Ramblers stride into a battle against austerity measures

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David Cameron be warned. As austerity measures continue to bite, the Ramblers are on the warpath. Sarah Freeman reports.

When it comes to mobilising mass protests, the Ramblers has history.

Remember it was that same group which, back in April, 1932 organised the now historic trespass of Kinder Scout marking the start of a campaign against the lack of public access to the countryside. It took another 68 years of before the Countryside and Rights of Way Act became law, but that display of dogged persistence is the reason why David Cameron should perhaps be feeling a little worried right now.

Ramblers members have once again got the bit between the teeth and this time it’s the Government’s austerity measures which are to blame.

Using Freedom on Information legislation, the organisation set out to find out how council budget cuts have impacted on public rights of way and say the results are “alarming”.

According to Ramblers figures, 70 per cent of councils have cut their rights of way budgets over the last three years. Of these, 41 per cent have dropped by 20 per cent while in 11 per cent of cases, funding has been reduced by more than half.

While Yorkshire fared better than many other regions, both in Rotherham Metropolitan Borough Council and Calderdale Council the budget for maintaining public rights of way has shrunk by a fifth and the Ramblers says that even in areas where cuts have been less than 20 per cent, the effects on the ground are still evident.

“A recent large-scale Ramblers survey of nearly 500 miles of public paths in West and North Yorkshire found that illegal obstructions were encountered every two miles,” says Keith Wadd, chair of West Riding Area Ramblers. “Keeping footpaths clear and easily accessible by the public is the statutory duty of local authorities, yet they are not allocating enough funding to fulfil their basic duties.

“As paths in the region become more impenetrable, people will stop walking them and the problem will become worse, leaving councils with a far greater maintenance bill than if these problems were tackled now.”

The Ramblers already has volunteers who work across the county to help councils keep footpaths clear with teams already operating in Rotherham, Doncaster and Lower Wharfdale.

However, with less funding in place for path clearance and fewer staff to co-ordinate volunteers and liaise with landowners, the Ramblers fear cost-cutting could see those projects go into decline.

“There was a case in Essex where the council hired a contractor to clear paths rather than let volunteers do the work,” says Nick Philpott, director of campaigns and policy at the Ramblers. “Half way through the contractors went bust and were unable to complete the work they’d been paid for. They left the path is a worse state and Ramblers volunteers had to step in and do the work after all.

“In a year which has seen the country energised by sport there is a great opportunity to encourage people to get more active. However, in order to create a lasting legacy of increased physical activity there need to be facilities in place which people can access easily. With obesity on the rise, we should be doing more, not less to encourage low cost exercise which can be accessed by a large majority of people.”

For all the Ramblers belief that access to the countryside is a natural right, they also know that against an uncertain economic backdrop, it’s their financial argument which might prove the most persuasive.

According to the organisation, the path along Hadrian’s Wall has boosted the surrounding economy by £19m since 2003 and say that in 2010 £7.2bn was spent visiting the countryside.

“These cuts are worryingly short-sighted,” adds Nick. “In the current economic climate we didn’t expect funding for rights of way to be untouched. But our statistics show rights of way and the teams who look after them are being disproportionately affected.

“As paths become more impenetrable and stiles more overgrown people will stop walking on them and the lower footfall will exacerbate the problem. Highway authorities have a duty to maintain paths and by making such cuts they also risk forcing landowners into taking costly legal action to solve the issues.

“In many cases the resources aren’t even there to co-ordinate and utilise our volunteers who are ready and willing to help councils keep paths clear – a small cost compared to the huge benefits they can bring to tourism, the economy and the nation’s health and happiness and it is vital that councils invest properly in them.”