it will be essential for the fine political words to be backed up by the provision, by the [Scottish] Executive, of adequate resources to enable local authorities in particular to fulfil their statutory duties.’

ScotWays Annual Report 2003

It’s 20 years since the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 reached the statute books and in that time there have been very few problems.  Yes, there have been problems and people have resorted to court action, but we’ve only had eleven court cases.  Those have tested different aspects of the legislation and, on balance, have supported each other.  There have been no legal challenges to the actual Land Reform Act itself.

One of the keys to the Act’s success has been the cooperative work of the national and local access fora, the local authorities, users and land managers.  Coupled with increased resources for outdoor access management and facilities, this is where the magic happens and it is something that was recognised in the original outdoor access proposals of the National Access Forum back in 1999.

How crucial this cooperation and application of resources is was observed by our Field Officer at the time of the passing of the Act, Alistair Lawson. “Many of the problems perceived at the start of the reform campaign – say ten years ago – have now been successfully addressed, merely by the application of more money, more staff, more time and more energy.”

The lifting of COVID lockdown restrictions highlighted the importance of facilities to allow and support outdoor access, from car parks and toilets to well-maintained paths and countryside rangers providing visitor education.  Problems are not new; we have been managing people and their interactions with the countryside for generations.

The steady reduction in dedicated staff and resources hampers the ability to do this well.  A Scottish Outdoor Access Network survey carried out in 2019/20 showed a reduction of 44% of full-time equivalent access officers since the Land Reform Act started with a third of local authorities not employing any countryside rangers.

The most effective way to help manage visitors is to have committed, knowledgeable and passionate folks on the ground who can then educate and intervene to help prevent issues from escalating.  Lifting COVID restrictions brought the tourism recovery programme, the Visitor Management Strategy, the Rural Tourism Infrastructure Fund and the Better Places Fund.  These helped but more than just short-term rescue packages are needed.

The Scottish Government’s natural capital account puts the value of outdoor recreation at £62 billion. Yet, this year the Improving Public Access fund has been removed from the Agri-Environment Climate Scheme.  Farmers could previously use this fund to support access and provide paths.  The Better Places fund will continue for 2023, but will local authorities be able to take advantage of it as the number of countryside rangers continues to fall?

With the introduction of the Scottish Government Draft Budget for 2023-24, a leaked Convention of Scottish Local Authorities finance report indicated a potential council staff reduction of 7,500 jobs over the next three years.  Will outdoor access be hit again?

Local authority budgets are tight and to save money, Midlothian Council proposed cutting their countryside rangers from three to one, whilst North Ayrshire Council proposed closing their outdoor centre.  Both were thankfully reprieved following public campaigning, but they show how at-risk countryside and outdoor access services are.  How will local authorities undertake their statutory duties to protect access rights and rights of way if they have no staff to do them?

With fewer outdoor access staff, who will stop landowners from erecting or locking gates, blocking rights of way and generally deterring those who want to exercise their access rights?  Who will tackle those that abuse their access rights, damaging the property of others through irresponsible behaviour?  Who will educate people about their responsibilities under the Scottish Outdoor Access Code? Having ‘boots on the ground’ reduces occurrences of anti-social behaviour and most importantly can tackle issues before they become insurmountable problems.

The Parliamentary motion celebrating 20 years of access rights, “congratulates outdoor organisations, land managers, volunteers and public bodies for working together to support a range of outdoor recreation opportunities and managing issues on the ground, and believes that this shows what can be achieved when everyone works together for the common good.”

To make sure that this continues, we need both local and national governments to recognise the importance of Scotland’s countryside to its people and the economy and to provide the necessary long-term investment to support outdoor access properly.