Happy birthday to the Countryside and Rights of Way (CROW) Act! It's been 20 years of being able to legally enjoy a stroll across open access land, up open access hills and mountains and into open country moor, heath and down. But how did this come about and are we satisfied with current access levels? Read on for a bit of history and let us know your thoughts by taking the survey linked at the end.
What is the CROW Act?
Firstly, what exactly is the CROW Act? Well CROW stands for the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 which gives a right of access on foot to mountain, moor, heath and down (‘open country’). The most significant element of the CROW Act is that for the first time ever it gives a legal right of access to the general public for informal recreation on foot – including for climbing – to large areas of countryside that are mapped and designated as 'open country'.
There's now 865,000 hectares now classed as 'open access', which is brilliant for everyone that enjoys the outdoors, but is it perfect? Today, on the 20th anniversary of CROW we consider the question, is CROW enough and do we infact want / need greater access to our green spaces and waterways?
Why was the CROW Act important?
When Labour came to power in 1997, better access to the countryside was a manifesto commitment and had been a Ramblers' Association campaign for decades. With consultation in full swing the BMC Access & Conservation Committee got on board and as a result we were able to:
ensure climbing was included in the new statutory right of access
fight off the threat of a night-time curfew on access
work with landowners' representatives so that occupier's liability with respect to natural land features (often an issue with access to cliffs) on access land was reduced.
What results did climbers and walkers see?
The CROW Act, is an iconic piece of legislation, arguably the most significant legal statute affecting recreation and access to the countryside in England and Wales since the National Parks & Access to the Countryside Act of 1949.
The Ordnance Survey Explorer Maps show areas of open access in yellow shading meaning that you can go walking, climbing and running (activities on foot) over 865,000 hectares of land (covering mountains, moors, heaths, downs and registered common land) without the need to stick to paths. It has given people confidence and a sense of freedom to explore.
Some areas that were previously inaccessible are now open for all for example, Bamford Moor (and Bamford Edge), the Forest of Bowland and the Aran Mountains in southern Snowdonia National Park.
Unfortunately, some activities are still not permitted as a right including camping, cycling, horse riding, motor sports and access to rivers / water ways for canoeing.
How much work was it for the BMC?
The BMC worked hard in the two years prior to the ACT receiving Royal Assent in ensuring that climbing and hill walking were included as a right. Briefing papers, suggested amendments to the draft Bill and meetings were held regularly with MPs, Peers and Government departments to ensure our voice was heard. Following the publication of the ACT in 2000, the BMC were then involved in trying to influence the mapping process. This still isn’t perfect as some areas have been wrongly mapped and some areas have been missed out but it is hoped that the (very) delayed decadal review of the maps in England will address some of these issues and the BMC will be submitting evidence to this process when it gets underway.
In Wales, the review of the maps occurred in 2013 and as a result of representations by the BMC, several key areas were included as new areas of open access and have been mapped accordingly. These include the land above Rhoscolyn cliffs on Anglesey, the Little Orme headland at Llandudno, areas of land (including crags) on the Southern Rhinog mountains, the RAC boulders in Snowdonia, Craig y Gesail at Tremadog, land below Sentries Ridge on Mynydd Mawr and a few other smaller venues.
How does the BMC lobby on issues like these?
The BMC access team has its ears to the ground and works closely with like-minded organisations to keep an eye on new policy and emerging Government legislation that may have an impact on access to (and the protection of) our natural environment. If the opportunity arises then we will seek to influence political discussions and ultimately decisions so that more of us have the freedom to access the places we love responsibly and respectfully. This maybe through the creation of joint letters to ministers, briefing papers to key MPs and MSs who support our view, meetings with Government departments and more recently public campaigns such as No Moor BBQs and Save Outdoor Centres. All of these methods raise the profile of the issue both politically and in the public eye to ensure our voice is heard. Unfortunately, we aren’t always successful immediately but big changes can and often do take time. Currently we are working with others on important issues such as the Environment Bill, an update of the Countryside Code and the Welsh Government Access Reform Programme.
What’s next – are there still access challenges?
The CROW Act is a fantastic piece of legislation but it isn’t perfect. Many of us will be using its anniversary to begin putting markers in the sand for 'where next'. A campaign to extend the CROW Act in England is already in its early stages and will be looking at extending access to woodlands, all downland, Green Belt land and waterways. This would give many more people easy access to nature and the physical, mental and spiritual health benefits that it brings. The BMC is already part of these discussions and will be reporting more shortly.
In Wales, the right to access coastal areas and seas cliffs is not currently included in the CROW Act, as these areas are not classed as open access land. However major reforms to Access Legislation are planned for Wales in 2021, and the BMC has been at the heart of these changes, campaigning to extend open access land the coastal areas of Wales, and working with Welsh Government to secure access in perpetuity to some of the most iconic sea cliffs in the UK. These access reform changes also propose to allow cycling on designated footpaths and on some open access land (as is the case in Scotland) and will also simplify the legal process for designating, claiming and managing public rights of way. Other proposed changes will allow bathing and other activities on rivers and lakes on open access land as well as introducing a lower level of liability for land owners and occupiers.
Currently we have a right to roam over just 8% of England, and only 3% of rivers in England and Wales are legally accessible. Covid has clearly demonstrated the importance of access to the outdoors. Do we therefore need to extend the right to enjoy our green spaces and waterways?
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