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Access to countryside and coast

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The Big Tree Plant LogoThe Big Tree Plant aims to encourage people and communities to plant more trees in urban and residential areas. The five year campaign will encourage local community groups to plant and care for trees in their neighbourhood, particularly in areas that don’t have many. The Big Tree Plant partnership brings together civil society partners and conservation organisations, working with Defra and the Forestry Commission. For more information on how to get involved visit The Big Tree Plant website

Outdoor recreation has the potential to provide physical and mental health benefits to everyone, and access to the countryside and other ‘green space’ is one of the primary means of obtaining these benefits. There is strong evidence to show that outdoor recreation is a pastime enjoyed by large numbers of people throughout the United Kingdom.

In order to safeguard public access there is a comprehensive body of legislation on public rights of way. Primarily, these are: The Highways Act 1980 (the 1980 Act); The Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 (the 1981 Act); The Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 (the CROW Act); and the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006 (the NERC Act). The right of access to open country and registered common land is provided for under the CROW Act. The Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009 (the MCA Act) includes provisions for improving public access to the English coast.

Latest news

Defra guidance on the making and consideration of representations and objections about proposals in a coastal access report

Natural England’s consultation on its draft proposals for coastal access at Weymouth Bay closed on 10 January.  Natural England will now finalise its report in light of the comments received before submitting it to the Secretary of State, following which there will be a period in which anyone may make representations and owners and occupiers of affected land may make objections to the proposals in the report. The Secretary of State will then reach a decision on whether to approve the proposals, with or without modifications, taking into account any representations and objections made.

Defra has issued guidance on the process for making representations and objections, and on how they will be considered as part of the Secretary of State’s decision. Please see a copy of the guidance.

The case for Government action

High-quality, accessible green spaces are highly valued by the public. In addition to their intrinsic value, they provide considerable benefits to quality of life, health and wellbeing. People’s needs have changed, and more provision of accessible green space and high-quality landscapes closer to where they live are needed to enable them to build more outdoor recreation into busy, modern lifestyles. Pressures on land use mean without Government intervention, many of the green spaces people value and use would be at risk of development.

Improving access will give people an opportunity to increase their understanding of the natural environment, promote healthy outdoor recreation and inspire lifestyle choices. The English coast is very popular with people for beach activities and other recreation but about 30% of it currently has no right of access. Public rights of way remain the primary means by which people access the countryside.

The current situation and background

Rights of way are minor public highways that exist for the benefit of the community at large, in much the same way as the public road network. In addition, the public has a right of access to certain types of land.

Under Part 1 of the CROW Act, there is a statutory right of public access to areas of mountain, moor, heath and down that are mapped, and to registered common land. This right of access is on foot only. Under the CROW Act some types of land which would otherwise be accessible are not subject to the new rights of access, such as land used as a park or garden. This is referred to as “excepted land”.

Types of access land include Country Parks, commons, and town and village greens. There are also Community Forests which are managed by and for communities, and which include recreation amongst their purposes.

Local authorities have the power to create Country Parks for the purpose of providing or improving opportunities for public enjoyment of the countryside. The 12 Community Forests in England are partnerships between local authorities and local, regional and national partners including the Forestry Commission and Natural England. They work closely with local communities, helping them to improve their local area and creating new facilities for recreation and leisure.

Commons and town and village greens often represent vitally important areas of open space to the surrounding communities, which are used for a wide range of recreational activities. Common land is protected from development by the Commons Act 2006, the Acquisition of Land Act 1981 and various public and local Acts and Orders. Registration as a green confers on local people a right of access to the land for lawful sports and pastimes, and strong protection against encroachment and development.

Most traditional greens were registered in the 1960s but, increasingly, applications are being made to register new greens on the basis of 20 years’ use of land as if it were a green. Applications for registration of new greens have greatly increased since 1970. There were virtually none in the early 1990s but there are nearly 200 each year today.

Local access forums give advice to access authorities (local highway authorities or, inside National Parks, National Park authorities) about ways of improving public access to land.

Key facts and figures

In England there are roughly 188,700 kilometres of public rights of way. These are made up of footpaths, bridleways (for pedestrians, horse riders and bicyclists), restricted byways (for all types of traffic except mechanically propelled vehicles) and byways open to all traffic.

In addition there are:

  • 936,000 hectares of land (7.0% of total land area of England) mapped as open country and registered common land
  • 470,000 hectares open to the public within the National Parks in England
  • 156,000 hectares of land dedicated for public access by landowners (mostly by the Forestry Commission) and long leaseholders
  • 1,827 miles of accessible English coastline.

Country Parks

There are currently more than 400 sites calling themselves Country Parks in England. They are visited by over 70 million visitors a year. Most were created in the 1970s under the Countryside Act and the majority are owned and run by local authorities.

Community Forests

Since 1990 the 12 Community Forests in England have:

  • planted over 10,000 hectares of new woodland
  • brought more than 27,000 hectares of existing woodland under management
  • created or improved 12,000 hectares of other habitats
  • opened up 16,000 hectares of woods and green-space for recreation and leisure

Common Land and Town and Village Greens

Around 3% of the land area of England is recognised as common land, with shared rights for commoners.

Relevant legislation and regulations

Key publications and documents

Page last modified: 31 January 2011