With lockdown lifting and visitor numbers predicted to surge, Roger Smith calls for a national effort to look after the environment.

Main image: Overflowing parking below Pen-y-fan in the Brecon Beacons. Photo credit: Shutterstock

Here’s a simple question for you – who is the current Secretary of State for the Environment? Give up? I won’t tell you just yet, but I think you’ll agree that for the whole of the lockdown period Mr X has been pretty well invisible.

Yet he has a massive job to do. As I write this, the gates of the wider countryside are about to be thrown open, and the eager masses pressing on those gates will be let in. Are there proper management plans ready for them? I suspect not, and I don’t think Mr X does either.

The most visible sign of forward thinking recently has been the (fairly low-key) relaunch of the Countryside Code. It is meant to provide us with a menu of actions for enjoying the countryside responsibly, but it is all a bit twee. ‘Be nice and say hello’ is among the new advice.

Unfortunately, this will hardly have an impact on the major pinchpoints. Access points for the likes of Snowdon, Pen y Fan, the Scafells, Ben Lomond and so on will come under massive pressure, whilst national parks fully expect last year’s difficulties with parking, litter and general overcrowding to repeat.

The problems we will see are all avoidable. It would have been perfectly possible, knowing lockdown would probably be lifted in April, to produce a UK-wide action plan, agreed and widely distributed, in the first three months of this year. The extraordinarily rapid development of the Covid vaccines shows what can be done if you get the best brains working together.

Positive force

The process has started in Scotland.

A visitor management strategy is heading in the right direction. Its aim is: “Through strategic leadership and by harnessing the skills of our partners we will deliver a world class approach to visitor management that protects our environment, respects our communities, enhances the experience of our visitors and supports a thriving tourism sector.”

The Scottish Outdoor Recreation Alliance, a grouping of six bodies led by Ramblers Scotland, has published a ‘Manifesto for the Outdoors’, which is full of good ideas including the appointment of an Outdoor Recreation Champion who would co-ordinate the input of different government departments; long-term investment in infrastructure such as signage and paths; and more support for BAME communities and people in deprived areas to have easy access to nature.

All of which is splendid, though likely too late for this year. There is talk north and south of the border of greatly enhanced ranger services. This is good: rangers are often the vital interface between the public and the environment. But it will take months for new staff to be fully trained; in the meantime we will see the familiar problems with the same ‘sticking plaster’ remedies being applied.

That’s not good enough. There is a general public appetite for enjoyment of the countryside, which could be a major positive force for society as a whole; but it needs very strong leadership and also a considerable budget for path maintenance, literature, signposting and so on. There is little sign of that money being committed by any government at present.

It also needs a UK-wide approach. We aren’t big enough for England and Wales to have a different regime than Scotland. It seems crazy that a fully vaccinated hillwalker in Carlisle, knowing how busy the Lakes will be, can’t turn north and explore the quiet and beautiful hills around Moffat. Yet that is the case as I write. It makes no sense.

Energy and coordination

Getting environmental education onto the mainstream curriculum would be a big step forward; but, again, it needs proper funding. Whether we can get the small minority who do their own thing regardless of others to behave is a moot point. It may be possible to shame them into right thinking but for now we should apply due process of law so that it is brought home to them that there is a need to respect the natural world.

We need some of the same energy and coordination that went into the vaccination programme to be applied to the management of our countryside. The Scots have made an excellent start (not least with projects funded through the Rural Tourism Infrastructure Fund), and the recent landscapes review for the UK contained lots of good ideas. We’re halfway there already.

Can someone in Whitehall please put this matter on the desk of George Eustice with a note – ‘Minister – for urgent action’? Yes, he’s our Mr X. And he’s got a real opportunity to make a name for himself. Step out of the shadows, George – your time has come.

Roger Smith is the founding editor of The Great Outdoors. 

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