MPs have called on the government to improve our legal right to enjoy nature.
Leading a House of Commons debate on Thursday, Caroline Lucas (Green Party, Brighton Pavilion) said:
- 90%+ of the population live further than a 15-minute walk from nature in 1 in 10 neighbourhoods
- giving everyone access to green (or blue) space could save the NHS £3 billion in treatment costs
- poorer communities are less likely to live near nature
- 92 constituencies (of 650 in UK) have no right to roam at all
She criticised "greedy" water companies "that relentlessly pump sewage into the rivers and seas while handing billions to their shareholders", and the government for "[failing] to give enough support to farmers to transition to agroecological farming when nature restoration and food production can go hand in hand."
Ms Lucas asked the government minister:
- about the lack of a national strategy for access to nature
- to embed public access into new environmental land management schemes
- to remove the 2031 deadline for restoring historic rights of way
- to conduct a mapping review of open access land
- to give local authorities more money to maintain footpaths and bridleways
- and, following cuts to local bus services, to improve access for the disabled and those without cars
The UK is one of the most nature depleted countries in the world. We are in the bottom 10% of countries globally for protecting nature. A total of 15% of our species are threatened with extinction. People will not protect what they do not love, they will not love what they do not know, and they will not know what they do not have access to.
Caroline Lucas MP
Seven other MPs spoke during the two-hour debate.
There was no vote and the debate won't change any laws, but Ms Lucas has sought to amend the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill "[to create] a right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment".
Labour's Alex Sobel (Leeds North West) pledged to introduce a Right to Roam Act. The Shadow Minister for "Nature Recovery and the Domestic Environment" said it would be based on the existing Scottish version, with a "defaulf of access", not a "default of exclusion".
Ms Lucas gave this a cautious welcome, tweeting afterwards:
Glad to see Labour commit to a comprehensive #RightToRoam after my Q in today’s debate on public access to nature - they can be sure that we'll hold their feet to the fire if they end up forming the next Govt. Where Greens lead...
A new Natural History GCSE option will be ready from 2025.
In Adisham, as our Ordnance Survey map shows, extensive public rights of way offer excellent views and wildlife, but many would be irreversibly spoilt by the massive new town of 3,200 houses included in the Canterbury Local Plan.
Walkers and cyclists use the paths to maintain physical and mental health, while horse-riders and stables contribute to the rural economy.
A key attraction is the tranquility and lack of traffic. We are directly adjacent to the Kent Downs AONB, a National Trail passes to the south of the village, and the five of the ancient woodlands are SSSIs.
CARE believes arable land (which also provides colourful views that change with the seasons) is vital for food production, especially after the approval of the 550 acre Mountfield Park development on farmland south of Canterbury.
Ms Lucas said that the 2000 Countryside and Rights of Way Act still only covered 8% of land in England, "much of it remote". Government minister Trudy Harrison disputed this figure because it included areas not "truly accessible", such as mountains. (The Commons Library briefing uses, and explains, the 8% figure. In Wales, open access land adds up to 18%.)
Ms Lucas wants to extend public access to woods, green-belt and grassland.
In Adisham, the former "Tower Woods" to the west of the village have been divided into multiple lots and sealed off; villagers who were able to walk through them in the past are now met with electric fences and security cameras.
Ms Lucas says her proposals would include protection for environmentally sensitive sites, and she is seeking "a proper debate" on whether "right to roam" should include dogs which - even on leads - can disturb nesting birds and harm livestock.
Environmental Impact Plan
The government published its Environmental Improvement Plan earlier this year.
The plan includes specific commitments to:
- ensure everyone lives within 15 minutes of green space (Ms Lucas asked for this to be legally binding)
- completing the England coastal path (Ms Lucas says much of this was already accessible and amounts to a "pretty thin strip of land")
- half of journeys in towns and cities to be walked or cycled by 2030
There are also multiple measures on habitat, net zero, improving air quality, recycling and eliminating single-use plastic.
Significantly, the government also say they will "publish a Land Use Framework in 2023, setting out how we will balance multiple demands on our land including climate mitigation and adaptation".
Trudy Harrison (Conservative, Copeland, and Under-Secretary of State for Defra) - representing a government department that employs over 5,500 people (albeit with the third smallest budget after the Treasury and Department for International Trade) - spent the majority of her response talking variously about her hobbies and enjoyment of the outdoors, her time as a primary school Chair of Governors and red squirrels on the Isle of Wight. She recited statistics on the size of England's forests and national parks, the length of its rivers, canals and cycle routes - stopping short of listing them individually - and read MPs a section from the Countryside Code.
In the closing moments she spoke about the government's Green Infrastructure Network, the coastal path, it's Environmental Improvement Plan goals, including a target to plant millions of trees (by 2050).
Ms Lucas expressed frustration that the minister had "not answered a single one" of her questions and said the UK was "in the bottom 10% of countries globally for protecting nature".
She asked for a meeting and warned her campaign "was not going away".