Red tape threats
With its Red Tape Challenge, the Government promises to cut whole swathes of regulation deemed unnecessary or burdensome. But vital laws protecting footpaths and countryside access are also under review, and the impact for walkers if they’re lost – as Andrew McCloy uncovers – could be devastating
In April last year, Prime Minister David Cameron announced what he described as an ambitious deregulation agenda that would sweep away unnecessary bureaucracy and allow business and society more freedom. “Today, there are over 21,000 statutory rules and regulations in force,“ he said, “and I want us to bring that number – and the burden it represents – down.”
In order to do this, the Government began publishing all existing regulations on its Red Tape Challenge website (www.redtapechallenge.cabinetoffice.gov.uk) and invited the public to say which should be ‘scrapped, saved or simplified’. The online message board and Twitter feed buzzed with comments on everything from employment law to health and safety, as people suggested which legislation they supported or which they thought hindered them in everyday life. Ministers would then take note of these suggestions and draw up proposals for changes, which would then be reviewed and announced by the Government.
If the whole process feels akin to a TV reality show, where viewers vote off contestants, then at least it seems transparent and that the Government is genuinely engaging the public. The reality, however, is turning out to be rather different, with some ominous signs for much that the Ramblers holds dear.
Although the Red Tape Challenge (RTC) is supposedly coordinated by the Reducing Regulatory Sub-Committee, the day-to-day running of the RTC is via the Cabinet Office, whose ‘challenge groups’ set the themes for Government departments and whose ‘Star Chamber’ grills them on their proposals and work programmes line by line. This Star Chamber includes the ministers Oliver Letwin and Mark Prisk, and also the unelected figure of Robert Hunt – an executive director with waste services giant Veolia. It is they who draw up the final set of recommendations to take forward.
A consultation that’s wholly internet-based and a decision-making process that fails to involve Parliament (unless proposals require primary legislation or changes to Acts, presumably) is disturbing enough. But on top of this, few of the public’s suggestions voiced on the RTC website have so far made it through to the final proposals. It suggests that it’s intelligence-gathering and a ploy to flag up difficult or sensitive issues so that the Government can avoid the repeat of last year’s forestry sell-off debacle, for instance.
These, at least, are the conclusions that some have drawn from the experiences of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, who went through one of the first ‘challenges’ last year. As a result, over half of the 102 pieces of hospitality, food and drink legislation are to be simplified or removed entirely from the statute book. Next in the firing line is the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and that means access and the countryside – topics close to the hearts of all ramblers.
Reading the runes
The Government states that its ‘default presumption’ is that all burdensome regulations will go unless its departmental civil servants can justify why they are needed. There are 163 regulations that relate to biodiversity, wildlife management, landscape, countryside and recreation, and everything, it seems, is up for grabs. They include such ground-breaking and important legislation as the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 and the Countryside and Rights of Way (CRoW) Act 2000, both of which involved decades of campaigning by the Ramblers to realise.
The Government has already delayed once Natural England’s 10-year review of open country mapping, introduced under CRoW, but the RTC may see it abandoned altogether. “If we are to have open access administered via maps, they must be kept up to date or they will soon become inaccurate and disputed,” warns Justin Cooke, a senior policy officer at the Ramblers. “The Government should either review them properly or give us the Scottish model of responsible, unrestricted access instead.”
Initial proposals to streamline public rights-of-way law, prompted by the RTC review, include overhauling how the Planning Inspectorate operates to improve efficiency – a move likely to make it harder and more costly to claim new rights of way. Another suggestion is to allow landowners to temporarily divert rights of way more easily. This could also be the moment that a decision is finally made on the proposals from the Stakeholder Working Group on Unrecorded Rights of Way, according to Janet Davis, the Ramblers’ senior policy officer on footpaths.
“Land managers, local authority representatives and user groups, such as the Ramblers, came together to recommend ways in which the system for recording paths on the definitive map could be made swifter and more cost efficient,” she explains. “But they have been sitting on a minister’s desk for two years now, and consultation on those proposals is promised early this year. Our fear is that they will come packaged with other, potentially damaging, proposals for changes in rights-of-way law.”
