Warning over unkempt footpaths in Norfolk

Proposed cuts to the maintenance of public rights of way in Norfolk will leave the county with an unkempt network of unusable footpaths, claim Ramblers.

The Norfolk Ramblers' group is to petition Norfolk County Council about a proposed 50pc cut in spending on rights of way in the county.

The council says, under its 'Big Conversation' about which cuts should be made to services, that it is aiming to reduce spending on the local rights-of-way network, which extends to 2,355 miles, by �332,000 or 50pc in 2011/12.

This would be followed by further cuts in the following two years, and from 2014 there would be no support.

The council, which also manages 12 long-distance paths, is proposing to phase out its programme of cutting paths and undergrowth on rights of way, and instead to address problems as they occur.

It has already been decided that the council, which is facing a budget gap of at least �155m over the next three years, unless action is taken, will no longer produce printed versions of leaflets and booklets promoting rights of way, instead putting them online.

The scale of the cuts has angered Norfolk Ramblers, which is now writing to its 2,000 members and asking that each person put forward their views on the proposals which have been posted on the county council's website.

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The Ramblers say that with the level of cuts being proposed, it is highly likely there would be job losses in the rights-of-way team, something which has been echoed by Jonathan Dunning, Norfolk county branch secretary for Unison. These could include footpath officers and other staff involved in health walks and the enforcement of cross-field paths.

Ramblers chairman Bernard Moore said: 'We fully expected to take our share of the council's overall reduction of costs but to suddenly be faced with a 50pc cut is completely unacceptable.'

A spokesman for the Ramblers added: 'The council's own scheme of safe walking to school is also under threat. As paths become overgrown and muddy, parents will be unwilling to allow their children to use them on the way to school.'

The group has pointed to other cuts which have affected rights of way, including the proposed Round England Coastal Path programme.

The �50m scheme, to give walkers the right to roam along almost 2,500 miles of coast, has been delayed by central government in favour of cheaper, localised improvements.

Under the latest proposals the plan is to limit work on access to 30 kilometers from Sheringham to Happisburgh with no funding for additional staff and a likely completion date of 2021.

The government's Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, has also made cuts to their Funded Higher Level Environmental Schemes, under which land owners can be paid for granting people access to their land.

Matt Bradbury, head of nature reserves with Norfolk Wildlife Trust, said they had been hit by cuts themselves, and would no longer able to apply to the government for the funding.

Speaking about Norfolk County Council's proposed cuts, he said: 'Our biggest concern is about people not having access to the countryside and being able to see the wildlife there.'

Jon Clemo, chief executive with Norfolk Rural Community Council, added: 'Whether or not an overgrowth on paths would become dangerous is unlikely. But it would become prohibitive for people walking.

'Footpaths are important for leisure and recreation but they also have a big significance and knock-on effect on physical and mental health.'

The county council say they are looking to work with parish councils and community groups in the hope they may be able to take a greater role in maintaining the rights of way in their areas.

Graham Plant, the county's council's cabinet member for travel and transport, said: 'Like other county councils, we are facing a future with far fewer resources to spend on services, but I hope that local councils see this as a real opportunity to make more of a difference in their local areas.

'By taking on some highway and public right of way duties, parish and town councils can have more control over street scene services that have a real impact on the way their town or village looks.

'By taking responsibility for these tasks local communities will be able to set their own priorities and standards, even if that means using unpaid volunteers.

'We already have arrangements with 30 local councils to cut grass and more might be interested in doing this and other work, either on a paid or voluntary basis. '

Simon Hooton, the Broads Authority's director of conservation and countryside management, said they themselves were not in a position to help with financing the rights of way.

He said: 'Financial pressures are forcing the Broads Authority to step back from rights of way and so we earnestly hope that even with the predicament the county council faces, there is enough public support to encourage them to direct sufficient resources into maintaining them.'

Steven Reilly, a spokesman for Norfolk County Council, speaking about the proposed cuts, said: 'The council is predicting a budget gap of at least �155 million over the next three years unless we act to change things.

'Through the Big Conversation, the county council welcomes views about what it should be expected to do and provide in the future, what should be paid for through taxes, and what we should support, encourage or expect individuals or communities to do for themselves.'

Thoughts and views on the proposals, which can be viewed at www.norfolk.gov.uk, to rights of way need to be received by the council by Monday, January 10.

Responses can be emailed to haveyoursay@norfolk.gov.uk. They can also be emailed to Freepost Your Norfolk (no stamp needed) or sent to Norfolk County Council, Customer Service Centre, County Hall – North Wing, Martineau Lane, Norwich, NR1 2DH

The views expressed will be reported to councillors at a cabinet meeting on January 24 next year.

The council will decide the budget on February 14.