First and foremost, please be assured that I take this issue very seriously and was pleased to be able to be part of the campaign to save Pages Field when a previous town council wanted to build on it. I realise how important access to nature is for everyone’s physical and mental wellbeing. I am still clarifying my diary that day and will speak in the debate if I can, but if I cannot, I will look carefully at what is said in the debate and any briefing provided for it.
I would also like to assure you that the Government recognises the importance of providing access to the outdoors for people’s health and wellbeing. The Government’s Environmental Improvement Plan includes a commitment to work across Government to help ensure that everyone lives within 15 minutes’ walk of a green or blue space.
The Government is delivering a number of policies to increase access to nature, including delivering the £14.5m ‘Access for All’ programme, which consists of a package of targeted measures in our protected landscapes, national trails, forests and the wider countryside to make access to green and blue spaces more inclusive. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) is working to complete the England Coast Path which, at around 2,700 miles, will be the longest waymarked and maintained coast walking route in the world.
Further, through programmes with the Community Forests and Forestry England, Ministers are enabling creation of large scale publicly accessible woodlands near towns and cities. Defra continues to support land managers to provide woodland access through the Countryside Stewardship and England Woodland Creation Offer schemes. Under the Environmental Land Management offers, Defra is providing societal benefits by bringing people closer to nature, allowing long-term permissive access for recreation and contributing to the rural economy.
Regarding rights of way, I understand that the Government will retain the cut-off date for registering historic rights of way, reflecting the original intention of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 (CROW). This will provide certainty for users, landowners and local authorities, as well as promote responsible access, protect nature and support people who work and live in the countryside. Given delays caused by Covid-19, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs decided to extend this deadline by five years from 1 January 2026 to 1 January 2031.
Reforms to how historic rights of way are recorded will improve access to nature and streamline processes for recording rights of way with landowners, local authorities and users benefitting from a faster, more cost effective, less confrontational and less bureaucratic process. Local authorities will have powers to reject weakly evidenced applications, ignore irrelevant objections and agree appropriate modifications directly with landowners. Local authorities will have powers to correct obvious administrative errors on the definitive map through a significantly shortened process.