A lack of public transport is keeping Britain’s poorest away from nature

Poor transport links are shutting people off from the health benefits of the outdoors, with Brexit threatening to make things worse

Disadvantaged people in urban areas are being kept from Britain’s top beauty spots because of distance and poor public transport links, according to new research.

A study by The Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) found that 36 per cent of England’s population lives too far from national parks for them to be classed as ‘easily’ accessible destinations. It said a chronic lack of transport options stopped the poorest people from enjoying all the physical and mental benefits of the outdoors.

Areas that are within 15 miles of protected landscapes known as areas of outstanding natural beauty (AONBs) were considered easily accessible by the campaign. This meant the majority of people considered within range could get to national parks using public transport or a car they have access to. 

While maps generated as part of the study demonstrate that most people in places such as Liverpool, Chester, Cambridge, Northampton and Peterborough live outside the accessible ‘catchment area’ for these locations, they also highlighted strong correlation between poverty levels and lack of access to England’s 10 national parks and 34 AONBs.

Almost half of the most socially deprived areas in the country fell outside what the CPRE considered acceptable distance from the countryside.

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Figures released by environmental government adviser Natural England said that people from black, Asian and minority ethnic groups made up only one per cent of national park visitors, despite accounting for 14 per cent of the country’s population.

Emma Marrington, senior rural policy campaigner at CPRE, said: “When the most beautiful parts of England’s countryside were given National Park status, or designated as AONBs, they were done so as a public good – so that everyone could enjoy the benefits that access to them can bring. But the mapping demonstrates that a huge amount of people are currently missing out.

“Regular interaction with the natural world – fresh air, exercise, escaping the stresses and strains of urban living, just being in the great outdoors – is inextricably linked to increased levels of health and happiness. By increasing the provision of affordable and sustainable transport options to and around these places it would not only create a countryside for all, but also help to combat isolation among communities within National Parks and AONBs.”

The majority of areas with high rates of poverty – also areas where less than half of all households own a car – were outside of the 15-mile range used as a measure by the CPRE. Ninety-three per cent of visitors to national parks go by private car. Of the top 10 per cent of highest earners, the same number have a car per person per household.

The report pointed to poor transport links between places with high rates of poverty and protected countryside. Schemes like Dales Bus Service in the Yorkshire Dales, which was set up in response to a lack of transport around rural parts of the area, show communities taking initiative where infrastructure fails ordinary people – residents forced to rely on voluntary services.

It’s an issue threatening to worsen, with experts warning of the impact Brexit could have on the public transport workforce and services. Lynda Waltho, Midlands director for the Confederation of Passenger Transport, said the country is “already feeling the effect of whether of not we are going to crash out”.

She added that many drivers are leaving the UK – “a lot of Polish drivers are deciding to go,” she said – while firms struggle to recruit their replacements.

Analysis showed the UK has lost 134 million miles of serviced bus routes over the past decade, with public transport being hit hard by austerity.

The majority of cuts were made in the North West, where the bus network shrunk by almost a quarter.

An independent review of England’s National Parks and AONBs is currently underway, with journalist Julian Glover at the helm. It is expected that recommendations in the review, due to be published later this year, will focus on improving accessibility of national parks and AONBs.

Glover said:Seventy years ago parliament voted to protect our finest landscapes for everyone’s benefit. Now it is time to renew that mission. We need to preserve and enhance their beauty, help people who live in them and turn around the decline in the natural environment.

“We also need to make sure they can be understood and enjoyed by all parts of a changed society.”

However, poverty is not exclusive to urban areas – last year a study by The Prince’s Countryside Fund and Scotland’s Rural College’s Recharging Rural found that rural communities, many of which can be found in or around national parks, have also been hit by cuts and underfunding.

A lack of social housing was reported as the single greatest issue facing rural residents, as well as forced reliance on private transport. A 2017 study found that poverty-stricken rural residents suffer poor health and isolation, despite their surroundings being protected landscape.

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