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A View from the River Bank - Ben Seal talks Agnew Commission

In Spring this year, British Canoeing along with its partners British Mountaineering, Swim England, The Ramblers and the Open Spaces Society learned of an exciting new Commission, established by the Chief Secretary to HM Treasury and tasked with significantly improving our access to the outdoors. 

Ben Seal, places to paddle manager at British Canoeing talks us through the latest developments.

Charter Front Cover

The ‘Access to the Outdoors Commission’ launched by the Rt. Hon. Stephen Barclay MP, called on Government departments to develop ‘a programme of work to deliver a significant improvement in using greater or more targeted access to outdoor spaces in both rural and urban areas to support better outcomes for physical and mental health’. The Commission will agree recommendations for cross-Governmental schemes to deliver improved access to the outdoors, designed to address inequalities in access for disadvantaged groups. Specifically, Stephen Barclay MP committed the commission to break down silos and engage in ‘radical, joined up thinking’ across departmental boundaries. A ‘quantum shift’ in thinking was called for, that would amongst others, benefit children and younger people, and would strongly contribute to nature recovery and net zero.

Clearly while this may sound ambitious, it was extremely encouraging that the Government was seen to be committing itself to exploring ambitious proposals toward tackling inequality and ‘levelling up’ access to the outdoors. Successful proposals were intended to be included in the Government’s ‘Comprehensive Spending Review’, this Autumn, details of which are due to be published soon.

British Canoeing and its partners have worked tirelessly over the course of the summer, to present ideas and proposals to Civil Servants and Ministers linked to the Commission. British Canoeing's proposal to ‘level up access’ put forward an extension to the existing Countryside & Rights of Way Act (2000) via an amendment. This would extend open access to include water and enable fair, shared, sustainable access for all. 

Given it is now twenty years since the original CRoW legislation granted a ‘right to roam’ on large areas of mountains, moors and uplands in England and Wales, this would in our opinion, provide a cost effective and timely route to enabling thousands more people to access water on their doorstep. We believe that it also fulfils the criteria of the Agnew Commission, significantly improving access to nature for tens if not hundreds of thousands of waterway users.

British Canoeing and its access partners have also been pushing hard for Defra not to go back on its intentions to include payments to landowners under the new ELM scheme. These payments would help support farmers and to improve access infrastructure; such as parking, upgrades of rights of way and accessible stiles, gates & landings.

British Canoeing is now awaiting more details on what proposals Defra and the Treasury plan to take forward. It is our belief that not for at least 2 decades have we had such an opportunity to ‘shift the dial’ so significantly on people’s access to our ‘natural health service’.  

Frustratingly however, very little information about the Commission or its proposals has been made available to the public. For stakeholders like ourselves, there has been limited opportunity to influence the Commission. British Canoeing is aware that the Right to Roam Campaign, led by Nick Hayes and Guy Shrubsole is currently encouraging people to write to their MP’s and to Lord Agnew, to stress the importance of this unique opportunity. It remains to be seen whether Defra, the Treasury and the Commission have heard our proposals and will deliver their proposed ‘quantum shift’ that was promised when the Commission was first set up.

We will provide an update on this story as soon as further details emerge.