Making journeys on foot improves our physical and mental wellbeing and brings a multitude of benefits to society and the environment, so it’s vital that we
preserve and protect footpaths. Across Britain, we’re addressing the challenges facing our path network – and asking you to get involved.
By: Elyssa Campbell-Barr Illustrations: Kate Miller
Laid end to end, the 225,000km/ 140,0000 miles of public rights of way in England and Wales would take you around the world almost six times. Add the 84,000km/52,195 miles of paths in Scotland and you’d have a route reaching over three-quarters of the way to the moon.
Britain’s path network is one of our most precious resources. From the historic and scenic tracks that connect ramblers with awe-inspiring landscapes and wildlife, to the ginnels, twittens and alleyways walked daily by workers, shoppers and schoolchildren, paths keep our nation healthier, safer and greener.
Making journeys on foot improves our physical and mental wellbeing. It connects us with nature and our community. It reduces traffic and keeps the air cleaner. But people only choose to walk if it’s pleasant and convenient. They need a path network that’s well maintained, well signed and well mapped. And there are currently some major obstacles getting in walkers’ way.
A decade of budget cuts
Highways authorities (HAs) in England and Wales have a statutory duty to keep the public rights of way network in their area well maintained, properly signed and accurately recorded. But since 2010, when the Conservative/Lib Dem coalition came to power, HAs in England have had their government funding reduced by almost 50%. In Wales, the value of government grants to local authorities fell by almost 19% between 2009–10 and 2017–18.
With spending on life-or-death services – particularly social care for adults and children – rising sharply, councils have been forced to make cuts in other areas. Rights of way budgets have been hit particularly hard. A Freedom of Information request by Ramblers revealed that around a third of HAs across England and Wales had their rights of way maintenance budgets cut between 2014–15 and 2018–19. Of these, almost two-fifths slashed spending by more than 30%, and one in 20 by more than 50%. Around 20% of councils cut expenditure on rights of way staff.
Graham Rusling, public rights of way and access service manager at Kent County Council, hasn’t escaped the cuts but realises his HA is in a better position than many. ‘We lost slightly more than 30% of our budget at the start of austerity, but it has remained remarkably stable since,’ he explains.
He points out that in a large council like Kent, the economies of scale are advantageous. Increasing ‘cost-recovery work’ – jobs his department can charge for, such as local land searches and temporary closure orders – has also helped him retain his staff team. Nevertheless, ‘budgets are always a challenge – particularly our works budget,’ he says. His department has a backlog of work amounting to around £4m.
In North Yorkshire, Richard Smith, until recently path maintenance team coordinator for Lower Wharfedale Ramblers, has worked with three different HAs in his area. ‘The best local authorities are the ones active in securing money from other sources – not just from their government grant but from pots available for other projects,’ he says. ‘For example, there might be a resource associated with environmental improvement, maintaining a Site of Special Scientific Interest, or making somewhere more accessible to people with disabilities. If local authorities are alert to these, they can get money that otherwise they may not be able to – and use it to improve rights of way.’
Productive path partnerships
Thousands of Ramblers volunteers across Britain play a huge part in maintaining and protecting the path network, and their contribution is arguably needed more now than ever before. So what’s the secret to a successful working partnership?
‘The key is good communication and liaison,’ says Graham. ‘It’s also important to realise that how volunteers can help will look very different in different authorities. Go with an open mind and with a view to adding value, rather than a fixed idea of what you want to do.’
His council has moved away from the traditional weekly path maintenance working party. ‘We’ve identified a body of tasks that, with training, volunteers can do in their own time with minimal supervision, at fairly low cost in terms of tools,’ he explains. ‘Volunteers are picking up tasks of real value to us and to users of the network, but which can be done on an ad hoc basis.’
Lower Wharfedale Ramblers are involved in all kinds of path maintenance, from clearing undergrowth and repairing stiles to installing gates and building bridges. With a team of 20 offering a broad range of skills and experience, as well as their own tools and equipment, their voluntary work is highly valued by local authorities. (North Yorkshire County Council recently made
a special presentation to Richard.)
‘A good local authority is one that uses volunteer help not to fill the gaps but to reinforce what they’re doing,’ says Richard. ‘Volunteer group path maintenance is best executed with the cooperation and planning of the local authority because they can ensure your work fits in with their strategic longer-term aims.’
‘While it’s vital local authorities continue to prioritise and undertake their legal duties, Ramblers volunteers can make a really positive contribution by asking: “What can we do to help you and work with you?”’ suggests Elaine Webb, Ramblers local advocacy manager.
‘Look wider and deeper,’ is her advice. ‘We could be talking to other local groups, like residents’ associations, faith groups, disability charities, even schools – asking them to get involved in protecting paths. It’s a way of building community support and showing your MP and councillors why they should listen.’
In Yorkshire, Richard’s group already does exactly that. ‘We do a lot of work with Burley Walkers are Welcome. One of their aims has been to remove all the stiles in their patch because they want paths to be more accessible, so we’ve been working with them to replace stiles with gates. I’m also working with parish councils and community groups to explain what’s needed to save lost rights of way before 2026.’
