ENVIRONMENT: Citizens exercising access rights or “access takers”?

December, 2022

By Nick Kempe of Parkswatch Scotland

The term “access taker” appears to be becoming part of lexicon of those charged with overseeing access rights, including our two National Park Authorities. While messages directed to the public don’t yet use the phrase (see here) – “welcome access taker” has a horrible ring – behind the scenes this is how many access officers are referring to the public.   This post will argue that its use betrays a frame of mind that is inimical to access rights and is part of a wider ideological attempt to undermine the gains secured for the public by the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003.

How did the term “access taker” originate?

The term “access taker” is not used in the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 or in the Scottish Outdoor Access Code which sets out the framework for both exercising and managing access rights.

Establishing when the term was first used and by whom would probably take extensive research. But in the 2015 plan “Active Cairngorms” (see here), which was recently considered by the Cairngorms Local Outdoor Access Froum for a refresh, there is a reference to “recreation takers”:

“Organised outdoor events should follow Cairngorms National Park Authority guidance and take place in locations and at times of year that that do not disturb sensitive wildlife or significantly affect other
recreation takers.”

Since then the term has morphed into “access takers”.  Here are two examples from this year:

“Purpose and Make-up of the Forum
The Forum comprises representatives of a balanced range of relevant interests including both access ‘takers’ and land managers”

This quote is from the recruitment information for new members to the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park Authority (LLTNPA) Local Access Forum (LAF) discussed at their meeting on 30th November (see here). 

While the word “taker”in this first example is in inverted commas, later on the paper refers to “Water-based access takers (e.g. wild swimmers, paddleboarders)”.

Unfortunately no-one on the LAF questioned what wild swimmers or paddle boards could take from water.

The term was also used in the CNPA Board Paper in June (see here) which considered what could be done to address the plight of the capercaillie in the Cairngorms:

“There is broad support for refuges that employ a greater suite of measures to reduce human disturbance than consistently employed currently and for refuges that are tailored to ensure a proportional response and equity amongst access takers.”

The use of the term in this last example is in my view not neutral.  The issue is portrayed as one of capercaillie versus access takers.

What is wrong with the term “access taker”?

First, “access takers” implies that there are also access “givers”, i.e landowners. The dictionary meaning of “taker” refers to people who are taking something that is being offered.   This is incompatible with how the Land Reform (Scotland) Act was framed.  The very first clause starts:

“Everyone has the statutory rights established by this Part of this Act”.

This includes landowners, great and small.  Access rights are a legal right, not something on offer.  When a vehicle driver exercises their right to drive down a public road no-one is giving them anything and its similar with access rights.

The term “access taker” also has a pejorative sense, as in “givers and takers”.  Once people exercising their access rights are portrayed as “takers”, as undeserving, this then opens the door to various measures which constrain those rights.  For example, if access officers can portray visitors out to enjoy the countryside as “takers”, it becomes much easier to justify imposing various restrictions on their rights, such as all the signs in the Cairngorms National Park which say “Keep to the Path” (see herefor example).  And once public authorities start viewing landowners as “access givers”, why not allow them to charge for it, if not directly then indirectly for example through extortionate car parking charges (see here)?

Central to the ideas behind the Land Reform Scotland Act was that for access rights to work both citizens exercising those rights and landowners should behave responsibly.  As far as landowners were concerned, it was accepted that facilitating access rights would in some cases incur costs  (disability friendly gates, paths etc) that it would be reasonable for access authorities to meet.  The problem is that budgets relating to access have been slashed.  It is not a coincidence that as Access Authorities resources have reduced, access staff have started to refer to “access takers” and have started to see people exercising their access rights as the problem.

What needs to happen?

