Amendment 126A

Environment Bill - Report (4th Day) (Continued) – in the House of Lords at 10:45 pm on 15th September 2021.

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Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle:

Moved by Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle

126A: After Clause 136, insert the following new Clause—“Right of access to land(1) Within two years of the day on which this Act is passed, the Secretary of State must publish a draft Bill to provide for a statutory right to access land for recreational purposes and educational activities, including building of understanding of natural or cultural heritage, provided that the land is accessed responsibly in accordance with a code of practice, with landowners having the responsibility to take reasonable action to ensure the right can be exercised.(2) The Bill must provide that the right to access land must extend to rivers and other waterways.(3) The Bill must provide that the right to access land does not extend to land on which a building or other structure, plant or machinery, or a caravan or other structure stands, and the curtilage of such, a sports field or land planted with a crop.”

Photo of Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Green

Yes, my Lords, me again. I have been begged to keep this brief, given the hour, and I am going to do my best, but this is also an important amendment. Looking back to the debate on day one of Committee on 21 June, I have not calculated how many hours of debate ago that was but “a lot” will probably suffice. We have had extensive debates about the need for people to be able to get out into the natural world, to spend time in it, to engage with it, to develop their understanding and love of it and to deliver positive benefits for it with their time and attention.

I shall just mention Amendment 8, creating targets for public access, in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Scott of Needham Market; Amendment 9, connecting people with nature, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Lucas; and Amendment 56, making a change to the current provision in the Bill to say that the Government must take steps to connect people with nature, also proposed by the noble Baroness, Lady Scott of Needham Market. There was also Amendment 284 in my name, calling for a report on these issues. There were, I think, others, and I apologise for not making a complete list. I was surprised and a little disappointed to find that none of those amendments reappeared at Report, given the importance of the issue, and that the Bill already states that the Government may include steps to

“improve people’s enjoyment of the natural environment” in its environmental improvement plans.

We all know that many NGOs, campaigners and members of the public have been engaged in this debate all the way through, in ways that might not always be visible to the public but certainly have impact in the House. It is important, as it was on Monday night, to give due weight and hearing to their efforts, however inconvenient the hour that our procedures have forced the debate into. I have shared with a number of noble Lords, and would be delighted to do so with anyone else I might have missed, an extensive briefing on this amendment from the Right to Roam campaign, which calls for an extension to the Countryside and Rights of Way Act in England, so that millions more people can have easy access to open space and the physical and mental benefits it has been proven to bring, as well as enabling them to bring benefits to nature from their presence.

The amendment that I present here is modest. It calls for the start of a debate in the form of a publication within two years of a draft Bill. I sincerely thank the Bill Office for assisting me in its preparation; its relatively late arrival at this stage is entirely my own fault. The draft Bill would provide for statutory right to access to land for recreational purposes and educational activities, including building understanding of our natural and cultural heritage, provided that the land is accessed responsibly in accordance with a code of practice, with landowners having responsibility to take reasonable action to ensure that the right can be exercised. That is an outline based on the Scottish legislation.

In looking back to the Committee debate, I have to thank the noble Viscount, Lord Trenchard, for doing some very useful research for me. He noted that the population density of England is 279 people per square kilometre, which is more than four times that of Scotland, at 67 people per square kilometre, and nearly twice that of Wales, at 151 people per square kilometre. The noble Viscount used that figure to suggest that we could not have the right to roam in England, but I would turn it around and suggest instead that those figures are a powerful argument for opening up as much of the countryside of England as possible to give those people space to breathe and roam. The argument is even stronger for England than it is for Scotland and Wales.

Just 1% of the population own half the land in England—a rather significant number of them in your Lordships’ House—with the other 99% having the right to roam on just 8% of the remainder. Open access land under the Countryside and Rights of Way Act is only mountains, moorland, downland, heaths and commons and, more recently, the English coastal path. There are also rights in Forestry Commission forests. However, by their nature, these are spaces largely remote from where people live. As many noble Lords agreed in Committee, the noble Lord, Lord Randall of Uxbridge, among them, we need far more public transport into these areas—but that is an issue for another day.

Looking back over the debate in Committee, I think that we extensively canvassed the benefits for the public of access to nature, so I shall not go over the same ground. However, I want to raise one additional point that was not really discussed in Committee. We know so little about the fast-changing natural world, subject to the pressure of exotic animals and diseases and, of course, our fast-changing climate.

There are significant benefits to the landscape, to the environment, to nature, of having many more people in that environment. Citizen science has a growing place in growing our understanding. The RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch is billed as the world’s largest wildlife survey—how much larger and more wide-ranging it could be with the right to roam. The British Trust for Ornithology monitors the population changes of 117 breeding bird species across the UK, thanks to the dedication of almost 3,000 volunteers who survey randomly selected 1 square kilometre spaces each spring, spaces to which they are given access.

