Access issues in the countryside

The countryside attracts huge numbers of visitors. In 1998, the ‘UK Day Visitor Survey’ produced by the Countryside Agency, reported that 66% of the English population had made a visit to the countryside sometime during that year compared to only 51% who had visited the seaside in the same period. Thus it is evident that rural areas have become increasingly important spaces for the performance of leisure and recreational pursuits.

The main socio-economic factors which have stimulated and encouraged this growth relate to increased availability of leisure time and increased spending power allowing people to travel to and undertake a wider and more diverse range of recreational activities in rural areas (Groome, 1993). Visitors to the countryside support an estimated 340 000 jobs and contribute approximately £11. 5 billion per year to the rural economy (Countryside Agency, www. countryside. gov. uk, 2001).

In 1998, 1 253 million day visits were made to the English countryside, of which 35% were in order to go walking, cycling or horse-riding and 38% were made on foot (Countryside Agency, CA63, 2000). In total there are more than 105 000 miles of public rights of way woven into the fabric of the UK countryside. These paths, in all their various forms, are not only superb for recreational purposes but are the single most important means by which the public can get into and enjoy the countryside. They are therefore a vital ingredient of rural tourism and a significant part of English heritage.

They are becoming more and more important as increases in the volume and speed of traffic are turning many once-quiet country roads into unpleasant and dangerous places for walkers, cyclists and equestrians (Countryside Review Committee, 1989). An important objective of many agencies involved in the management and promotion of rural recreation is the realisation that these priceless assets need to be managed and protected. Thus in recent years, access issues have articulated several contemporary debates surrounding recreation in rural areas.

In addition, access in the form of transport problems also have to be considered due to the fact that the majority (80% in 1990) of trips to the countryside involve the use of a car and this causes congestion, noise pollution and visual pollution particularly on Sundays, bank holidays and during the summer months. This essay seeks to review the development and recent position on ‘rights of way’ and general access issues within rural areas, in order to determine whether they have successfully enhanced rural recreation.

The perspectives of rural stakeholders and user groups are also reviewed as the degree to which access issues have caused conflict amongst different users of the countryside is also an indicator of future likelihood of success. Finally, an assessment, using evidence from the ‘Rights of Way Conditions Survey’ produced in 2000, is provided in order to evaluate the extent to which the targets, originally set in 1987, + have been successfully achieved.

Access to the countryside is an obvious pre-requisite for rural recreation, and growing demand suggests a greater need for access (Roberts and Hall, 2001). However, it is essential that the recreational desirability of access be balanced with other land use activities in order to minimise the conflicting demands on the rural landscape (MacNaghten, 1996). In countries such as Sweden and Norway, universal right of access is considered a legitimate part of society, however, the UK is not grounded in a common acceptance of a ‘right to roam’ (Simpson, in Roberts and Hall, 2001).

Nevertheless, the British public is becoming increasingly interested in outdoor recreation and this calls for increased legislation regarding public access in order to try and prevent conflicting uses and uncontrolled damage to the natural landscape. The main advisory agency involved in the promotion of recreation in the countryside is the Countryside Agency (partly known as the Countryside Commission until April 1999). It is a government-funded advisory and promotional body who own no land and manage no facilities.

Their job is to co-ordinate with other bodies, such as local authorities, landowners and other public agencies, to provide advice and agree on the most suitable ways to conserve and enhance the British landscape. The Countryside Agency has a comprehensive set of aims and objectives concerning access issues and ultimately aims to; allow opportunities for everyone to enjoy the countryside, initiate and monitor developments in order to ensure the sustainability and enhancement of the environment and to ensure that any developments which do occur are to the benefit of rural communities (Countryside Agency, www. ountryside. gov. uk, 2003). The first of these aims i. e. the issue of ‘access’ to the countryside for the general public, has proven to be a central theme to the development of countryside recreation policies. This issue however, is not an entirely new or recent phenomenon , for as early as 1865 the ‘Commons, Open Spaces and Footpaths Preservation Society’ led movements against enclosures and the loss of common land (Eversley, 1910). In addition, the Local Government Act 1894 set up local highway authorities whose purpose was to maintain public ‘rights of way’.

These highway authorities still exist today within District Councils and have the important task of maintaining, monitoring and publicising public rights of way. The public rights of way network is, according to Groome (1993), the greatest recreational asset to be found in England and Wales. However, in 1987, MacEwan and MacEwan (p. 90) described the administration of the rights of way system as ‘byzantine in its complexity… an administrative and legal jungle’.

Thus in 1987, the Countryside Commission set a national target that the whole rights of way network should be’ legally defined, properly maintained and well publicised’ by the year 2000. The target was widely adopted and endorsed by national government, highway authorities, and local and district councils. In order to further provide evidence of the necessity to address access issues, the 1988 Countryside Commission Survey found evidence of poor maintenance in that many public rights of way were inaccessible due to ploughed surfaces, crops, fences and often impenetrable natural vegetation.

In fact, it was discovered that 15% of footpaths were ‘impossible to follow’ and a further 20% were classed as ‘poorly’ maintained. A further major problem identified was that many public rights of way were difficult to use or navigate easily around, with only 1/3 of all paths being signposted. Due to the recognition of the problems with rights of way access in the late 1980’s, the Rights of Way Act 1990 was seen as an important move to counter disruptions to footpaths and bridleways (Garner, 1993).

This meant more onus on farmers to ensure maintenance of rights of way which fell on their property. It also gave highway authorities the power to carry out any outstanding or neglected maintenance of pathways which took place on a farmer’s land and subsequently demand reimbursement from the landowner in question (Gilg, 1996). However, this system depended much on the ability and willingness of highway authorities to carry out monitoring. To a large extent this process has been achieved and has led to a more effective way of assessing the impact of schemes in the countryside.

