England's National Trails are at long term risk under new government proposals to dismantle central control, the Ramblers warned today.
On the day they launch their 'Campaign for National Trails' the Ramblers have expressed serious concerns that government proposals unveiled in May on the future management of these key long distance footpaths would see a dramatic fall in their quality. The family of 13 English national trails, which includes world famous long distance classics such as the Pennine Way and the South West Coast Path, encompass over 2500 miles of some of England's best walking, and attract an estimated 12 million visits each year.
But now Natural England, who currently manage and maintain England's National Trails, have begun discussions to hand this power to new Local Trail Partnerships cobbled together from local authorities, businesses and volunteers. Perhaps it's a sign of the times, but can quality and accountability possibly be maintained in the absence of central control? The Ramblers, who played a role in establishing the trails in the first place, is concerned that the lack of a national champion to oversee, guide and support these Local Trail Partnerships will will leave them vulnerable, resulting in a fragmented network with inconsistent quality between trails.
Funding for each individual trail would be subject to its own Local Trail Partnership negotiating with already squeezed Highway Authorities and other stakeholders to provide the 25% of funding not supplied by central government. Will cash-strapped Local Authorities possibly be able to foot their share of the bill?
Ironically, given the Government's desire to cut red tape, the Ramblers suggest that devolution could actually result in more bureaucracy. The Local Trail Partnership for the Pennine Way, for instance, would have to coordinate budgets between 10 Highway Authorities, three National Parks and one Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. It is hard to see how this could be less complex than the current arrangement.
As self-styled guardians of the nation's footpath network, 'Britain's Walking Charity' fears that the decentralisation will ultimately damage a well-loved national asset, as well as having a negative knock-on effect on tourism and the economy. These are valuable assets after all, with the South West Coast Path alone estimated to generate £307 million for the regional economy every year.
Benedict Southworth, Chief Executive of the Ramblers said:
'We want to ensure all 13 trails reach their full potential in the future. We would like to see government rethink its plans and are ready to work with them to take a leading role in the future support and promotion of these national treasures.'
'We are deeply concerned that if current proposals go ahead, the quality of the National Trails network will be at risk, compromising the primary goal of world class long distance routes. We feel very strongly that there is a need for a national body or association to work together with Local Trail Partnerships.'
The Ramblers point out that the proposed 'system' contains no contingency funds in case of extreme flooding or other natural disasters; no plan to integrate the English Coastal Path – which on completion will double the current length of National Trails in England; and no overarching body in place to hold accountable if Local Trail Partnerships fail. The result, they say, would be a serious gamble on such a precious asset to our country.
Natural England's full consultation discussion document can be read here