27 April 2017 by Helen Todd
Early this year, it emerged that Highland Council was considering axing its entire ranger service. There was instant alarm from Ramblers Scotland and our fellow conservation and recreation bodies, resulting in media coverage and social media outcry.
In the face of such depth of feeling, the council reconsidered and its ranger service is instead being slightly reduced, rather than closed.
The episode showed that local decision-makers do listen to public pressure.
With the 2017 local elections looming, it serves as a timely reminder of how important it is that we all engage with local democracy – especially those of us in the Third Sector.
As well as their rangers, local authorities’ parks, greenspace and access staff also support active lifestyles and work to keep paths free from obstructions like ‘keep out’ signs or locked gates – and help develop paths, often working with communities to secure funding and negotiate routes with landowners.
These networks improve where we live, help us make the most of our access rights and allow us to enjoy the wellbeing benefits of being outdoors.
Yet needless to say, many access posts are under threat across Scotland. As budgets are squeezed, they can be seen as a soft target. At a time when there is such financial pressure at all levels of government, councillors face tough decisions.
So it’s vital that we take the opportunity to stress the long-term, money-saving benefits of investing in recreation – keeping areas healthier, happier and more attractive to tourists.
Clearly, volunteers shouldn’t be seen as cut-price alternatives to professional, trained council staff. But there is an opportunity for the outdoors community to help small budgets stretch further, as is already happening in many areas – whether in “Friends of” groups, community garden initiatives or path development groups.
Other people are involved as members of organisations like the Ramblers, and regularly cut back vegetation or carry out path maintenance.
With proper support and investment from local authorities, empowered communities can add real value to society. Authorities can then focus on delivering their statutory duties, such as ensuring obstructions are removed.
A recent study in Sheffield found that for every £1 invested in parks and greenspace, £36 is returned in terms of health and social benefits, such as improved mental health.
Likewise, in Scotland those enjoying outdoor recreation spend a whopping £2.6 billion each year on their trips. And VisitScotland has estimated that 55% of visitors to Scotland enjoy a short walk during their trip.
If the outdoors experience for both visitors and residents becomes one of struggling through overgrown paths, crossing unsafe bridges, or even just a lack of information showing where to go, people will vote with their feet – which will be more likely to be tucked up on a couch.
So it’s vital that councillors understand that funding for the outdoors needs to be protected – and that there is a real public willingness to help protect our countryside.
So when you meet your candidates on the doorstep, hustings or on social media in the coming weeks, why not ask if they commit to protecting funding for recreation?
And also, what are they doing to help you and your community play a role in conserving our wonderful outdoors?