There is no justification for access authorities to use the term “access taker”.  If they need a general term that covers everything from swimming to mountain biking, they could use the neutral term “outdoor re-creationists”.  Or, if access authorities also want to refer to people who are exercising the right of passage (i.e to get from A to B), they could simply refer to “everyone exercising their access rights”.  Both National Park Authorities should know better and stop using the term “access taker” now  and also start making the case for what is needed to support landowners who do want to proactively invest in infrastructure that supports access rights.

I will be writing to the National Access Forum asking them to rule that the term “access takers” is incompatible with the Scottish Outdoor Access Code and I hope that organisations representing outdoor recreation will also do so.

15 Comments on “Citizens exercising access rights or “access takers”?”

  1. Nick, A first class worrying and timely observation. I would still hold that the descriptive phrase in most common usage some years ago when the access code was first established: “Right to roam”, has a lot to recommend it . eg -“those with right to roam”. This should be the term in use today. Nothing is given or taken there. Wandering about without inflicting damages and beyond private curtilage was enacted as a statutory right in Scotland . Nothing in statute has changed that.

  2. Someone exercising their right to roam is… a member of the public! What’s wrong with calling them “public”. As in “The Forum comprises representatives of a balanced range of relevant interests including both members of the public and land managers”. I totally agree that this is a highly suspicious categorisation of the public and needs to be challenged.

  3. There is one problem with defining “access takers” as “outdoor recreationists” as not everyone taking access does so for recreation – eg bird enthusiasts checking for illegal raptor persecution, botanists looking for plants and many others – even neighbouring landowners having a wander. For a simple term, why not “the public” or even simpler “people.”

  4. Nick, I agree with your interpretation of the term which I feel is not so much a deliberate coining rather something unintentionally revealing of the current attitude and thinking.
    As you know I believe that the Scottish outdoor access legislation is viewed by the current administration as a mistake which they would dearly love to get rid of but know that to do so overtly would generate fierce opposition and be much too revealing of their general authoritarian agenda.
    Thus we have the court decisions that the amount of land you can close off for “privacy” is proportional to your wealth, and the quiet acceptance of de-funding and de-resourcing of local authority access teams resulting in landowners being free to fence off land and obstruct access as they see fit. And of course under cover of the lockdowns several of the very local authorities who should be defending access rights were out painting double yellow lines in the middle of nowhere, blocking off traditional parking areas and taking out blanket TROs rendering access rights irrelevant.

  5. As for Outdoor Recreation bodies; Mountaineering Scotland is more interested in representing the Scottish Government to their members rather than representing their members interests & and appear beholden to their Sports Scotland Funding. As became entirely transparent during the covid emergency. They will not say anything.

    1. Dig into access issues and what you find is a plethora of organisations funded from public money channeled through various bodies. What they all primarily do is produce lavishly illustrated glossy reports. What none of them do is pay people and equip them with barrows, shovels, saws and wirecutters and empower them to go out there and solve access problems.

      1. This is so true. The older Scots among us will have grown up in an age when the concept of a “pennyworth ” of damage, defined the whole idea of trespass across Scotland. Back then many hundreds of seasonal workers moved with their families traditionally from location to location across Scotland. The drovers became superseded by those picking berries in season,clearing fields of weeds before harvest, gathering ground crops such as potatoes and assisting with sheering and gathering of flocks. A highly mobile and experienced workforce of an age gone by. Meanwhile the ancestral overnight locations these families knew about are now largely forgotten or fenced off.
        In a similar way , deployment of lines on a chart will now define far too many traditional sheltered .. always open to all ….coastal places. The oversight of traditional refuges around the coast has, almost surreptitiously, been “devolved ” to local harbour boards, trusts and marina companies, all of which must charge fees to users, to be ” funded”. To bureaucrats no better way of ensuring a safety -conscious “duty of care” might be regularised was possible? What is missing in all this is the idea that during school days, character-building opportunities for study and self-education, might be encouraged. ( NB I perfectly deliberately do not use the word ‘qualification’, which has spawned a whole raft of supposedly highly qualified “experts” in outdoor pursuits.)This belief in the value of safety regulation has de-incentivised school teachers, who now may not instruct or pass on experiences they have , unless themselves formally approved . Whole teams with facilities are now devoted to running costly courses for the educators.- a whole industry-. Recognised Professionals in any field may also benefit from full expenses if called as “expert witnesses” in the final event – the official inquests ( – the circular “lessons are learned” culture. ) Arguably more knowledge about care of the mountains and hills of Scotland was on display 60 years ago among those who lived and worked there than exists in the text books of all these self perpetuating training and admin quangos. Government holds itself obsessed with a confidence-sapping mission to make younger people feel unreasonably concerned about their responsibilities to volunteer rescue services today! But of course nothing about the outdoors has been allowed to remain simple…. the need for some sort of training to understand what works where , and to deal with costly charges has been created.

