Public Permitted to Roam British Lands Previously Off-Limits

STAFFORD, England, October 31, 2005 (ENS) - People across England and Wales now have almost 750,000 new hectares (2,895 square miles) of land across which they can walk, ramble, run, explore, climb, and watch wildlife. Today the opening of so-called access land, which had been off-limits, is completed across England.

Rural Affairs Minister Jim Knight is hosting a event at Milford Common near Stafford today to celebrate completion of access across the country with the opening of the West and East of England. The two regions will be the seventh and eighth to have open country and registered common land opened under the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000.

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Rural Affairs Minister Jim Knight (Photo courtesy Office of the Minister)
"This is a very special day for everyone who loves our countryside, as it provides the opportunity for people to walk freely on access land, without the need to stick to paths, and to enjoy some of the most beautiful scenery that up until now has been off-limits," the minister said.

Part I of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 provides a new statutory right of access on foot to open country and registered common land, known collectively as access land.

"The Countryside and Rights of Way Act strikes a careful balance between the wishes of people to walk on access land and the needs of landowners and managers," said Knight, who is encouraging walkers and visitors to follow the Countryside Code and signs, keep their dogs under control and find out about any restrictions on access which were in place.

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This logo indicates open access areas across England and Wales. (Photo courtesy Countryside Agency)
The new right has been introduced on a region-by-region basis. Land in the Lower North West and South East was opened to walkers on September 19, 2004; in central Southern England on December 14, 2004; in the Upper North West and North East on May 28, and in the South West on August 28.

The new right extends to most open air recreation activities carried out on foot, but it does not include riding a horse or a bike, water sports, or camping - although, where these activities take place already, whether by right or permission, they will continue unaffected.

"All who visit and enjoy our countryside must respect those who live, work or depend on it for their livelihoods," said Knight. "We must remember that the countryside is a workplace and a haven for wildlife as well as a wonderful place to walk."

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Gate and footpath may now lead to open access lands if marked with the open access logo. (Photo by Ian Britton courtesy FreeFoto)
The right of access includes national parks, areas of outstanding national beauty, nature reserves, parks and greens, commons, national trails, and some woodlands. The Forestry Commission, a government agency, is voluntarily making much of its land available using new powers in the Act, even though it might not qualify as open country.

The new right of access does not include access to beaches and the foreshore, but the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 (CROW Act 2000) gives the Secretary of State powers to extend the statutory right of access to coastal land of any description. Parliament will have to approve any such extension.

But 32 percent of the scenic English coastline is conserved as Heritage Coasts. Many stretches of of the most beautiful coastlines are accessible by a network of public footpaths and bridleways, some of the most challenging of which are designated as a National Parks. The Coastal Network, supported by the Countryside Agency now represents the interest of our rural coastlines.

Many beaches are owned by local authorities and dedicated for public use. Others have been used by the public for many years and are presumed to have been dedicated for public use. Certain activities may be restricted, such as camping, driving vehicles or lighting fires. There are a few private beaches, closed to the public.

The foreshore, lying between the high and low tide line, usually belongs to the Crown. There is not necessarily any right of public access to it, but in most cases people cannot be barred from walking on the foreshore because there is an absolute right of navigation along it when the tide is in, which prevents the erection of barriers to access.

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The beach at Bamburgh, Northumberland, England (Photo by Ian Britton courtesy FreeFoto)
The act does not give new public rights of access to woods and river banks unless they are otherwise on access land, such as moorland or registered common land, but individual landowners may dedicate permanent access over such areas.

The government committed to open up access land across England by the end of 2005 and this introduction of the new right in the East and West achieves this goal two months early.

The mapping program, carried out by the Countryside Agency, divided England into eight mapping areas. The agency mapped 936,000 hectares of open country and registered common land in England. About 750,000 hectares of land where there has previously been no statutory right of access will be open to the public.

Landowners may apply to have the new access rights on their land permanantly removed if they think the public may be at risk, or for land management. The public has a right to comment on these applications. Or landowners may exercise a new power under the act to voluntarily dedicate areas of their land permanently for access.

The owner can decide which pieces of land to dedicate, and these areas will then become subject to the access rights and restriction powers in the CROW Act 2000. Owners can also open up any area of their land to wider access for cyclists or horseback riders. Once dedicated, the right is irrevocable, and will bind future owners.

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Autumn at Westonbirt Arboretum, part of the Forestry Commission lands (Photo Forestry Commission)
The new land rights include access to Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty. There are such areas England and Wales - 36 wholly in England, four wholly in Wales and one which straddles the border.

The largest in England is the Cotswold Hills, which rise west from the broad, green meadows of the upper Thames to crest in an escarpment above the Severn Valley and Evesham Vale.

The Cotswolds are nationally important for their rare limestone grassland habitat and ancient beechwoods. Important grasslands such as Cleeve Hill have survived due to their status as ancient common, and a National Nature Reserve protects the finest ancient beech complex. Some Cotswolds plants are so rare that they have specific legal protection under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981.

But motorways together with a central location, make the Cotswolds accessible to a huge urban visitor area including Bristol, London and the West Midlands.

Population growth is set to collide with the new access to open country in the East of England, degrading the very areas that make open access attractive.

The region is planning for population growth within the next 15 years that will squeeze the amount of open space available and impact environmental quality, according to Friends of the Earth East of England.

The campaign group warned today that greenhouse gas emissions will soar across the region unless the Regional Assembly amends its plan to promote large scale and rapid growth. The warning comes the day before the Examination in Public of the East of England Plan opens in Ely Tuesday.

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Cars and heavy machinery crowd a rural English town and emit greenhouse gases. (Photo courtesy FreeFoto)
In its Plan the East of England Regional Assembly proposes, by the year 2021, a large and rapid increase in the region's population, housing, road use and air travel with far reaching effects for the region's look, feel, character and environmental quality.

The Plan proposes 478,000 new homes, a 678,000 rise in population caused in part by inward migration, 421,500 new jobs, a lengthy list of new road plans, and expansion of the region's airports including growing Stansted to take 40 million passengers a year.

But the Plan contains no policy on climate change, no target for carbon dioxide reductions from the region and no action plan for how to reduce greenhouse gases.

Mary Edwards, campaign coordinator for Friends of the Earth's East of England, said, "Unless it is changed, the East of England Plan will lead to a huge increase in the region's contribution to dangerous climate change, with large and rapid increases in housing, car journeys and air travel."

"Climate change is the biggest threat facing humankind," Edwards said. "The government has a target for cutting UK carbon dioxide levels by 60 per cent by 2050. Hitting this target should be central to the Regional Assembly's every policy."

Friends of the Earth East of England is calling on the Regional Assembly to set a target to reduce the region's contribution to global warming, and to ensure that this is central to the Assembly's Plan and every other regional policy.

For further information on the new access right and interactive maps of access land, visit the Countryside Agency's website http://www.countrysideaccess.gov.uk.