The Agriculture Bill is looking to a post-Brexit future. Photo: Bob Smith/grough

The Agriculture Bill is looking to a post-Brexit future. Photo: Bob Smith/grough

A leading campaign group has welcomed the Westminster Government’s plans to link farm payments to improving access for walkers and other outdoor enthusiasts.

The Open Spaces Society said it was delighted Environment Secretary Michael Gove had listened to organisations championing public access to the countryside.

The Conservative Government’s Agriculture Bill contains provisions for replacing subsidies farmers currently receive under the European Union’s common agricultural policy.

The OSS, along with the Ramblers and the British Horse Society, lobbied for agricultural payments to be directed to providing more and better access to the public.

The society said the bill, which was published on Wednesday, gives the secretary of state power to give financial support for public access to and enjoyment of the countryside, farmland or woodland, and better understanding of the environment.

Support can also be given for managing the land to restore or enhance cultural or natural heritage, to protect or improve the environment, among other things.

Kate Ashbrook: 'access vital for health'. Photo: Bob Smith/grough

Kate Ashbrook: 'access vital for health'. Photo: Bob Smith/grough

Kate Ashbrook, general secretary of the Open Spaces Society, said: “We are delighted that the environment secretary has listened to the combined voice of bodies representing those who champion public access.

“Public paths and access land give people the opportunity to explore the outdoors, and are vital for our physical and mental health, as well as benefiting local economies.

“Now we need to work on the detail of the bill, to ensure that the payments give the best possible results. For example, we want to see payments for new and improved access, such as paths created to enable people to walk and ride off-road, to avoid dangerous road crossings, or to link with existing paths to provide longer routes.

“We also want to see robust enforcement so that those receiving funds fulfil their legal duties on public paths and access land.

“Now that these words are in the bill the future is promising, and we shall seize this opportunity to protect existing access, and to provide more where people want it.”

The bill has been drawn up as the UK plans to leave the European Union in March 2019.

Michael Gove: 'reward farmers who protect our environment'. Photo: UK Parliament CC-BY-3.0

Michael Gove: 'reward farmers who protect our environment'. Photo: UK Parliament [CC-3.0]

Mr Gove, a prominent Brexiteer, said: “This bill will allow us to reward farmers who protect our environment, leaving the countryside in a cleaner, greener and healthier state for future generations.

“Critically, we will also provide the smooth and gradual transition that farmers and land managers need to plan ahead.

“Farmers will be supported over a seven-year transition period as we as leave the EU’s common agricultural policy.”

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said in future farmers and land managers would be paid for providing ‘public good’. At present, direct payments are made based on the total amount of land farmed, and are inefficient. “These payments are skewed towards the largest landowners and are not linked to any specific public benefits,” it said. “The top 10 per cent of recipients currently receive almost 50 per cent of total payments, while the bottom 20 per cent receive just 2 per cent.

“Under the new system, farmers and land managers who provide the greatest environmental benefits will secure the largest rewards, laying the foundations for a green Brexit.”

The new subsidies are due to be phased in, with an agricultural transition period in England between 2021 and 2027 as existing payments are gradually reduced.

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