BRITISH CANOEING – Inland Waterways & Public Access to the Countryside debated in the House of Lords

The Committee Stage debate on the Agriculture Bill in the House of Lords marks a landmark for British Canoeing and its Clear Access, Clear Waters Campaign.

On the 7th July, Peers spent 8 hours scrutinising and debating amendments to the new Agriculture Bill. This critical piece of legislation intends to reshape how farmers and landowners will be financially supported, once current funding through the Common Agricultural Payment ceases, post Brexit.

Pleasingly, two hours of the debate were devoted entirely to addressing the access related amendments that had been prepared in collaboration between British Canoeing, the Ramblers and the British Mountaineering Council. These amendments aimed to strengthen and better define wording around public access to the countryside. British Canoeing has worked hard to put forward wording that would be beneficial in forging a much closer relationship with farmers and landowners around access to inland waters.

At 7:45pm, Lord Addington introduced a group of amendments, including some that specifically referenced access to inland waterways.

In his opening statement, Lord Addington said:

“The fact is that access matters, both as a principle, as being of practical value to the rural economy and, I hope, to farmers directly now as well. If they are providing this access…they deserve to get some payment, but we deserve something back for that activity.

“I should also mention that these amendments were created in conjunction with the ramblers and the canoeists. There is a huge amount of activity on waterways which hits all those targets we are talking about: public health, access, enjoyment—it is all connected with the waterways. There are the canoeists—the paddlers—and the wild swimmers can be included here as well”.

Leading on some of our key amendments, was Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson, herself someone who is passionate not only about sport and physical activity, but also access to water for recreation.

Baroness Grey-Thompson used her allotted speaking time to outline the issues with both physical and legal access to water:

“I believe that it would advantageous to define the term “waters” within the Bill so as to be clear about what is or is not included. There is a lack of clarity in the scope that may lead to inconsistencies in how the text is interpreted. There could be an assumption that public access and enjoyment should be supported only on land. The definition should be broad enough to ensure that financial support can be given to the widest range of farmers and landowners who are seeking to improve the use and maintenance of or access to the water that falls within their land”.

Baroness Grey Thompson went on to say:

“With improved access to and along waterways, we need to be looking at places to launch and land, and access around dangerous obstacles, such as weirs. We should not forget that through our communities, our towns and cities, we are perhaps more disconnected from water than we have ever been. Including these amendments will be a crucial stepping stone for the Government to meet their objectives in the Defra 25-year plan and be part of a green recovery. I believe the Government can help farmers and landowners to make this happen”

The debate continued with many positive contributions from a wide range of peers from all parties and backgrounds:

Baroness Scott of Needham Market:

“We are all agreed that the principle of reward for public good is the right one, and it feels to me as if public access is one of the most important public goods that we can put in the Bill. We know that open-air activity in the countryside—not just walking but all sorts of activity—has a huge contribution to make to individual health and well-being. I think it should sit alongside access to good-quality food as an important outcome of the Bill”.

The Earl of Devon:

“The more that ELMS can be used to encourage responsible, sustainable and resilient access to the countryside for the benefit of people’s health and well-being, the better for all of us and, particularly, the better for land managers, whose management of the land suddenly becomes relevant to a much wider swathe of the population.”

Lord Moynihan

“The Bill provides an excellent opportunity to bring improved public benefits. I hope farmers and landowners will be encouraged not to restrict access for any person on any inland waterway or lake which forms part of that land for the purpose of open-air recreation.

“I hope the Minister will find ways to ensure fair and equitable access to our countryside for all sustainable recreational pursuits on land and water at a time when fitness and activity levels are in crisis. I hope he will also agree that we should strive to deliver a new and improved regulatory regime that drives and enhances improvement and access to the maintenance of existing public rights of way for all users of the countryside.”

A few Lords expressed caution over even greater access to the countryside for the public, pointing towards recent poor behaviour in the countryside during and post lockdown.

Clearly with greater access, comes great responsibility. What British Canoeing, The Ramblers and the BMC are clear about is that farmers and landowners should be supported financially for providing sustainable ways, such as infrastructure, for people to access the countryside in ways that are sensitive to private land and the environment.

At the end of the debate, Lord Gardiner, representing the Government in the House of Lords summed up the discussion with some remarks that paddlers should find heartening:

“Public access to the countryside provides a huge range of benefits, including improving physical and mental health, and supporting local communities and economies. Spending time in the natural environment, as a resident or a visitor, can reduce stress, fatigue, anxiety and depression. It can help boost the immune system and encourage physical activity, and it may reduce the risk of chronic diseases such as asthma. It can combat loneliness and bind communities together”.

“The ELM scheme could fund the creation of new paths, such as footpaths and bridleways, which provide access for cyclists, riders and pedestrians where appropriate. It could support access to water and waterways on someone’s land.

“I say also to the noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson, that funding may be given under Clause 1(1)(b) to support access to water bodies and waterways in the countryside, farmland and woodland, which could provide access to those locations. Our ELM scheme will reward land managers for the public goods that they deliver, which could include granting of public access to water”.

British Canoeing is proud to have played a part alongside colleagues in the Ramblers and BMC, in bringing this valuable debate to the House of Lords. We are extremely grateful for the support provided by Lord Addington and Baroness Grey-Thompson, as well as all the Peers who spoke in support of our amendments.

Two further amendments will be debated on the second day of scrutiny, but work has already begun planning how best to take this forward into the Report Stage and Third Reading.

The full transcript of the debate and be found here https://hansard.parliament.uk/Lords/2020-07-07/debates/90846715-E878-4721-B38E-2ECBF05788BD/AgricultureBill

And also viewed online on Parliament TV at around 1752.