The campaign to protect England’s National Trails gathered momentum this week as the Ramblers handed in a petition with 18,000 signatures demanding Natural England rethinks its proposals. It’s a campaign that has the BMC’s support, as Ed Douglas explains.
These must be testing times at Natural England. Not only is the future of the entire organisation under review, NE is also conducting a few changes of its own, including transferring its duty to maintain and manage the National Trails network to local trail partnerships, put together from local authorities, businesses and volunteers.
There are 15 National Trails in England and Wales, totalling 2,500 miles. Two of them are suitable for horse riding and cycling, including the new Pennine Bridleway. The first trail, the Pennine Way, opened in 1965, 30 years after it was first mooted by journalist and Ramblers campaigner Tom Stephenson.
You don’t have to be a footpath expert to appreciate the contradiction in a National Trails network being run by separate local groups. The Ramblers have expressed concern that the decision will lead to a drastic fall in the quality of the paths currently designated.
Benedict Southworth, chief executive of the Ramblers said: ‘We are deeply concerned that if current proposals go ahead, the quality of the National Trails networks will be at risk, compromising the primary goal of world-class long-distance routes. We feel very strongly there is a need for a national body or association.’
It’s a view the BMC shares. In her written response to Natural England’s proposal, access officer Dr Cath Flitcroft warned that ‘local delivery of a national network of trails by trail partnerships will be undeliverable, particularly alongside proposals for a new framework for setting and measuring quality standards.’
At the moment, the National Trail has in post officers dedicated to maintaining the quality of what ought to be a much better known part of Britain’s infrastructure. But reallocation of resources could see those posts being abolished. That would further diminish the profile and quality of the National Trails network.
The BMC believes that there needs to be a national body or association bringing together national experts with a national vision for all of the trails. This would better guarantee their success, not least through a coherent national marketing strategy.
While National Trails are of interest to BMC members, this battle is more naturally one for the Ramblers to lead on. But the BMC does take a particular interest in the England Coast Path. This gives us a statutory right of access to many sea cliffs for the first time, and the new National Trails management model will be the foundation for its upkeep.
‘The BMC is concerned,’ Flitcroft says, ‘that there is no clear linkage between this consultation and Natural England’s coastal access programme.’
In the longer term, the BMC believes that the National Trails should become a separate charity or trust, outside party political influence. There is a precedent for this in the successful launch of the Canal & River Trust last July.
The BMC has welcomed the support government has offered the Britain on Foot campaign, but for outdoor recreation to flourish in the UK, both in business and human terms, it needs the necessary infrastructure in place to allow the British people to get out into the countryside.
British industry would be up in arms if the government proposed something similar for our roads and motorways – it shouldn’t come as a surprise that so many in the outdoor world are concerned about National Trails.
If we need an example of what can be done, then the government need only look across the Channel at the system of Grandes Randonnées in France. Many in Britain know this system of long-distance footpaths better than our own.
The GR system is much more extensive than that in the UK, with over 60,000km of trails. It has become a valuable marketing tool for French tourism, while marrying the kind of local activism that the government wants to encourage with a national framework that can give the system coherence and reliability.
If the government is determined to reduce its commitment to National Trails, then it should set up a body that can carry the immense potential this idea has – and has yet to realise. It would be a boost to tourism – and the nation’s health.