrix Potter and Fred Flintstone at Yabba Dabba Do Town to the introduction of paleontology.
Let me set the record straight on publicly accessible land across England. It is not quite accurate to say that it is just 8%. Although I enjoy a hike and getting out on my bike, I also recognise that it is simply not safe to consider the fell tops and mountains to be truly accessible. So I wish to draw the House’s attention to the physically demanding, courageous and relentless work of our mountain rescue and inshore rescue teams and many other volunteers who give up their time—often, their weekends and family time—sometimes at risk to themselves, to rescue others.
On that theme, may I take the opportunity to restate the countryside code, which has been mentioned many times ? It is especially important right now, during the lambing season. In brief, it says: keep dogs under control and in sight at all times; take litter home; leave gates as you find them—if they are open, leave them open, and if they are shut, leave them shut; and, most important, leave no trace.
Members have raised the importance of accessing nature, so I will set out how we can access nature at the moment and how we will improve that. Our public woodlands and forests are mostly open to people, too. Forestry England has 258,000 hectares. There are national parks, as we have heard, including England’s largest, the Lake district, where I live, at 912 square miles. But we do not just want to improve access to nature.
There are 1,800 miles of existing national trails in England and, increasingly, we are committed to making these trails as accessible as we can. It is not just about the square miles; it is about the linear miles too. When complete, at 2,700 miles, the new King Charles III England coast path will be England’s longest national trail and the longest continuous coastal path in the world. The Coast to Coast national trail will add another 197 miles of national trail. When both the King Charles III England coast path and the Coast to Coast national trail are complete, the total length of national trails in England will be 4,952 miles. There are also 43,910 miles of inland waterways in England and Wales. The national cycle network spans 12,000 miles of signed routes for walking, wheeling and cycling and includes more than 5,000 miles of traffic-free paths.
I think that I have well and truly set out that there is far more that 8% of the countryside and indeed urban areas for people to enjoy. That is important because we know the links between greener living and higher life satisfaction, including improved mental health. I am delighted that there have been 7,000 referrals through green social prescribing and we look to do even more of that.
As has been mentioned many times, we published our environmental improvement plan on
We are also taking steps to increase the number of routes to and through nature. For example, last week the Bridlington to Filey stretch of the King Charles III England coastal path was opened, connecting thousands of people to the Yorkshire coast.
Mr Deputy Speaker, I really could go on and on about the existing access to nature, but I know that it is important to talk about what we are doing in the future. We have our Farming in Protected Landscapes scheme, which is increasing access to national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty. It has been incredibly successful, and we will be extending it through to 2025. There has been much reference to the environmental land management scheme, which is enabling farmers to make their land more accessible to people too.
Our local nature recovery strategies will be across all 48 upper tiers of local authorities in England, and will involve working with farmers, private landowners, trusts and local authorities to make sure that we are increasing access to nature. I also wish to mention what we are doing with trees. Our target to increase tree canopy cover to 16.5% by 2050 means that we need to plant about 400 million trees. That will also bring people closer to nature.
In conclusion, connecting people with nature is at the heart of our environmental improvement plan. We are beginning to tackle the inequalities that have been referenced in the debate today and we are doing that particularly in urban areas where there are levels of deprivation, but there is much, much more to do.
I am sorry that I cannot give way, because I must conclude.
I thank Members for their contributions today. I very much hope that I can continue to look forward to their support as we drive forward to ensure that nature is protected, most importantly, more abundant and truly there for everyone.
The final two minutes go to the mover of this debate, Caroline Lucas.
I hope the Minister will allow me to re-present in a letter the questions that I asked her in my speech, because she has not answered a single one of them, which is somewhat disappointing. I will just correct her: when we are talking about open access land under the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000, 8% of English land is accessible, as I said.
I am grateful to all Members for taking part in this debate. It has been inspiring to hear people’s very real love of the environments close to them, from Worcestershire to the Isle of Wight, from York to Gloucester.
This debate is not just an opportunity to share paeans to nature, important though that is; it is a deeply important debate about the lack of equitable access to nature and about the state of nature in our country. The UK is one of the most nature depleted countries in the world. We are in the bottom 10% of countries globally for protecting nature. A total of 15% of our species are threatened with extinction, so I am afraid that some of the complacency that I have heard from the Minister is extremely misplaced.
People will not protect what they do not love, they will not love what they do not know, and they will not know what they do not have access to—touching it, smelling it, feeling it and really being intimate with it. That is what we are talking about here. It is not just about more footpaths, important though they are, or more trails; it is about an immersion in wild nature.
Yet people cannot do any of that right now because they are confronted by fences, barbed wire and notices that say “Trespassers will be prosecuted.” Half of England is owned by just 1% of the population; 24 dukes alone own almost 1 million acres of our land and the rest of us are shut out of it. Until we change that, we will not be able to ensure that the nature that we are blessed with can thrive into the future.
I hope the Minister, as well as answering my questions, will meet me so that we can discuss how we can genuinely move forward on a comprehensive right to roam, which so many people both inside and outside this House want to see. That momentum is growing and the campaign is not going away.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House
has considered public access to nature.