Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 11:11 am on 19th January 2022.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Cummins—for the first time, I think. It is lovely to see you in the Chair. I thank Gill Furniss for sharing details of the work taking place in her constituency on the Upper Don Trail, which connects people from Sheffield right out to the Peak district. She has given a wonderful insight into not only getting out into the countryside, but the industrial history and all the other benefits of a trail starting within a city or town.
I particularly commend the Upper Don Trail Trust for its hard work in securing the public and private funding to make the project happen, as well as the efforts of all the volunteers, as flagged by the hon. Lady, who have played such a big role on what was previously an underused trail, as volunteers do on many trails around the country. I know that both the hon. Lady and my hon. Friend Miriam Cates support the trail.
As we have heard, the trail hosts all kinds of opportunities for people and visitors for not only walking, but cycling, kayaking, climbing, angling, riding—you name it, Mrs Cummins, they are doing it. In most cases, the trail is away from traffic. It does not matter what age one is, either: anyone can use the trail.
I very much welcome the ambitions of the Upper Don Trail Trust and recognise that its objectives align completely with the Government’s objectives, as has been highlighted. As set out in the 25-year environment plan, we are absolutely committed to connecting people from all backgrounds with the natural environment, in particular for their health and wellbeing, and supporting people to access, enjoy and understand the great outdoors.
The lockdown highlighted the need for this connection more than ever, with 42% of people agreeing that they increased the time they spent outdoors during the pandemic. Trails along canals and riverways—such as the Upper Don Trail, which goes along the river for some time—were especially popular, with many people using those walkways. As the nature recovery Minister, I was particularly delighted by that, because it will help more people connect with nature; if they are connecting with it, they will love it and understand why we need to look after it.
There are all kinds of spin-offs. On obesity, which this Government are tackling with our strategy, trails will help everyone to lead healthier lives. There is also a big mental health spin-off, as we are using access to some of these trails in our green social prescribing agenda—prescribing walks and getting outside. All those ambitions are increased by access to trails such as the Upper Don Trail.
Active travel was referred to, which is another Government priority, which links to clean air. Away from traffic and so forth, the air is cleaner, so cycling and walking are obviously more beneficial.
I want to draw attention to the support available across Government to help people access nature. There is the £80 million green recovery challenge fund, which we launched during lockdown, with the aim to kick-start a whole lot of nature-based projects across England. One of the main aims was to connect people with nature. An estimated 23,000 people have engaged to date with projects funded by that fund, and a further 3 million have engaged with them indirectly, online, through media events that link to them. I think that is extremely positive.
The farming in protected landscapes programme was launched in June last year to help farmers in national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty to make improvements to the natural environment. There is a big element in there about improving public access on their land, including projects to deliver infrastructure—pathways and so forth—clearer and simpler signage, dedicated cycling access, better disabled access and walking routes to connect landscapes. For example, in the uplands in White Peak, in the Peak District National Park, the beef and sheep farmers there received funding to create a new permissive path to give walkers the opportunity to experience a variety of habitats within his land.
We are also committed to ensuring that the public have good access to footpaths. On Saturday, we published our response to the Glover landscapes review, which I am sure the hon. Member is aware of. We announced a new charity is being formed as a single strategic body for all national trails, which is something I think the hon. Lady will be particularly interested in. The aim of that is to share knowledge and experience between the trails, develop efficiency and effectiveness, develop bids for activities across the wider network and fundraise to provide more resources to enhance the network. There are some opportunities here. Sharing experience is so important. Every trail is different and is managed in a different way, and the bodies running them experience different problems. Sharing those experiences will be helpful.
Almost 2,000 miles of national trails exist in England and we are creating new trails all the time. We are connecting up all the bits around the coast to form the completed England Coast Path, which will be 2,700 miles when completed—the longest waymarked and maintained coastal walking route in the world. That is something to be really proud of, and might give us something to do in our spare time, Mrs Cummins—we can maybe walk some bits of it in the recesses. We are also developing a new national trail across north England between St Bees in Cumbria and Robin Hood’s Bay in North Yorkshire, which will link up lots of bits of pathways that already exist, and complete the bits in between.
The Upper Don Trail is a really great example of how projects can do all the things we are talking about—restore nature, engage the local community, increase access to nature. I absolutely commend everyone who has been so involved in it. Obviously, it is not possible for me to commit to further funding at this stage for those small portions that are left to complete—there are two main missing links, I believe. My officials would definitely be happy to explore options, in particular when DEFRA might be involved. We do not have all the funding levers in DEFRA; there are other pots that the hon. Lady will be aware of. We can maybe work to unlock those other pots, which is a constructive approach when looking at grants.
I encourage the Upper Don Trail Trust to liaise, via Sheffield City Council, with Sustrans and its cycle network upgrade proposals. I appreciate how important it is to get rid of those sections on the road. In lockdown, I cycled more with my children on roads than we ever had before. That was fine, but when all the traffic returned, my children, who are quite grown up, did not want to cycle on the roads anymore—they wanted to use the paths.
I would also suggest going to the Department for Transport, which holds the pen on the national cycle network. My hon. Friend Trudy Harrison is the new cycling and walking Minister and is very keen to do joint work across Departments. I am keen to do that myself; I would urge others to also get together with the Conservative MP in Sheffield, my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge. The issue can be highlighted to the Department of Health and Social Care; they have a big responsibility for air quality. The hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough made a point about the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities; I urge her to make the case to that Department. She is on the right track—a good word to use in a debate about trails.
I am pleased to have had the opportunity to talk about this subject. I thank again the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough, and all those involved, who have done so much good work. I look forward to hearing how the trail progresses.
Question put and agreed to.