Chancellor George Osborne yesterday unveiled the Government’s budget for the next year. Amongst measures to halve the bingo tax, cut beer duty and introduce a new £1 coin, we were keeping a lookout for what was in it for walkers.
Some new announcements will certainly affect the places we walk. There is support for housebuilding for example, with measures to aid the construction of 200,000 new homes, and £140m extra has been found for flood defence repairs and maintenance. But beyond that there is little to encourage and help people to get out on their feet.
Walking in the fields and woods around Loughborough last week with local MP and Treasury Minister Nicky Morgan it was clear that the Government recognises the role that walking can play in getting people more active, but all this costs money of course and in these austere times it's harder than ever to argue the case for more spending.
With local authorities’ rights of way budgets under severe pressure we're witnessing the impact of spending cuts. Last November our Paths in Crisis report highlighted over 100,000 path problems in England that remain unfixed and that 30% of councils in England cut their path budgets in 2013.
However the good news here is that walking is excellent value for money and makes an important contribution to our economy, both in driving economic growth and in helping to relieve pressure on overstretched budgets.
Take rural communities, where many places are yet to show the green shoots of economic recovery. As Environment Secretary Owen Paterson recently highlighted, in rural areas the £33bn tourism industry accounts for 14% of employment and 10% of businesses. Walking makes an important contribution to this with walkers spending over £6 billion a year in the English countryside, supporting up to 245,000 full time jobs.
Take healthcare costs, where physical inactivity costs NHS England £1.8bn a year and the wider economy up to £8bn a year. Walking offers a free, easy and effective way for most people to meet the recommended minimum 150 minutes a week of moderate activity – for every £1 spent on a health walk scheme the local NHS saves £7.
Take volunteering, where local authorities are struggling to balance their budgets and cutting rights of way funding, and where Ramblers volunteers from Penzance to Inverness are helping to keep our path networks open, saving councils thousands of pounds.
Or take natural capital – that’s the goods that the natural environment provides for free (everything from clean air and water to green spaces for recreation) – where the social benefits of people being able to access and enjoy the countryside is estimated at some £484 million a year. The public rights of way network here plays a vital role in allowing people to do this and ‘reconnect people with nature’, a key Government aspiration.
Increasing our exports and finding new markets abroad are important of course, but we must also search for sources of economic growth closer to home. Walking – and the healthy walking environment which supports it – is an excellent source of low cost, long-term, sustainable economic growth which can benefit communities across the UK, including those yet to experience any green shoots of recovery.
So Chancellor, how about a ‘walk and talk’ with the Ramblers to find out more?