What do you mean by Free?
Canoeist Magazine Articles


a) - Introduction
b) - Types of Access Payment
c) - Who gets the Subsidy?

a) Introduction

This month's article is about access. More specifically it explores one single topic to do with access to the countryside - who pays for it?

It is an article of faith to many canoeists that access to the countryside for sport and recreation should be free. Many other countryside users; ramblers, climbers, cyclists etc share the same belief. The problem is - what do we mean by free? Free is a word that has two meanings. When we say access to the countryside should be "free" then we need to define the meaning of our words carefully. Are we using one meaning, or the other, or both at once.

One meaning or free is "without let or hindrance", to be free to carry out an action without somebody trying to stop you by force or by threat of legal action. Most people believe that there should be a legal right of access to countryside for the general population for leisure and recreation. In other words people, including canoeists, should be "free" to go into the countryside.

The other meaning of free is "without charge or payment". If canoeists go into the countryside then there can be a belief that such access should not be charged for. Some believe that it is somehow morally wrong to charge for access to the countryside, others believe that the Government should subsidise any costs involved in order to obtain the social benefits for the general population.

Which is correct?

I would argue that you cannot decide these issues only by discussing the correctness or morality of different forms of access, or different forms of payment. It is also vitally important to look at management. The countryside needs to be managed in order to maintain it for our use and enjoyment, and preserve it for future generations. Such management has to be paid for by somebody. If canoeists go onto the water, then that will impose management duties and costs, sometimes negligible, but sometimes quite large. It can be interesting and helpful to ask who pays those management costs.

In the early years of canoeing development these management costs were infinitely small. If a group of canoeists passed down a river once or twice a year there would be little need for management, and little additional wear and tear on the infrastructure which needed repair. Those costs could easily be absorbed into the general management costs of a large prosperous farm or country estate with many workers.

The situation today is different, especially on popular rivers which are frequently visited. There are many more countryside users and much more maintenance cost, but many countryside landowners are feeling the financial strain, or looking to diversify from traditional sources of income.

It can be an interesting exercise to think about some of your favourite stretches of water, and try to estimate the costs of managing your access to that water. Costs which have to be paid for by somebody.

All of these costs exist, and are paid by somebody. There are similar costs involved with cyclists, bird watchers, picnickers, ramblers, climbers, fishermen, fox hunters and car-borne tourists. The ramblers are well known for their "right to roam" campaign, demanding the right to go anywhere on uncultivated land without restraint, but who is to pay the management costs resulting from their freedom?

b) Types of Access Payment

As far as canoeists are concerned, it is possible to define various forms of access, depending on who pays the bills.

Maintained Access

In many areas, countryside access is maintained at public expense, mainly from the taxpayer's pocket, through local Councils, National Parks, the National Trust, or perhaps certain other trusts, charities and the National Lottery. It is to the overall benefit of society that the countryside is maintained, and access to it for leisure and recreation should be available to all. To this end the taxpayers funds the management of countryside access for many activities, including canoeing.

Donated Access

A voluntary access agreement is donated access. When a landowner agrees to the access there will be costs to him, outlined above. These are sometimes very small, sometimes larger, but the landowner agrees to bear many of these costs himself, without charge. Whilst some landowners can be very obstructive, those of us involved in access work are constantly surprised by how many landowners are sympathetic to the social benefits of countryside access, and are willing to encourage agreements, bearing many costs themselves, as long as they can be sure that, through effective management, the costs are not going to be excessive.

In the examples above access is free to the countryside user at the point of delivery (although the bill can come later through the taxman). There are two other examples where there is a direct cost to the canoeist.

Turnstile Access

In turnstile access there is a charge for the actual event, which is often an organised event with added value such as a competition or tour. In many cases the organisers of the event then pay a fee to the landowner for access to the river. Turnstile access is effective when the costs of collecting the fee are small compared to the total income. This is easy in small geographically defined areas, or for events with a limited duration, or for competitions where participants must pay to get onto the start sheet.

Licensed Access

It is not financially viable to collect payment from canoeists every time they go onto a canal or the river Thames for a simple river journey with a few friends. In this case a licence scheme is used where people volunteer to pay an annual fee.

The income is less, many people will evade payment, but you do get some income, and there is one other benefit. You get a data-base of addresses to mailshot educational and river management information. Your income may be less, but the management costs are also less through the efficient targeting of information to users, so the equation balances out.

Many of these access payment systems work well. Maintained access through the taxpayer, donated access in access agreements, licenced access through British Waterways. All these systems work in various areas.

