Saturday, 26 June 2010

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose

Another post on public access to "our natural heritage", with some reflections on recently promised political change and the reality of vested interests preserving the status quo...
...if you'd rather just get on with your canoeing and kayaking on the River Kennet please disregard the following text ;-).  If you have any concern about the continuing attempted infringement of your rights, read on...

Before the 2010 UK General Election:

On the 28 April 2010 The Telegraph's Environment Correspondent Louise Gray reported online under a heading of "Lib Dem plans for the environment" , that "Greenpeace have described the Lib Dems plans for the environment as the most ambitious of any party."

Within a summary of Lib Dem policies, her article noted a position that would provide a "Full access code for the countryside. Everyone will have statutory access rights to most land and inland water – as long as they follow responsibility law.”

This opinion may well have been based on the tone, if not the implicit statement, of  section 4.1.2 of Lib Dem Policy Paper 93 from July 2009, titled "Our Natural Heritage: Policies on the Natural Environment".  At the time of writing it remains available for public view here

Note the proud claim in Policy Paper 93 that Scottish Lib Dems had been instrumental in introducing the "Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003   [...] establishing a statutory right of responsible access to land and inland waters for outdoor recreation, crossing land and some educational and commercial purposes."

At grassroots level it was clearly perceived that Lib Dems would promote such a policy in England and Wales, as reported in this blog's post of 16 April 2010.

However, by the eve of the General Election any pretense to such aspirations had been dropped, at least by the higher echelons of the Lib Dems, when, together with the Conservative and Labour parties, they signed up to The Angling Trust's "Angling Manifesto" [click on the document link at the bottom of the Angling Trust web page to read a copy].

With a clear statement of Angling Trust policy to actively seek limitation on non-angling users of our waterways signalled by the phrase "voluntary access agreements are the only way to manage an increase in water based recreation on inland waters", it was unsurprising to see that it was Huw Irranca-Davies who confirmed the Labour government's stance of the previous 13+ years, and almost inevitable that it was Richard Benyon who, in possibly confident expectation, set forth the Conservative statement of continuing alliance with a particular interest group over the wider population.

After the 2010 UK General Election:

In the brief political interregnum during the formation of the current coalition government it would appear that an 'understanding' of this position of limitation was confirmed on the issues of river access and navigation rights for the English and Welsh electorate.

On the 12 May 2010 Telegraph Political Correspondent Rosa Prince was one amongst many when she reported "In a historic press conference in the Downing Street garden, the Prime Minister and his new Deputy Prime Minister committed themselves to 'three key principles' of 'freedom, fairness and responsibility'."

These principles were clearly not intended to include paddlers, and by the end of the following day BBC News Environment analyst Roger Harrabin had written "And what of the Liberal Democrat manifesto promise of a broader right for people to roam in the countryside in the Scandinavian fashion? There is no mention of that in the joint statement and it may be that Conservative landowners have barred the gate."

The 14 May 2010 saw confirmation of Richard Benyon as a Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Natural Environment and Fisheries at DEFRA.  His responsibilities include inland waterways (including British Waterways), coastal and wider access, countryside and rights of way.

On the 16 May 2010 Nick Clegg stated that "Real, big change never comes easy.  So it would simply be wrong for us to let this chance of real change pass us by.  [...] the chance to hardwire fairness into our society, the chance to change Britain for good."  Hollow words.

As for the news from Wales, the position of the National Assembly on navigation and access to rivers has changed over the last year from this to this, and their final report into "Access to Inland Water in Wales" doesn't really deserve further comment other than to say another sell out.