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By CHRIS HILL, Rural affairs correspondent
Sunday, September 2, 2012
Three months into a new maintenance regime for public rights of way in Norfolk, what has been the impact on the accessibility of our footpaths? Rural affairs correspondent CHRIS HILL reports.
Few rural issues have sparked more campaigns in recent months than the need to protect the right of access to the countryside through our footpaths and bridleways.
Nationally, the Open Spaces Society is urging a review of the 2026 deadline to add Britain’s “secret paths” to the definitive map before they are lost forever, while the Ramblers are airing concerns about potential changes to the management of the 13 most highly-prized National Trails.
More locally though, the concerns are centred on changes to Norfolk County Council’s maintenance regime for public rights of way (PROW).
Since May, the authority has moved away from its programme of regular maintenance towards a reactive regime which relies on reports of obstructions from the public and parish councils, and swifter enforcement action against landowners who share responsibilities for keeping paths clear.
The changes don’t apply to the 800 miles of designated Norfolk Trails, about a third of the network, which will continue to be routinely managed and promoted as a national tourist destination.
The council says the new system is meeting its statutory obligations to protect the public’s right to use PROW, and to maintain them to a “reasonable standard of safety”.
But the Ramblers disagree.
A combination of heavy rains and warm conditions have propagated many pathways into a tangled mass of overgrowth and weeds, prompting a bumper crop of obstruction reports.
The Ramblers say less than a quarter of problems (24pc) reported between November and the end of May had been resolved by June 8.
But the county council’s figures recorded since the change-over on May 21 say that of the 1498 enquiries received by the end of July, 818 (55pc) were complete and 283 were “being acted on”, leaving 397 (27pc) awaiting investigation.
The disagreements over figures extend to the definition of what constitutes an “impassable” path – not defined in the legislation, so subject to the interpretation of council inspectors.
But council chiefs said the test was being applied “reasonably”, and insisted the new regime is working – calling on landowners and parish councils to ensure they understand and observe their own responsibilities to keep rights of way clear.
Allan Jones, a spokesman for the Norfolk branch of the Ramblers Association, said: “The council’s responsibility, which is a statutory duty, is to maintain the surface to a walkable standard for people to pass and re-pass.
“What is happening in practice is they are not doing any routine maintenance at all. The ramblers are walking these paths and when they become unwalkable – by which I mean the point when the council should already have intervened – then we have to report it to get anything done.
“So the paths are never up to their statutory level. They are always down to this standard before anyone gets to them. It is only the most dedicated ramblers who take the bother to report it. Everyone else in the public will simply not bother, turn around and go somewhere else.
“I have been a rambler for 18 years and this is the first year that I have heard walk leaders say they have not been able to complete their walks because the paths are so bad. I personally have reported more blocked paths this year than in the whole of my 18 years with the Ramblers.
“Most of them have been resolved eventually but, if you are persistent enough and well-known as a troublemaker like me, you probably get more attention than Mr Average. Only 24pc of those reported are actually cleared.”
The Ramblers Association, along with their Norfolk counterparts at the CPRE (Campaign to Protect Rural England), launched the Protect our Paths campaign in spring in response to the changes, aiming to engage local communities in using their paths, reporting problems and ensuring action.
John Hocknell, 73, a former EDP photographer and a member of King’s Lynn Ramblers, said: “Footpaths should not just be for booted and spurred ramblers, kitted out with waterproof trousers. They are for the general public and for families to be able to go out with their kids in summer dresses and have a picnic.”
Mr Jones gave the “King’s Lynn 15” footpath, running from Lynnsport to Loke Road along the Gaywood river, as an example of the problems. When we met, the path was obstructed by chest-high nettles, which had not been cut for two months, leading to a locked gate and a broken stile.
“The important thing about this is it is a river walk, which most towns would give their eye teeth for, but because of this broken stile and a broken gate at the other end, we cannot use it,” he said. “If the path were regularly used and the gate and stile were replaced, then the nettles would be kept down by constant use. But that cannot happen because of the bad stile at the end.”
The nettles have since been cleared and the Ramblers, at their own expense, have agreed with the landowner to install a new gate.
On the subject of definitions, Mr Jones said: “I say that for a path to be walkable, two people should be able to walk side by side and expect to do it without getting their feet tangled in undergrowth. I am not saying we need tarmac, or that six inches of grass is unacceptable.”
As well as the change of maintenance policy, the responsibility for looking after Norfolk’s network of smaller footpaths has been transferred to the county’s highways department.
While dedicated resources are being used to maximise the tourism appeal of the Norfolk Trails, the remaining rights of way will now be managed, maintained and enforced through the team of 36 highways inspectors, technicians and engineers, aided by the 70 rangers who already carry out grass and tree cutting under the direction of parish councils.
At a meeting of the county council’s cabinet scrutiny committee in July, members were told of a three-fold increase in the number of actions taken under the new fast-track enforcement system, with landowners “responding positively to the new approach”.
Meanwhile, the planned maintenance programme had continued for the Norfolk Trails, which include elite routes like the Norfolk Coast Path and the Peddars Way, to ensure they were all managed to the top quality National Trails standard.
The Norfolk Trails are still being promoted as a valuable tourist destination, with £135,000 of funding secured from the Rural Development Programme England (RDPE) to invest in infrastructure, marketing and business development along the Angles and Boudicca Ways in the Waveney Valley.
Bill Borrett, the county’s cabinet member for environment and waste, said: “If you go back through the history of footpaths in Norfolk, we never cut all 2,500 miles pro-actively. There has always been a percentage which was cut pro-actively and we are still doing that, but those footpaths are now designated as Norfolk Trails to increase tourism and bring an extra benefit for the people of Norfolk.
“The difference is where there is a footpath which is not a Norfolk Trail and where in the past the county council would send someone in every year to do that maintenance rather than enforce the responsibility of the landowners.
“What we are doing now is saying this is not the county council’s responsibility and we cannot subsidise that service for the landowner where there are other demands on our finances.
“I believe there has been a sea change and that things are being dealt with more quickly. I do not want to get into a combative situation, because some of them (landowners) understand their responsibilities and are doing a very good job. I would hope that over time there will be less enforcement and more acceptance of who is responsible for what.
“I would expect the Ramblers to have this opinion because they are a national pressure group whose whole point is to put pressure on those responsible for the maintenance of footpaths. But the key issue is that responsibility does not lie solely with Norfolk County Council, it rests with landowners as well.”
All enquiries or reports about PROW can be made using the online form at www.norfolk.gov.uk or by calling 0344 800 8020.