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Work is still needed to uphold Scotland's world-leading access rights

By John Davidson

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As Scotland marks 20 years of access laws under the Land Reform Act, John Davidson speaks to charities and politicians on the future of outdoor access

Highlands and Islands Green MSP Ariane Burgess says raising awareness of the rights and responsibilities is vital.
Highlands and Islands Green MSP Ariane Burgess says raising awareness of the rights and responsibilities is vital.

Twenty years after world-class access rights came into force in Scotland, leading voices in the outdoor community have called for a renewed push to spread the word about the "right to roam".

It follows a well-attended event at Holyrood which celebrated the anniversary of the passing of the Land Reform Act in 2003 and looked forward to opening up the outdoors to more people.

Organised by Ramblers Scotland and hosted by Highlands and Islands MSP Ariane Burgess, the gathering at the Scottish Parliament saw volunteers, access organisations and others who share a love of walking join forces to look back at two decades of access rights set in stone.

The 2003 act put in place a right of responsible access to most land and inland water in Scotland, with limited exceptions and with the expectations of access takers and land owners and managers set out in the Scottish Outdoor Access Code, which formed an intrinsic part of the law.

Ms Burgess said: "I think it has been amazingly successful. I grew up in Scotland and then left for 20 years and came back in 2010, so the act had been in place for a while at that point.

"When I grew up in Scotland, you walked anywhere, went up a mountain and it wasn’t in question, but I think what’s good now is it’s there, and it’s saying, you have the right to do this.

"I don’t think we should take that for granted because I go walking in other countries and you’ll come to a great big sign that says ‘keep out, guard dogs’ and things like that. So I think the fact that there is a code is great."

The Green MSP lodged a motion in parliament at the end of last year that has received cross-party support, acknowledging that the country's access rights are vital to the population's health and wellbeing and recognising their contribution in both economic and environmental terms.

Rona Gibb, a senior manager at charity Paths For All, which advocates to enable everybody to access the outdoors, agreed to code has been pivotal to the success of the legislation.

Rona Gibb, Paths For All manager.
Rona Gibb, Paths For All manager.

"We’ve come a massive leap from where we were before and we should all be very grateful and also proud of where Scotland has got to with this, but we can’t just stand still," she said. "We need to look forward and make sure we’re moving all of this forward."

The message that comes through loud and clear from all those involved is that education is key to upholding the rights people have through the code.

Ranger services and access officers, which pre-pandemic were seen as easy fodder for local authority cuts, are needed to pass that on-the-ground information on and deal with issues early. While recent investment in some ranger services has been welcomed, access officers in particular are often struggling to cover huge areas.

Ms Burgess points out that an initial promotion of the access code led to an increased awareness of rights and responsibilities in the outdoors from about 20 per cent to more than 70 per cent, but that has dropped off in recent years.

Ms Gibb added: "It goes back to the fact we’ve got used to it and we accept it’s there – but we actually need to do a lot of work around it. We need to make sure people understand it, we need to make sure people have the confidence when they’re out and about and we need to value it and, yes, shout about it."

Sign of the times - the Scottish Outdoor Access Code places requirements on land managers and access takers to behave responsibly.
Sign of the times - the Scottish Outdoor Access Code places requirements on land managers and access takers to behave responsibly.

She points out there is a duty on NatureScot and on local authorities to promote the code but argues that, other than "stuff around lambing and dogs, you don’t see a massive amount of information" about it nowadays.

"I think that’s where we’re falling down," she said. "During the pandemic and with a lot of the issues around staycations and a lot of the hotspots – and Highland had more than their fair share of issues around that – what it highlighted was that over the years we’ve seen a significant decline in the number of access officers in local authorities and the number of rangers across the country.

"If it did nothing else, it promoted the fact that we need more of those. Certainly it’s happening with the ranger service, if not with access officers."

Richard Barron, chief operating officer for rights of way and access charity ScotWays, thinks increased resources are still needed for outdoor access management and facilities, despite some investment in ranger services.

He said: "The lifting of lockdown restrictions again highlighted the importance of facilities to allow and support outdoor access, from car parks and toilets to well-maintained paths and countryside rangers providing visitor education. Problems are not new, we have been managing people and their interactions with the countryside for generations.

"What hampers the ability to do this well is the reduction in dedicated staff and resources. A Scottish Outdoor Access Network survey carried out in 2019/20 showed a reduction of 44 per cent of full-time-equivalent access officers since the Land Reform Act started, with a third of access authorities not employing any countryside rangers."

Investment is also called for in renewed promotion of the access code. Ms Burgess said that NatureScot – or Scottish Natural Heritage as it was at the time – invested around £600,000 in promotion in the early days of the legislation coming into force.

She added: "It’s about the education piece, it’s about getting it into schools – maybe looking back at what was initially done when the legislation came in, because that seems to have been successful in raising awareness.

"I feel that every child at school should be taught that they have these rights."

Ramblers Scotland director Brendan Paddy spoke of inclusion and diversity at Holyrood.
Ramblers Scotland director Brendan Paddy spoke of inclusion and diversity at Holyrood.

And the MSP is keen to show that it's not all about paths up mountains and out in the countryside – the access laws apply equally to urban environments and in allowing communities to get out into nature closer to home, and connecting communities together with networks of paths.

That leads us neatly into the fact that even outdoor access is unequal, with people living in more affluent areas far more likely to walk for recreation than those in deprived areas, while other groups face greater barriers to enjoying the outdoors.

Ramblers Scotland director Brendan Paddy said: “The Land Reform Act is one of the stand-out achievements of Scotland’s devolved parliament."

And he added: “This month’s anniversary also provides a useful moment to reflect upon how access to the outdoors remains unequal, with people in affluent areas considerably more likely to walk than those in deprived parts of Scotland.

“I hope that in the years ahead we focus even greater effort and resources upon ensuring that everyone – whatever their background, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, ability or age – benefits from Scotland's amazing outdoors.”

Scotland's environment minister Màiri McAllan, who also addressed the event at Holyrood on January 18, said: “There are so many benefits to spending time walking in our parks, woodlands and hills, including improving our physical health, nurturing mental wellbeing, tackling loneliness and many more. We should all be able to access these benefits and our world-leading rights provide this.

“Going forward, we must prioritise action to address the barriers and challenges that some still face in accessing the outdoors. No-one should be prevented from benefiting because of their circumstances."

The right of responsible access is well and truly enshrined in law, but the ability to take advantage of that right is not always so straightforward. That is just one of the challenges we face as we step into the next 20 years.

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