The majority of many of the national parks in England and Wales are shut off to walkers, analysis by campaigners has found, as they ask for larger areas to be opened to the public.

Research by the Campaign for National Parks shows that just 10% of the Pembrokeshire coast is open to the public. Only 36% of land is accessible in the Peak District, which was the first designated national park, and given the status in 1951 after protests over the right to freely roam in the countryside, most notably the Kinder trespass.

The campaign also found that only half of Dartmoor, the New Forest and the Lake District are open to the public. The Yorkshire Dales are slightly more open, with 60% accessible.

Much of the land in the parks is privately operated, for instance used for farming. However, the same is true in Scotland, where there is a right to roam all over the countryside regardless of ownership, meaning all parks are accessible to the public.

A hiker rests on Catbells in the Lake District looking over Newlands Valley.
A hiker rests on Catbells in the Lake District overlooking Newlands Valley. Photograph: Jon Sparks/Alamy

The Green MP Caroline Lucas recently tabled a right to roam bill in parliament, asking for access to rivers, woods and green belt land. The bill will be debated early next year.

She has called for more of the national parks to be open to the public. Lucas told the Guardian: “There is overwhelming evidence that time spent in nature makes a huge contribution to our physical health and mental wellbeing, yet access to nature remains vastly unequal across different parts of the country, and people from ethnic minorities or with low incomes are even less likely to live near accessible green space.

“The prime minister said on the steps of Downing Street that he remained committed to levelling up – well, extending the right to roam across rivers, woods, grasslands and green belt is a tangible example of how to deliver.”

Puttles Bridge in the New Forest
Puttles Bridge in the New Forest. Only half of the national park is open to the public, say campaigners. Photograph: Geoffrey Swaine/Rex/Shutterstock

Currently, the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 gives a legal right of public access to about 8% of England, including mountains, moorland, heaths, some downland and commons, alongside the more recently created England Coast Path. Ninety-seven per cent of rivers are off limits to the public, and tens of thousands of acres of woodland have benefited from public subsidy yet remain publicly inaccessible. This includes areas in national parks.

Dr Rose O’Neill, the chief executive of the Campaign for National Parks, said: “The Covid pandemic has illustrated just how important national parks are for people’s health, wellbeing and quality of life. They are enjoyed by millions yet there remains real inequality in access.

“When national parks were created by the 1949 National Parks and Countryside Act, it was hailed as a people’s charter for the open air. It’s time to renew that promise and bring powers and investment up to date so that people from all walks of life, irrespective of their background, can get to explore these amazing places.

“Extending the right to roam is key. Government also have a major opportunity with the levelling-up bill currently passing through parliament now to give national parks a new purpose and powers for the 21st century, so they can do more to boost nature recovery, combat inequality and the effects of climate change and open these landscapes up to everyone.”



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