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The right to roam was successfully introduced two months ahead of target, according to a report by the National Audit Office. Information on how to use this new right is generally good, although there are lessons to be learned on estimating and managing costs, with expenditure on the scheme almost double the original estimate. But, in the first assessment of the new right of access, Parliament’s spending watchdog found that it passed the key test: whether walkers can use it.

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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.

The task facing Ordnance Survey of revising its maps in time was largely accomplished, with all 69 walking maps covering the first four access areas being issued when the right came into effect. Leaflets about open access were available at most tourist information centres and two thirds of staff could answer questions about open access. Most sites were clearly signposted, although 27 per cent had no signs and some outdated signs which the NAO found could cause confusion.

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 £28 million but it eventually spent £52.6 million 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 £69 million 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.

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.

Sir John Bourn, head of the NAO


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