Our trails on trial
From the South West Coast Path to the Pennine Way, National Trails are our most popular and successful walking routes. But the Government wants to change how they’re managed. David Foster examines the proposals and hears the concerns of several parties who’ll be most closely affected by them
In 1935, an article in the Daily Herald launched the idea of ‘a long green trail from the Peak to the Cheviots’. Its author, Tom Stephenson, was a tireless campaigner for walkers’ rights and he later became the Ramblers’ first full-time secretary. His proposed trail would be ‘just a faint line on the Ordnance Survey maps that the feet of grateful pilgrims would, with the passing years, engrave on the face of the land’. Founded that same year, the Ramblers Association (as it was then known) began a vigorous campaign for countryside access, and in 1949 secured the wide-ranging legislation that underpins our current network of National Trails.
In 1965, Tom’s ‘green trail’ dream finally became a reality, with the creation of the Pennine Way – Britain’s first National Trail. Since then, the Ramblers has helped to establish many other trails, including the Thames Path in 1996, the Cotswold Way in 1998 and Glyndwr’s Way in 2002. And Ramblers volunteers continue to help waymark, maintain and promote the routes. With such a distinguished heritage, it’s no surprise that when Natural England (which falls within the remit of Environment Minister Richard Benyon, pictured far left) launched an eight-week consultation on the management of National Trails in May, the Ramblers was quick to engage with the process and respond with its concerns and recommendations.
The review springs from the Government’s commitment to ‘Big Society’ and a smaller public sector. So the key proposals focus on devolving the administration and management of National Trails, while leaving their general purpose unchanged. Currently, the detailed maintenance of the trails is negotiated between Natural England and the local highway authorities along the route. The proposals would establish a Trail Partnership for each National Trail, funded by a single three-year grant from Natural England, with local councils paying 25% of the costs (as they do now). The partnerships would be free to spend the money as they see fit, and wouldn’t be required to employ a National Trail officer.
In addition, Natural England will no longer promote National Trails, and hopes to pass that responsibility on to a new partnership for the whole ‘family’ of trails. It already intends to shut down the existing National Trails website next April.
Most worrying of all is a proposal to replace the current Quality Standards with a three-tier standards framework, giving Trail Partnerships local flexibility within a national hierarchy set by Natural England. The Ramblers believes that such a change could fatally undermine the viability of National Trails as the premier long-distance routes originally envisaged in the 1949 legislation.
The trail watchdog
Brian Panton is chair of the South West Coast Path Association. With over 5,000 members, the Association publishes an annual route guide, lobbies for improvements, and represents the users of Britain’s longest National Trail.
“Our first reaction to the review is simple: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it! We’ve been looking after the interests of trail users for almost 40 years, and we don’t hear them demanding changes to the management or funding of National Trails. What they do want is guaranteed Government funding to look after the trail.
“The South West Coast Path is a fantastic route: it attracts walkers from the UK and overseas, and generates over £300m a year for the regional economy. But, like all coastal trails, the path is liable to erosion and cliff falls, so we’re concerned that Natural England’s proposals don’t include a central fund for contingencies.
“Our National Trail officer is the main link between ourselves, Natural England and the highway authorities. He walks the route every three years with our volunteers and highway authority representatives to get a balanced view of the whole trail, so we’re worried that the proposed funding arrangements could undermine the importance of his role.
“Another concern is the establishment of local Trail Partnerships with wide powers to handle administration and finance. We’ve seen nothing to indicate how these bodies will be set up or paid for without consuming funds that should be used to maintain the trail. Without a national champion to oversee all National Trails, these proposals risk undermining the exceptional standards that walkers enjoy – and that, in turn, will have repercussions for the local economy.”
The National Trail officer
Steve Westwood has been looking after the Pennine Way and its walkers for the past 12 years. He coordinates the work of 13 local authorities, provides walkers with detailed information and surveys the condition of the route every two years.
“You do get quite possessive about ‘your’ trail. The Pennine Way was the first National Trail, so in some ways people don’t see it as so much of a challenge any more. But it’s an unusual route – a bit of Britain that people don’t usually know about – and it lets you see how the landscape is actually made.
“I don’t think that the review will have a massive impact on walkers’ experiences, but I’ve no doubt there are challenges in making it work. On the northern Pennine Way I already meet five highway authorities as a group, but otherwise I mostly deal with them individually. It would be difficult to organise a Trail Partnership for the whole route, just because of the geography of calling meetings.
