Norfolk Ramblers’ concerns over rights of way
A ramblers' group fears a 'double whammy' for countryside access if dedicated staffing for rights of way inquiries is reduced during a council's shake-up of its routine maintenance regime.
Norfolk County Council agreed last year to stop the proactive cutting of the county's network of public rights of way (PROW) in order to save cash from its budgets.
Instead, the authority wants to use a more reactive approach to clear overgrown paths when reported by walkers or parish councils, while using a more efficient enforcement regime to ensure landowners meet their own duties to clear obstructions and reinstate cross-field tracks after ploughing.
But campaigners at the Norfolk branch of the Ramblers Association said proposed staffing changes in the council's rights of way team could add even greater pressure on an already fragile footpath network.
While the four-man team managing the 400 miles of major 'Norfolk Trails' would not be affected, the similar team dealing with the remaining 2,000 miles of smaller paths would be absorbed into the highways department, with two PROW specialists retained.
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Norfolk County Council said the proposals under consultation would actually increase the number of staff dealing with access issues across the larger department, as well as saving �120,000 which could be re-invested in the service.
In a letter sent to council leader Derrick Murphy, Norfolk Ramblers explained that looking after PROW required different skills to looking after roads, including regular consultation with landowners.
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Ramblers area chairman Bernard Moore said: 'What would you think if your car maker said that they were no longer servicing your car, sacked all the mechanics and if you had any problems call the office boy with a book of instructions! We need the skilled officers to sort out the unique problems.'
Bill Borrett, the council's cabinet member for environment, said: 'Just carrying on doing things the same as we always have done, which is what the Ramblers want, is not going to help us improve this service, which is what the county council is trying to achieve.
'These proposals involve combining the council's existing team of 36 highways inspectors, technicians and engineers – and its parish rangers – with two PROW specialists. Together, all of these staff will deal with both highways and PROW and the new team will bring together the council's skills and extensive experience of managing all of our responsibilities as Highways Authority.
'Overall, this will give us more – not less – capacity to deal with PROW. This is a sensible and affordable way of dealing with thousands of miles of public rights of way in Norfolk.'
Norfolk Ramblers said figures provided by the county council showed 95 complaints were received between December 1 and March 22 concerning non-reinstatement of ploughed up fields. Of these, 34 were resolved, leaving 61 pending or unresolved. Of the unresolved cases, 41 have had notices served by the council.
The Ramblers said the current proposals would make it 'unlikely' that such complaints would be followed up in future, and that the council could be leaving itself open to legal action if it was unable to meet its statutory duties regarding footpath quality.
The Ramblers' have volunteered to assist the council in surveying footpaths and have suggested that members carry secateurs in their rucksacks to cut away obstructions on the paths. 'Members will be more encouraged to volunteer to help if the feel that the council is employing people who understand and share the problems,' said Mr Moore.