Swim England, the national governing body for swimming in England, has joined a coalition of over 40 national bodies and environmental organisations to call for better access to outdoor spaces that help to bring people closer to nature. The Outdoors for All Manifesto calls for a change in legislation to open up more of the British countryside. 

The manifesto was handed to the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Stephen Barclay, and it is supported by several prominent organisations, including National Trust, The Canal & Rivers Trust, The Wildlife Trust and Campaign For National Parks.

Representatives from a wide range of outdoor activity societies, including open water swimming, also signed the manifesto to show their support for the move. The manifesto sets out a vision for natural spaces in England to be made more accessible to the public, in a way that promotes better health and fitness and also respects and protects the environment. 

Fewer than four per cent of England’s rivers have uncontested public rights of access, and only eight per cent of the English countryside is covered by the Right to Roam Act, which grants people permission to freely wander over open countryside, whether it is publicly or privately owned. 

In contrast, in Scotland, almost all open land and inland water bodies have full public access rights for recreational or educational purposes. This is balanced by the guidance set out in the Scottish Outdoor Access Code, which gives protection to private gardens and other land adjacent to dwellings and other structures such as schools and farm buildings.

In England, many public paths and bodies of water are inaccessible due to current legislation that greatly favours the rights of landowners over that of public access. This appears to contradict the government’s Get Active strategy, which aims to get 3.5 million more people engaged in regular physical activity by 2030.

The UK currently ranks the lowest of 14 European countries on connectedness to nature, and it also ranks 11th out of 15 European countries for levels of physical activity. As the population becomes less active, it puts pressure on the health services and results in higher rates of disease and premature mortality. 

Philip Brownlie, Swim England head of public affairs said: “We know how brilliant swimming outdoors is for people’s physical and mental wellbeing but concerns around access are a barrier to further growth.”

He added: “We want even more people to be able to enjoy our rivers, seas and lakes and that’s why Swim England is pleased to be part of this powerful group of organisations.”

Kate Rew of The Outdoor Swimming Society has been calling for improved Right to Swim legislation for several years. She argues that the law on swimming in open water in England is unnecessarily complicated, and that in many cases swimming in rivers does not amount to a criminal offence even if there are signs forbidding swimming. 

Rew said: “The Outdoor Swimming Society sees first hand the barriers to swimming in rivers, reservoirs and lakes. We know how easy they would be to remove and how much free health and happiness that would give millions of people. We are proud to stand united with all our partners in the Outdoors For All Coalition, asking for that change to come now.”

Dr Catherine Flitcroft of the British Mountaineering Council added her support to the manifesto, commenting: 

“The outdoors really is for everyone and the past few years have demonstrated this. But those in power have yet to fully realise the huge health, economic, and social benefits of this – for too long access to our green and blue spaces has not been seen as a priority and it’s heart-warming to know that so many of us believe this needs to change.”

Ben Seal, head of access and environment at British Canoeing and the organiser of the manifesto, said: “I am extremely proud British Canoeing is part of the Outdoors For All coalition. With a general election on the horizon, it is so important that we speak with a unified voice.”

“Outdoors For All sets out a really compelling case for change. We have a real opportunity now to create a lasting legacy for the next generation.”

There are many outdoor swimming groups in the UK who can offer further guidance and advice about suitable outdoor swimming spots, as well as support about how to get started.

Sarah A