“But there’s still a big opportunity to get more people involved in managing the corridor more holistically. For instance, although we get Environmental Stewardship payments to help prevent erosion on the upland moors and make them better for wildlife, I’m not allowed to bid for Lottery funding because I work for Natural England. So a broader funding package would help.
“Some parts of the review aim to involve tourist businesses along the route. We’ve held a number of meetings to keep business owners informed – and they’ve been well attended – but how do you turn an enthusiastic B&B owner into a committed trail manager?”
The economics analyst
Jackie Denman is an associate of The Tourism Company and has 25 years’ experience of rural development issues. She’s especially interested in tourism and the landscape, and has reviewed the economic benefits of National Trails for the Countryside Council for Wales.
“National Trails are a major reason for people visiting remote rural areas, which may have few other tourists. They’re a flagship product, and they’re important because visitors can follow the route with confidence. The standard of maintenance and signposting sets them apart from other rights of way – and that translates directly into economic benefit.
“Over a third of accommodation providers on or near a National Trail say that the trail is very important to their business. Walkers on package tours are especially significant: we found almost half of accommodation providers servicing tour operators. Nowadays we’re seeing walkers with less experience; they’re taking shorter holidays; and they like a bit more luxury, including extra services like baggage transfers that help them to focus on having an enjoyable time.
“Of course, when people have a good experience on one trail, they’ll seek out another one. The range of information on the National Trails website makes that choice really easy, but it also makes the consistency of the brand very important.
“Coastal trails are quite tricky in that respect, because they’re particularly vulnerable to cliff falls or problems with ferries.
National Trail Officers do a very good job with that, but it’s unlikely that the England Coast Path – being so much longer – will get the same level of resources. And, from an economic perspective, it may not bring the same level of benefit as existing coastal trails; it may just displace walkers from other areas.”
The business owner
Derek Bright owns Walk Awhile, a family-run business that organises walking holidays on the North Downs Way. He’s concerned by the recent loss of the National Trail officer, and worries that reviewing national quality standards could dilute the excellence of National Trails.
“Since setting up Walk Awhile in 2001, we’ve promoted 36,000 hours of walking holidays along the North Downs Way. Around 80% of our customers come from overseas, mainly from the United States, and the business has injected some half a million pounds into the local economy.
“The North Downs Way follows the old Pilgrims’ Way. With Canterbury as the final destination, it has both national and international appeal, but one of the key reasons for basing our holidays on the National Trail is the quality of the route itself. There’s an acceptance that National Trails are better maintained and signposted than the rest of the path network, and that makes it much simpler for our overseas customers, who aren’t used to walking over private land. If we had problems, the National Trail officer would quickly sort things out for us across local-authority boundaries, but he was made redundant in 2011 and now I’m afraid that the post might simply disappear.
“We welcome Natural England’s suggestion to replace annual grants with a three-year funding deal, because that would give the proposed new Trail Partnerships more stability. But overall, I don’t know if this review will deliver something that’s as good as we have now. There’s no explicit funding for National Trail officers and no allowance for contingencies. That’s a real worry for us, because our customers need to be confident that the route will be open.”
The national campaigner
Anastasia French is a campaigns officer at the Ramblers and is leading its new ‘Campaign for National Trails’ to ensure the future qualityof the trails.
“The Ramblers shares a deep history with National Trails. As well as Tom Stephenson, our first general secretary, creating the Pennine Way, we helped secure the original legislation for National Trails. Today, walkers are drawn to them because of their fantastic quality and stunning scenery. National Trails are just as significant to our heritage as our grandest buildings and oldest monuments.
“As part of an organisation with over 18,000 local volunteers – who all play a role on the ground, looking after our path network – we know how much value local support will bring to the management of our trails. However, without anyone overseeing these partnerships, we fear it will lead to a patchy network of trails with no one there
to step in if something goes wrong.
“We believe a national body or association is essential to unite and coordinate this precious network, and the Ramblers is keen to help set this up. We have already formed a coalition of supporters – including local businesses and other user groups such as horse riders and cyclists – who are all eager to get the best out of our National Trails.
“We have been campaigning all summer for the Government to rethink its proposals for the future of National Trails. We will always ensure National Trails remain our national treasures.”
Help us secure the future of our National Trails by becoming a trail champion! To get involved, tweet us @RamblersGB or post a message at www.facebook.com/ramblers. If you’d like to find out more about the campaign, visit www.ramblers.org.uk/nationaltrails