A fortnight ago I joined other path-user representatives at a meeting with Bucks County Councillors to express our concerns about the threat to the county council’s rights-of-way budget and the transfer of part of the team to Ringway Jacobs (see previous blog). Of course we also emphasised the importance of investing in the public-path network.
As Chris B commented on my blog about Herefordshire Council, subcontracting is a bad idea, because not only does the subcontractor have no statutory path-duties, but it will probably not have the training to do good work on the ground. I am somewhat reassured that it is the Bucks County Council rights-of-way staff, led by the excellent Joanne Taylor, who have been transferred to Ringway Jacobs, so we still have their expertise and their care for the work. However, this could all too easily change as people move on and budgets are slashed still further.
Lamentably, in this process, we have lost the assiduous, long-standing manager Mike Walker who transformed the path network and was firm with landowners and others who wanted to mess around with it. Sadly, too, the path team has been split, so that staff working on the definitive map, Simply Walk (health walks), planning and the local access forum remain with the county council. Everyone should have been kept together, preferably with the council.
We asked for the meeting last September and at last, in January, we met Councillors Janet Blake, cabinet member for planning and transportation (and the RJ contract), and Dev Dhillon, chairman of the rights-of-way committee. The Ramblers, Open Spaces Society, British Horse Society, Chiltern Society and Cyclists’ Touring Club were represented. The BHS presented a useful report which showed that recreational horse-riding brings £57 million a year to the county’s economy, thus illustrating the value of the bridleway network.
The best moment was when Janet Blake said of the council’s legal duty to protect rights of way: ‘It’s incumbent upon us, it is a legal responsibility and it must be done.’ Absolutely true, and we shall hold her to that.
However, the reduction in budget means that the summer clearances will be stopped. Some money will be given to parish councils to do path work, similar to the old parish paths partnership (P3) scheme, but this will of course be patchy. We were told the team will focus on enforcement, which is good provided it means that notices are served on landowners who fail to follow path law—and that Bucks takes them to court if they don’t comply.
It was a helpful meeting, and there is scope for working together—Bucks is much more positive than Herefordshire in this respect. It will be important to report path-problems and keep track of how quickly they are resolved. The staff will as always do their best but we must keep Mrs Blake to her word. The statutory duty must be done.