Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum submitted by the Ramblers' Association

  1.  The Ramblers' Association (RA) is a voluntary organisation and registered charity founded in 1935. We have over 208,000 supporters consisting of more than 131,000 individual members and 77,000 members of affiliated clubs and societies. Our four core aims are to promote walking, to protect public rights of way, to campaign for access to open country and to defend the beauty of the countryside.

  2.  In relation to this inquiry, the RA's concerns lie in the provision of information to walkers during the crisis and re-establishing access to the countryside in the wake of the epidemic. This evidence relates to the situation in England and Wales, and separate representations will be made to the Committee by our colleagues in Scotland.

  3.  Almost four in five of the British population regularly take a walk for pleasure[11] and the number is growing all the time. The importance of walking to the nation's health, economy and sustainable transport goals should not be underestimated. These millions of visitors spend money while in the countryside and their financial contribution to the local economy has been starkly demonstrated in the past few weeks while access has been restricted. Prior to the outbreak the RA had consistently pointed out the economic benefits that followed from improvements to countryside access. As recently as March 2000 we highlighted a report[12] which found that in Wales walking sustains 4,800 jobs and contributes £132 million to the rural economy.

  4.  Since the outbreak the RA has been overwhelmed with enquiries from our members and the wider public about which parts of England and Wales are open and how to behave when visiting the countryside. Both domestic and overseas tourists who were considering a trip to the countryside, or who already had holidays booked, contacted us for information which they were unable to gather from local authorities, tourist bodies and governmental departments and agencies. In short, we found ourselves acting as the unofficial helpline for a public confused by the mixed messages being given out in the media and by government on access to the countryside.

  5.  The Committee is asked to note that callers to the official government helpline set up at the beginning of the crisis were being referred on to the RA for information about which paths were open, although the actual helpline was advertised as providing comprehensive information. The RA was not informed that our number was going to be given out as a source of information, nor did we have the capacity to inform the public as to which specific paths remained open when the situation was rapidly changing.

The reaction of the RA to the outbreak

  6.  The RA reacted immediately when the foot and mouth epidemic began and instructed members to act responsibly, to ensure that they did not walk on land used by livestock and to avoid officially closed paths. We tried to make sense of the disparities in guidance from MAFF in order to provide clear advice as to where the public could walk. At no time did we enter into the wider debate about veterinary and agricultural policies for the treatment of the disease. We did not advise the public on holiday cancellations or discourage visits to the countryside as this was clearly beyond our remit. We were well aware of the devastating impact such discouragement could have since we were also being contacted by rural businesses suffering from the access restrictions.

  7.  In the first few weeks of the epidemic we accepted the widespread closure of paths based on the understanding that there was a genuine risk and there was uncertainty as to how the disease was spread. We did not want to add to the confusion in the public's mind and instead directed our attention to identifying country lane, coastal and urban walks which the public and our members could undertake, and advertised these on our website.

  8.  As it became clear that the message from government was no longer "keep out of the countryside" and there had been an overreaction by local authorities in making blanket closures of paths, we began to lobby for paths to be reopened in line with the veterinary guidance published by MAFF. That guidance stated there was no veterinary justification for the closure of all rights of way or access land. Many members and the public were reporting anomalies in blanket closures, for instance where paths had been shut across golf courses still in active use or through fields where car boot sales were being held.

  9.  We do not accept that reopening paths is an impossible task. In Cumbria and Anglesey, two of the worst affected authorities, paths are being reopened. Yet in areas where there have been no outbreaks, such as Lincolnshire and East Sussex, virtually all paths remain closed.

  10.  The RA is now actively campaigning to get the majority of paths and access land back open in time for the May Day Bank holiday, a key date for the tourist industry. We have issued the following statement, which has been signed up to by a number of other recreational user groups.

  The Ramblers' Association welcomes the endeavours of those local authorities which have succeeded in opening some parts of their rights of way network in time for Easter. However, with the bulk of paths in England and Wales still closed the public perception is that the countryside remains off-limits. The RA therefore:

    —  reminds all local authorities of the recent veterinary advice from MAFF and NAW;

    —  calls upon them to make more effort and open the vast majority of their path network and access land in time for the May Day Bank holiday; and

    —  asks authorities to publicise as widely as possible the extent to which rights of way and access land are open—since walkers, cyclists, riders and other recreational users are extremely unlikely to visit without this information.

