Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum by The Ramblers' Association (IW 37)


  1.  The Ramblers' Association (RA) is a voluntary organisation and registered charity founded in 1935. It has over 206,000 supporters consisting of more than 129,000 individual members and 77,000 members of affiliated clubs and societies. Its 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.  With these aims, the RA's particular concerns in relation to the inquiry lie in improving access opportunities on foot to the waterside, and in the environmental enhancement and sustainable regeneration of the waterways network.

  3.  The RA welcomes the Government's commitment to improving public access and enjoyment of the waterways network, and of forging closer links with organisations representing users of waterways, through consultation documents such as Partnership with the People and the publication of Waterways for Tomorrow. We agree that the waterways are an undervalued asset, and that there is huge potential for the network to contribute to national, regional and local goals for biodiversity, recreation, sustainable planning and integrated transport.


  4.  The inland waterways network is widely recognised as an important resource for the walking public, with towpaths and other waterside paths providing an opportunity for both local and long distance walking for leisure. They also provide pleasant traffic-free routes for the public to use to work, school and the shops.

  5.  British Waterways estimate that 50 per cent of the population live within five miles of their managed network. Day visit surveys show that walking is the most popular leisure activity and the most popular activity for those who are making a day trip to the canal or riverside. These millions of visitors spend money while at the waterside: their financial contribution to the local economy helps to sustain waterside businesses to the benefit of boaters and other waterway users.

  6.  Both the consultation document Partnership with the People and Waterways for Tomorrow clearly recognise the importance of waterside paths as a free recreational resource, and the RA is pleased that British Waterways remain firm in their commitment not to charge walkers for access to their permissive towpaths.

  7.  Many organisations, including the RA, believe that waterside paths provide a good introduction to walking in both urban and rural areas. The physical characteristics of these paths, often flat, level, and without barriers such as stiles, provide an attractive walking environment for people with disabilities. To hesitant walkers, they provide clear and formal routes which do not demand the navigational skills of many cross-country paths. British Waterways is to be congratulated on its Waterways for all project which seeks to improve access for those with disabilities in partnership with organisations such as the Fieldfare Trust.

  8.  The RA welcomes the Government commitment to giving the public greater access to the countryside and improving the public rights of way network, of which many waterside paths are part (para 6.9 Waterways for Tomorrow). Yet while the Countryside and Rights of Way Bill contains provisions for a statutory right of access on foot to mountain, moor, heath, down and common land (subject to common-sense restrictions), the Government has so far held back on including the same statutory right of access to riversides. Extending the legislation to encompass riverside access would be of great benefit to the majority of the population of England and Wales, who live in lowland areas and may not have the opportunity of visiting mountain or moorland in a day.

  9.  Presently many towpaths are not public rights of way, and are used by permission of the landowner only. For instance, out of 2,400km of towpaths managed by British Waterways, only 800km are public footpaths (Developing an integrated transport policy—British Waterways' views, 1997). Such paths have no legal protection in the face of development proposals, and permission to use them can be withdrawn at will. Given the clear direction to improve public access in Waterways for Tomorrow, we urge the government to seek a commitment from British Waterways, as a publicly accountable body, to investigate the feasibility of dedicating permissive towpaths as public footpaths or bridleways where appropriate. We would also welcome some thought as to the creation of new waterside paths alongside rivers where the original path has been eroded or lost entirely.

  10.  Undoubtedly there can be conflicts between the various users of inland waterways. To this end, the RA is represented on the British Waterways User Group which brings many of the organisations representing users together, and liaise with the Inland Waterways Association. We have commented in detail to both organisations on issues such as towing path policies and standards, and on the Waterways Code for users.

  11.  We welcome moves by British Waterways to invite cycling organisations to the User Group meetings, so there is a forum for discussion on issues such as shared-use of waterside paths. While the RA is not opposed to expanding the network of waterside routes to cyclists, it should be noted that cyclists are often by far the fastest moving vehicles in the canal or river environment and the physical characteristics of towpaths can be confined and narrow. We endorse the Government's statement that some paths will be unsuitable for unrestricted multi-purpose use, and that it is essential that there is proper management of the towpath to avoid conflict (para 6.5 Waterways for Tomorrow). Where there are proposals to convert public footpaths to shared-use, the proper legislative procedures should be used through the Cycle Tracks Act 1984, which allows for a public inquiry and proper consultation with the highway authority and local users.


  12.  The RA is of the view that regeneration of inland waterways can be a catalyst for sensitive and sustainable urban and rural development. The Association has welcomed the Government's commitment to targets for the use of previously-developed land in regional and development planning guidance. The urban canal network in particular provides some prime "brownfield" sites which developers are keen to exploit. Such regeneration projects should serve the needs of local communities and maintain or enhance public access.

  13.  We welcome the summary of policy advice on planning issues detailed in Appendix 3 of Waterways for Tomorrow and the commitment to review PPGs when they are revised to ensure that they contribute to the development of inland waterways. In particular we look forward to the revision of PPG13 Transport to encourage local authorities to identify and protect disused waterways in lieu of their restoration (paragraph 7.1 Appendix 1 Waterways for Tomorrow).


  14.  We endorse the policies in Waterways for Tomorrow for managing the waterways in a way which conserves and enhances their environmental value. The environmental codes of practice produced by British Waterways and the Environment Agency go some way to achieving this aim. We welcome the forthcoming review of PPG9 Nature Conservation and hope that it will be strengthened to ensure proper management and protection of riverside areas. We would like to reiterate that access to land, even that which is naturally sensitive, can benefit those areas by promoting greater care and regard by those who visit it.


  15.  The RA recognises the need for organisations such as British Waterways to explore innovative ways of increasing monies for the regeneration and conservation of the waterways network. However, we do have concerns about the issue of water transfer—there would need to be a thorough environmental appraisal of such proposals. We recognise that the fibreway scheme has been successful but, in expanding this network, the effect on users of the towpath must be taken into account, since these works inevitably encroach and sometimes lead to the temporary closure of the canal and riverside to users.

  16.  We welcome the encouragement by the Government of both passenger and freight transport on the waterways network. We are keen to see much more use made of the waterways for transportation of freight, and would urge British Waterways to attach a higher priority to promoting this. The Ramblers' Association is deeply concerned at the amount of freight that is currently transported by road, both because of the impact of lorries in the countryside (danger to walkers, and damage to verges) and because of the wider traffic and pollution issues. If British Waterways were to stimulate the water freight industry, it could play a significant role in reducing the problems that road freight causes.


  17.  Overall, we welcome this strategy, and look forward to the Government developing policies which will contribute to the country's sustainable development objectives.

September 2000

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