Policy paper

2010 to 2015 government policy: access to the countryside

Updated 8 May 2015

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

This is a copy of a document that stated a policy of the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government. The previous URL of this page was https://www.gov.uk/government/policies/protecting-and-improving-people-s-enjoyment-of-the-countryside. Current policies can be found at the GOV.UK policies list.


Everybody should have the opportunity to access, use and enjoy England’s natural environment and outdoor spaces.

Being outside in nature benefits people physically and mentally. Access to the countryside and other ‘green spaces’, like village greens, helps people get these benefits. It also helps improve people’s understanding of the natural environment.

By protecting and improving access, we can help more people enjoy the countryside.


Protecting and improving access to the countryside

Our network of public rights of way is one of the most important ways people access the countryside. We protect it through comprehensive legislation.

To make sure no historic public rights of way are lost, we’re simplifying the processes for recording and making changes to public rights of way.

We also protect people’s right of access on foot to certain types of land under Part 1 of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000.

Improving coastal access

To improve access to the English coast, we’re working with Natural England to establish the England Coast Path. This is a long-distance walking route around the English coast.

Protecting common land and town and village greens

We use legislation to protect common land and town and village greens. This is important for farming and biodiversity, as well as for public access. Misuse of the town and village green registration law had an effect on development of land, so it has been reformed to prevent further misuse.

Protecting and enhancing English landscapes

We use legislation to protect certain English landscapes – these are Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and National Parks. We also provide funding to the bodies that manage these areas.

Responsibility for managing inland waterways

The 2 largest navigation authorities managing the network of over 4,000 kilometres of inland waterways are:

  • Canal & River Trust, which cares for 2,500 km of canals, 500 km of river navigations, 15 km of docks and many thousands of associated locks, bridges, embankments and aqueducts
  • the Environment Agency, which is primarily concerned with flooding, pollution and rivers and cares for 1,000 km of mainly river navigation

See a map showing who is responsible for managing which waterways.

We’re providing funding to the Canal & River Trust (CRT), the charity which was set up in July 2012 to manage many of the UK’s inland waterways.

We intend that the Environment Agency navigations should transfer to the new charity as soon as this is affordable for government and agreed by the CRT Trustees. We set out the latest position on 3 July 2013.

British Waterways continues to exist in Scotland and has been renamed Scottish Canals.


Public rights of way

In England there are about 188,700 kilometres of public rights of way.

The responsibility for recording and maintaining rights of way is shared between local authorities and landowners and occupiers.

Local authorities must produce a map and statement showing the rights of way that exist in their area. They must keep these maps up to date and investigate any evidence that suggests a right of way has been left off or included on the map by mistake, or has been recorded incorrectly.

More information is available about using, finding and changing public rights of way.

Open access land

In England there are about 936,000 hectares of open access land. This includes open country (areas of mountain, moor, heath and down) and registered common land. People have a right of access on foot to this land, under Part 1 of the Countryside and Rights of Way (CROW) Act 2000.

The Forestry Commission has also opened 156,000 hectares of forest land for public access.

Access authorities – local highway authorities or, inside National Parks, National Park authorities - have a range of powers to enable and manage access in their areas.

Local access forums advise access authorities and other bodies on issues about managing and improving access and rights of way.


Common land is protected from development by the Commons Act 2006, the Acquisition of Land Act 1981 and various public and local acts and orders.

There are about 550,000 hectares of registered common land in England and Wales. Read about your rights of access to commons.

Commons councils are democratic structures through which commoners, land owners and others can work together to better manage commons.

Town and village greens

If land is registered as a village green, local people get a right of access to the land for legal sports and pastimes. The land itself is strongly protected against encroachment and development.

Bills and legislation

To protect public access, there’s comprehensive legislation on public rights of way, open and coastal access and common land and town and village greens.

Primarily, these are:

There are a number of regulations made under these acts.

Registered town and village greens are protected by:

Who we’re working with

Natural England has a legal duty to promote access to the countryside. It also has specific legal responsibilities in relation to open access land, National Trails and access to the coast.

Appendix 1: simplifying the processes for recording and making changes to public rights of way

This was a supporting detail page of the main policy document.

In the natural environment white paper, we committed to consulting on simplifying the processes for recording and making changes to public rights of way.

The consultation included:

  • the stakeholder working group’s proposals for recording historical public rights of way
  • improvements to procedures for creating rights of way and for diverting or extinguishing them
  • making it easier for landowners to propose diverting or removing of rights of way crossing their land, while safeguarding public interest
  • how changes to the rights of way network could be better integrated into the planning process

Appendix 2: funding the Canal & River Trust

This was a supporting detail page of the main policy document.

In July 2012 the new waterways charity, the Canal & River Trust (CRT) took over responsibility from British Waterways for many historic canals and rivers.

CRT received British Waterways’ statutory functions, asset rights and liabilities in England and Wales.

