Walking round in circles?

The CLA describe their own report on access, wittily named The Right Way Forward, as hard hitting; I would describe it as dyspeptic.

The report’s Executive Summary is not very descriptive but is quite florid in its language.  Almost everything, it seems, ‘defies logic’, needs an ‘injection of common sense’, is ‘unjust’ (to landowners), requires ‘greater fairness’ (for landowners)  or is ‘ridiculous’.  However, the Executive Summary didn’t really tell me what the problem might be but did tell me that there were many landowners spluttering about ‘it’ – whatever ‘it’ might be.

The public rights of way system, like most things deeply rooted in the past, can seem anachronistic or charming depending on the details and which side of the fence you might be standing.  You might ask why the needs of people to be able to walk from village to village in the days long before public transport links, or private cars, existed should still affect the ability of landowners to pursue their own interests on their own land, or you might wonder why public access to land which is only in the ownership of particular families through accidents of history should be so severely limited to thin strips and paths.

Take an Ordnance Survey map and look at the intricate pattern of small-dashed or long-dashed lines indicating footpaths or bridleways respectively and you are usually looking at history.  You will often be looking at incomprehensible routes that cross the countryside.  ‘My’ Breeding Bird Survey plot is fortuitously crossed by rights of way that meant that I did not have to ask the landowners’ permissions to walk down the green lane or to pick my way along the side of a field following an ancient path.  But prompted by this report to look at the footpath which facilitates my bird surveying I cannot even guess why that right of way exists.

The green lane I use is a bridleway and is used by the occasional person on a horse and a much larger number of people taking their dogs for walks but the footpath, which sneaks down the edge of a dull and enormous arable field, goes from nowhere to nowhere else and despite its convenience for me is probably hardly ever used by anyone else – certainly I have never seen anyone else using it, and the occasional struggle along it when the vegetation grows up suggests that it is not well trodden.

But maybe I am wrong, perhaps it forms a useful and valued part of other people’s lives as well as of my own. And certainly it seems to me, though perhaps I am wrong about this too, that it barely should impinge on the consciousness of the landowners whose boundary it appears to me to follow.

It was only because I am a frequent user of footpaths, and because I find the rights of way system in England terribly endearing, that I persevered beyond the so-called Executive Summary (it only seemed to summarise the ire of the CLA for me rather than the essence of the problem which has stimulated their ire, and why is it ‘executive’?) and read deeper into the report.  I’m quite glad that I did because the case studies, or anecdotes as we might call them, are quite illuminating.

This is most certainly a report written from the landowners’ points of view but it does tell a tale of expensive and time-consuming legal battles with only the lawyers gaining – and that’s never a good outcome.  I have sympathy for the CLA’s cause now that I have read the case studies but had very little when I read their press release, introduction to the report or the summary written specially for executives.    What reduces my sympathy is the report’s spluttering tone – one can almost see the red-faced ‘countryman’ wanting to say ‘get off my land’ but knowing that that would give the wrong impression.  The report, despite the fact that I think it makes some good points,  is not one to bring both sides together nor to persuade the access zealots to give any ground.

And, not that I would describe the Ramblers as access zealots, it appears that the report has not met much favour in the access camp.

The trouble is, if you keep turning to the right you find yourself walking in circles.


10 Replies to “Walking round in circles?”

  1. Mark. If you’ve not done so already you should read the Anderson report published by NE last Autumn. You may find it more balanced and a useful way forward. I too found the rhetoric in the CLA report off-putting, but they tell me they’re really on side with the consensus Anderson report and wanted to help kick start that.


  2. An Inheritance
    It’s ironic that in many cases landowners, or more correctly their forebears, have made these ‘problems’ for themselves. I was involved in practical management of rights of way in the home counties and specifically in creating off road riding routes. After the 1949 National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act it became the responsibility of parish councils to draw up what they thought were the rights of way for the Definitive Map. Now, in the early 1950’s, they were still dominated by farmers and landowners. Indeed in one parish in my area there were no rights of way on a particular estate. This was simply because the owners father had been the chair of the parish council at that time and had declared that there weren’t any rights of way on his estate!
    Resolving issues with the system is, as you say, mired in legalise and is expensive and protracted. What you have to ask yourself is just what are these issues? Often they are trying to make a system that was designed for transport fit the modern desire for recreation and access.
    My favourite non-entity of a right of way was the footpath that stopped in the middle of a wood. The reason? It was access to a long disappeared well.

  3. These footpaths seem a problem for me to decide good or bad as I enjoy walking them but always act sensibly and sometimes when farming someone would alert us to a problem with a animal we did not know about,more likely when investigated there was no problem just perhaps a normal calving but the person did it with the best intentions.
    On the other side of course you could get irresponsible people leaving gates open,walking dogs not on a lead and of course these people often came from towns to relax but did not think about stressing the farmers,of course these footpaths were intended for people before cars to take short cuts and in today’s world in some ways are not needed except for recreation.
    In short think if walkers act responsibly they are very good the only problem being perhaps if all fields,which can happen have a footpath through them and you want to put a bull in a field.Can hardly wait for your thoughts and summary on Pigeon blog.I have sympathy but cannot see a solution and they tend to shoot themselves in foot,Uncle and Grandfather were Pigeon racers and Grandfather seconded into forces in WW1 to use his pigeons for getting messages back from the front in France.

  4. I’m afraid I didn’t get far into reading the report as in the opening foreword by Harry Cotterell he states ”providing a level of access admired throughout the world”. This is sheer nonsense and it will be very difficult to find any other country that finds England and Wales’ system enviable in the slightest. In fact the English access system is archiac, confusing and partly responsible for the disenfranchisement of the public which has created the many unique problems that English countryside management faces. In so many of the glossy pdf reports that the UK land management sector are flooded with there is an increasing amount of complete bilge written which purports to be fact – and any organisation that allows its spokespeople or PR to print such falsehoods are walking a very dangerous line indeed. Even the Rt Hon Greg Clark decided it was fine to alter the text of the Brundtland definition of sustainable development in his foreword to the draft NPPF put out to consultation, had he not done so and introduced the NPPF with a clear definition then how much money spent in defending and redrafting the NPPF would have been saved?

  5. I was down south in September and found it somewhat claustrophobic when it came to access. Big “No Access” and “Private Property” signs abounded when trying to have a very responsible walk in the countryside. It was very offputting and I really didn’t feel at all welcome a lot of the time.

    I have some sympathy with the landowners for potential issues to be caused by thoughtless people not taking care and responsibility when using paths and bridleways. That’s more an education and awareness issue in my mind.

    We have radically different access rights here in Scotland with fairly well publicised information available on your rights and (most importantly) responsibilities – not that it’s perfect and the landscape is arguably more suited to fairly free access to land.

  6. All I know is that paths are disappearing and degrading all around me – conveniently diverted, shortened and planted over and no one is watching. The landowners in Herefordshire outside the AONBs hate walkers – we might look at their ‘stuff’ or be wierd in some way that only they know and worry about. What is it all about? I only want to get respectfully by, according to my right. I’m not a thief, I have no dog and I wont drop litter. I think we’ll be the generation that presides over the demise of the offbeaten track in our countryside, which is a bit sad. You’ve just got to keep walking I guess…Will duly read the report, but you have put me off!

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