Ministers must force public bodies to ditch land access restrictions and fees as high as £700, which have set “a precedent” for other landowners, say running event organisers.
People behind popular events including the Ben Nevis Ultra, West Highland Way Race and the Aviemore Triathlon claim red tape, paperwork and fees have ramped up in recent years, which risk making long-running events “unviable”.
They slammed the Scottish Government quango Forestry and Land Scotland (FLS), which manages forests on behalf of the public, and the UK Government’s Ministry of Defence (MoD) for requiring fees, restrictions and notice periods of up to two years.
Scotland’s national athletics body called for an urgent review of fees to ensure access rights were protected. Jack McConnell, who was first minister when the land reform act passed, urged landowners to “follow the spirit of the law” and not “exploit” organisers.
One organiser accused NatureScot’s national access forum (NAF) – which provides access guidance – of being “landowner dominated”. NatureScot defended the NAF’s membership as diverse.
The MoD said events were “charged and licensed” to benefit taxpayers and ensure “public liability”. FLS said its rules were produced alongside national sporting bodies. Its “fair and transparent” charges covered facilities and staff time, and are “consistent with the Scottish Outdoor Access Code (SOAC)”.
‘Barriers to access’
Ian Beattie is chairman of UK Athletics and race director of the West Highland Way Race ultra-marathon, which has run since 1985. He said FLS tightened its rules around events on its land in recent years and now asks for a fee.
In a December 2022 email, FLS told organisers to expect a £90 admin charge after a SOAC “permission process” review from woodland bosses. “We don’t believe FLS have the right to charge a fee to those wishing to access the land which they manage”, Beattie argued.
Current FLS rules, in line with NAF advice, say landowners should be given one to two years to plan a walking or running event with more than 200 people. “That’s a barrier to access,” claimed Beattie. “You don’t need to be a particularly big event to have 250 people.”
He added: “I think there’s a need for a bit more guidance from the politicians. I’d be looking for them to withdraw something like this and make clear this isn’t the way we should be doing it”.
Organising running events ‘definitely getting harder’
Paul McGreal of Durty Events has run outdoors events across Scotland since 2010 – a process he said is “definitely getting harder” due to demands for fees, admin and route restrictions.
“We see it in lots of different places and there’s a similar trend,” he said. FLS have “set a bit of a precedent with a changing for access model” which has “emboldened other landowners to follow that path” and “commercialise their asset”.
McGreal accused the NAF of being “landowner dominated” and its guidance of having normalised landowners imposing event size limits, access fees and lengthy prior notification, “all of which is counter to what the [Scottish Outdoor Access Code] actually says”.
He added: “It’s such a shame because we have these incredible access rights… And yet here we are. Before our eyes that’s being eroded and it’s really sad.”
Ourea Events’ Shane Ohly has organised events for more than a decade. But he has seen a recent increase in requests for fees and restrictions from a minority of landowners. “There’s definitely a view amongst some landowners in Scotland that access rights do not apply to events,” he claimed, stressing that most do not impose fees or restrictions.
Organisers “have a responsibility to consult” landowners and sometimes pay a nominal licence fee for commercial events to avoid disruption and ensure all parties are clear on access arrangements. But high fees may be imposed to discourage access, he claimed.
Ohly cited the Cape Wrath Ultra, for which he was allegedly told to pay a SOAC “licence fee” by Landmarc, which manages MoD land. However, he claimed it backed down when challenged on the legality of charging for access.
The Ferret recently revealed that the MoD charged one organiser nearly £700 for event runners to cross its land in the Pentland Hills. Ohly said he was happy to pay FLS a “nominal licence fee” when forestry activities were underway, for example.
But he added: “The real problem begins when the landowner requests a licence fee that’s prohibitively expensive, and it’s important to bear in mind that the majority of events taking place in Scotland are community and volunteer-led, with entrance fees of a few pounds”.
What does the law say?
The SOAC says access rights extend to a range of outdoors events, including “commercially or for profit” events that could also take place otherwise.
For example, taking a paid client hillwalking “falls within access rights because the activity involved – hillwalking – could be done by anyone else exercising access rights.” But it is “good practice” for organisers to “liaise” with land managers.
Permission must be obtained for facilities and services like signs, car parking or toilets, or if the event is likely to unreasonably affect land management operations, the environment, or other outdoors users, it adds.
Richard Barron of the Scottish Rights of Way and Access Society (ScotWays) said NAF advice references “payment for some types of events, but this is not a charge for access to land”. “Land managers, whether private or public, should not present any such charge as a payment to access land” and should “clearly set out what it is for”, he added.
Landowners should not ‘exploit’ organisers
Scottish Athletics said its members were worried about access issues faced by organisers. “These access routes are fundamental to encouraging participation in running and supporting the healthy lifestyle choices of people across the country.” said CEO Colin Hutchison.
“These newly-imposed fees and charges need to be urgently reviewed to ensure that access rights are being protected and we are supporting the Scottish Government’s ambitions for an active nation.”
Former first minister Jack McConnell said: “Open access to Scotland’s countryside was at the core of our reforming legislation 20 years ago. Landowners should follow the spirit of the law and not use opportunities to exploit those who need that access for competitive recreational use. That was what we intended.”
Labour MSP Rhoda Grant said it was “disappointing” that public bodies were charging for rather than encouraging outdoor events and argued small events should not need to pay fees or seek consent, unless they are disruptive or cost the landowner money.
It was “tempting” for public bodies to charge due to alleged underfunding, she argued. But “the principle of the right to access Scotland’s countryside should be the starting point”, Grant added.
Liberal Democrat MSP Willie Rennie, a keen runner, promised to raise the issues with the Scottish Government. “Even when the charges are not huge, the extra expense coupled with off-putting levels of bureaucracy can be enough to dissuade race organisers from going ahead with events,” he said.
“Public bodies should be making it easy for people to get fit and enjoy the outdoors. Provided these events don’t leave a mess, I can’t see why they should be facing charges. Perhaps ministers could have a word and encourage [FLS] and the MoD to take an accommodating view.”
‘Vital’ to balance access rights and responsibilities
The Scottish Government said it was “vital that we balance the land rights and responsibilities of landowners, communities and the wider public,” The SOAC “is clear on the rights and responsibilities of land managers and those exercising access rights, including in relation to events,” said a spokesperson.
An MoD spokesperson said: “We are required to ensure that all third party activities that are hosted on our estate are appropriately charged and licensed to achieve value for money for the taxpayer from the use of public land and to ensure that public liability is in place for the protection of all parties.”
Stuart Chalmers, national visitor services manager for FLS said: “We worked with a number of national sporting bodies to produce an events agreement; this has a fair and transparent charging structure that is consistent with [the SOAC].
“These charges are used to cover staff administration time in managing the impact of larger events in areas such as parking, signage, environment and the safety of other visitors.”
A NatureScot spokesperson said it had supported the NAF in developing guidance for event organisers and land managers.
The advice aims “to help them organise and manage their events responsibly and in line with the [SOAC] and the extensive access rights that cover most land and water in Scotland, as long as those rights are exercised responsibly,” a spokesperson said.
NAF membership consists of representatives from “outdoor recreation bodies and land management bodies as well as local authorities, Police Scotland, national park authorities and other bodies”, they added.
“We recommend that if event organisers have concerns over permissions and access rights and are unable to resolve them with the landowner or land manager concerned, they should contact their local access authority or local access forum.”
Main image: Martin Gray
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