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


APPENDIX 26

Memorandum submitted by the Open Spaces Society

  1.  The Open Spaces Society (formally the Commons, Open Spaces and Footpaths Preservation Society) was founded in 1865 and is Britain's oldest national conservation society. We campaign to protect common land, village greens, open spaces and public paths, and people's right to enjoy them. We advise local authorities and the public, and we manage and preserve open spaces which we acquire by gift or purchase.

Public rights of way

  2.  While we naturally sympathise with everyone who has been affected by the foot and mouth crisis, we consider that the most important element in reducing the impact on the tourist industry is to reopen as many public rights of way as possible as soon as possible. Public paths are the most important means for people gaining access to the countryside and the impression to most people is that if the paths are closed then the countryside is closed.

  3.  Walkers, riders and cyclists generate considerable income for rural businesses. If they can return to the countryside then the tourist industry will pick up.

  4.  Local authorities reacted very swiftly when the Government called for paths to be closed on 27 February. Many authorities closed every path immediately. While one cannot blame them for being cautious, we are concerned that some of them closed urban paths where there was no risk whatever of users spreading foot and mouth.

  5.  On 21 March the Government veterinary advisers said that there was no evidence that users of rights of way were responsible for spreading foot and mouth, and they advised local authorities that they could open most paths in rural areas, particularly outside the infected areas. However most authorities have ignored this advice.

  6.  This week the Government will be publishing its framework for reopening paths. It is vital that local authorities follow this advice and reopen their paths as soon as possible to the benefit of the tourist industry.

  7.  We therefore make the following recommendations:

    (a)  local authorities should open paths and access land where it is safe to do so as soon as possible;

    (b)  the Government should reassure local authorities by publicising the scientific advice through statements made by the Government vets on television and radio and by ensuring that all local authorities are aware that they will not be liable should an outbreak occur in an area after the paths have been reopened;

    (c)  representatives from user groups should be appointed to the rural task forces at all levels—national, regional and local. Local authorities should be required to set up local task forces whose terms of reference would include the reopening of paths in line with government guidelines as a principal task;

    (d)  local authorities should be encouraged to seek help from user groups in the reopening of rights of way and access lands by making use of the organisations' members who have considerable local expertise in these matters;

    (e)  grants should be available to national organisations to enable them to give the best support to their volunteers, such grants to have the minimum bureaucracy attached to them;

    (f)  the Minister for Paths should be a permanent appointment because of the importance of rights of way to the population and the economy and for sustainable transport; and

    (g)  there should be a mixture of incentives and sanctions for local authorities who fail to reopen their paths in accordance with government guidelines.

The landscape

  8.  The Open Spaces Society is particularly concerned about the protection and management of common land, a special historic feature of England and Wales which is bound to be of considerable interest to tourists. We are extremely concerned that, should the traditional breeds of animals which graze the commons, particularly sheep, be lost due to foot and mouth, the "hefting" instinct will be lost with them. That is the instinct whereby the stock do not stray beyond a particular area and the offspring also have that knowledge. It is called hefting in some parts of the country, "leering" in others, with other local names.

  9.  If the hefting instinct is lost on commons such as the Lake District fells and Dartmoor and the traditional landscapes are to be maintained, which requires grazing, the land will either have to be fenced or farmers will have to employ shepherds.

  10.  While we have no objection to the latter, which would have the added benefit of providing local employment, we suspect that the easy option will be the former. Fencing will destroy the physical and psychological freedom that this land offers and will clearly be of great disbenefit to the tourism industry. If the land is no longer grazed then it will change in character completely and become scrub which will mean that people will not be able to walk or ride easily over it, and again this could be of great disbenefit to the tourist industry.

  11.  We recommend that, in order to avoid the loss of the hefting instinct, those breeds which have the instinct, the Swaledale, Herdwick, Dartmoor and others, be vaccinated rather than culled.

April 2001


 
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