Walk this path to preserve our treasured rights of way | Janet Davis

The Ramblers will always be the guardian of our ancient paths – but we will work with landowners to amend routes if necessary

Our public rights of way form an intricate network of footpaths, bridleways and byways right across our towns, cities and countryside. They provide routes to places of work and worship, schools and shops, health centres and transport hubs. They connect people to green spaces and act as a gateway to the countryside, and are enjoyed by millions of walkers who ramble along the 140,000 miles of paths. Their contribution to local economies is vital – last year visitors to England’s outdoors spent £21bn. This figure is increasing, with outdoor activity currently contributing 1.65% of total GDP.

Many of these paths have existed for hundreds of years – they are an “inscription on the landscape” made by generations of people going about their business, and are as much a part of our heritage as our ancient monuments and historic buildings. As a nation we’re connected to our paths; the journeys they’ve taken us on are stored in our collective childhood memories, inscribed through the wanderings of Wainwright, and savoured in folklore, tales and poetry.

We are very fortunate to have such a fantastic network of paths in England and Wales, which provide access to the countryside and allow people to enjoy the outdoors and all its associated benefits. We’re a nation facing a pandemic of inactivity; spending too much time indoors and not enough time enjoying the fresh air and beautiful landscapes on offer. The provision of places for people to walk – away from cars and in touch with nature – should be protected, treasured and enhanced, not cast aside.

These paths are highways in law, and are thus afforded the same protection as roads; they should not be confused with the right to roam legislation, the right to walk on specially mapped areas of mountain, moor, heath and downland in England and Wales secured by the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000.

It is disappointing to find the importance of these paths, and their benefit to users, called into question by the recently established Intrusive Footpaths Campaign. Unfortunately, a small group of unrepresentative individuals see these paths as an infringement of rights, rather than as public paths. They seek to overturn a consensus between walkers, farmers, landowners and local authorities on how we manage these rights and responsibilities.

The draft deregulation bill, shortly to be considered by a joint parliamentary committee, contains proposals aimed at improving the procedures for recording public rights of way and amending their routes where necessary. Uniquely, those proposals were developed by a working group that includes organisations representing users such as the Ramblers, and those representing the views of landowners.

The group held meetings over a 15-month period, debating, negotiating and finally reaching consensus on a package of reforms that will be beneficial for all. The benefits of working together to achieve a common goal are evident here, and we are delighted that the government is proceeding with the necessary legislation. The proposed changes already address the possibility of realigning claimed paths to avoid conflict with current land use.

Our treasured path network has evolved over time, and the Ramblers is not resistant to change that will improve things for walkers and for land managers. But in the meantime, while we wait for improvements to how we manage our public rights of way, the Ramblers will continue to be the guardian and champion of our unique path network, ensuring that any changes to them are in the interests of the millions of us who enjoy walking them.

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