A fork in the path

Martin Clunes President of the British Horse Society on the  Brokken bridge in the village of Clapham
Martin Clunes President of the British Horse Society on the Brokken bridge in the village of Clapham
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Ramblers are concerned about plans to lay a bigger burden on volunteers to maintain our prized national trails. Terry Fletcher asks if it’s a recipe for fragmentation

Just two weeks after the newest national trail was opened in Yorkshire, there are fears that the future of the entire network of long distance paths could be in danger from Government plans to hand maintenance over to local groups.

The idea has been put forward by Natural England, the Government’s environmental watchdog, which currently spends about £1.7m a year looking after the 13 trails in England. It is almost 60 years since the first trail, the Pennine Way stretching 268 miles (429km) from Edale in Derbyshire to the Scottish Border was officially opened with a ceremony at Malham. Since then another dozen have been added, ranging from the leg-sapping 630-mile (1,000km) South West Coast path, to the shortest of them all, the Yorkshire Wolds Way, which runs 79 miles (127km) from the Humber Bridge to Filey.

The newest is the Pennine Bridleway, the first purpose-designed for horse riders and cyclists, which was opened earlier this month at Stainforth, near Settle by Martin Clunes, president of the British Hose Society and star of Men Behaving Badly and Doc Martin. In all they add up to around 2,200 miles (3,500km) of tracks and are used by an estimated 12 million people every year, though only a tiny proportion – no one knows the exact figure – walk the whole length, with most using them for day walks. Yorkshire’s other contribution to the network is the Cleveland Way which throws a 110-mile (177km) lasso around the North York Moors National Park from Helmsley to Filey.

Natural England insists it remains committed to the network and that the proposals represent just another move towards the Civil Society and localism Ministers want to foster. But, perhaps inevitably at a time of public spending cuts, some fear it is the start of the Government cutting spending on the network, leading to an inevitable decline. Under the proposals the size of the national grant to maintain the paths would have to be renegotiated each year while the management of the trails, which each currently has its own full time officer, would be passed on to individual ‘trail partnerships’ made up of local councils, businesses and volunteers.

Hazel Thomas, Natural England’s, principal adviser on the trails, said the proposals followed a national review of the paths and their management in 2009. She said the trails varied so much, from heavily-used sections of the Pennine Way to the much less-walked Wolds Way, that it did not make sense for a national agency to try to impose a ‘one-size-fits-all’ template. Local people were better placed to see what was needed.

She added: “We remain fully committed to the trails and the need for national funding” but admitted the intervening three years since the last review had seen major changes in the public finances and the role of government generally.

Suspicions have only been fuelled by references in a consultation document to getting “better value” from maintenance grants. It adds: “Government is seeking a smaller role for itself and a bigger one for civil society delivering more devolved and locally responsive solutions that harness the knowledge and skills of our partners.”

It confirms that these would include unpaid volunteers as well as walking, horse riding and cycling groups and local businesses.

The Ramblers, the country’s main campaigning group for walkers, has welcomed the idea of more local input but has serious reservations about some of the plans, parts of which could be implemented as early as April. Its director of policy and campaigns Nicky Philpott, said: “These proposals may bring significant changes which will ultimately transform the way national trails are managed. The current proposed model has not been tried and tested and we are not convinced it offers the best way forward.”

Tom Chadwick, chairman of he North York Moors Association, also foresees problems on some trails. “Natural England are saying they don’t have the money and presumably that will dictate how things will go but trying to turn things over to volunteers is a very tall order. Traditionally the Cleveland Way has benefited from a lot of volunteer work but the lesser known trails, such as the Wolds Way, will present some real problems.”

Richard Gunton, director of park services at the the North York Moors National Park, which hosts the national officer for both the Cleveland and Wolds Ways, said: “The plans would result in a simplified process with a very clear set of standards to be met so we would hope that for the Cleveland Way and Wolds Way it would not result in any deterioration and might even see an improvement.

“Natural England, like the rest of the public sector, has less money so there is a drive for civil society to get involved. But we already have a huge amount of voluntary effort going into the national park, including on the Cleveland Way. However, that is not a money saving effort and volunteers should never be seen as a way of saving money. They should be there to provide additional benefits not to do the jobs of paid staff.

“We already receive something like 11,000 volunteer days with some people having done it for 40 years and some working three or four days a week. It is hard to see how that figure could be increased significantly,” he said.

At the Yorkshire Dales National Park, which is crossed by both the Pennine Way and the Pennine Bridleway they are still formulating their response. But Alan Hulme, head of ranger services, said: “The principle of having local people in control is probably correct but I cannot see a one-size-fits-all solution. On routes like the Cleveland Way where the trail is predominantly in one authority’s area is might be fairly simple to organise. But the Pennine Way goes through 13 authorities, which is a very different situation when it comes to deciding priorities and allocating money.

He added: “The last thing anyone in the public sector would want to do at the moment is to take over extra responsibilities from the Government if there is not the money to pay for it.”

Consultation on Natural England’s proposals ends on July 5 with an announcement expected in the autumn. Details of the proposals and consultation can be found on www.naturalengland.org.uk