For example, in Kent, strategic policies have been adopted by the county council in order to achieve a network of high-quality and varied recreation routes (Kent County Council, in Groome 1993). At present the management of ‘rights of way’ issues still rests with the highway authorities but involves extensive co-operation between numerous other countryside agencies in order to establish strategic plans which will act to ensure a highly successful and operational network of rights of way for the public to enjoy (Curry, 1997).

A press release from the Countryside Commission in 1998 (CC 98/24) did however highlight the need for a new, more flexible approach for the 21st Century because the present arrangements for rights of way administration are “unsatisfactory, expensive, time-consuming and lacking in clarity”. It suggested the implementation of ‘improvement plans’ which highway authorities would have to prepare in order to assess the extent to which local rights of way meet the present and likely future needs of the public. This constant monitoring and assessment of progress has proved to be uccessful in enabling the highway authority to focus on downfalls and areas which need improving. It also allows areas of success to be revealed so that these strategies can be adopted on a more nation-wide scale. It was also highlighted that the mapping of networks of rights of way needs to be further updated and publicised and that changing and recording of rights of ways needs to become less bureaucratic and less adversarial.

Two initiatives set up by the Countryside Agency in 2001 which are proving to be popular and relatively successful in their implementation are the introduction of ‘Greenways’ and ‘Quiet Lanes’. Greenways’ are safe, attractive, car-free routes for healthy recreation and sport. Early research indicates that up to 17 000 km of ‘Greenways’ have been created or at least planned (Countryside Agency, www. countryside. gov. uk, 2003). Their main aim is to link other networks for non-motorised users – such as National Cycle Networks and National Trails. So far these schemes have been incredibly successful and continued research has shown that public demand is strong (Countryside Agency, www. countryside. gov. uk, 2003).

Quiet Lanes’ are minor rural roads which have been treated appropriately to enable shared use by cyclists, walkers, horse riders and motorised users. A handful of pilot schemes have been introduced nation-wide involving co-operation between local authorities and countryside communities. These schemes are also showing signs of success in that they are contributing to making the countryside more accessible for public enjoyment through improved travel choice, quality of life and strategic traffic management of rural roads.

However, the attention given to public rights of way has not been without controversy. Farmers and other rural landowners, as ‘stewards’ of the rural landscape, may receive a number of inducements to care for and protect the natural environment. Herein lies the source of potential conflict because many land managers see recreationalists as imposing a cost (Crabtree et al, 1992) rather than providing an opportunity.

Such opponents have continually expressed their concerns about the access issue with the Country Landowner’s Association stating in March 1999, following the granting of a statutory right to roam for walkers, that it amounted to the ‘expropriation of private rights without compensation’ (Daily Telegraph, March 9, 1999). It even stated that its members would take the government to court for breaching the European Convention on Human Rights.

In agreement, Gillian Shephard, the Conservative environment spokesman accused the government of ‘squandering the goodwill of landowners by introducing compulsion’. Daily Telegraph, March 16, 1999). Farmers in urban fringe areas feel particularly vulnerable to irresponsible access resulting in vandalism, theft and damage to crops. If not carefully managed, public access can affect farm quality assurance schemes or prejudice specialist breeding programmes (Curry, 1997). However, the right of access was not without some concessions to farmers and landowners. Altogether twenty-one restrictions will apply to ramblers. However, landowners have highlighted that only some of the banned activities are offences under criminal law and therefore not all could lead to prosecution or fines of trespassers.

The National Farmer’s Union continues to warn that the ‘right to roam’ risks causing ‘chaos in the countryside’ and simply results in the imposition of new costs on farmers (NFU Publication, 2002). A major development came in March 2000 when the government introduced the Countryside and Rights of Way Bill (Countryside Alliance, 2000). Kate Ashbrook, head of the Rambler’s Association in 2000, stated that ‘ it is without doubt the most important piece of countryside legislation in 50 years’. The Bill contains four parts, the first two relate to access issues.

Part one introduces the concept of a ‘right to roam’ over open countryside i. e. mountain, moor, heath and registered common land in England and Wales. Part two calls for the modification and improvement of existing rights of way networks. In addition wider objectives for access, beyond the Act’s basic statutory requirements could be achieved by meeting the needs of a broader range of visitors such as disabled people and improving access opportunities in the wider countryside through voluntary dedication by landowners (Countryside Agency, CRN 59, 2003).

With regards to appraising the recent developments, an important evaluation survey was undertaken by the Countryside Agency in 2000. It is called the ‘Rights of Way Condition Survey’ and aimed to assess the extent to which the targets of the 1987 Countryside Commission proposals had been met. Unfortunately, it showed that although some improvements had been made, the vast majority of highway authorities had not attained the national targets they had been set.

However, it was also shown that where additional effort and resources had been put in, good results were achieved. Thus although targets have not been reached nationally, on more local levels success has been more varied. This relates largely to differences in funding, incentive schemes and participation in monitoring projects by local councils and highway authorities. The criteria against which success was measured related to whether paths proved ‘easier to find’, ‘easier to follow’ and ‘easier to use’.

These criteria were chosen because they are the best way of showing whether increased and more effective access to the countryside has been achieved for the wider public. The survey revealed that; – None of the 40 survey regions attained the national target – Specifically, the ‘easy to find’ criteria, requiring that 95% of paths be signposted was not attained in any region. Figure 1 on page 7 shows that England as a whole fell well below target level and shows some counties which were more successful and other counties which were below average.