Implications of foot and mouth disease on RA work

  11.  The implications of the sudden demand for information on RA resources centrally has been enormous, both in terms of staff time and administration costs. Over the past few weeks the RA has received over 10,000 phone calls and e-mails, and our website which has been updated daily and contains comprehensive advice and helpful links has had more than 300,000 page views. We have been keeping our core volunteers regularly updated so they have been able to react to government guidance on the ground, a vital but expensive task. The overwhelming media interest has led to staff being on call for enquiries at night and throughout the weekends.

  12.  In terms of membership, we estimate that we are losing £3,000 a week in membership subscriptions. At a local level, our Group walks have largely been unable to take place, and a major benefit of RA membership has been unavailable to existing members and to potential members. Our Groups have cancelled their walking programmes and spring walking festivals. Instead they have attempted to reorganise walks on country roads and in urban areas, but in many cases even urban paths have been closed by blanket bans on public rights of way. Furthermore, our Groups were conscious that a party of ramblers out walking on country roads was likely to be misconstrued by the farming community and others, and as a result many Groups preferred to call off such walks whilst the epidemic was in its infancy.

  13.  Loss of revenue has occurred not just through a reduction in recruitment, but also in sponsorship and advertising revenue from businesses such as hotels and the outdoor pursuits sector who advertise in our Yearbook and quarterly Rambler magazine. Estimates are that we have lost 50 per cent of our advertising revenue on these publications and our main sponsors in the outdoor retail trade will be drastically reducing their marketing budgets over the coming months. Plans for walks publications have been delayed because presently the routes cannot be checked on the ground.

  14.  Nationally, our campaigns and events have been thrown into disarray. We cancelled the English section of the Euro Rally, which involved a programme of walks on the TransPennine Trail (part of the European long-distance path E8) from March to June. We have postponed the National Weekend of Walking in June. Both events were open to all and designed to promote the benefits of walking to the public. Our campaigns to raise public awareness of the implications of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000, and the problems that normally exist on public rights of way have been delayed.

RA recommendations for encouraging visitors back to the countryside

  15.  Our view is that until the majority of public rights of way are open and usable, there are no real incentives for visitors to return to the countryside. The public rights of way network is the means by which the majority of the public visit and enjoy rural areas. This essential fact seems to have been lost or deliberately played down in the debate.

  16.  Consider the problems faced by anyone planning a walk or ride in the countryside at present.

    —  Firstly it is very difficult to find out which paths are open (if any). While authorities are declaring that their areas are "back open for business" and paths are being opened, further investigation finds that the open paths are limited to a few short stretches that do not form part of any circular or linking routes. In many cases there is no effort to tally the information with maps and the public are presented with a list of unfamiliar definitive map path numbers that do not tally with the popular OS maps; and

    —  Even if the information is comprehensive enough to plan a visit, many members of the public are concerned as to what they will encounter once out in the countryside. Will they get a hostile response from landowners or other local people? Will it be clear which paths are open on the ground? What happens if there is an official closure sign on a path which they have been assured is open—will they be risking a fine of £5,000 in using it? What happens in the case of unofficial closure signs, should they ignore them? Will the paths now be overgrown? In areas where there are real risks in reopening paths, why should the non-motorised users risk walking on country lanes with no verges and where the traffic can pass them at the national speed limit?

  17.  There needs to be a three-pronged approach to the situation. Not only must there be the practical re-opening of paths, but there must be a comprehensive information service and a publicity campaign to restore public confidence. Local and national government must ensure that the spin matches the reality on the ground.

  18.  We congratulate DETR on appointing a minister, Beverley Hughes MP, with responsibility for reopening paths, tallied with the announcement of £3.8 million for local authorities to accelerate this process. The accompanying DETR framework for identifying paths to reopen should be of assistance to authorities.

