AXING rights of way services would devastate the rural economy, argues Marilyn Meeks.
A multi-billion pound rural economy, could be in peril if public sector cuts ignore the lessons of the foot and mouth crisis and axe rights of way services.
An estimated 70m British people holiday in England each year and spend an estimated £70bn plus.
But local authorities could be left unravelling costly legal challenges for years, especially as the condition of some paths could fall seriously into neglect.
It is less than a decade since an estimated £5bn was lost to the tourism industry and the rural economy.
In a single year of closures, the countryside became a virtual no-go area, with miles of paths obstructed and neglected.
It has taken years of work to bring them back into a good condition.
We are facing jeopardy once more as large areas of countryside could be lost to walkers, tourists and riders perhaps for good.
Now, the risk isn’t from disease – it’s from a treacherous lack of understanding displayed by most local highway authorities about the importance and complexities of maintaining rights of way.
It’s alarming to hear so many local authorities talk of rights of way management being delegated to other departments.
Rights of way professionals provide irreplaceable legal and technical expertise at less than half the cost of counsel.
Rights of way activity, historically an under-funded area of local authority responsibility, has already been subjected to economy measures including appointments being shelved.
Now whole departments could be scrapped in cutting public sector costs.
Rights of way professionals play a key role in controlling expensive maintenance and legal issues and the legal costs involved in a single case of litigation could negate any savings achieved by axing the role.
Let’s not forget that public health is at stake here. Can we really afford cuts that will make it even harder to exercise for free?
We live in an age of rocketing obesity, with Type 2 diabetes forecast as the medical time-bomb of the 21st century and placing an already massive burden on the NHS.
Our children have lost touch with nature, one in five children has never visited the countryside and similar numbers have only ever visited once or twice.
Greater efficiencies are needed.
The Institute of Public Rights of Way and Access Management is happy to work closely with government ministers, local councillors, landowners and other stakeholders to find savings that don’t come at the expense of rural prosperity and our children’s health.
Perhaps the time is right to look for radical change?
Marilyn Meeks is president of the Institute of Public Rights of Way and Access Management.
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