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When Prime Minister Theresa May returns from her hiking holiday in the Alps today (Wednesday) she will find a letter from the society.
We express delight that the Prime Minister enjoys walking, but urge her to look into the state of public paths in England and Wales which, due to continuing local authority cuts, are deteriorating. Paths are being ploughed out, cropped, obstructed or becoming overgrown and the many authorities no longer have the staff to chase up those responsible.
Says the society: ‘A small injection of funds would safeguard future walking and riding throughout our country. Post Brexit we need a regime of agricultural support which ensures that farmers and landowners are penalised when they illegally block public paths.’
The society also emphasises the importance of the national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty: these are subject to a variety of development pressures and yet visitors who come to enjoy unspoilt landscapes provide vital support for the rural economy.
It also calls for greater rights of access to the countryside following the partial, though welcome, access to open country provided by the Countryside and Rights of way Act 2000. It points out that the law of common land in England remains inequitable, with landowners able to apply to remove wrongly registered land while the public has only limited opportunities to apply to restore wrongly omitted land as common. Once land is registered as common there are rights for the public to walk there and in some cases to ride, and the land is protected from encroachments.
The society concludes by offering to join the Prime Minister on a walk in or near her constituency in the Thames Valley, or to visit access land which the society helped to win close to Chequers.
Says Kate Ashbrook, our general secretary: ‘We hope that with the memories of the lovely Alpine scenery fresh in her mind, the Prime Minister will look sympathetically at the need properly to fund and protect our splendid countryside and access opportunities here at home, so that everyone can enjoy them.’
Our letter to the Prime Minister
Dear Prime Minister
We were delighted to see the pictures of you and your husband on your walking holiday in Switzerland—and we hope you both had a very good time. We know that country walking is something you have both enjoyed for many years, and it is one of the objects of the Open Spaces Society to encourage people to walk for health and for pleasure. If more people followed your example the nation could reduce levels of obesity, risks of heart attack and strokes and generally be a much healthier society.
Many people walk in our own lovely countryside and benefit from it. I know that your walking is not confined to holiday trips to Switzerland but has included Snowdon and no doubt other places where your explorations have not received publicity. However walkers, riders and cyclists on country paths in England and Wales face problems which I feel you should know about—and with which we hope you will sympathise.
1. Unlike most continental countries, we have the priceless asset of a dense network of more than 140,000 miles of historic recorded public paths; but these paths do need a degree of maintenance if they are to be usable. Looking after the paths is the duty of the highway authorities (county councils and unitary authorities), but, as you know, they have in recent years suffered major cuts in their budgets. As a result many public paths are deteriorating and difficult to follow: some are ploughed out or cropped, and the highway authorities do not have the staff with which to chase sometimes recalcitrant farmers and landowners; others are overgrown or obstructed, and there are many paths which ought to be added to the official records of rights of way, but there again the highway authorities lack the resources to do this job. And it looks as though the situation will get worse.
A small injection of funds would safeguard future walking and riding throughout our country. Post Brexit we need a regime of agricultural support which ensures that farmers and landowners are penalised when they illegally block public paths.
2. One of the charms of the British countryside, as in Switzerland, is the scenery, and this must be protected. We are delighted that the extensions to the Lake District and Yorkshire Dales National Parks have finally been confirmed. However we remain concerned about the national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty (AONBs) which are subject to a variety of pressures for development. These include a potash mine in the North York Moors National Park, pylons across the Lake District and more insidious suburbanisation. Yet visitors to these areas provide vital support to the rural economy, and the park authorities have been able, even with their slender funds, to demonstrate how visitors and farmers can coexist in our most splendid landscapes.
3. Switzerland enjoys wide rights of access to its mountains. In England and Wales a start was made with the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000. But this was a timid (though welcome) piece of legislation and much remains to be done to open the countryside to walkers and riders on terrain where they would not interfere with agriculture. We are pleased with the progress of coastal access in England. On the other hand, the law of common land in England remains inequitable, with landowners able to apply to remove wrongly registered land while the public has only limited opportunities to apply to restore wrongly omitted land as common, with its associated rights of access and protection from encroachment.
I have described these problems in a general way. We can of course provide specific examples of the difficulties. Do let me know if you would like further particulars. If it suited you we would be happy to join you on a walk in or near your constituency in the Thames Valley to show you some issues, and visit access land which we helped to win close to Chequers. (We remember with pleasure your help in winning a public path under the deadly A404 dual carriageway at Bisham in 2005.)
Finally, we hope you both feel reinvigorated by your walking holiday. Switzerland is a country heavily dependent on tourism. However, we believe that our attractions to tourists are just as great—and in need of being looked after.
Because these issues are of wide interest I am releasing this letter to the press.
Yours sincerely—and with every good wish for your future walking.