The purpose of this change was:

  • to give waterways users and the communities that live alongside waterways a role in their governance
  • to help to ensure waterways management efforts are more financially sustainable, as CRT can access new sources of commercial and private income, including legacies and donations

Financial arrangements for CRT

We’re committed to making sure that the inland waterways and associated commercial assets will be preserved for the nation, in perpetuity. These assets have been placed into a Trust Settlement where CRT is the sole corporate Trustee. The government retains powers to replace CRT as a Trustee should it fail to observe the terms of the Trust Settlement.

We’ve also agreed arrangements for a Protector to make sure CRT uses the commercial property portfolio for the purposes for which it is intended, which are to provide income for the waterways and to provide a reserve for dealing with emergencies. Malcolm Naish has been appointed in the role of the Protector.

The government has agreed a long term funding agreement with CRT for £800 million over a 15-year term. This includes:

  • a core grant of £39 million per year (index-linked to inflation from 2015 to 2016 onwards)
  • from 2015 to 2016, an additional grant of £10 million per year (reduced gradually over the last 5 years of the grant agreement)

This is conditional on CRT’s performance against 3 standards relating to:

  • asset condition
  • towpath condition
  • flood risk management measures

The £460 million commercial property portfolio historically built up from surplus network property was transferred to CRT. We also provided support towards addressing the staff pension deficit inherited from British Waterways by providing £25 million towards it.

This is a very substantial settlement during very difficult economic circumstances and underlines the government’s determination to give the charity the best possible start. The CRT Trustees are satisfied that the settlement will ensure that the charity is viable and that assets can be maintained in a reasonable condition. A review will take place in 2021 to 2022 to examine the case for the Government’s funding of the waterways beyond 2026 to 2027.

More information

A grant agreement and memorandum of understanding between Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and CRT were signed on 28 June 2012.

An amendment to the grant agreement was made on 12 December 2013.

The grant agreement sets out the conditions which CRT must meet to receive funding. The memorandum of understanding sets out the ongoing working relationship between Defra and CRT.

The Waterways Infrastructure Trust Settlement was signed on 28 June 2012. This makes sure that the canals and rivers, and associated infrastructure required to manage them (which were previously operated by British Waterways) will remain in trust on behalf of the nation. It ensures that they cannot be sold and that free pedestrian access to the towpaths is maintained, except in the tightly controlled circumstances set out in the trust.

CRT has been designated the first Trustee of the Waterways Infrastructure Trust.

To ask for signed copies of these documents, call 020 7238 4805.

Appendix 3: protected landscapes: areas of outstanding natural beauty and national parks

This was a supporting detail page of the main policy document.

There are 2 kinds of English protected landscapes:

We protect these through laws and through the planning system, to conserve and enhance the natural beauty of their areas, and in National Parks to also conserve and enhance their wildlife and cultural heritage.

National Parks have an additional purpose to promote opportunities for open-air recreation. When there is a conflict between conservation and recreation, conservation takes precedence.

National Park Authorities have a duty ‘in pursuing their purposes, to foster the economic and social well-being of their local communities’.

The Broads Authority

The Broads Authority is considered to be a member of the National Parks family, but it’s not legally a National Park. It was established under its own tailor-made laws, the Norfolk and Suffolk Broads Act 1989. It shares the same purposes as AONBs and National Parks, but also has the purpose of protecting the interest of navigation.

Managing AONBs and National Parks

National Parks are managed by independent National Park authorities, which are the sole local planning authorities for their areas.

Responsibility for the 34 Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs) lies with the relevant local authorities, who are also responsible for planning matters. To help with managing AONBs, 32 local advisory committees have been established, which involve all the local authorities within the AONB area.

For two of the larger AONBs (Cotswolds and Chilterns), Conservation Boards have been established to manage the areas.

Both National Park authorities and Conservation Boards have a proportion of their membership appointed by the Defra Secretary of State. We’re reviewing the governance of National Parks and the Broads to improve local accountability. Draft laws will be published, when Parliamentary time allows, that would enable direct elections to National Park authorities in England.

Natural England’s role with National parks in England

Funding AONBs and National Parks

National Park Authorities are 100% funded by central government. However, as they’re corporate bodies operating within the local government framework, they can also get funding from other sources (like the EU or charities).

Conservation Boards get 80% of their funding directly from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra). They also get funding from local authorities, and can get funding from other sources.

AONB partnerships receive 75% of their funding from Defra and 25% from local authorities and other sources. Being part of local government means they can also attract external funding.

Extending the Lake District and Yorkshire Dales National Parks

Natural England has made two Variation Orders under the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949 to extend the Lake District and Yorkshire Dales National Parks.

The public inquiry, which heard over 3,000 objections and representations to these orders, has now closed and the Inspector is preparing the report for the Secretary of State.

Key publications