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What is the true cost of public access?

Just what is the true cost of public access asks NFU Scotland’s Head of Policy Team Gemma Cooper?

The recent announcement by the First Minister in relation to easing Covid restrictions is likely to come as a relief to many but it is already a source of concern for farmers and crofters.

Last year saw huge issues with public access taking on an unprecedented scale. Organisations such as NFUS were inundated with a high number of calls from concerned members looking for help, logging problems with out-of-control dogs, livestock worrying, wild camping, access to farm buildings and private gardens.

The legislation which underlines access rights in Scotland is often held up as an example of a flagship piece of law.  Indeed, Scotland has some of the most open access rights in the world. The rights provided in the Act were also underpinned by the creation of a network of Local Access Forums, staffed by Local Access Officers whose role is to uphold the rights of both the public and landowner.  The theory behind these was to provide a conduit for dealing with local issues.  

Overarching this, was the creation of a National Access Forum, made up of stakeholder organisations able to contribute on specific issues of national importance.  Local issues, dealt with at a local level, with the potential to feed into a national group.  On the face of things, an ideal arrangement.

The reality is that since 2003, the vital role that access officers play in promoting responsible access has been eroded due to a chronic lack of resource allocation at local authority level. A previous FOI request submitted by NFUS showed that many access officer roles had been reduced to part time, enveloped by other duties relating to sustainable transport. It also showed that Local Access Forums had become dysfunctional, they were underfunded, some met very rarely, and some were no longer meeting at all.  For farmers and crofters, this can mean that where there are chronic issues, there is little help.

The pandemic has shone a spotlight on visitor management of the public in Scotland and the fact that there are currently major weaknesses. The result of this is that land managers are left to carry significant costs and that is a source of great frustration to NFU Scotland members.   On the positive side, the pandemic has resulted in a fantastic multi-agency partnership working, the allocation of additional ranger personnel and financial assistance for mitigation in ‘hot spot’ areas.  

 It cannot be denied that properly managed outdoor access has huge potential to benefit rural Scotland and the wider economy, but this cannot be at the expense of farmers and crofters who are trying to run a business.  Access to our fantastic countryside in Scotland must be better resourced and a long-term strategic approach is a critical part of this conversation.  

  • NFU Scotland has created a new access hub on its website.  The hub provides members with information on a range of access issues – guidance on access, signage, livestock worrying, wild camping and a log to record any issues members may be having on access.  It is at: https://www.nfus.org.uk/policy/campaigns/access-information-hub.aspx  


Author: Gemma Cooper

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About The Author

Gemma Cooper

Gemma Cooper is a graduate of Harper Adams and started her career in practical land and estate management in Perthshire and Angus. She developed her career as an agricultural and rural business consultant with a specialism in farm diversification. Gemma joined NFUS in 2012 as Legal and Technical Policy Manager and was later promoted to Head of Policy Team. She has extensive experience of a broad range of rural policy issues relating to land reform, land use, access and rural law and her role includes influencing at a Scottish and UK level on behalf of NFUS members. Gemma combines advocacy work with management and development of the NFUS team of policy professionals.

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