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Volume 776: debated on Thursday 17 November 2016


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, in the light of the results of the survey published by the Ramblers on 14 November, what steps they are taking to ensure that the footpath network is well kept and available for public use.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper and I remind the House of my interests as set out in the register.

My Lords, responsibility for the management and maintenance of the 118,000 miles of public rights of way in England lies with local authorities. The Government have allocated central funds for the establishment of the 2,700-mile England Coast Path. We have also provided funding for the maintenance of national trails and national parks where the Ramblers’ survey recognises that rights of way are in a better condition than elsewhere in the country.

My Lords, we undoubtedly have the best network of footpaths in the countryside of any country in the world. Does the Minister agree that the work of all the volunteers for the Ramblers on the Big Pathwatch campaign and survey has been extremely valuable? However, the survey showed that one-third of the network was in need of improvement and that 10% of the footpaths surveyed were impossible to use because of barbed wire, obstructions, locked gates—

I am not sure about Japanese knotweed on public footpaths, although no doubt Ramblers will report it if it is there. I am not sure that I am supposed to take interventions on Questions, either.

Also, there are issues with signposts that either do not exist or point in the wrong direction, as well as paths that become quagmires. The footpath network is resilient but there are increasing signs of problems in many areas. What are the Government doing about it?

My Lords, first I acknowledge the tenacity of the noble Lord on this matter and on the matter of Japanese knotweed; I very much enjoy our exchanges. I acknowledge the work of Ramblers and all its volunteers. This excellent report says that nowhere is the network broken and that problems are highly localised. In fact, 91% of paths are “adequately”—some requiring improvement—or “well” kept. I will be in touch with the chief executive of Ramblers, Vanessa Griffiths, because I want to explore with her where the 9% of paths are that are poorly kept, and why.

My Lords, I must declare a personal interest; I have footpaths over my regrettably modest landholding which I hope are available to the public and well maintained, as they should be. But perhaps I may mention the problem of diversion. Very often diversion is justified but very difficult to achieve. Can my noble friend look at that problem as well?

My Lords, perhaps I, too, should declare that there are footpaths across my land. I checked with the Open Spaces Society and I am relieved to say that they are all open. More seriously, the stakeholder working group has produced a finely balanced package of recommendations. We are working on those to deal with the precise point raised by my noble friend. We want to present our work in one go because this is very much a package of recommendations. I hope to bring it forward but I am not in a position to say precisely when.

My Lords, does the Minister appreciate that one of the problems in, for example, the Lake District National Park, is the illegal use of public footpaths and bridleways by motorised vehicles and motorcycles? Can the Government raise and discuss this not only with Ramblers, but indeed with the Lake District National Park Authority and Cumbria Police, because this is a question of legality and so the police are involved?

My Lords, I have considerable sympathy with what the noble Lord has said and will raise it in my quite regular discussions with the national parks. So many issues of this kind are best dealt with at local level—by local authorities or the national park authority—so that we can bear down on the unacceptable use of these wonderful rights of way.

My Lords, perhaps I may reinforce the comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, about local authorities and landowners needing to keep footpaths open—but is this not avoiding the real problem, which is that our excellent footpath network is underused? We must encourage young people and schoolchildren in particular to get out and walk on footpaths, which might do something to get rid of the appalling levels of obesity and fat children in this country.

My Lords, the Ramblers report rightly highlights the importance to our well-being, both physical and mental, of walking and enjoying such paths. One interesting comment in the report was that the problem was not so much the bull in the field as the undergrowth. That suggests to me that some paths are not used as regularly as they should be. The Ramblers report has highlighted the work that we need to do to encourage more people to walk in the countryside.

My Lords, I do not have any footpaths to declare across any of my land. Does the Minister recognise that private landowners could do far more to keep public rights of way clear of obstruction by repairing stiles and maintaining signposting? The Ramblers report shows that the paths owned by the National Trust and the national parks tend to be well maintained but the rest less so. What are the Government doing to raise the game so that there is a consistently high standard across all types of tenure, including private land?

I should say in declaring an interest that part of the cross-compliance arrangements that we as farmers and landowners have is precisely in the matter of keeping paths open. If we did not, we would not be adhering to those arrangements. What the report shows—I welcome the tone of what the Ramblers have suggested—is that we need to work together in partnership to get those 9% of footpaths open and better available. It is an overwhelmingly positive report about how partnership will make sure that all paths are in good condition by 2020.

My Lords, in my part of West Yorkshire there are 37 miles of public rights of way. In 2010, there were eight members of staff and a budget of some £250,000 to maintain them; today, there is one member of staff and no budget. Deterioration is therefore inevitable. Will the Minister explain how those paths can be kept open?

My Lords, it is interesting that the Ramblers report stated:

“The condition of paths varies across the country, but the picture is complex. Many local factors contribute and budget cuts alone do not explain why the path network is better maintained in some places than in others”.

Partnership with volunteers and local authorities is what works best. That is what I will encourage in my discussions. Of the 118,000 miles of rights of way, I very much hope that the noble Baroness’s 37 will be in good repair as well.