Thirty years ago those parts of Buckinghamshire north of the Chilterns were bandit country for walkers and riders. Paths were blocked and overgrown, they lacking signposts and waymarks. A country walk in Aylesbury Vale was more like an obstacle course.
But over the years the paths have improved a lot, thanks to a combination of factors. The county councillors (whom Ramblers and others frequently lobbied) learnt that public paths matter and they respected the budget for rights of way. There were far-sighted and enthusiastic staff employed by the county council—Tony Sketch, Alan Lambourne and Mike Walker for instance— supported by an excellent team, working as a unit. And the Chiltern Society‘s diligent volunteer group and the parish councils (under the Parish Paths Partnership scheme) helped with path clearance and maintenance.
Bucks could be proud of the high standard of its paths and the speed with which problems were resolved; and the Ramblers were pleased that the council gave priority to its statutory duty of defending the network and refused to go ahead with path changes which were contrary to the public interest.
Of course, over the last few years, the budget has been cut, despite our lobbying, but councillors have remained largely sympathetic and have done what they could to protect the path budget.
But now the rights-of-way service faces an unprecedented blow. Not only has it been dismembered so that definitive maps, enforcement and maintenance no longer work together, but much of the service is to be transferred on 1 October to a private contractor, Ringway Jacobs. This is an infrastructure company, and its website is all about urban streetworks and traffic management, not about country footpaths.
The county council is still the highway authority, with its statutory duties to assert and protect our rights to use and enjoy footpaths, bridleways and byways. But I don’t understand how the council will ensure that the rights-of-way service is retained at its current high standard. What checks are in place, what protection is there for the staff who will no longer be county council employees, where does the accountability lie?
Public paths are now split between two or more cabinet members. We have many questions for these members about the future of the service. Over the next few weeks we must gather information and lobby councillors.
People choose to visit Bucks and to live in Bucks because of the quality of its countryside and public access to it. Its 2,000 miles of magnificent public paths must be properly protected and managed. Bucks mustn’t go backwards. We mustn’t return to that bandit country.