With drastic cuts to local-authority budgets, the impact on footpaths is beginning to bite. Andrew McCloy investigate the plight of walkers in Norfolk and West Riding, and meet Ramblers volunteers helping to ease things...
Allan Jones has lived and walked in Norfolk for almost 20 years and has never seen anything like it.
“For the first time I’ve come across overgrown vegetation that has completely blocked a public path,” he says. “This is mainly an arable county and there’s not the livestock to keep the grass short and the nettles in check. It needs to be mown regularly so people can use the paths. We walked through one sugar beet field, on a public footpath, and the crops were up to our chest so we could barely get through. It’s almost out of control.”
Until 2010, the condition of Norfolk’s path network had been steadily improving. But then the cuts hit. The county council’s rights of way budget – fairly modest to begin with – was slashed by nearly 70%, and although the rights of way team continued to be responsible for what it calls the ‘Norfolk Trails’ (which includes the long-distance paths and waymarked routes), the rest of the network’s upkeep passed to the council’s highways department.
“This is the real problem – the remaining two-thirds of the county’s paths,” says Allan. “About 2,000 miles of everyday paths have simply been left untouched.”
Norfolk’s plight is echoed around England and was highlighted in a recent Ramblers report, which found that more than 40% of local authorities had cut their footpath budgets by a fifth, and 11% by more than half. Lancashire County Council axed seven members of staff from its rights of way team and cut its budget by a third – since when, perhaps not surprisingly, the number of outstanding path problems has more than doubled.
There have been similar reductions in rights of way budgets in Gloucestershire and Lincolnshire, where the latter has dispensed with the services of 14 rights of way staff. Even popular walking destinations whose local economies rely on visitors are not immune from the savage cuts: Cumbria County Council has made five members of staff redundant and cut almost £400,000 from its rights of way spending, while in Devon £837,000 has been slashed from the county council’s footpath budget.
More obstructions, less resources
As in Norfolk, some local authorities appear to be giving up on maintaining certain paths altogether. During the summer and autumn of last year, members of West Riding Area Ramblers surveyed 769km/478 miles of public footpaths, bridleways and other access routes in Bradford, Calderdale, Kirklees, Leeds and adjacent parts of North Yorkshire. A total of 248 illegal obstructions were recorded, meaning that, every two miles, you could expect to encounter an obstacle that would seriously impede or even block progress, such as a locked gate, overgrown vegetation, an aggressive dog or an unauthorised diversion.
As well as illegal obstructions, the Ramblers found many more instances where paths were difficult to use because of poor signposting or broken stiles and gates.
“The local authorities don’t seem to want to take on these problems any more,” says Keith Wadd of West Riding Ramblers. “Pursuing a landowner who has illegally blocked a path involves considerable resources, which the council says it simply doesn’t have. However, the danger is that the more these paths become difficult to use the fewer people will want to walk them, so the problems will get steadily worse and the job of clearing them more difficult.”
One area that the Ramblers surveyed was Lower Nidderdale, partly within the Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and popular with walkers. In just 93km/58 miles of paths they recorded 34 separate problems. Some of these could be dealt with quite quickly, but others were more serious and remained unresolved for a long time. According to Keith, few of them are likely to be dealt with at all at the moment, so the backlog of reported path problems will continue to grow.
“The hard-pressed rights of way officers are doing their best, but they are not being given adequate resources to carry out their jobs properly,” he says. “Ramblers groups must continue to use these paths in order to keep them open in the long run, as well as demonstrate evidence of use when these landowners who illegally obstruct the routes are taken to task.”
Of course, given the drastic reduction in funding from central Government, it was inevitable that almost every aspect of local-authority spending would be affected.
However, the Ramblers’ research has shown that rights of way budgets have been hit disproportionately hard, indicating that politicians and budget-holders have not appreciated the wider economic and health benefits of keeping paths open so people are encouraged to walk them. A well-maintained path network can provide a huge boost for local economies, such as the £307m that the South West Coast Path generates every year for regional businesses.
Shropshire County Council recently calculated that ‘walking tourism’ has an approximate economic value to the county of over £65m and supports almost 1,000 jobs – and yet the council has cut its rights of way funding and staff numbers by more than 40%.
As well as the economic benefits, the Ramblers argues that a relatively small investment in public paths has a much bigger outcome for the health and well-being of the nation.
“Our paths are important in allowing people to stay active and healthy,” says Anastasia French, a Ramblers campaign officer. “With obesity on the rise and one in four people suffering some sort of mental health problem, it’s vital we all have access to low-cost exercise on our own doorstep. Recent Government guidelines have shown that physical inactivity is a bigger killer than smoking, and getting more people walking is vital to fix this problem.”
Path Guardians help plug the gap
Already many councils have been turning to volunteers to help plug the gap left by lost staff and cope with burgeoning backlogs of work, but the irony is that some rights of way teams have been so drastically cut that they aren’t even able to coordinate these volunteer working parties effectively. Nonetheless, the Ramblers believes that volunteers represent a real opportunity to mitigate the overall effects of the cuts and wants to work with hard-pressed local authorities to provide extra help carrying out everyday footpath maintenance work. It’s looking to establish Path Guardian groups across Britain, and already has 75, covering 40 different local authorities.
One of these new groups is called the Bramblers. It operates in Warwickshire and has a good working relationship with the county council. But the group’s Nick Hillier says this wasn’t initially the case: “It started with us actually campaigning against the council’s proposals to axe the rights of way staff and budget by over 50%,” he explains. “But they listened to us and instead decided to get behind local footpath volunteers – and it took off from there.”
The Bramblers meets regularly with the council to discuss what needs to be done and what tools or training are needed, and then every month the group is out around Solihull, cutting back undergrowth, repairing bridges and replacing stiles with kissing gates. Nick says that it’s very fulfilling work, but it also shows that, in these difficult times, the Ramblers are prepared to do their bit and put something back.
For its part, Warwickshire County Council finds it an extremely productive arrangement, and the Bramblers are among 30 volunteer groups across the county that it actively supports. “The cuts were certainly hard, but we decided to use our meagre resources more effectively,” says Keith Davenport, Warwickshire’s transport and highways manager. “This meant a shift away from employing expensive contractors and instead properly supporting these able and dedicated volunteer groups.”
Since then, the council has actually been approached by several new volunteer groups, which has both surprised and rather pleased them. “We value this partnership, which helps maintain our vital footpath network and encourages people to walk,” he adds. Back in Norfolk, Allan Jones says that the Ramblers tries to help its own county council in any way it can, completing footpath surveys and helping mount signs and discs on posts. The group regularly contributes towards the cost of new gates, waymarks and resurfacing, and in 2011 paid over £7,000 to install a boardwalk on a boggy section of the Nar Valley Way. But, says Allan, at the end of the day it is the local authority’s duty to maintain its public rights of way. “We’ll continue to support the county council as much as we can, but the cuts can’t be used as an excuse for abandoning a large part of our footpath network.”
Help guard our paths!
If you’re interested in volunteering as a Path Guardian, helping the Ramblers clear and maintain local paths, or being a Mystery Walker, monitoring the state of local footpaths, visit www.ramblers.org.uk/volunteering
PHOTOS: Pearl Bucknail.