Open access was introduced between September 2004 and October 2005, ahead of the target of December 2005. Although it is too early meaningfully to measure the take-up of the new right, in 95 per cent of the NAO's visits to sites there was easy access to the land, and it was possible to walk across land without obstruction in more than 90 per cent of cases. Obstacles which did exist appeared to predate the right to roam, and in most cases changes were already planned. The report notes that people from inner cities and those on low incomes may have difficulties making use of this new right: 20 per cent of sites visited were accessible by bus or train.
Details of access land are available on the countryside access website, but the site can be difficult to navigate and the maps were difficult to read, although they have since been upgraded. The Countryside Agency's helpline has been advertised as a public helpline although it is primarily aimed at land managers.
The Countryside Agency's initial estimate for implementing open access was£28m but it eventually spent£52.6m on the programme. This was partly due to the difficulties of estimating the cost of a one-off project, but a desire to avoid delays meant the Agency did not run a pilot scheme. The agency did not adequately assess the risks involved, and as a result underestimated the amount of work needed to map access land. Total government expenditure on the project was some£69m to the end of March.
The NAO recommendations are that the Countryside Agency reviews the use of its open access website to ensure the information is easy to find; clarifies confusion over its helpline, and targets tourist information centres in providing information about the new right. The agency should also encourage clear signs on where dogs are allowed; encourage authorities to consider promoting weekend bus services so that people on low incomes and from urban areas can exercise this new right, and test work required for the ten-year review of access maps to develop accurate estimates of the likely cost.
NAO head John Bourn said:
'The crucial test for the right to roam is whether walkers can use it, and on this score it has been a success. Walkers are no longer restricted to existing footpaths across large areas of the countryside, with thousands of hectares now open to the public, in many cases for the first time. But although the scheme's implementation has gone well, the Countryside Agency should have put effective risk and project management procedures in place earlier.'
The right of access was introduced by the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 and was introduced on an area by area basis between September 2004 and October 2005, ahead of the target of December 2005. Some 936,000 hectares is now classified as access land, of which 865,000 hectares, around 6.5 per cent of all land in England, is in practice open to the public. Of this, 733,000 hectares is land to which no right of access previously existed.
The NAO visited 79 sites in three geographical areas: the lower North West, taking in the Peak District and the Forest of Bowland; the South West, covering Dartmoor, Exmoor and Bodmin Moor, and the Upper North West, incorporating the Yorkshire Dales and the North Pennines. We also undertook testing of the website for all the sites we visited and rang the open access helpline. We conducted 'mystery shopping' of 23 tourist information centres in the areas where we did our site testing, asking a series of specific questions in the 21 staffed centres.
Report by the Comptroller and Auditor General
HC 1046 2005-2006
9 June 2006