I was delighted to be invited to attend and to speak at the 10th Anniversary of the roll out of open access in the Peak District last Friday, 19 September. The weather was not terribly kind – but we really experienced the remote and wild side of the Peak District moors in a splendid walk beginning and ending at the Longshaw Discovery Centre. We also heard some inspirational words from a range of speakers – local climber, Andy Cave; access champion, Terry Howard; Mosaic leader, Yvonne Witter; Roly Smith, local writer and access campaigner; Alex Hyde, local photographer and wildlife lover; John Thompson, the previous Head of Recreation at the National Park Authority; Andrew McCloy, Peak Park Member; and I was also invited to say a few words back at the Centre. The whole event was brilliantly organised by Sue Smith, the Peak Park’s access officer.
The speeches were full of enthusiasm and passion for the hills and moors of the Peak District. We all clearly shared a great love of these wild places, and an understanding of why they are so important to everyone to everyone to enjoy. The full text of all the speeches can be found in the Peak District National Park Authority’s special Anniversary booklet for the day. There are some really inspirational words. This was my speech –
“This is such a rewarding occasion for me – but also slightly surprising. It’s always surprising when someone reminds you that 10 years have passed and you haven’t really noticed. Ten years ago I was still on the National Park Authority – chairing the Park Management Committee – and we were a bit nervous, but quietly confident about the new access arrangements. There was a huge amount of work between the passing of the CROW Act and the actual implementation four years later – involving so many people. Our Access and Recreation Service, brilliantly led by the inspirational Sean Prendergast, really did most of that work – assisted by people from right across the Authority and many of our partners. I still can’t really believe Sean isn’t here with us today – we miss him. But under Sean’s leadership, access management plans were agreed with over 300 separate landowners, and Sean also undertook to have someone from the National Park Authority communicate with all landowners in the newly opened areas. That wasn’t required by the legislation, but we knew it was the right thing to do. People across England now have around 865,000 hectares of land across which they can walk, run, explore, climb and watch wildlife, without having to stay on paths. The new rights came into effect across all of England on 31 October 2005. But we got there a little sooner – as usual! The Peak District also became the focus of the national launch – at Derbyshire Bridge on 19 September. A wonderful day of walks and celebrations which many of the people here today attended.
We can look back and try to remember what issues we were anxious about then. The biggest concerns were voiced by both landowners and conservation interests. Would open access interfere too much with other land uses, and would increased access to our wildest places have a detrimental impact on the conservation of these special areas. I did a bit of a literature search before today – another surprise – there is very little academic literature on any of these problems. What that says to me is there are surprisingly few problems out there. Certainly, I think we have realised that public access is very low down on any list of detrimental impacts to conservation – there are far greater (and, indeed, much more controversial) impacts than a few additional boots across our hills and moors, which occupy our minds today.
Natural England published their National Open Access Visitor Survey (2006-2008, Executive summary, NECR036) in September 2011. This survey confirmed what many of us anticipated at the time. Across the whole country, there has been surprisingly little change in the patterns and extent of use of open access land, and surprisingly few members of the public are really aware of their new rights. This actually doesn’t bother me too much – for two reasons. Firstly – it is still very early days – ten years is actually no time at all when it comes to changing people’s behaviour. I recall a presentation by the South West Coastal Path officer around the time of the Marine and Coastal Access Bill discussions a few years ago- she believed it had taken a full generation – 30 years – for ordinary members of the public to take for granted their access to the coast in that part of England. That they could walk to the coast and turn right or left – and have the freedom to walk in either direction just as a matter of course. It’s still very early days for our `right to roam`. Secondly – the celebrations today aren’t just about the practical results of being able to walk knee deep across heather or through peat bog away from the usual pathways if you wish – important though those are. There is a principle at stake here too – that our wildest and most remote places have a special place in our hearts and a special value that rightly should be shared amongst everyone in society.
What there is in the academic literature now is study after study which emphasises the importance of people experiencing nature – particularly getting right away from it all to our wildest places. It keeps us physically and mentally fit, it reduces stress, it just makes us feel better. And there are also plenty of studies which highlight that many people still do not enjoy these opportunities – particularly and increasingly, young people. In a single generation since the 1970s, children’s ‘radius of activity’ – the area around their home where they are allowed to roam unsupervised – has declined by almost 90%. We don’t really know the terrible impact that this lack of engagement with the natural world, and the consequent decline in personal confidence and physical and mental capabilities, will have on our young people. The more we can do to address this, the better.
There are also excellent pieces of research which emphasise how important informal recreation and simple tourism is to rural communities – to provide economic opportunities, but also to attract younger people and families to live in these areas, and to ensure they remain vibrant, living communities. I was also involved recently in a piece of work funded by Sheffield City Council, which emphasises the importance of the outdoor economy to that city – it’s not just our rural communities who benefit.
I know that the Peak District Local Access Forum continues to meet, and hopefully has broken down barriers between groups and individuals, emphasising that most of us want the same things from these special places, and we can work together to achieve them. Mike still sends me reports of meetings and I follow your work with interest. Of course there remain challenges……. There remain too many barriers to access, and we need to continue to address these. New technology is certainly helping here. And the Peak District NPA and its partners can be justifiably proud of the way they are working to increase opportunities for outdoor recreation more generally. We need to work more closely with our neighbouring urban areas to encourage more people to enjoy their local countryside. As Roly Smith mentioned earlier, there are still access campaigns to fight also. Roly compared our situation in England and Wales, with the extensive legal access rights our Scottish friends enjoy. Unlike the Scots, we still have a very long way to go before we achieve reasonable access to water in this country. There have also been some recent promises made on the roll-out of coastal access – but we wait to see if resources will follow.
The management of our hills and moors is also an increasing challenge. Here the Peak District is again leading the way – with the incredibly important Moors for the Future project showing how important a well managed ecosystem is to the whole of society. But we must consider how we can enhance biodiversity and work together to create richer habitats for more species. We’re short of not just some bird species in the Peak District (and I know raptors in particular always make the headlines) – but mammals and reptiles too. We may never have wolves in the Peak District – but more Pine Martens and Otters, and more Adders – surely a realistic proposition? We must be looking to enhance natural ecosystem processes in these areas – `natural capital` which can benefit everyone.
And the rather boring, but incredibly important issue of funding? How do we achieve everything we want to in a time of declining public expenditure? I know the usual answer is to be increasingly creative in terms of new partnerships and ways of working. I’m sure you are all working on that, even as I speak. But the current crisis in support for what I might call the `public realm`, isn’t really financial – it’s political. Perhaps today of all days, when our friends north of the border have reaffirmed a commitment to remain part of the UK family, but in doing so seem to have rediscovered a desire to engage more with political process and to link that with an expression of their love for their land, perhaps we can learn from them? We need to work even harder at making our concerns about our landscapes and wildlife relevant to both decision makers and to the public more generally. If we – the people who care so passionately about these places – allow our discussions about who governs us and who sets our agendas to focus solely on jobs and the economy – without speaking up equally about the damage done to our enjoyment of nature and the land itself, then we cannot expect others to take it seriously either. We have to win hearts as well as minds.
Quoting William Blake – “Great things are done when men and mountains meet” – so let’s celebrate today, but let’s look forward to continued progress also.”