In the prevailing atmosphere of austerity sabre-rattling, trying to defend local authorities’ rights of way (RoW) budgets is quite a tall order. Who would dare argue the case for a few footpaths against school equipment, home helps or the weekly rubbish collection? Of course it shouldn’t be such a simplistic either/or budgetary decision. But it is often portrayed that way, and in the circumstances RoW budgets are some of the softest targets around.
As a result, they are being slashed mercilessly. In some local authorities, RoW spending has been reduced by more than half. Teams with specialist knowledge built up over decades (much needed in such a complicated legal area) are broken up. Maintenance of paths has been scaled back drastically, potentially leaving much of the ancient RoW network overgrown and unwalkable.
In Norfolk, a county with nearly two and a half thousand miles of off-road RoW, the cuts announced have been savage: more than 50 per cent per cent in this year, scaling down to a budget of zero by 2014. Instead of regularly cutting growth as part of the maintenance of the county’s network, path clearing will only be undertaken when complaints are received – in other words when the paths have already become unusable. Other authorities are following suit.
The much-vaunted ‘big society’ cannot mop up the rapidly escalating shortfall. In researching my new book about the British footpath network (The Wild Rover: A Blistering Journey along Britain’s Footpaths, Collins 2011), I went out with a couple of the many wonderful volunteer path-clearing groups that pepper the countryside. They are finding their work increasingly hampered by red tape and procedural paranoia.
The recent resurgence of walking as a low-cost form of recreation has been astonishing. Something has fundamentally shifted in the last 20 years. The level of knowledge of our footpath network – and an understanding of what it means to us all – has become embedded in a quite new way right across our collective identity. It has come about, I believe, due to what might be regarded as a perfect combination of factors.
Around two decades ago, there was a marked increase in the creation and promotion of named long-distance paths, which sparked much interest and a surge in their use. In the run up to the millennium, there were the debates about the ‘right to roam’ and the eventual, and long overdue, measures in the Countryside and Rights of Way (CROW) Act of 2000, together, north of the border, with its even bolder twin, the 2003 Land Reform (Scotland) Act.
Hard on the heels of CROW came the 2001 outbreak of foot and mouth disease, whose blanket bans on walking and access served as a chilling reminder of what we stood to lose without our rights of way network. To lose every path in an instant was a wake-up call. And it wasn’t just the beardy rambler types moaning – it was the folk who liked a nice run out into the country on a Sunday afternoon, the people wanting to walk their dogs or take the kids somewhere that they could charge around and let off steam. Foot and mouth was an apocalyptic vision of what could so easily be, and people didn’t like it at all.
It’s no coincidence either that this swell in knowledge of and enthusiasm for our footpath network developed alongside the steady rise in professional teams employed by local authorities, the very ones now facing the axe. They have helped to shape this ancient network for modern needs and have played a significant part in the phenomenal rise of walking as a leisure pursuit.
Knowing that the dots and dashes on the map will translate into easily-used paths on the ground has underpinned this renaissance, as has the growing enthusiasm for the history of our own backyards, for environmental conservation, for activities that boost health and the trend towards short‑break holidays rather than the factory fortnight of old.
This has all resulted in a far deeper connection to our land and landscape that will not be jettisoned overnight. Nor is it dependent solely on the amount of public money thrown at it. But we run the very real risk of losing many of the gains that have been made since the access battles of the 1930s, and that should concern us all.
Paths should be among the most securely funded arms of local government, so neatly do they fulfil the obsessions and orthodoxies of the moment. Walking is good for your health, both physical and mental. It is the ultimate in green and sustainable transport. It gets you out of your little fortress and into a realm where you might bump into a stranger, have a pleasant chat and they might not try to mug or murder you. It is therefore fabulous for combating loneliness and over-exposure to the Daily Mail and for helping to foster community cohesion.
By seeing new places (and familiar places from new angles), moreover, a walk encourages us to learn about our landscape and heritage. In researching my book, I found that walking even changed how I saw familiar landscapes. Places that I was used to looking tired or dull through a moving windscreen took on amazing new hues of subtle beauty as I walked by them.
Leslie Stephen, founder of the Sunday Tramps (see box), put it thus: ‘Walking gives a charm to the most commonplace British scenery. A love of walking not only makes any English county tolerable, but seems to make the charm inexhaustible.’ He’s right. I’ve walked in Hertfordshire, one of my least favourite counties, and even that was lovely. It’s win-win-win with a footpath.
Ironically, cuts to RoW teams could end up costing local authorities more. If they are preparing to maintain paths only when a crisis point has been reached, there could well be repercussions in potential litigation, let alone the drop in tourism spend that such action is likely to produce.
‘Every RoW officer is worth a million pounds to the Welsh economy,’ as my local council leader put it six years ago. And legal challenges over footpath maintenance and related issues will not wither away along with the RoW teams. Well-trained, experienced professionals save authorities a small fortune in legal counsel, and getting rid of them could prove very costly indeed.
So why are there no furious campaigns against these cuts? Only a few months ago, the threatened sale of public forests caused apoplexy and forced a government u-turn. Now, aside from a few grumbling press releases from the Ramblers Association and their cohorts, all is strangely quiet. If anything, though, this is a far bigger issue than the forests, with a great many more potential repercussions. This is not just about a few footpaths; it is about our hard-won access to our own land and identity.
Mike Parker is the author of The Wild Rover: A Blistering Journey along Britain’s Footpaths (Collins). Illustrations by Cressida Knapp