BMC responds to Labour proposals to connect more people with nature

Posted by Team BMC on 07/06/2024

The Labour Party has announced three policies to help connect people with nature. The British Mountaineering Council has advocated for greater access to nature for many decades and welcomes action to promote this – we’ve therefore taken a look at each policy individually.

1) Providing communities with the right to buy 

Under the new proposals, communities would be given the right to buy ‘derelict eyesores’ and transform them into parks. This follows in the footsteps of the success of community right to buy in Scotland, which stretches back decades now. 

The BMC supports the idea of empowering communities to buy land and create space for outdoor recreation and for nature – however we are concerned that this solution is piecemeal and neglects to tackle the fundamental problem of unequal access to nature across the country.  Communities will need to fund these acquisitions themselves and affluent communities will be much more able to do this, therefore of little benefit to those areas most in need without significant financial assistance. It may amount to the privatisation of public access. 

Legislation to provide a community right to buy for derelict land would catch us up to Scotland in one way – but given that we are one of the most nature disconnected nations on earth, there is a real need for radical solutions which go beyond what is already established in countries where the baseline for public access is much higher. 

 2) ‘Hundreds of miles of river pathways to be created’ 

The BMC has supported the creation of new paths across England and Wales – the creation of new public rights of way is a key component towards connecting more people with nature, getting people more active, and providing more active travel routes. 

With that said - ‘hundreds of miles’ of river way paths is not a significant investment in our network more widely, particularly when there are reports of 32,000 blocked paths. Using the mechanisms applied to the England Coastal Path is also likely to cause long delays – the coast path is yet to be finished even fifteen years after its conception due to the objections and resource constraints. There is also no detail as to which rivers are likely candidates for paths, and what the selection criteria may be. 

Due to the nature of our access laws in England and Wales (which we believe are badly in need of reform), we may be granted a new right of way alongside a river but will still have no legal right to navigate our blue spaces, and so the benefits of these new paths remain limited under our restrictive access laws. 

3) The planting of three new national forests 

There are already plans in Wales well in place for the establishment of a national forest, with the promise of increased access to nature. Despite many sites now being established as national forests in Wales, we are yet to see meaningful improvement in access. Woodlands are currently not mapped as open access land under the Countryside and Rights of Way Act (CROW) – the BMC feel that this is an oversight and a missed opportunity, and without further detail on how the establishment of these forests will materially improve access to nature we feel that these plans will fall short of their stated aims.  We also remain concerned that new forests might also encroach on existing areas of open access land, something we would strongly object to.  

 A much more effective alternative which an incoming government might take would be to either reform access completely, establishing a responsible freedom to roam, or to expand the definitions of open access land under the CROW Act to include woodlands and other landscapes. 

Conclusion 

These measures are a step in the right direction and show that the Labour party is committed to thinking about connecting people with nature. The BMC shares and supports this goal. 

Unfortunately, they also fall short of the ambition needed to tackle our national disconnection from the natural environment – especially for underprivileged communities. It doesn’t address the fact that the bedrock of our connection with the environment is in dire need of reform – we are calling for more meaningful access reform and invite any incoming government to deliver it. 

Our Outdoors For All campaign calls for specific commitments for the government to:  

  • Extend public open access rights to more landscapes, such as waterways, woodland, riversides, and downland, connecting people with green spaces closer to where they live.  

  • Repeal the cutoff date for registering historic rights of way 

  • Amend the 2021 Environment act to require public access targets 

  • Embed public access options into land management schemes, supporting farmers and landowners to create more opportunities for access to the outdoors 

  • Establish an access to nature investment strategy to target recources to both rural and urban areas, providing additional funding to extend access opportunities 

  • Make the 15-minutes-to-nature commitment a legally binding target based on Natural England’s Green Infrastructure Standards 

BMC members, and a majority of voters support establishing a responsible right to roam – and it has been estimated that a default of access would be 11 times cheaper than our current restrictive model.  



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