Diversion tactics

Did you know? The Ramblers checks every single attempt to move or close paths.

When I first joined the Ramblers, it was my job to add all of these applications to a big database before sending them out to our volunteers. Every week I’d have a stack the size of the yellow pages to process. It wasn’t the most thrilling role, but it helped me get a picture of quite how much work our volunteers do.

What was more exciting was joining our volunteers in Essex for a site visit to see their thought process – how they decide which applications to accept and which to oppose, and to see them negotiate with landowners and council officers.

Private sign in NavestockI met local footpath secretaries, Gordon Bird and Katherine Evans, in quaint Navestock in Essex.

They were worried about an application to move a footpath closer to a stream which was liable to flooding. 20 years ago the path ran through a field. But when a new landowner extended their garden, the cross-field path turned into a garden path.

The landowner, concerned about privacy, (illegally) blocked off the path. The council are now making an order to get the path formally moved out of the garden and close to a fast flowing stream.

As it was a sunny day in June it was difficult for me to contemplate flooding risk. But when Gordon showed me a map from the Environment Agency and photos from February’s floods, I realised a) how much of a problem it could be and b) how amazingly attentive our footpath secretaries are to think about these issues.

Gordon’s concerned that if the new path is approved, and it does flood, then walkers will have to turn back and go along a busy road with no pavements.

“It’s all about the alternative on offer,” is Katherine’s mantra when studying applications. “Often we can make the new route better for walkers than walking through a working farmyard or someone’s garden, but the new route can’t be less enjoyable”.

Kath and Gordon checking the path diversion on the groundWhen looking at the new route, our footpath secretaries look at a whole range of issues:

  • Is it much longer? 
  • Does it go along a busy road with no pavements? 
  • Will it involve steep climbs? 
  • Does it emerge at a road with no crossing point? 
  • Can we get gates put in, instead of difficult to use stiles?

Katherine and Gordon have decided to ask Essex County Council to see if they can put in a boardwalk to mitigate the flooding risk. If they can’t get the boardwalk, then they’ll object to the proposal and let an independent inspector decide whether the path should be moved.

Later that day, Gordon took me to see two paths that he’d supported landowners move away from their properties. On one, he’d managed to negotiate to get a pond drained and a nicer route put in. On another, the landowner came out and told us how walkers have commented that they prefer the new route as there are less overhanging branches than on the original one. In both instances, the landowners have been happy with our help and so have kept the paths in good condition, which is vital when councils can’t afford to.

As you can see, it is a fine balance between the public’s interest and that of landowners.

If anything, the law is currently biased towards the landowner. 1,257 diversion orders have reached a conclusion in the last three years. Of those, 94% were completely unopposed - the Ramblers, and the public, were satisfied that the new route was better than the current one. The applications which were opposed went through to an independent inspector to look at. The inspector usually found in favour of the landowner. In fact, only 2% of diversion orders haven’t been approved.

Where the path was proposed to be diverted in NavestockThis issue is particularly poignant at the moment as some landowning groups are trying to change the law to make it even easier to move paths. We’re obviously opposing them.

Last night, the coalition government and Labour came together in the House of Commons to stop these changes. We won that battle, but we know that there’s a tougher fight ahead in the House of Lords.

Over the summer, we’ll be out walking with Lords to try and get them onside. I’ll be introducing them to people like Katherine and Gordon, who do a sterling job of ensuring our path network remains enjoyable for us all to use.

Anastasia French is the Ramblers campaigns officer. Find out more about her, including her previous posts and follow her on twitter @ramblingfrench.