        1. What I have found with anchorages particularly around the Clyde estuary in recent years is they can’t stop you anchoring (apart from laying moorings in the best spots) but the derelict estate building at the head of the bay has become a fancy house, the surrounding ground is now a huge lawn and therefore “curtilage of the dwelling” so you can access the foreshore but not beyond. In the same way walkers can use the access track but not get to the shore. All perfectly legitimate under the “access” laws.

  6. I’m not sure there’s anything sinister behind this. simply a bad case of ‘officialese’. the kind of verbal body armour minor functionaries use to conceal their insecurity.

  7. Nick, many thanks for bringing this issue to our attention. I fully support your stance that the term ‘access takers’ should not be used to identify people exercising their right of responsible access. I hope the NAF agree.
    With regards the term Right to Roam mentioned in the above replies, I personally discourage its use in Scotland, it is the term used by the UK Government when referring to access legislation in England and possibly Wales and the term itself can be seen as implying access can be taken with less consideration, many seem to believe already there is a RtR in Scotland, but my understanding is we have a RofRA, which in my mind is significantly different and we should all endeavour to quash the use of RtR when referring to access in Scotland.

    1. George, Unfortunately this fixation with the use of the word “access” is the big snag. any descriptive terms must be kept very simple to survive usage in modern speech. The concessionary term access when combined with “rights”, implies gates and fences, boundaries and barriers in a way that the primary legislation for Scotland never sought to. Clearly an “access” platform or ladder allows firemen or construction work to reach heights never achievable by other means. Pedantic perhaps…. yet I trust the snag of a restrictive -out of normal bounds – mindset that is implied when adopting “Access to describe a universal freedom defined by statute, is that obvious. I find mention of Access just as questionable and deplorable as any thoroughly patronising adoption of “taker,” or “giver”in this context, as alluded to in Nick’s timely piece.

      1. The problem is not so much the term as the way their usage of it seeks to define it.
        Access is not something we “take”, it is something we have as a right.

        At least in theory we do..,

    2. Hi George, I think there are problems with the term “right of responsible açcess” – another term that has been introduced – but I will explain this in another post. I personally was quite happy with access rights as a term but as people have tried to restrict this have become more inclined to use the term the right to roam to counter all the unjustified attempts to restrict access rights. Nick

      1. I prefer “access” to “right to roam” which implies that all you can do is walk when access is much wider.
        I agree that “responsible” is a problem because it is open to attempts to define it as “not doing things we don’t like”, recent attempts to ban lighting fires being a case in point.
        Very like some council officials who like to claim that the legal term “reasonably expected” means “whatever we consider to be reasonable”.

  8. Nick,
    I clearly see you point, and my first though was that “access user” or “access right user” or even “SOAC user” could be better, but even the word “user” might not be neutral enough.

One comment

  1. I wonder what Nicola Sturgeon’s wise man advisor Bernie Higgins has to say.

    As an ex CEO banker he is now head of estates for the biggest hereditary landowner in Scotland the Duke of Bucleugh.

    At the heart of SNP policy making does anyone think he could be helpful.. Higgins certainly understands the interests of the rich and landed gentry.

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