  19.  However, we believe that all sections of government should be throwing their efforts into the re-opening of the public rights of way network in line with veterinary advice. Opinion polls show that nearly seven in 10 members of the public want councils to re-open paths in line with the Government veterinary guidance.[13] This advice has not been well publicised—it needs to be. For example Lincolnshire County Council claim not to have received the guidance. The Government's veterinary scientists should use the media to reassure authorities, the farming community and the public that this advice is sound. Until this is done, local authorities will remain extremely cautious in re-opening paths. They need to be reassured that in opening paths in accordance with the guidance they will not be made liable should an outbreak occur. The signage used on paths should be clear and unequivocal.

  20.  If authorities continue to prevaricate over the re-opening of paths, the blanket path closure orders which the Agriculture minister invoked in the first few weeks of the crisis should be withdrawn, and this should shift the focus onto identifying paths which should remain closed.

  21.  Local authorities should be encouraged to seek help from the RA and other recreational user groups in the reopening of rights of way and access land. Members of the RA and other organisations have considerable local expertise and may be able to identify paths which can be reopened, or assist in a practical manner.

  22.  Local authorities should set up local task forces which will contain representatives of all the major stakeholders such as landowners, rural businesses, tourist bodies and user groups to achieve consensus and to identify problems which are occurring locally.

  23.  Such local efforts will only succeed if there is a public information campaign with the provision of a national point of contact to enable the public to find out which paths are opened and which must remain closed for the time being. Making this information available by way of Ordnance Survey Landranger maps via the media and the Internet would provide clear indications of what is available and would reduce potential conflicts between visitors and landowners. It will also allow visitors to plan their trips.

  24.  The Rural Task Force should contain a representative from recreational user groups to speak for visitors to the countryside. At present the Task Force consists of landowners and tourist interests, and appears to concentrate on fiscal matters such as compensation.

  25.  Once most paths are open again, the RA plans to hold a series of regional events as part of our postponed National Weekend of Walking that was planned for June. These events will be designed to encourage the public back into the countryside, will be open to everyone, and will contain a variety of walks so there will be something for all ages and abilities. However, such plans will depend on our depleted resources and we would welcome external encouragement in holding these events.

  26.  In the longer term, we recommend that a minister with responsibility for the public rights of way network should be a permanent appointment. The effective closure of the network over the last two months has shown all too clearly just how important it is to the economy. There is a minister for waterways, and the RA sees no reason why government should not actively recognise the importance of our historic rights of way network in this way. For many years we have campaigned to protect this treasured part of our national heritage, but many paths are being illegally destroyed, obstructed and "lost" from official records. Despite there being a duty in law to maintain and clear the network for public use, rights of way work is notoriously underfunded and appears low down in priority and expenditure of highway authority budgets. Many authorities do not even have a rights of way officer or a definitive legal map of their path network. These failings have been starkly demonstrated during the crisis, many authorities finding that they did not know where their paths were.

  27.  Given the inextricable link between a healthy economy and walking, the tourist industry could benefit greatly from an injection of funds into rights of way work. We urge the DCMS to review the means by which the historic path network could be improved through lottery funds for local path improvements. Such money is currently unavailable because rights of way work is a statutory duty. We also hope that other government departments and agencies will now join together to support a popular and cheap activity such as walking. It would cost very little money to get the path network back open and usable, and cleared of longstanding obstructions (before the crisis struck, 25 per cent of paths in England and nearly 50 per cent of paths in Wales were illegally obstructed).

  28.  During the crisis, there has been a demonstrable lack of joined-up thinking in government. Even now, four different departments (MAFF, DETR, DTI and DCMS) are taking different directions during the crisis, although the National Assembly has been in a better position to co-ordinate matters in Wales. Many commentators have spoken of the need to review how government handles all manner of rural matters, particularly the remit of MAFF. The RA would support moves to give greater recognition to the role that farming plays in relation to tourism and countryside recreation and urges the Government to encompass this into its thinking on the future of MAFF.

April 2001

11   ICM research survey February 2000. Back

12   The Economic Value of Walking in Rural Wales by Peter Midmore, Professor of Rural Studies, University of Wales, Aberystwyth (March 2000). Back

13   ICM research poll, published 9 April 2001. Back

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