Committee of Public Accounts Press Notice

32nd PAC Report 2006-07

The right of access to the open countryside

Edward Leigh MP, Chairman of the Committee of Public Accounts, today said:

“The many people who love walking in the English countryside will have rejoiced at the passing of the ‘right to roam’ legislation and the Countryside Agency’s subsequent successful opening up to the public of large areas of land. What is not clear yet is how many people are actually exercising their new right and what might be deterring some of them from doing so. As an enthusiastic walker, I urge as many people as possible to explore the open countryside.

“Information on opened up land can be hard to find, however. Easy to understand sources of advice other than the internet are necessary and if, as the NAO has found, some staff in tourist information centres have never heard of the right to roam, then clearly they need to be trained without delay to deal with questions from walkers.

“The right to roam is not an unalloyed good. Walking across moors, heaths and downs can lead to wear and tear on the fabric of the countryside and a heightened risk of passing on infectious animal diseases. Action plans for preventing further environmental damage or for imposing emergency restrictions on access to land must be drawn up.

“It will come as little surprise to those familiar with government spending programmes that that the right to roam project ended up costing almost double the original estimate. Once again this Committee stresses the need from day one of thorough contingency planning, robust piloting, regular monitoring of progress and tight control over contractual obligations.”

Mr Leigh was speaking as the Committee published its 32nd Report of this Session which, on the basis of evidence from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (the Department) and the Chief Executive of Natural England, examined the establishment of this new right and how it was working in practice. Natural England took over responsibility for open access from the Countryside Agency in October 2006.

The Countryside Rights of Way Act 2000 introduced a public right to walk across designated mountain, moor, heath, downs and registered common land in England. The Department had a Public Service Agreement target in 2001 to open up the new access land by the end of 2005 and it tasked the Countryside Agency with achieving this target. The project was completed two months ahead of schedule in October 2005, and 99% of the 865,000 hectares of such land was open to people without dogs by 1 November 2005.

Information on the extent to which the public are making use of the new right was not available at the time of the Committee’s hearing in November 2006. Difficulties in obtaining up-to-date information on where to walk and on any restrictions on access (for example due to the lambing season), however, may have deterred people from visiting open access land. The Countryside Agency had set up a website as the primary source of information for the public on access land, but this had proved difficult and confusing to use. The provision of public transport links is also important, but 80% of access land is not accessible by public transport.

The majority of open access land is privately owned and includes a large number of Sites of Special Scientific Interest. Landowners are unclear about their legal liability for the safety of the public on their land. Any increase in people walking on access land could have a detrimental impact on the environment, flora and fauna. Livestock farmers had additional concerns over the bio-security implications in the event of an outbreak of an infectious animal disease. Natural England was committed to regular monitoring and will publish its first Annual Report on the status of open access land in Summer 2007. On the day-to-day management of open access, temporary restrictions can be imposed to keep the public off specific areas of land, although the extent and timing of these restrictions are not always clear, which could increase the risk of non compliance with access requirements.

The implementation of the right to roam cost the Countryside Agency £24.6 million more than it had anticipated, with consequential knock-on impacts on other programmes which had to be deferred or terminated earlier than planned. The Countryside Agency did not have a thorough understanding of the work involved, and did not pilot test its proposed approach. Mapping and determining which land should be covered by the right of open access proved more expensive than expected and the Agency’s board were not alerted to the increasing costs due to a lack of any financial reports on the project between October 2001 and April 2003.

Natural England will want to note the Committee’s conclusions and recommendations on this project as they progress any plans to open up access to the coastline of England.

Notes for Editors

1. Contact details for requests for further comment from Mr Edward Leigh are provided below. ISDN facilities are available for broadcasting purposes.

2. The full text of the Committee’s Conclusions and Recommendations is attached to this press notice.

3. This report can be accessed via the internet from around 11.00 am on the day of publication.

All media enquiries to:

Alex Paterson
Select Committee Media Officer
Tel: 020 7219 1589
Mobile: 07917 488488