THE CONDITION OF THE PATH NETWORK IN ENGLAND
AN EXAMINATION OF THE RAMBLERS’ CLAIM THAT ONE THIRD OF THE PUBLIC RIGHTS OF WAY (PRoWS) IN ENGLAND ARE INACCESSIBLE
I have long been concerned by the claims made by the Ramblers (formerly the Ramblers’ Association) about the condition of the public rights of way network in England. I believe that the number of serious problems has been grossly exaggerated by the selective use of the official statistics and ignoring any evidence to the contrary.
You will find below a detailed examination of the claims made by the Ramblers, their use of the statistics to support their case together with evidence and opinions from experts.
1 The claims made by the Ramblers
2 The Best Value Performance Indicator Statistics
3 The Rights of Way Condition Survey 2000
4 The comments of rights of way officers on the’ claims
5 My own experiences of the PRoW network
6 What the Ramblers’ Board of Trustees had to say
7 Summing up
1 Some of the claims made by the Ramblers
35% of all public rights of way in England are officially difficult to use (Audit Commission 2004). This claim was made by the Ramblers’ for many years but was removed from its website in the first week of December 2009.
There are an estimated 177,760 obstacles or obstructions on the public rights of way network in England, and 105,000 missing signposts, an average of 5.2 obstructions per 10km: in other words, you’re likely to encounter a problem around every 2km/1.25 miles (Countryside Agency 2001).This is based on an excerpt from the Rights of Way Condition Survey 2000 but another passage from the document stated that, for walkers, only four per cent of rights of way were impossible to use. A four-page summary of the report can be downloaded here.
‘…a walker is likely to encounter an obstruction or problem every 2 km/
1.25 miles.’ Walk Britain (the Ramblers’ annual handbook) 2006 edition.
‘For walkers,… the latest Audit Commission figures show only 67 percent of paths in England are classified as easy to use…’ ibid. 2007 edition.
‘In the countryside in England, around one third of the rights of way network is inaccessible.’ Ramblers’ Association Draft Strategy 2008-13. (‘Inaccessible’, when used without qualification, means ‘impossible to use by anyone’.) Note that this was the first time that this particular claim had ever been made. It was repeated by the Ramblers’ Chief Executive in an interview on Radio 4’s Today programme, and also in an editorial he wrote for the Spring 2008 issue of Walk. When this statement was challenged, he replied that ‘It was justified within the context in which it was made.’ Apparently, he believes that facts change according to their context!
Has it not occurred to those who make such statements that if one third of the rights of way in England were impossible to use that it would be very difficult for rambling clubs to organize footpath walks without using long stretches of road?
2 The Best Value Performance Indicator (BVPI) 178 Statistics
These statistics are no longer compiled but they are still relevant because the Ramblers have employed them to support their claim that one third of PRoWs are impossible to use.
The BVPI 178 statistics were the Government’s official measure of how well highway authorities were fulfilling their duties in maintaining PRoWs. The statistics were compiled from the results of a random sample of 5 per cent of each highway authority’s PRoWs. The sample was walked by inspectors who noted the overall condition of the path and ‘failed’ it if it was not legally compliant, or did not match the strict criteria laid down in the tests. They were instructed:
i) ‘…to assume …that the route is being used by a user or users,
consistent with the status of the path, who are suitably attired and
equipped with a 1:25,000 map but without a compass.’
ii) ‘… have regard to all users on bridleways and byways and to consider whether the condition of the path is fit for purpose for all legitimate public users.’
iii) ‘…confine themselves to the legal line of the path and ignore any
Bearing in these conditions in mind, the following faults which would fail a PRoW, would not make it impossible to use:
1 Minor deviations from the Definitive Map (DM).
There are innumerable cases, especially in upland areas, where the black pecked lines on Ordnance Survey maps show the route used by walkers which are often at variance from the route on the DM. A 1993 survey of the 520-mile PRoW network on the Isle of Wight identified 232 routes where the line on the ground differed from that shown on the DM.
2 Missing signpost
3 Mud in a gateway
4 Up-growth around the base of a stile
5 Stile slightly out of repair
6 Gate slightly out of repair (e.g. needs to be lifted slightly)
7 Gate cannot be opened from the saddle of a horse
8 Low branches that would obstruct a rider but not a walker
3 The Rights of Way Condition Survey 2000
There is only one nation-wide survey that attempted to measure ease of use. The Rights of Way Condition Survey 2000 was conducted by the Countryside Agency (now Natural England) to assess the progress made by the Milestones Initiative to ensure that all PRoWs were ‘…easy to find; easy to follow; easy to use.’
