Memorandum submitted by the Ramblers'
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
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
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
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
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 opensince walkers, cyclists, riders and other
recreational users are extremely unlikely to visit without this
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
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
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 openwill 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
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
This advice has not been well publicisedit 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
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
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.
11 ICM research survey February 2000. Back
The Economic Value of Walking in Rural Wales by Peter
Midmore, Professor of Rural Studies, University of Wales, Aberystwyth
(March 2000). Back
ICM research poll, published 9 April 2001. Back