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Worry over cuts to access jobs

Thursday 19th November 2020, 2:56pm

Outdoor groups and landowners are calling for better resources to support Scotland’s world-class access rights.

The call comes as a new survey highlights alarming cutbacks in countryside access jobs.

Scottish Outdoor Access Network (SOAN) polled all 34 access authorities on how they manage access, a topic which has hit the headlines during the pandemic due to booming numbers of people heading outdoors.

The survey showed that during 2019/20 six local authorities did not employ a single Access Officer. Access Officers are the skilled professionals who find practical solutions to access challenges, and ensure the local authorities carry out     their statutory duties.

Across Scotland there is just the equivalent of 36.5 full-time Access Officers, down 27% from 2015/16 and 44% since 2005/6.

In addition, a third of access authorities do not directly employ any full-time Countryside Rangers, the frontline staff who welcome and educate visitors, and manage important sites on the ground.

SOAN believes the reduction in access-supporting jobs is symptomatic of a wider, worsening trend of under-investment in visitor management.

The group stressed that the Scottish Government’s funding for access has flatlined for more than a decade at £8.1million a year - but said that many hard-pressed local authorities are sadly choosing to invest their access allocation on other issues.

David Henderson-Howat, convener of the National Access Forum, said: “People here are rightly proud of Scotland’s progressive access legislation. Sadly, this survey confirms our fears – expressed in a letter to the Scottish Government earlier this year – that there is an alarming downward national trend in the funding and resources needed to ensure those rights work well on the ground.”

He added: “Members of the Forum understand there are competing budget priorities, but we would also highlight the great benefits that access brings in terms of our health and wellbeing. There is a real cost to local communities, land managers and wider society when paths aren't maintained, irresponsible behaviour goes unaddressed or small disagreements are allowed to escalate.”

The survey results come as increasing numbers of people are accessing the outdoors – with 80% of Scots visiting the outdoors at least once a week this summer according to NatureScot, up from 64% in summer 2019.

Ramblers Scotland director Brendan Paddy said: “It is good news that so many people are getting active outdoors, but we are also seeing a rising number of access issues - with too few staff to resolve them. Decision-makers must remember that access funding is a preventative spend, which keeps people healthy and addresses issues before they escalate.”

Emma Steel, Scottish Land & Estates policy adviser (access), said: “Our members who manage land work hard to ensure wildlife flourishes, to help the environment and to provide safe access for the public on land in rural Scotland. We want people to enjoy visiting the Scottish countryside safely and responsibly, however, SOAN’s survey shows the crucial need for investment in access to ensure everyone benefits - from visitors and businesses to landowners and residents.”

During 2019/20 only one of the 34 authorities served any section 14 notices, the legal instrument that forces access obstructions to be removed. This highlights a lack of resources, rather than a lack of issues. Meanwhile, eight authorities held no meetings of their Local Access Forums, statutory bodies which advise the authorities on access matters.

SOAN brings together more than 200 people who work on outdoor access and related issues in Scotland, representing everyone from landowners and managers to sporting bodies and access campaigners. It carried out its survey of access authorities after Covid-related delays affected the Scottish Government’s plans to conduct a similar poll.

Davie Black, Access & Conservation Officer for Mountaineering Scotland, said: “Access Officers and Countryside Rangers are essential in helping manage outdoor recreation. Our members appreciate being able to easily get to the summits of hills and to climbing crags, and where there are access staff, matters like obstructions to routes, or cumulative impacts from walkers can be resolved.

“Mountaineering Scotland supports investment in this countryside service – a public benefit for all.”