A particularly significant passage states ‘…the national target figures
reported in this document referred to the legal line of the path.
However, in practice, not all obstructions to the legal line had a
significant effect on use. Therefore, surveyors also took into account
users making minor deviations from the legal line when assessing the
overall effect of path problems. This indicated that in practice all users
found more than three quarters of the path resource to be ‘usable’…’.
[The figure quoted for walkers is 89 percent] …’the general finding
was that most paths were easy to follow, with only…4 percent… impossible to follow.’
The Ramblers never use these statistics although they are happy to quote from other passages in the document.
4 The comments of some rights of way officers on the Ramblers’ claims
In order to test the Ramblers’ claims, I sent a simple questionnaire to the rights of way department of five county councils and received three replies which are reproduced below:
Local authority: Bucks CC
Percentage of PRoWs that reached the requisite standard in BVPI 178 survey 2007-8: 78
Percentage of PRoWs in Bucks that did not reach the requisite standard: 22
1 Of the 22 percent, do you consider all of them to be impossible to use by anyone? Yes/No [No direct reply]
2 If you answered ‘No’ what is your estimate of the percentage of PRoWs that are impossible to use by anyone? Very Low no more than say 2 to 3%
3 Do you wish to add a comment? I believe that the CA [Countryside Agency’s Rights of way Condition Survey – see para 3 above] assessment is a more accurate calculation. I am not sure that all the things you list would fail the test as problems like wobbly step or dodgy gate could be listed as ‘Attention Required’ which is not an automatic fail.
Local authority: Wiltshire CC
Percentage of PRoWs in Wiltshire that reached the requisite standard in BVPI 178 survey 2007-8: 70.5
Percentage of PRoWs in Wiltshire that did not reach the requisite standard: 29.5
1 Of the 29.5 percent, do you consider all of them to be impossible to use by anyone? No
2 If you answered ‘No’, what is your estimate of the percentage that are impossible to use by anyone? [No direct reply]
3 Do you wish to add a comment? I would estimate 2/3 of our rights of way failed on signage alone but the routes were still available.
Local authority: Durham CC
Percentage of PRoWs in Durham that reached the requisite standard in BVPI 178 survey 2007-8: 58.3
Percentage of PRoWs in Durham that did not reach the requisite standard: 41.7
1 Of the 41.7 percent, do you consider all of them to be impossible to use by anyone? No
2 If you answered ‘No’, what is your estimate of the percentage that are impossible to use by anyone? Probably no more than 15 – 20%, but that is only an estimate. It could be significantly less.
3 Do you wish to add a comment? Your thoughts echo a debate that we have been having here with senior managers. Our BVPI figure has been falling and we know that it is not a true reflection of the ‘usability’ of the network. Many of the failures are ‘technical’ or ‘legal’, for example where there is a relatively minor discrepancy between the used route on the ground and the line as shown on the Definitive Map, or where a very clear and trodden path lacks a signpost. This will not even be noticed by the path user, but would cause the path to fail.
Our intention when we do our 2009/10 surveys is to carry out a parallel survey which measures the path in terms of its accessibility to the average user, ie disregarding the technical failures. We can then compare the two survey results and get a better idea of the true scale of the problem.
I don’t want to devalue BVPI 178 too much as it has been useful in many ways and we will continue to gather the data, but the results can certainly be misinterpreted!
I contacted the Institute of Public Rights of Way and the Ramblers’ claim was posted on the members’ forum and elicited the following responses:
A. In my experience, based both in my own local area and other counties, a fair proportion of rights of way have an obstruction to the strict legal line. However, there is often a walkable route on the ground in these cases, often in the same landownership, and a route is normally available to the public for all practical purposes. This could be as many as a quarter or a third – this is based on an impression/observation and I have no facts to back up this impression. I suspect that many of these would fail the strict BVPI criteria (which is not necessarily applied in its strictest sense when carrying out the random survey in some areas). To qualify my comments, I mean the following types of cases:
a) informal diversions around gardens (farmyards, stable yards, factory sites etc) rather than through them
b) headlands which are used instead of cross field paths
c) missing bridges where people can use a nearby culvert
d) buildings on the path where a route is available around the outside of the building
e) places where a stile or gate is in the wrong place in a fence or hedgeline
f) places where a farm track is used in practice and the legal line has become overgrown through disuse etc
I would not be surprised at the figure of one third if it means “number of paths where the legal line is obstructed (even if there is a walkable line on the ground)”. I would question the Ramblers’ figures – are they measuring it by length? By number of paths? By numbers of paths with a problem? Or has someone commented that it’s impossible to get to the paths, rather than along them?
