23 November 2016 by Tom Fewins
Standing at the despatch box in the House of Commons this lunchtime to deliver his Autumn Statement, Chancellor Philip Hammond had little to splurge with as economic growth slows, inflation starts to bite, and forecasts warn of a bumpy ride ahead.
With rising concern about falling living standards and the plight of the ‘JAMs’ (‘just about managing’) furrowed-browed politicians and civil servants would do well to remember that part of the answer lies at our feet. From reducing pressure on health and social care budgets and allowing active travel, to increasing till receipts in town centres and supporting rural businesses, walking makes an important contribution to the vitality of the economy.
And beyond stark economic figures walking can make an important contribution to
helping the Prime Minister realise her vision of ‘a country that works for everyone’. It’s hard to think of a better social leveller than the humble footpath, and studies show that access to green space plays an important role in reducing income-related health inequalities.
So as our waistlines expand, our minds overload and our personal debt increases, we need our footpaths and green spaces more than ever!
Despite this, the path network in England and Wales is not in the best condition to help us here. Last week, we published our Big Pathwatch report, a pioneering citizen science survey which revealed almost half of our paths require improvement, with 10% in serious disrepair. It doesn’t require a Goretex-clad sleuth to make the connection here with the dramatic cuts we have seen to local authorities’ rights of way budgets in recent years and this trend seems likely to continue, with a likely further fragmentation of the path network.
Over roughly the same period those very local authorities have taken on more duties to care for their residents, particularly in relation to their health and wellbeing. They face a daunting challenge then, in being asked to do more with less.
The good news is that with better planning, management and promotion we can make far better use of Britain’s unparalled network of paths, parks and green spaces.
Planning lies at the heart of this. Whether they are serving rural communities facing development pressures or a burgeoning city with a crane-studded skyline, local planning authorities must create environments where walking becomes the easy, safe and pleasant choice for us all. Councils already have the powers to do this, and by working with them on the development of the Ramblers’ new urban policy we hope to encourage them to place walking at the centre of local plans and development strategies.
Management is vital too, and as local authorities struggle to maintain paths from the smallest cut-through to the mightiest national trail, the Ramblers are exploring ways of helping them to monitor and maintain them. Volunteering – including our own wonderful footpath maintenance teams up and down the country – can provide part of the answer, but it is not a panacea. Instead we need recognition and support across government departments to ensure the value of paths are reflected in their plans, from tourism and environmental protection to transport and development.
And promotion is key, particularly in engaging people in ways to stay healthy. ‘Social prescribing’ is the buzzword here, essentially encouraging doctors and other healthcare professionals to prescribe a walk in the park or a ramble in the woods - a daily dose of nature - as a way of staying fit. As a voluntary organisation with considerable experience and expertise we hope to work closely with healthcare organisations to make this happen.