And – as someone who leads on access and inclusion – the call to action to make ensure that public assets - the National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) - are truly ‘for all’ was welcome.
But the room itself was the manifestation of the challenge of access and power. A white male, middle class panel. A broadly homogeneous audience. No visible disability and ablelist language throughout. All fit and fleece kitted. And at a guess a lot of degrees and clever stuff because I am quite bright and couldn’t understand half of the technical jargon.
When Campaigner Maxwell Ayamba (whose piece summarising the challenges is a good read) asked a question on how to open access the panel were heartfelt in their desire to affect change but limited on the solutions.
I was particularly struck by Julian Glover’s response – that the solution won’t be found in lowering the bar for what people can achieve in landscapes. That one of the suggestions for encouraging BAME communities in was to have shorter walks but he argued that was insulting – “why shouldn’t they be doing 20 mile walks like the ‘rest of us’?”
This is a familiar argument for those of us in education. And there is much to like about the notion that access should not equal a lowering of aspiration – in that I have some support for that response.
But it is perhaps a clue as to why we haven’t yet turned the dial on access to landscapes and nature in a sustainable way.
The first clue is in the assumption of what is of value. I have recently written about the challenge to the not for profit sector - that not everything of value is the same as what we value.
Yes - 20 mile yomps in a National Park are much valued and loved by swathes of the population. But that is very narrow view of the benefits of access to landscapes. Others will value different things – walks for Pilgrimage; slow walks for recovering health, sitting and being in awe; painting and photography; prayer and reflection, foraging and food; connection to heritage and history.
Is there a perceived ownership of these spaces by those who love extreme sports, tough exercise and competing on walking miles that perhaps drowns out other voices and uses? What do those communities who do not yet access these spaces value? What do under-represented communities who do access the parks want to do there? What images do we project of uses of these spaces? Do we show we value other uses?
And then the second clue. Assuming long walks (or even short ones!) are a core part of the offer that these landscapes bring. For those of us who grew up walking in the countryside it is easy to forget the things we have learnt on the way – accessing the hills as children, with our families, through schools, through hobbies are now part of our being.
We gradually built up how far we could walk. We learnt how to pace ourselves up and down hills. We learnt about kit. We learnt not to fear being in the middle of nowhere. We learnt the rules - written and unwritten - of the countryside. We discovered paths and routes. We learnt to read the weather and maps.
We learnt these things with scaffolding. Others around us to teach us and develop us. But we take these for granted. If you have not had these experiences how can you jump from novice to navigator; from picnicing at a road side beauty spot to bagging remote peaks?
And the third clue. Look. To pretend money isn’t a barrier is nonsense. Travel to National Parks and AONBs. The cost of kit (even the cheapest kit.) Accommodation. Food. Yes, there are ways to reduce these costs (and trust me families on a budget know how to reduce every cost) but just because something is ‘good value’ doesn’t mean that is affordable for all.
So the clues from Julian’s statement show us that it isn’t straightforward.
And it is further complicated. It would be naïve to ignore the fact that – particularly with nature – access and protection have to be balanced. As does the reality that for some these spaces are their home and livelihood. These things are truths that have to be considered.
But these truths are not reasons for avoiding action to diversify access to the natural resources that receive both public funding and are part of our shared capital.
Because, alongside these practical issues of access, there is a regularly reported a sense of not being welcome. If the images we present of these landscapes don’t reflect you and yours. If people give you a second look for being in a wheelchair or look down at you because you not fit enough to do a 10 mile yomp. Or if you are a non graduate juggling multiple low paid jobs from a working class estate and consider applying for a trustee role only to see everyone else is a graduate manager. If you are a woman nature writer struggling for voice in a male dominated sector. Or you are the only visibly minority ethnic family on the entire National Trail. Then - honestly - feeling welcome is a challenge.
And in case you are in any doubt sometimes groups who aren’t ‘like us’ really are not welcome. Knowing full well I may be called a snowflake I am issuing a trigger warning to anyone reading the full range of racist and ablelist social media vitriol that met the suggestion that Lake District could be more diverse.
But we won’t change these things – we won’t affect change – unless we take a long hard look at ourselves. Who leads our organisations? Who speaks for our organisations? Do we reflect the community as a whole?
Here is an opportunity to diversify governance through this round of landscape appointments - we must ensure these opportunities are seen by the widest possible audience.
I get the realities of shifting access. It is my day job and my campaigning role. I live it and I know I don’t get always get it right or understand truly all the barriers. It is both complicated and challenging.
And I respect both the challenge the Glover Review has laid down and welcome the renewed sense of urgency for change.
But change it we must. These are public assets. They are held in trust for the whole of the population not just those able to access.
‘They’ and ‘them’ need to become ‘we’ and ‘us’.
Anita is speaking at the The Lost Voices: Nature-Writing Festival Launching the Women in the Hills Research Network, Saturday 13th & Sunday 14th June 2020