Footpaths are in danger of falling into disrepair following council cutbacks. Mary Griffin meets campaigners fighting to save them.
The Ramblers’ Association has launched a campaign on behalf of nine million of us who go walking for recreation at least once a month, saying the UK’s network of footpaths is in danger of falling into disrepair.
Earlier this month, the association produced a report after making Freedom of Information requests to every council in the country.
It found that as local authorities tighten their belts to cope with reduced funding from central government, many rights-of-way departments are taking an unfair share of the cuts.
Claiming that footpaths are a sound investment, providing an easy-to-access resource for improving physical and mental health and boosting the economy through tourism, it fears rights-of-way departments have been an easy target because the general public may not notice funding has been withdrawn until five or 10 years down the track.
The report claims councils are showing “a worrying disregard” for their footpaths, with 40 per cent slashing their rights-of-way budgets by more than 20 per cent over the last three years and 11 per cent reducing budgets by more than half.
Warwickshire is among this 11 per cent, having halved the number of staff in the rights-of-way department and slashed its budget by £317,000.
Steven Wallsgrove, who lives in Warwick, has been footpath secretary of the Mid Warwickshire Ramblers’ Group since not long after the group formed 40 years ago.
He says: “We’ve been pushing for 30 to 40 years to get paths improved in Warwickshire.
“At that time, 30 or 40 years ago, you could guarantee you’d find barbed wire across a footpath or missing foot bridges and other problems. Nowadays, if you found barbed wire across a footpath that would be unusual.” But because the county’s footpath network has been so well cared for, Steven, a retired town planner, thinks it has become an easy target in council budget cuts.
He says: “Although Warwickshire is coming up in the top 10 lists for cuts, in a sense the impact here is relatively minor.
“The impact is going to take a little while to work its way through.
“It’s a situation that’s going to get gradually worse – bridges will fall into disrepair, stiles will break, paths will become overgrown and gradually deteriorate.
“If finances stay the same, then clearly the footpath network will deteriorate back to where it was 30 or 40 years ago.”
He adds: “We don’t want to have to start all over again – or rather, I don’t want my successor to have to start all over again.
According to the Ramblers’ Association, it will be 2027 before the current backlog of 160 outstanding applications to change the map of Warwickshire’s public footpaths is cleared.
But the hard work of dozens of volunteer groups of ramblers across the county could be helping to mask the scale of the cuts.
The association says its members have stepped up to fill the gaps left by funding shortfalls taking a “do it yourself” or Big Society approach to safeguarding footpaths in their local areas.
Anastacia French, Ramblers’ Association campaigns officer, says: “The situation’s not that bad yet because we are stepping up to make sure things are maintained.
“But we are starting to hear about problems on the ground.”
Paul Smith is one of 360 members of Coventry Ramblers’ Group.
The group joined forces with others to petition the county council when it first proposed scrapping footpath officers altogether.
“We felt that would be disastrous,” says Paul.
“We really felt it wasn’t in the interest of the public to scrap the maintenance of all the footpaths across the county.”
They campaigned successfully to keep eight rights-of-way officers in place so that volunteer groups could continue maintenance work across the county, liaising with the remaining officers who can deal directly with landowners.
Paul says: “There are more people in the UK who go out walking regularly than play football.
“Countryside paths provide essential exercise, especially for older people.”
He adds: “I doubt if the general public feels the quality of rights-of-way affects them at all, but when they go out for a walk, a run or a bike ride it’s through bitter experience that they’ll find out how valuable they are.”