Paths: present and future

As Britain prepares to leave the EU, politicians are debating new domestic agricultural policy. We’re calling on every Ramblers member to become a ‘path protector’ to help ensure this once-in-a-generation opportunity to safeguard access isn’t missed

By Elyssa Campbell-Barr, illustrations by Hannah Warren

Paths present and future

Our path network is one of Britain’s most wonderful and well-used resources. Across England and Wales we have 140,000 miles of recorded public rights of way, while local authorities in Scotland have designated 12,500 miles of ‘core paths’. Every day, these are used not just by ramblers, but by dog-walkers, picnickers, climbers and trail runners, as well as people on their way to work, school, the shops or pub. Paths also provide access to activities including birdwatching, geocaching and metal-detectoring – with landowners’ permission, of course.

A well-maintained network of paths brings many benefits. It supports our physical and mental health and wellbeing, and connects us with nature and farming. It lets us walk safely and makes walking more accessible to those who are less able. It brings valuable tourism and recreation to rural communities. And it helps us to make journeys without vehicles, benefiting the environment, too.

Well-maintained, well-signed paths are good for farmers as well. They prevent people getting lost and damaging crops or disturbing livestock. They also help the public understand the countryside and food production.

Many of us take paths for granted – but we shouldn’t. In 2015 the Ramblers’ Big Pathwatch Survey found 9% of paths in England and Wales ‘difficult or impossible to use’. Some are intentionally blocked by barbed wire, gates or fences, others are unusable because of farming activity or poor maintenance, and Mother Nature adds her own barriers with fallen trees, flooding and erosion. In 2015, our members and supporters identified 59,000 path problems throughout England and Wales.

‘Sorting out problems with rights of way takes time, money, legal knowledge and careful negotiation,’ points out Stephen Russell, Ramblers policy and advocacy officer. ‘For the Ramblers to carry out this work, we need a strong legal framework and the support of path users and landowners.’

What's changing?

There are big changes on the horizon as we head towards Brexit. The European Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) will no longer apply in the UK, replaced by new domestic legislation due to be published this autumn as the agriculture bill. The Scottish and Welsh governments are also consulting on their own visions for agriculture.

The CAP currently sets rules for, and provides subsidies to, farmers and other landowners in all EU member states. Those in England who receive these subsidies risk having payments reduced if they breach their obligations regarding rights of way (a system known as ‘cross compliance’ which, unfortunately, was not applied in the same way in Wales). In Scotland, farmers and landowners can bid for funding to improve public access. 

‘Although landowners in England and Wales are legally obliged to keep rights of way clear, cross compliance has provided an added incentive for those in England to do so,’ Stephen explains. ‘Until recently, the CAP also made extra payments to farmers creating new permissive routes.’ 

Why does it matter?

In England, 73% of land is agricultural, in Scotland 81% and in Wales 90%. Not only is farming among the most important activities across Britain, but our iconic landscapes – and our access to them – are shaped by farmers. As we leave the EU, we also leave the rules of the CAP, presenting us with a once-in-a-generation opportunity to safeguard the future of the British countryside. 

An important change being debated is how our farmers will be supported post-Brexit. Under the current system, they receive public funding largely based on the size of their farm, regardless of whether they deliver benefits for the public. We would like a system that ensures landowners fulfil their responsibilities for maintaining paths, and rewards them if they enhance access, create new routes or improve the wider environment. That’s why the Ramblers, together with wildlife and environmental organisations, has been calling for a system of ‘public money for public goods’ – a concept now supported in principle by the government. 

‘Public access is a public good,’ stated Environment Secretary Michael Gove, addressing a recent farming conference. Calling for increased investment in rural infrastructure and access, he explained: ‘The more the public, and especially schoolchildren, get to visit, understand and appreciate our countryside, the more I believe they will appreciate, support and champion our farmers.’ 

While these words are encouraging, there has been little detail about how the government intends to ensure access – and specifically the path network – will be protected and enhanced in future. We will be checking the wording of the forthcoming agriculture bill very carefully. 

‘Funding for landowners, and the system that underpins it, must deliver benefits for wider society, including a secure future for rights of way and additions where needed,’ says Stephen. ‘Footpaths and public access aren’t likely to be foremost among farmers’ and politicians’ concerns in developing a replacement for the CAP. But they are vitally important to the nation’s physical and mental health, environment and prosperity.’ 

What are we doing?

Since last year’s general election, Ramblers’ staff and volunteers have met ministers, representatives from the Welsh Assembly and Scottish Parliament, and officials from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra). We’ve also taken MPs on walks to show them good – and bad – path maintenance in action. 

In spring 2018, the UK Government launched a 10-week consultation on its proposals for the future of food, farming and the environment in England. This will shape the agriculture bill and could have a significant impact on the future of access to the countryside. Similar consultations are taking place in Wales and Scotland. 

The Ramblers’ response to the consultation in England focused on the path network and farmers’ responsibilities in maintaining it. Our main points were that: 

  • To receive payments from the public purse, farmers must comply with their legal duties regarding public rights of way. If they breach these, deductions should be made. 
  • Extra funding should be available to farmers who create or improve paths, prioritised where routes are needed most. 