In certain situations turnstile access also works well, such as at competitions and tours, or at artificial slalom sites where there is perceived to be added value worth paying for. But there is perceived to be a problem with charging for access to a white water river simply to tour down it. Many people protest vocally that it is morally wrong top pay for such access. I totally disagree.

Think of the example below.

If a landowner maintains a campsite and charges a reasonable price, some of that money will pay for the costs of managing the site, and some will be profit to provide an income for the landowner and family. Very few people would argue that is unreasonable.

If the same landowner maintained a covert for shooting and charge a fee for the sport, few would protest, and many would pay. Some of that money would pay for the cost of management, some would provide an income. No problem.

If however the same landowner owned three miles of good quality grade III river, and wanted to charge for access, would that be considered acceptable? Some of that money would pay the management costs of collecting money, policing, maintenance and providing information. Some money would be the income for the landowner and his family. Why is that a problem? I don't think it is. But many canoeists protest vehemently that we should not pay for access. Are they right?

I think the problem is one of values, old fashioned values that are no longer useful to us. Some activities are acceptable and have high value, some are not. In this Country there is a legacy of belief about commercial activity and trade. Trade is still looked down on as somehow less acceptable. Should people be allowed to make an income from access, or is it somehow "not nice".

Let me give you an example from a different area of thought about commercial interests. A few years ago I was elected to be the Chairman of the BCU's Access Committee, a post which carries an automatic seat on BCU Council. At the time I was working part time in canoeing, making and selling buoyancy aids and other equipment. There was a BCU rule at the time that said if you had a commercial interest in canoeing you could not sit on any BCU committee as a voting member.

The rule had been ignored for years. Many elected committee members were full or part time BCU Instructors and Coaches. There were others with commercial interests too, teachers and insurance brokers. Whilst all these were considered to be acceptable to sit on BCU Committees, I was not. I was told I would be allowed to be the BCU's Access Chairman, but because of my commercial interests I would not be allowed to attend Council meetings or vote. The Vice Chair would have to go instead.

It is interesting to analyse the thought behind this decision. Certain forms of income; coaching, teaching and other professional activities, were not seen as commercial interests and the rules were never enforced in those cases. I however was "in trade", buying and selling equipment, a sort of canoeing Arthur Daley. I was to be barred from Council.

Once I had pointed out how ridiculous this decision was it was quickly changed. Within a year the BCU's regulations were changed at the AGM, and I went to Council. Nevertheless the example shows how easy it is to let old fashioned views about commerce affect our thinking.

Does the same old fashioned view apply to our policy about paying for access?

Is a resistance to payment for access helping or hindering us in our quest for good, well managed canoeing access? Are our values correct, or are they old fashioned? Should we modernise our views?

c) Who gets the Subsidy?

This article would not be complete without some reference to equality. There is an underlying basis of equality theory in a lot of my writing.

Many people would be surprised by the sections in this piece where I argue that we should pay for access ourselves. Surely this denies river access to the low paid? Should not the Government subsidise the management of countryside access, making it available to all, not just the rich?

I agree. Countryside access for the low paid should be subsidised, and this includes canoeing. But ask yourself which forms of canoeing are available to those on a low income. When you look at this problem, don't just think about the cost of the canoe or kayak. What else is needed to follow the sport? Think about transport. Which forms of canoeing are available to you if you do not have access to a car? What canoeing venues can you get to by bike or public transport?

I would suggest the following:

Apart from limited playing on urban fringe weirs, is white water canoeing accessible to those without a car?

55% of the population do not have access to a car. If you work in an outdoor centre which has a client base of those with a low income, but you teach a form of canoeing based on white water activity, are you teaching a sport which your clients have no chance of following when they get older? Should you be teaching them placid water canoeing activities which are more easily followed by those without access to their own wheels?

It is Government policy to subsidise countryside activity available to all, so it aims to subsidise most heavily those activities which are available to those without a car (i.e. bus services to urban fringe country parks). We should make the most of Government money available to support canoeing access, but we should recognise that most money will be biased towards urban and urban fringe activities.

(At first site this may be a discouraging statement, but it is worth thinking through carefully. It applies to all sports, and we can apply it equally to angling. Why does the Government, through the Environment Agency, heavily subsidise a recreational activity which is only available to a small but very rich percentage of the population?)

We should recognise that white water canoeing is only available as a sport to the richest 45% of the population. We should accept that it is these canoeists who should be most ready to dip into their own pockets to subsidise their branch of the sport.

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For other Access subjects, try also:THE SEIONT MASS TRESPASS. My story (with pictures) of a famous day in canoeing folk lore