Access to the West Riding’s countryside in time of austerity

Access to the countryside for the people of West and North Yorkshire has never been more vital – for our health, well-being and increasingly, as a tourist asset, to help maintain our economic prosperity. West Riding Ramblers, at both Area and Group level, but also as individuals, need to be aware of many changes in how our countryside is managed. We need to respond and react to these changes.

The biggest single factor is continuing ‘austerity’ policies which mean an ever-reducing role for local and central Government in maintaining our footpath network and ensuring precious access to open countryside is maintained. Loss of professional staff from town halls, cuts in funding for equipment and materials, loss of grants for footpath maintenance and improvements schemes, mean that standards will continue to fall. How will hard pressed legal officers be able to deal with recalcitrant landowners who block stiles or plough public rights of way?

For the rich and privileged in our Society, living within their country estates, this may not make much difference. Indeed, lack of action to keep footpaths open may be something they will welcome – footpaths and access legislation will quickly be undermined if there is no one there to enforce the law and repair stiles, gates and signs. Developers, eyeing our precious Green Belts, for new ‘executive home’ housing estates, will be delighted if they can build over suburban or even rural footpaths with impunity.

But to those of us who live in the crowded suburbs of town and cities, loss of green space, blocked footpaths and barbed wire will be a personal tragedy, a threat to so much that we value.

So how do we respond as Ramblers to these huge changes and challenges ahead? The Ramblers are a citizen-action group. Working together we can act as a collective watchdog – highlighting, to the wider community, problems on footpaths and threats to green space. We can help ensure that even cash-strapped local authorities are forced to take action. We can also, through our excellent Local Group structure – plus several excellent active Walkers are Welcome Groups in West Riding Area – take direct action ourselves in terms of working with local authorities and more enlightened landowners in clearing paths, repairing stiles and gates, and popularising use of local paths. Our Local Groups were mainly founded in the 1970s when resources were also slender. There was a time when more militant RA members always carried a pair of wire cutters in their rucksack to deal with brambles, illegal barbed wire or even fencing structures that impeded a right of way.

We need to work with other kindred organisations who care equally about their local environment – CPRE, whose West Riding and Craven branches are doing great work to defend our Green Belts and nearby countryside, Civic Trusts and village societies who again can liaise closely with local RA Groups to resist major Green Belt infringements and loss of access. The local media – both press and local radio – can prove highly effective in alerting the wider community to threats to local amenity.

Above all, West Riding Area needs to start recruiting new, younger activists. We need to get away from our too cosy image of middle aged, even elderly walkers out for social gatherings – important as such events are. We need younger professionals, who can provide the next generation of leaders to show us the way ahead. Having had the privilege of accepting an invitation this summer to walk two stages of The Dales Way with our splendid West Riding Area Take A Hike group, I have no doubt that such outstanding people exist, when we can persuade them to lead us on the crucial campaigning work that we need to cope with the challenges that lie ahead. Where, for example, is the bright young lawyer, well informed on footpath and access matters, we can turn to in times of crisis? Fifty years ago, we recruited just such an individual – Jerry Pearlman. Somewhere, we need to find another Jerry, and he or increasingly likely she, may already be a member of the West Riding Ramblers.

I am sure no one voted to see our local Government services decimated in the way they have been over the last decade. Access to the countryside is no longer a priority for Government resources, locally or nationally. The Ramblers need to reinvent itself, even rediscover its old militancy, for some tough battles to come.

Colin Speakman