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Natural England's Sir Martin Doughty: a new champion for the English countryside?footnote
This article by Andrew Bibby, in a slightly different form, was first published in walk magazine, 2006
Sir Martin Doughty has had a busy few days. We meet the day after the formal launch of Natural England, when he is back in his home town on the edge of the Peak District after a hectic round of media engagements in London . As Chair of Natural England, the agency now responsible for the landscape, nature conservation and countryside access, Sir Martin has been in demand. And now here is another press interview to do, this time for walk magazine.
Sir Martin's no stranger to the outdoor movement. He told the dignitaries at the launch ceremony how his ‘informal walking gang' – his words – made a point of crossing Bleaklow every February, looking out for Peak District hares in their white winter coats. And he brought the Kinder Scout mass trespass of 1932 – the iconic event which helped create the momentum for the countryside access we now enjoy - into his speech too. There's a direct family connection: his father, who died late last year aged 89, was one of the last survivors of those who went with Benny Rothman on the 1932 trespass.
Natural England , in operation since October, is a potentially powerful player in the English countryside. It brings together the former English Nature with much of the old Countryside Agency, so the news that its Chair is a keen walker is bound to be welcomed by other ramblers. He has an impressive CV: former Chair of English Nature, leader of Derbyshire County Council for many years and a long-serving Chair of the Peak District national park, among much else. Until public duties began to crowd out his diary, he was a university lecturer in environmental management.
But nevertheless walkers may still have worries about how successfully Natural England will reconcile nature conservation and recreation interests. Sir Martin is up-beat: “The idea that there is a conflict between nature and access is now largely historic,” he says. He says that English Nature had, in recent years, been moving to a much more access-orientated approach: “We had to have a really good reason for not allowing people to enjoy the nature that we were looking after“.
Natural England , he says, should continue this approach, although he accepts that there can be an issue here. “There is sometimes a danger that access is the one thing that gets squeezed a little bit, between nature and landscape,” he admits. But he says that the Natural England should stay focused on the people of England , its “customers”: “Our strap line is For people, places and nature, and ‘people' was deliberately put at the front of the strap line. We're an environmental organisation, and access for people to those special things we're helping to look after is absolutely crucial to our business,” he argues.
Access to the countryside in England means, in large measure, making sure that footpaths and bridleways can actually be used, and the Countryside Agency's softly-softly approach with recalcitrant local authorities drew ramblers' criticism. So, Sir Martin, can we expect anything better?
His response is encouraging. “Natural England will be a champion for the rights of way network, because I'm determined that it should be. The rights of way network is a tremendous asset to the people of this country, and we should make more of it,” he says. “It's absolutely one of the top priorities for access.”
In practice, of course, that means being prepared to pressurise local authorities. Sir Martin muses about possible ways forward. One idea he intends to discuss with the government, he says, is whether the public money currently routed to local government nominally for rights of ways work (but used in practice for anything) could be channelled through Natural England. That way, Natural England could release the funds against local area agreements with the local authorities. Failing that, he says that other mechanisms may be available to achieve the same objectives.
Natural England has taken over from the Countryside Agency the preliminary work towards meeting the government's manifesto commitment on coastal access. Its recommendations to government, all being well, will have emerged before Christmas, and in the meantime Sir Martin is cautious in what he says. It's clear that he feels that there are strong lessons from the implementation of open access land which need to be learned: “We don't want to spend a lot of money on the process, we want to spend the money on the outcome,” he points out. And the outcome?: “People having a pleasant experience walking on the coast,” he says. He adds that personally he is very enthusiastic about the idea of coastal access.
He draws a lesson for England from a recent coastal walk in Scotland . “I walked south from Stonehaven on what appeared to be a well-used path and after about five miles hit a barbed-wire fence. The reason the path was well-used was that everybody all came back the same way! Now, we don't want that, do we?”
As Natural England itself points out, a third of English people never go to the countryside so there is clearly an issue of social exclusion to address. Some people from urban areas, Sir Martin says, may simply prefer the pleasures of the city, but the countryside can also seem unwelcoming. “We need to find out what the reasons are, and try to deal with them,” he says.
Natural England has announced that it will have four initial areas of campaigning, covering the marine environment, sustainable land management, climate change and – most relevant to walkers, perhaps – health and the countryside. But beyond that, what of a vision for the next twenty, thirty or fifty years? Sir Martin pauses before responding. One possibility, he says, would be to make more of the country's Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, which he describes as an underused asset. He also stresses the possibilities of making the countryside more accessible to people through better use of new technologies like the internet. “We've got national parks, we've got AONBs, we've got nature reserves, we've got open access land. But have we explained to people well enough what wonderful places they are to visit? I don't think we have. “
SIR MARTIN DOUGHTY'S FAVOURITE WALK
“I guess my favourite is to do the last leg of the Pennine Way , from the Snake summit on to Kinder and then down to Edale. If the conditions are OK, we go on the old Pennine Way route, right across the [Kinder] Plateau.”
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