We also teamed up with Cycling UK, the British Horse Society, British Mountaineering Council and Open Spaces Society to submit a joint petition. ‘Responsible access to the countryside is inherently beneficial to society… It is important that public money supports farmers, as custodians of the countryside, in delivering this critical public good,’ we argued. Thanks to all members who signed the petition and supported our position. 

How can I help?

As the government looks at how the countryside is managed in the future, we have launched our Your Path Awaits campaign, calling on everyone who values countryside access to commit to safeguarding Britain’s paths. Become a path protector today by making your pledge for paths at ramblers.org.uk/YourPathAwaits. 

Once you’ve made your pledge, we'll keep you updated on the progress of the agriculture bill and opportunities to ensure public access is protected. If you live in Scotland or Wales, we’ll also keep you posted about developments in devolved agriculture legislation. Additionally, you can voice your support for Welsh Government agriculture proposals, which include backing for walking infrastructure under a public goods scheme. Go to ramblers.org.uk/wales. 

Another way you can help is by maintaining good relations with farmers and landowners, and letting us know about those who do great work to improve paths and make land accessible. This is also a great time of year to take practical action to protect paths. Clear litter, cut back brambles, or why not join a local path maintenance team? Find out more at ramblers.org.uk/pathmaintenance.

Wales and Scotland

Devising a domestic replacement for the Common Agricultural Policy is particularly complicated because agriculture is currently a devolved issue in Wales and Scotland.

The European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, passed in June, will transpose EU law into UK law when we leave the EU. Scottish and Welsh politicians fiercely opposed this legislation, calling it a ‘power grab’. Both administrations developed their own continuity bills, but the Scottish one is being challenged in the Supreme Court.

Wales

Following the Brexit vote, Ramblers Cymru submitted written evidence to a Welsh Assembly committee in autumn 2016, followed by oral evidence in January 2017. Our call for ‘public funds for public access’ was reflected in the committee’s report of March 2017, and the Welsh Government accepted this recommendation in principle. The Welsh Government has now issued a consultation document called Brexit and Our Land, which includes a ‘public goods’ scheme for post-Brexit land management.

‘It is really encouraging to see recognition for public access as a public good, as it’s what we have been asking for all along. This could be a model for the rest of the UK to follow,’ says Rebecca Brough of Ramblers Cymru. The consultation is open until 30 October. All Ramblers members are urged to give feedback at https://beta.gov.wales/ support-welsh-farming-after-brexit.

Scotland

The situation regarding rights of way in Scotland is very different to England and Wales. Rather than a network of public paths, there is a statutory right of access across most land, which means there are far fewer restrictions on where you can walk, as long as you do so responsibly.

Also, unlike England and Wales, Scotland voted in favour of the UK staying in the EU by a margin of 62% to 38%. In June, Scottish National Party MPs – who make up the majority of Scottish MPs in Westminster – walked out of the UK parliament in protest at the way Scottish devolution has been treated in Brexit negotiations and legislation.

The Scottish Government’s consultation document includes proposals for a five-year transition period for farming and rural support after leaving the EU, and for continuation of the scheme whereby land managers can apply for funding for path improvements. Ramblers Scotland is working with other organisations to draw up our own vision for a fundamentally different rural land-use policy – one dependent on delivering public goods, including outdoor recreation infrastructure.

PATH PROTECTORS: THE FARMER

Peter Melchett’s father bought Courtyard Farm in Ringstead, Norfolk, in 1959. The organic mixed farm is now owned by a charitable trust

Do you have public footpaths on your farm? 

Yes, we have three waymarked walks: two two-mile circular walks plus a six-mile circular walk. These are almost entirely on around eight miles of rights of way created in 1982, with short distances on previously existing rights of way, and several miles of permissive paths. 

What are the benefits of having well-signed, well-maintained footpaths on your land? 

It’s the right thing to do! It gives so many people pleasure and allows us to share the beauty of the farm and its wildlife with others. Having plenty of people around the farm also improves security, with daily visitors keeping an eye on things. 

PATH PROTECTORS: THE ADVENTURER

Alastair Humphreys is an explorer, writer, film-maker, and originator of micro-adventures: short, local outdoor adventures 

Why is the path network important to you? 

Whether you are walking your dog through fields, running along a river through a large estate, or hiking through England’s wildest spots, the footpath network is precious. We are all so used to it, we take it for granted. 

How do other countries differ from the UK in terms of countryside access? 

I only appreciated the British network of paths when I began travelling the world. I noticed most countries do not have the wonderful system we have of cleared and marked paths. Many are envious of the freedom we have to roam and explore. In particular, I often get feedback from Americans. Yes, they have huge open wilderness regions, but they don’t have a network of local, accessible, egalitarian paths like we do. 

What’s your message to politicians considering the future of public access in new agriculture legislation?

We are spending a huge amount of money on schemes that will get people more active, and help our society’s mental health crisis. One simple solution would be to keep it easy for everyone to get out into nature, by themselves, for free. It’s good for physical health, good for mental health, and good for the environment.