Review of the Walking Access Act

Purpose, objective and priorities

Reflecting the scope of access in the wording of the Act

Strong support was expressed for changing wording in the Act to clarify the scope of access. Submitters called for references to ‘walking’ access to be broadened to ‘outdoors’ or ‘public’ access. Submitters argued that the current titles of the Act and the Commission are misleading, as they have always been concerned with public access for a range of activities, not just for walking. The Commission also indicated that changing both titles would be beneficial, as it is regularly required to explain that its focus is broader than walking.

The clearest, most inclusive wording, would be ‘public access to the outdoors’. This could replace all combined references to ‘walking access’ and ‘types of access that may be associated with walking access’. This would require amendment to the name of the Act and the Commission, and amendments to wording throughout the Act, for example, to the term ‘walkway’ in Part 3 of the Act, which could become ‘access way’. ‘Public access to the outdoors’ would also need to be defined in the section 4 of the Act, and replace the definition of ‘walking access’. It is important to note that ‘public access to the outdoors’ would still capture the variety of landscapes over which public access needs exist, whether in rural New Zealand or in urban centres.

In the Act, ‘walking access’ is currently defined as the right of any member of the public to gain access to the New Zealand outdoors, by passing or repassing on foot over a walkway or other land over which the public has rights of access. The definition also includes performing any ‘reasonably incidental’ activity. In defining ‘public access to the outdoors’, specific consideration would need to be given to Māori interests. Where access relates to culturally significant sites, engagement feedback emphasised that public access may not be appropriate, and should instead be limited to relevant Māori groups. This issue is dealt with in detail at Māori interests, which includes a recommendation that this type of access be addressed separately within the Act. However, the definition of ‘public access to the outdoors’ may need to reflect the right of any member of the public, or the right of certain groups such as relevant Māori groups, to access the New Zealand outdoors.

Submitters identified a number of potential new names for the Commission. The most frequently cited were ‘Public Access Commission’, ‘Outdoor Access Commission’ and ‘Recreational Access Commission’.

Other suggestions include ‘Access Commission’, ‘Enjoy Outdoor New Zealand’, ‘Re-Creating New Zealand’, ‘Connecting New Zealand’, ‘Pathways New Zealand’, ‘Aotearoa Access’, ‘New Zealand Active Access Commission’, and ‘Cross Country Access Commission’.

Changing the Commission’s name to the ‘Outdoor Access Commission’ or ‘Outdoor Access New Zealand’ would clarify that its focus is broader than walking.

This would also align with the title of its key publication, the New Zealand Outdoor Access Code. Another organisation named Public Access New Zealand Incorporated already exists, precluding the suggested name change to Public Access New Zealand. Further, ‘Recreational Access Commission’ suggests that access may be desired only for recreation purposes, and fails to recognise wider cultural or environmental purposes.

Retaining the word ‘Commission’ would provide useful continuity between the current and new name. The Commission agrees, noting that the term ‘Commission’ can add a sense of weight to the advice provided. However, a potential disadvantage is that it could suggest that ‘the Commission is less focused on partnerships and working alongside stakeholders’. The review finds that the advantages of retaining ‘Commission’ in the title outweigh the disadvantages.

Recommendation 2: That:

  1. the name of the Walking Access Act 2008 be changed to the Outdoor Access Act; and

  2. the name of the New Zealand Walking Access Commission be changed to the New Zealand Outdoor Access Commission; and

  3. the New Zealand Walking Access Commission be given a new Māori name that has a similar meaning to ‘New Zealand Outdoor Access Commission’, and that the Māori name be included in the Walking Access Act 2008; and

  4. amendments be made to wording throughout the Walking Access Act 2008 to replace all references to ‘walking access’ and ‘types of access that may be associated with walking access’, with ‘public access to the outdoors’. This includes defining ‘public access to the outdoors’ in section 4 of the Walking Access Act 2008, and amendments to wording reflecting ‘walking access’, such as the term ‘walkway.’

Currently, the Act only confers an English name on the Commission. However, the Commission does use the Māori name ‘Ara Hīkoi Aotearoa’ as an operating name. As ‘Hīkoi’ has a walking-related meaning, changes to the Commission’s Māori name should also be considered to reflect broader outdoor access. To provide greater recognition and status to both names, consideration should also be given to including the Commission’s Māori name in the Act.

