View from the Pennine Way near Marsden
By Carey Davies
Britain's biggest walking charity has launched a new campaign in response to plans to decentralise control of England's 13 long-distance National Trails.
The Ramblers have said plans to transfer the running of the trails from the quango responsible for the natural environment in England, Natural England, to local 'Trail Partnerships' made up of local authorities, businesses and volunteers could fragment the management of the trails and cause a dramatic decline in their quality.
It has launched a 'Campaign for National Trails' to highlight what it sees as the risk to England's trail network.
"A family of unique trails"
The Review of National Trails was started by Natural England in April with a consultation led by a discussion paper entitled 'A family of unique trails' which proposed devolving control over trails in England. The two National Trails in Wales and the entirely separate four long-distance routes in Scotland were not included in the review.
An extract stated: "The creation and management of National Trails has always been a partnership between central government (through Natural England and its predecessors) and local partners including highway authorities and others such as National Park Authorities and AONB partnerships.
"Natural England has found this collaborative approach hugely valuable and would like to explore the opportunities for broadening this approach to include a wider range of partners, including local businesses and communities. We want to hear from users and user groups to gain their thoughts both about the overall principles and approach, and to
explore how we might gather their feedback on an ongoing basis.
"Our core proposition is that central government should continue to invest in trail maintenance across England while Trail Partnerships take responsibility for local delivery."
The consultation started has now closed and Natural England is expected to announce its response in autumn.
But the Ramblers says the proposed management model is untested and would leave the trails, which add up to more than 2,500 miles and attract an estimated 12 million visits each year from around the world, without a national body to champion them or plan strategically for the future.
It said the plans could result in extra red tape, with Trail Partnerships having to coordinate bugets between the different authorities spanned by the National Trails. The Pennine Way, for example, runs through 10 Highway Authorities, three National Parks and one Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
The charity warned that any decrease in the quality of the trails will have a knock-on effect on tourism and the economy. It cites the example of the South West Coast Path, which is estimated to generate £307 million for the regional economy ever year in tourist income.
Benedict Southworth, Chief Executive of the Ramblers said: “We want to ensure all 13 trails reach their full potential in the future. We would like to see government rethink its plans and are ready to work with them to take a leading role in the future support and promotion of these national treasures.
“We are deeply concerned that if current proposals go ahead, the quality of the National Trails network will be at risk, compromising the primary goal of world class long distance routes. We feel very strongly that there is a need for a national body or association to work together with Local Trail Partnerships.”
"With no contingency funds in case of extreme flooding or other natural disasters; no plan to integrate the English Coastal Path – which on completion will double the current length of National Trails in England; and no overarching body in place to hold accountable if Local Trail Partnerships fail, these proposals take a serious gamble on such a precious asset to our country."
A spokesperson for Natural England said: “We welcome the Ramblers' comments, which will be considered alongside the other 130+ responses we have received to the consultation.
"Natural England is committed to ensuring that National Trails should be as good as, if not better than, they are today and wishes to see them continue to be the gold-standard of access to our finest landscapes. We look forward to working with all our partners and stakeholders to achieve that.”
"Long green trails"
The Ramblers played a key role in the establishment of National Trails in Britain. Tom Stephenson, the first Ramblers Secretary, envisioned “a long green trail from the Peak to the Cheviots… which the feet of grateful pilgrims would, with the passing years, engrave on the face of the land.”
The first National Trail, the Pennine Way, was opened 30 years later in 1965.
A blog post by Benedict Southworth contains more of the Ramblers' views on National Trails. They are asking people who want to get involved to tweet them at @RamblersGB , post a message on their Facebook page or sign up for campaign updates.