Should Wales allow open access to its countryside like Scotland?

On Sunday's Countryfile, Tom Heap investigates the prospect of Wales following a Scottish-style path to open access for its countryside. But the possibility of legislation has drawn opposition from the National Farmers' Union Cymru, and some Welsh landowners have expressed concern.

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This summer, the Labour-run Welsh government published a green paper exploring the option to adopt the model applied in Scotland since 2003 of “responsible access” whereby anyone is able to roam the countryside responsibly. Like in Scotland, access would be conditional upon following a legally enforceable access code.

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Somewhere along the line, Wales could therefore allow a right of access to all undeveloped land for informal recreation (specifically excluding motorised transport).

Supporters of the plans believe they could encourage more visitors to the countryside and have significant health and recreational benefits.

What access is there to the Welsh countryside at present, and how does this compare to the rest of the UK?

Currently, just a quarter of Wales’ 8,000 square miles are designated open land in which people are entitled to walk and ramble. North of the border, on the other hand, people can go virtually anywhere and do what they like as long as they behave responsibly.

That said, many believe comparisons between the two countries are unhelpful. Scotland is three and a half times as big as Wales, and a smaller proportion of its countryside is inhabited.

In Wales, like in England, access to the countryside is a complicated issue, being governed by a range of legislation, including the Countryside and Rights of Way (CRoW) Act 2000, but also by bylaws in specific areas.

Northern Ireland’s land access is more restricted than England, Scotland and Wales; the CRoW act does not apply, and there are just 100-200 miles of rights of way. 

Speaking to Tom Heap, Carl Sargeant, the Welsh Minister for Natural Resources, did not rule out a move to full access, suggesting that, while he would “not pre-empt the consultation”, he was open to the idea of allowing greater access to rural land across the country. He said increasing access fits in with the health and wellbeing agenda of his government.

Elvyn Jones from the British Mountaineering Council says access on the whole in Wales is good, but there are some areas in which it is not secured in perpetuity, particularly access to some sea cliffs. These, he says, are only accessible because of the goodwill of individual landowners they negotiate with and could be lost.

Why not introduce open access to guarantee the right to roam for everyone?

John Davies, Deputy President of National Farmers’ Union Cymru, points out that over a million acres of open access already exist in Wales and worries about the impact that extending this would have on farmers like himself.

He appeared to suggest that, if anything, the law should be changed to “divert” people from areas of danger, or from going too close to working farmyards.

The Welsh Countryside Alliance opposes a move to unrestricted access and claims “The impact on our rivers could be catastrophic with an increased risk from environmental damage”.

Critics also say Scotland’s system has not been a success given concerns about wild camping and the behaviour of a minority, with tents abandoned and litter left in some cases. Indeed, some Scottish local authorities have started introducing bylaws to restrict certain activities in particular places, effectively reversing the open access legislation in part.

The issue is unlikely to be resolved before Welsh Assembly elections in May, so there remains plenty of time for both sides to be heard. It is not yet clear what will happen, or whether some kind of compromise will be made.

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