Purpose of the Act

Section 3(a) of the Act states that its purpose is:

‘to provide the New Zealand public with free, certain, enduring, and practical walking access to the outdoors (including around the coast and lakes, along rivers, and to public resources) so that the public can enjoy the outdoors.’

There were a number of calls for the Act’s purpose to be amended, so that it captures benefits wider than ‘enjoyment’, for example health, social, cultural, environmental and economic. Many of the wider benefits of access to the outdoors are highlighted at Necessity of the Act. One submitter stated ‘[i] improved public access to the outdoors is in the national interest at an economic, social and health and well-being level. It’s really a no brainer.’ Several health organisations emphasised that the health benefits of access should be explicitly recognised in the Act, with one stating:

‘[w]e believe that encouraging access to the outdoors can be a successful way to increase physical activity. Health benefits associated with physical activity include lower mortality, less coronary heart disease, less type 2 diabetes, and reduced rates of breast and colon cancers’.

According to a MoH publication, ‘international research suggests that exposure to natural outdoor spaces is beneficial to health.’8 Further, a Mental Health Foundation publication states that research health, social connections and cultural identity as three of twelve domains of wellbeing.

Submitters did not seek changes to other parts of the purpose, namely that the Act is about providing New Zealanders with ‘free, certain, enduring, and practical’ access. One recreational organisation mentioned that the ‘continued operation of [the Commission] is crucial to ensuring free and enduring public access in New Zealand, something the country prides itself on’. Ensuring access remains ‘free’ was also raised in the context of equity of access, and the importance of ensuring that low socio-economic groups were not excluded. The importance of enduring access was also emphasised, especially during the review’s public meetings.

‘shows a strong correlation between physical activity and increased wellbeing, as well as lower rates of depression and anxiety... It [physical activity] can also have the benefit of encouraging social interactions.’9 Several Māori stakeholders also noted the health benefits of outdoors access, as well as the importance of outdoors access to strengthening ties to culture and building community resilience.

The economic benefits of access to the outdoors can also be significant. For example, MBIE has estimated that the economic contribution of the Ngā Haerenga cycle trails alone was $37.4 million in 2015. It added that ‘the cycle trails helped revitalise small communities, including historic hubs, increased and expanded the number of local businesses, and created jobs close to the locality of the trails.’10 The increasing demand for accessible tourism was also raised through feedback. This growing industry offers further economic opportunities for tourism businesses to provide services to people with disabilities who want to get out into the outdoors.

Statutory acknowledgement of these other benefits of access, in addition to enjoyment, is likely to help the Commission promote its work. Further, the inclusion of the health, social and cultural benefits of access to the outdoors in the purpose of the Act, would align with Treasury’s Living Standards Framework. The Framework acknowledges that living standards cannot just be measured in economic terms,11 and includes

Recommendation 3: That the purpose in section 3 of the Walking Access Act 2008 be amended to capture the benefits of access wider than ‘enjoyment’, including health, social, cultural, and economic benefits.

Objective of the Commission

The objective of the Commission, as set out in section 9 of the Act, is to:

‘lead and support the negotiation, establishment, maintenance, and improvement of walking access and types of access that may be associated with walking access, such as access with firearms, dogs, bicycles or motor vehicles.’

Feedback received about the objective of the Commission focused on the need to replace reference to ‘walking access’ with broader wording (to reflect ‘public access to the outdoors’) and the inclusion of ‘advocacy’ as a listed area of work.

Replacing references to ‘walking access’ is consistent with recommendations made above. This review finds, however, that if the current objective was expanded to include advocating for access, there is a risk that the Commission’s reputation as an honest broker between landholders and access users could be undermined. Independence and impartiality was consistently identified as one of its key strengths.

Other suggestions for amendments to the objective included the inclusion of equal access rights for all recreation types, and referring to ‘responsible’ access to better capture that the Commission has a duty to ensure that the rights and interests of landowners are protected. These issues are dealt with in Challenges and future requirements.

Recommendation 2 captures wording changes throughout the Act to reflect a broader scope of access, replacing ‘walking access’ and ‘types of access that may be associated with walking access’ with ‘public access to the outdoors’. As such, no further recommendations are made about section 9 of the Act.

Priorities for negotiating access

Section 11 of the Act currently lists priorities for negotiating walking access over private land. This review sought to identify if these are the right priority areas, now and in the future.