The value of volunteers
Some might argue that our path network shouldn’t be so dependent on the goodwill of volunteers, whose efforts mitigate national and local government cuts. Richard disagrees. ‘If the volunteers weren’t there, many of these jobs just wouldn’t get done,’ he says. ‘You might think that when politicians see volunteers enhancing a service, they would think: “Oh, we don’t need to run that service because volunteers can do it.” But, actually, it’s quite the opposite. They see that volunteers strengthen that service and therefore they support it more.’
Also, safeguarding paths is part of Ramblers’ raison d’être. Our first charitable objective is to promote, encourage or assist in the provision and protection of footpaths and other ways over which the public have a right of way or access on foot, including the prevention of obstruction of public rights of way.
Local authorities and the public aren’t the only ones who benefit from the activities of Ramblers volunteer path teams. ‘Anybody who wants encouragement to do this, well they only have to do it once and they’re hooked!’ says Richard. ‘The number of times we’ve replaced a stile, and people walking past have been so appreciative. It’s worthwhile and rewarding, and the appreciation and thanks are almost instant.’
The hunt for historic paths
It’s not just a lack of money putting local authority path teams under pressure, but a lack of time, too. The Countryside and Rights of Way Act sets 1 January 2026 as the deadline for historic rights of way in England and Wales to be added to the ‘definitive map’ that every local authority must hold for its area. On that date, any footpaths, bridleways and byways that came into existence before 1949 that aren’t marked on the definitive map will be automatically extinguished, even if they are well known and used.
When the cutoff date was announced in 2000, nobody anticipated austerity measures or Brexit uncertainty and their brutal impact on local councils. As the 2026 deadline looms, the number of claims is increasing, stretching limited HA resources even further. With just six years to go, over 10,000 miles of rights of way in England and Wales remain unrecorded.
Fortunately, cases only have to be logged, not processed by the local authority by 2026. And that’s where Ramblers members come in. In the absence of a national government initiative to find lost rights of way, and mindful of the challenges facing local authorities, we’re encouraging Ramblers members to find and report lost routes. We’re also campaigning for an extension to the 2026 deadline.
Recent months have seen Jack Cornish, manager of our Don’t Lose Your Way project, discussing lost rights of way on radio and television, and in several newspapers, plus The New Yorker magazine. The publicity is prompting more people to investigate lost routes. ‘We’ve had 5,000 downloads of our guide to finding lost rights of way so far – about 80% by people who’ve never contacted the Ramblers before,’ says Jack. ‘In January, we’ll begin crowdsourcing the search for lost rights of way.’
Building on the success of the 2015 Big Pathwatch campaign, the plan is once again to divide England and Wales into 1km squares. We’ll then ask Ramblers members, supporters and the wider public to examine one square at a time to compare the rights of way network displayed on current Ordnance Survey (OS) maps with the historical maps from 1900 or similar.
Is every footpath, bridleway and byway marked accurately? Do any end abruptly at a county or parish boundary? The Don’t Lose Your Way campaign, which is funded by Ramblers Holidays Charitable Trust and players of People’s Postcode Lottery, will provide an online platform to facilitate this. ‘Look at the current map, look at the historic map, and do a “spot the difference” – see if there’s anything missing from one to the other,’ says Jack.
We’re also collecting people’s stories of historic paths. ‘Rights of way are ordinary people’s rights, built up because that’s how our ancestors went to the field or the pub, or took their cattle to market,’ explains Jack. ‘It would be great if members could share these histories of paths and how they have connected people over centuries and millennia.’
Look out for the launch of the next phase of the Don’t Lose Your Way campaign in the spring 2020 issue of walk.
The situation in Scotland
Walkers in Scotland enjoy world-class access rights quite different from those in England and Wales. In 2003 the Scottish Parliament passed the Land Reform (Scotland) Act, popularly known as the ‘right to roam act’. This legislation allows everyone to access most land across Scotland (with some common-sense exclusions), as long as they behave responsibly.
The Land Reform Act also required every local authority and national park in Scotland to identify ‘core paths’ to give the general public reasonable access throughout their area.
‘It was a laudable aim,’ says Helen Todd, campaigns and policy manager, Ramblers Scotland. ‘Most people prefer to walk along paths, as they generally provide the most direct, safe and pleasant way to enjoy Scotland’s beautiful landscapes and nature.’
There are now 21,000km/13,050 miles of core paths throughout Scotland, but they don’t form a coherent network. With no national definition of what constitutes a path, some are isolated fragments, while others are minor roads. More frustratingly still, some core paths aren’t shown on OS maps. ‘It could be that as many as 20% of core paths, including some popular and well-maintained routes, aren’t indicated on OS maps at all,’ says Helen. ‘And Scottish National Heritage believes there could be a further 63,000km/39,000 miles of Scottish paths available to the public.’