B. I worked with A and since then I have worked in Essex and Monmouthshire. I agree in general about 10-15% have obstacle or obstructions that make the path effectively impassable but there are very many with alternative routes available by minor unnofficial [and often safe and sensible] diversions. I have heard of one County that thinks 50+% of its paths are not on the DM line. I can think of several paths which would fail BVPI because a dogleg DM line is not reinstated through a crop but there is a lovely clear straight line sprayed out. I am also aware of one authority that has 144 paths with possible building obstructions on them affecting 200+properties but many of these are in housing estates where no one is really bothered.
C. Our current BVPI figures say that 70% of paths pass the test, thus leaving 30% which are not – arguably fitting the Ramblers fgures, but of these 30% not all are impassable, many are passable, just not meeting the criteria. I think B’s figure of maybe 10-15% being truly impassable, with another 15-20% being passable but perhaps not quite right in some way (which may not be discernible to the user) seems about right.
D. I find the figure quoted by the Ramblers seems a bit high too, but would echo A’s comments, you might find many paths where there is something less than perfect, but the path is nonetheless passable.
This reply came from the moderator of the forum:
No responses to your request since 3 April so here they are; not many I’m afraid but from my experience, I would say that the majority of officers would concur with these posts, and certainly in the authority where I used to work, my colleague and I found that strictly speaking at least 30% were not open on the definitive line, but Joe Public with an ordinary OS map would never be aware of that, or care, because a clear route from A-B which approximated that on the map was available and in many cases, advanced survey skills were needed to know that the available route was not the definitive line. One of the problems of BVPI was interpreting the ‘tolerances’ realistically and that leads to a subjective result to some extent. A also makes a very valid point in the last para about how are the RA calculating this statistic as those variants can make a big difference.
5 My own experiences of the PRoW network
I am a professional walks guide and lead walks in many parts of the country yet I have never had to alter my planned route because the paths were too difficult to use. On this website is a description of more than 90 walks totalling nearly 700 miles, within a 90-minute train journey of central London. They were planned from maps, not footpath guides, and I have walked every route at least twice over a period of nine years. Yet, in walking approximately 1900 miles, I have only encountered the following serious problems:
5 ploughed fields in which the PRoW had not been reinstated
1 headland PRoW obstructed by maize
1 locked gate
1 missing footbridge
In 2004, I planned from maps and then backpacked an 80-mile route from Westminster Bridge to Littlehampton in Sussex, the only serious problems were one broken stile and a misleading notice about non-existent dangerous dogs. That is two serious problems in 80 miles, or an average of one serious problem every 40 miles. Yet, according to the Ramblers’ Association, I should have encountered 64.
In 2006, I planned from maps and then backpacked 310 miles from Minehead to Edale. Apart from walking 50 miles of the Cotswold Way, I did not use designated long-distance paths. The only serious problems I encountered were:
Two contiguous fields of 6-foot high maize blocking the PRoW.
Three contiguous fields of growing crops obstructing the PRoW with no access through the hedges.
Two contiguous fields lacking access through hedges.
One missing footbridge.
This amounts to an average of one serious problem per 31 miles. Yet, according to the Ramblers, I should have encountered 248.
6 What the Ramblers’ Board of Trustees had to say
I drew the attention of the Ramblers’ Board of Trustees to the evidence I had collected (except for the responses from rights of way officers recorded in para 5 above) but they endorsed the statement made by the Chief Executive.
This could means that, despite all the evidence to the contrary, it is now the official position of the Ramblers that one third of the public rights of way in England are impossible to use.
7 Summing up
It is not my contention that the PRoW network is in perfect condition. I am well aware that there are parts of the country where the state of the paths leaves much to be desired. Nevertheless, I believe that these areas are in a minority and that, overall, the path network is in reasonably good shape and that walkers can usually be confident that they will meet few serious obstacles.
I believe that the Ramblers are guilty of claiming that the network is in a parlous state by interpreting the official statistics, known as the Best Value Performance Indicators, published by the Audit Commission, in a manner that the evidence does not support.
The Ramblers can only justify their claim by assuming that every fault recorded in the statistics renders a path impossible to use whereas, in practice, many amount to no more than a minor inconvenience.
The only claim that the Ramblers can legitimately make is that nearly one third of PRoWs fail to reach the strict standards required by the Audit Commission.
Does it matter? Yes, it does because a campaigning organization can lose credibility if it relies on false claims. The Ramblers want to encourage more people to walk and yet they publish false information which is likely to discourage people from walking! Also, the Ramblers state in Fresh Air, Firm Ground; The Ramblers’ Association’s Strategy 2008-2013 that it will work to be ‘…respectful of others, honest in what we say, and thinking through the consequences of what we do,’
It was not honest to claim that one third of public paths in England are impossible to use.