On this Bill and others, the House has widely canvassed the issue of litter in the countryside, but people can, of course, pick litter up as well as deposit it, and with significant parts of countryside litter being blown or washed from other places, they can help ensure the protection of wildlife and a more pleasant landscape by doing that. The specific issue of fly tipping has also been widely canvassed in our debate. More pairs of eyes in the countryside will be a deterrent to the fly tippers and increase the opportunity for them to be caught in the act on the handy mobile devices roamers are almost certain to be carrying.

I suspect the Minister may respond that the Government are reviewing public access to nature in the Agnew review. I have been able to uncover very little about this in the public domain and would be delighted if the Minister could tell us more, or indeed inform us later. It was commissioned by the Treasury earlier this year and the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Stephen Barclay, has reportedly told Whitehall departments that he wants to see a quantum shift in public access to the outdoors.

For the reasons given on the earlier amendment, it is not my intention to push this to a vote. I regret that our debate will inevitably be very much truncated by the hour, but this is an issue I will be returning to. In the meantime, I beg to move.

Photo of Baroness Jones of Whitchurch Baroness Jones of Whitchurch Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 11:00 pm, 15th September 2021

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, for her amendment. She has indeed raised important issues about the limitations of the current right to roam legislation. As a member of the Ramblers for many years, I am hugely committed to improving public access to land for recreational and educational purposes and, as the noble Baroness said, our experience during Covid brought home the huge public enthusiasm for greater access to the countryside, with all the mental and physical health benefits that derive from it. But our recent experience also highlighted the constraints, with public roads blocked, car parks full and footpaths overrun as access was limited to the established, well-trodden paths.

I do not believe that the new-found love of the countryside will subside once the pandemic is over, so we need a new contract with landowners to make sure that everyone can benefit from the peace and tranquillity of nature. This is why we welcomed the provisions in the Agriculture Act which will reward landowners for opening up new routes of access across their land, but I am disappointed that greater public access is not one of the first sustainable farming initiative pilots. Perhaps the Minister will update us on when we might see those pilots introduced. I agree with the noble Baroness that we need greater right to roam, but we need more time to consider her proposals for a draft Bill. As her amendment stands, the provision for such a Bill is rather prescriptive. We know the limitations of the current Countryside Code, but I would have liked more time to explore what is meant by “a code of practice” in her Bill, and how it would be applied.

The new clause’s proposed subsection (3) provides a very limited group of exemptions and raises questions about such things as access to SSSI sites and other precious landscapes where we would want to prioritise habitat and species recovery. I hope the noble Baroness recognises that the proposal needs to be refined before becoming a draft Bill; nevertheless, we support the general principle and hope that the noble Lord will feel able to do so as well.

Photo of Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, for her amendment. Without going into the arguments, everything she said about the benefits of access to nature, I and colleagues fully support and agree with. The Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 allows the establishment, recording and appeal of rights of way to agreed standards and sets out people’s rights and responsibilities.

The refreshed Countryside Code helps the public enjoy the countryside in a safe and respectful way, and we are supporting and enhancing access to the countryside in a number of different ways, including laying legislation to streamline the process of recording and changing rights of way. We are completing the England coastal path and creating a new northern national trail. Our agricultural plans set out examples of the types of actions that we envisage paying for under schemes which include engagement with the environment. We are incentivising access via our new England woodland creation offer. There is already extensive access to rivers and other waterways which are managed by navigation authorities, with licences available for recreation and leisure use. The Government’s position remains that public access to nature is a fundamentally good thing. However, the Government’s view is also that access to waterways which are not managed by navigation authorities should be determined through voluntary agreements between interested parties.

I hope that what I have said demonstrates to the noble Baroness that the Government very much share her concerns and aspirations in relation to access to nature and that she will be willing to withdraw her amendment.

Photo of Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Green

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his response and the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, for her positive and cheering contribution. I very much echo the point she made about how disappointing it is that the sustainable farming initiative pilots do not contain such provisions and that it would be nice to see progress on that. I also thank her for highlighting the way Covid has brought about a sea change in many people’s relationship with the natural world.

On the questions the noble Baroness raised about the prescriptive nature of the amendment, it is very much based on Scottish law, which is already in place and has worked through exactly what the code might look like. It has been very well worked through in Scotland—so the model is very much there.

On the Minister’s response, I am pleased to hear his acknowledgement of the benefits of having people out in the countryside. That is something I will certainly be taking up with him in future. I also point out that he raised the issue of rivers. It is perhaps not very well understood outside certain communities that 90% of our rivers are off limits to wild swimmers, paddle-boarders and kayakers. Of course, wild swimming is a very fast-growing, popular and healthy pastime, and this is something that people are increasingly discovering for themselves and are very disappointed by, and it is something that very much needs to be raised.

None the less, given the hour—I hope we will have a more extensive debate on this at a more reasonable hour very soon—I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 126A withdrawn.

Amendment 127 not moved.

Clause 142: Extent