The future management of National Trails in England is being put to the public in a Natural England consultation which runs for only the next eight weeks.
Encompassing more than 2500 miles of waymarked tracks from the Pennines to the South Downs, National Trails provide some of the best walking in England, playing a major part in attracting visitors and boosting tourism and local economies.
An estimated 12 million people visit England's National Trails each year, while a report published in 2003 estimated that the South West Coast Path alone generates £307 million annually for the economy of the region, supporting over 7500 jobs. Their future management is clearly an issue of some importance; but why change what seems to have worked reasonably well to date?
'With public sector resources under great pressure we must get even better value from the investment of tax payers' money' explain Natural England in the consultation documents. 'At the same time Government is seeking a smaller role for itself and a bigger one for civil society - delivering more devolved and locally responsive solutions that harness the knowledge, skills and resources of our partners. Looking to the future, maintaining the status quo is not an option.'
Over the last year Natural England has been reviewing the management arrangements for National Trails with the aim of: exploring how to achieve 'best value' and the most effective use of resources; making the best of opportunities for engaging local people; and developing and implementing flexible management models that reflect the needs of National Trails now and in the future.
Proposals for consideration in the consultation include: more coordinated and joined-up management; parity of funding between trails for maintenance etc; more emphasis on Trail Partnerships taking responsibility for local delivery and management; better public promotion of trails; and, interestingly, the notion of Corridor Management - looking wider than the actual route on the ground to ensure that management of the trail corridor is appropriate in terms of 'user experience' and 'delivery of landscape and biodiversity objectives' within the wider landscape.
They've managed to make it sound both vaguely ominous and stiflingly boring, but Natural England are keen to reassure the public that people using National Trails shouldn't notice any difference in the quality of provision on the ground.
'The proposed changes are about the arrangements between Natural England and local partners that operate behind the scenes' they say. 'Where users should see a difference is in the effectiveness and quality of trail information provision and in the opportunities to get involved, give something back to trails and have a say in local decision making.'
But not everyone is convinced of the need for change. National Trails are the jewels in our footpath network, say the Ramblers, so it is vital that these national assets are properly maintained, resourced and celebrated. The campaign group claims that Natural England's proposals will completely change the way National Trails are managed in the future.
The current coordination and management of National Trails results in trails which are in very good condition and in most cases very well looked after, they say, while the proposals in the consultation would see considerable change in the current system and will be attempting something that has not been tried and tested. The Ramblers are keen to highlight that a shift to localism should not mean lower standards and levels of maintenance.
Nicky Philpott, Ramblers Director of Policy and Campaigns, said:
'We're pleased to see that the local, national and international importance of our National Trails has been recognised as well as a commitment to central funding and high standards across all National Trails. These proposals may bring significant changes which will ultimately transform the way National Trails are managed. The Ramblers look forward to engaging with this consultation and for the full details of how these new arrangements would work in practice. This is necessary before we can fully understand the impact it will have on our Trails and the walking public.'
'National Trails attract tourists from across the world and bring in millions of pounds to our ailing rural economies and there needs to be a national gold standard which walkers around the world can expect paths to meet, as well as being adequately maintained and resourced.'
The consultation on Natural England's proposals for the future management of National Trails is aimed at organisations involved in the current management of National Trails, and members of the walking public. It runs for eight weeks from 10 May - 5 July. Responses can be made via an online form on the Natural England website.