All the false claims outlined above have now been removed from he Ramblers’ website and replaced with acceptable statements which indicate that the state of the PRoW network in England varies from good to not so good.
Unfortunately, old prejudices against landholders still linger. In an interview in the the June 2012 issue of tgo, the Ramblers’ CEO was asked to comment on the Country Land and Business Association’s (CLA) document The Right Way Forward. He is reported as stating:
The worst case scenario is that you have designated spaces where people get out of their cars into a massive car park, walk around a reserve and get back into their cars – it desecrates the whole concept of the countryside. It takes away a common law and legal right, and it just infuriates me beyond belief. I’m already apopletic!
This is a wildly inaccurate description of the CLA’s proposals as the following brief extracts from the document, which can be downloaded here, demonstrate:
There is a dichotomy within the public rights of way system in England and Wales. On the one hand it offers more than 137,000 miles of public footpath, bridleway and byway providing a level of access admired throughout the world; on the other hand it is governed by a failing bureaucratic and legislative system which is long-winded, expensive and completely incomprehensible to the ordinary person.
Simplifying the rules and applying common sense, while at the same time ensuring that paths are well signed, maintained and unobstructed, are basic principles that should apply to all paths.
These proposals do not damage public rights of way. They will strengthen the system, make it more flexible, more efficient and, most importantly, more rational and understandable to the ordinary person.
Easy-to-follow signage and well-waymarked paths are essential. Highway authorities
should ensure that paths are well signed and the surface is easy to use, and that highway budgets provide for proper maintenance. Paths should be waymarked and landowners should ensure that there are no obstructions.
Highway authorities should be encouraged by government to properly enforce use of rights of way, including situations where problems are experienced by landowners.
The Ramblers, and walkers generally, may well have reservations about some of the CLA’s proposals, but criticism should be fair and based on what is stated and not on atavistic prejudice and a wholly inaccurate description of what the document states.
It seems that old habits die hard and that it is still wise to treat statements made by the Ramblers with caution.
What the results of the Big Pathwatch show
In 2015, the Ramblers launched the Big Pathwatch, an imaginative and innovative scheme to survey all the one-kilometre squares on Ordnance Survey maps of England and Wales that contain public rights of way.
Some 3000 volunteers surveyed and reported on over 45 per cent of these grid squares which makes the Big Pathwatch the most comprehensive survey of the condition of the rights of way network ever undertaken.
The results are fascinating and completely demolish the exaggerated claims made by the Ramblers in the recent past such as, for example, that one third of rights of way are inaccessible.
The survey shows that:
56 per cent of public rights of way are well-kept and signposted
35 per cent are adequately kept but could be improved
9 per cent are poorly kept/difficult/impossible to use
The Executive Summary and the full report can be read at http://www.ramblers.org.uk/get-involved/the-big-pathwatch/the-state-of-our-paths-report.aspx .
In November 2016 Vanessa Griffiths, about whom I knew nothing other than she had had a successful career with the National Trust, was appointed as the new Chief Executive Officer of the Ramblers. After she had settled into her new post, I sent her her a copy of The Walker’s Handbook drawing her attention to the inaccurate statements made by two of her immediate predecessors. I’d submitted an application to stand as a candidate for election to the Board of Trustees but on receipt of her reply I decided to withdraw.
This is the statement that I made to the 2017 General Council of the Ramblers:
Some members of this audience will know that I’ve exposed the false statements made by the Ramblers about the condition of our public paths, and the results of Pathwatch have proved that I’ve been right.
When I’ve expressed my concerns the reaction was, not to examine the evidence, but to criticize me for raising the issue. How many prospective walkers have been discouraged when told on the radio by a former CEO, that one third of our rights of way are impossible to use? So I decided to seek election to the Board, so that my concerns could be heard at the highest level.
Then, I sent our new Chief Executive a copy of ‘The Walker’s Handbook’ in which I prove that some of the Ramblers claims have been untrue.
Now this is important and needs to be emphasized. When she acknowledged receipt of my book, Van[essa Griffiths] was very careful to avoid commenting on the untrue statements made by her predecessors.
Instead, she wants the Ramblers to unite and go forward together. So compelling and passionate were her arguments that my flinty old heart was melted and I promised that it was unlikely that I would raise the matter again.
Mr Vice-President, the Ramblers have a poor record in their choices of CEO but, at long last, we have one in whom we can all have complete confidence. My mission to make the Ramblers an honest organization has been accomplished and so I respectfully withdraw my candidature for a place on the Board, and take my leave of this distinguished assembly.