Headlines: October 15th, 2010

The countryside, and 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.

This warning comes from the Institute of Public Rights of Way and Access Management which represents professionals working in rights of way and countryside access. The Institute believes that cutting budgets could result in councils facing the unravelling of costly legal challenges as the condition of some paths falls 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. Rights of way activity, historically an under-funded area of local authority responsibility, has already been subjected to economy measures including appointments being shelved.

The Institutes’ concern has been caused by councils scrapping whole departments to cut costs. This will lead to a lack of professional expertise, which plays a key role in controlling expensive maintenance and legal issues. The legal costs involved in a single case of litigation could annihilate the savings achieved by axing the role.

Marilyn Meeks, president of the Institute said: “We are facing jeopardy once more as large areas of countryside could be lost to walkers, tourists and riders perhaps for good. 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? Greater efficiencies are needed, and IPROW is happy to work closely with government ministers, local councillors, land owners and countryside users to find savings that don’t come at the expense of rural prosperity and our children’s health”.