There was strong support for changing the existing priorities in section 11. Of the 193 responses received through the online feedback form to the question ‘what changes, if any, are needed to the priorities in the Act?’, 83 percent agreed changes were required.

The Public Feedback Paper specifically asked whether negotiating access to the following should be made priorities:

  • wāhi tapu, traditional sites and other areas of cultural significance to Māori;
  • land in or near urban areas; and
  • replacement access for public access which has been closed.

Feedback on the issue of negotiating access to wāhi tapu, traditional sites and areas of cultural significance for Māori was mixed. Of the responses received through the online feedback form to the question of whether this should be a priority in the Act, 43 percent answered ‘yes’, 18 percent answered ‘no’ and 39 percent answered ‘maybe’ or ‘don’t know’.

However, a number of submitters expressed that ‘the Commission should not be involved in negotiating access to wāhi tapu unless it has the full support of the relevant Māori’. The question of access to sites of cultural significance to Māori is a complex topic and needs to be understood in the context of broader feedback received from Māori stakeholders. As such, this issue is dealt with in detail in Māori interests.

There was clear support for including the latter two options (access to land in or near urban areas, and replacement access for public access which has been closed) in the list of priorities in the Act. Of the responses received through the online feedback form relating to prioritising land in or near urban areas, 60 percent answered ‘yes’, 16 percent answered ‘no’ and 24 percent answered ‘maybe’ or ‘don’t know’.

One submitter called for urban developments to ensure ‘a realistic percentage of land dedicated to providing parks, playgrounds and open spaces’.

Further, of the responses received through the online feedback form relating to replacement access, 76 percent answered ‘yes’, 10 percent answered ‘no’ and 14 percent answered ‘maybe’ or ‘don’t know’.

Replacement access was seen as desirable due to problems such as erosion, changing courses of river beds, sea level rise as a result of climate change, and biosecurity incursions, for example, kauri dieback disease.

Other suggested additions included calls to prioritise specific recreational activities, for example horse riding and dog walking, multi-use areas (see Challenges and future requirements) and increased access to unformed legal roads (see Partnerships).

Clear support was also expressed for extending priorities for negotiating access over private land to cover public land, with 76 percent of responses to the online feedback form answering ‘yes’, 13 percent answering ‘no’ and 10 percent answering ‘don’t know’.

The above issues were also supported in feedback received outside of the online feedback form.

Replacement of section 11

While there was wide support for including a number of additional priorities in section 11 of the Act, submitters also noted the limited value in an extensive, exhaustive list. Also, such a list may no longer be useful as it would essentially indicate that negotiating access to all areas is a priority. One submitter suggested that this could addressed by moving towards a more generalised approach, for example by simply prioritising access ‘where there is a significant need’.

The Public Feedback Paper noted the possibility of not having a list of priorities for negotiating access in the Act, and instead allowing the Commission to identify priorities in medium-term strategy documents or work programmes. Submitters noted that inclusion of a consultation process to inform priorities listed in the Commission’s strategy documents would be particularly valuable.

The option of removing the list of priorities for negotiating access from the Act, and replacing it with a requirement for the Commission to set priorities through a strategic planning process provides transparency and would ensure that priorities are adaptable and can remain relevant. For example, the Commission submitted that addressing priorities at an organisational strategy level would allow them to ‘be regularly revisited and refreshed to allow them to change with the changing needs of users of the outdoors’.

As part of its reporting requirements, the Commission currently produces a Statement of Intent, which is a five-year strategy document setting out what the Commission intends to achieve or contribute to within that period. Setting of priorities for the Commission’s work as a whole, not just for negotiating access, could be included as part of this existing process to avoid creating further administrative burden.

As this option was not explicitly tested through the engagement process (which focused primarily on amendments to the current list in section 11), it would be beneficial to undertake further consultation on the replacement of section 11 with an outline of a strategic planning process to determine priorities.

Consideration may also need to be given to whether any changes are required to section 3(a) which includes a summary of the current priorities.

Recommendation 4: That section 11 of the Walking Access Act 2008, which outlines priorities for walking access over private land, be replaced with a requirement for the Commission to set priorities through a strategic planning process. This new process will determine the priorities for the Commission’s work as a whole, over a three to five year period. Input on the suggested priorities would be sought from the relevant Minister before they are finalised and made public in a strategy document. Every three to five years, the priorities would be reconsidered.