Open access doesn’t get off any lighter, either. Kate Ashbrook, general secretary of the Open Spaces Society (and a Ramblers trustee) is particularly concerned about threats to common land and village greens. “We would fight any moves to exempt works on common land from the consent of the Secretary of State for Environment,” she says. “That is a valuable safeguard for land which is of immense public and historic interest. We also fear that Defra is cooking up proposals to make it more difficult to register land as a town or village green, which secures the rights of local people to use the land for informal recreation as well as protecting it from development.”
Potentially, the most high-profile casualty might be our newest piece of access legislation. The Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009 provided, amongst other things, for the creation of a coastal path the length of the English coastline, but although the first six stretches are being worked on, the silence surrounding the long-term future of the path has been deafening.
A wider agenda?
Eliminating unnecessary bureaucracy and cutting burdensome regulation may be worthy aims in themselves, but it’s becoming clear that the RTC is part of a wider political agenda. “We’re concerned that this may be a determined political move by the Government which is using the drive for better regulation as a smokescreen,” says Justin. “Quite apart from the Red Tape Challenge, there are numerous consultations and reviews that are currently under way within Defra, so that you start to see a wider and much more coordinated attack on the public’s right of access to the countryside.”
These ongoing consultations include proposals for a National Planning Policy Framework, which is proposing to sweep away layers of planning policy; the unresolved future of public forests; the Natural Environment White Paper, which
says little about the important role of public access and nothing on the proposed all-England Coast Path; and the Farming Regulation Taskforce, which includes recommendations on the processing and cost of opposing planning applications
and diversion orders.
The fear is that the RTC’s proposals on the environment will, to a lesser or greater degree, be merged with all the other ongoing reviews, the cumulative effect of which may be to make accessing the countryside a lot less easy or widespread. In addition, there are the obvious dangers that come from the combination of less stringent wildlife and landscape protection with more relaxed planning control, which gives a green light to development in some of our most cherished rural areas.
And, at precisely the moment when the Wales Coast Path is about to be unveiled, the long-held ambition of a continuous walking route around England’s shores may be completely dashed.
At the time of writing, it’s still unclear precisely which of Defra’s many regulations may go or be modified in some way, but the fact that the Government has lumped them all together speaks volumes for how it regards access and the natural environment.
“For more than 75 years the Ramblers has fought tirelessly for better public access to the countryside,” says Justin, “but all the hard work could be undone if this turns into a full-fronted assault on everything that we stand for. The legislative achievements that have given us a right to walk across our land and to protect the countryside from development cannot just be cut away as ‘red tape’. They are simply too important and we must fight tooth-and-nail to preserve them.”
Help us protect our hard-fought access rights and environmental protection laws! Go to the Ramblers website at www.ramblers.org.uk/redtape and add your voice to our Red Tape Challenge campaign; or contact Anastasia French with any questions on ✆ 020 7339 8584, firstname.lastname@example.org
What’s facing red tape cut?
All-England Coast Path
As part of a review of all regulation, the creation of a continuous coastal path around England could be delayed for years – or dropped altogether.
Recording village greens
The Defra review is proposing, among other things, to introduce character tests, streamline the process and charge for village green applications so that development can be made easier.
Stopping Up of Rights of Way
The Penfold Review has recommended that Stopping Up Orders, which close rights of way where development is planned, should be processed by planning authorities as part of the original application rather than separately – in order to save developers’ time. There’ll be no say for local communities or right to appeal.
The Government plans to sell off England’s publicly owned forests are only on hold. Much will depend on the advice of the Independent Panel on Forestry and whether the Government listens to it.
A much wider range of work on common land might be exempted from the need to apply for consent from the Planning Inspectorate, allowing developers more freedom to build on unspoilt ground.
National parks governance
Early proposals are to consolidate or even revoke various statutory instruments relating to the governance and operation of national park authorities, the effects of which are as yet unclear.