As president of the Ramblers I was invited to make the closing remarks at the recent general council (annual general meeting). This is roughly what I said.
Liverpool was home to one of the first Ramblers’ federations: the Liverpool and District Ramblers’ Federation was founded in 1922. An article about the group in the Commons Preservation Society Journal of 1937 states: One of the chief obstacles to progress in the investigation of footpath questions is the reluctance of some local authorities to exercise their statutory functions in the matter. It is the duty of these authorities to protect public rights of way, and it is highly desirable that no ground should exist for suspecting that they are indifferent to their responsibilities.
Not much has changed—it is still a duty for the authorities, but we still can’t rely on it. We heard Maria Eagle MP last night saying that Liverpool Council has had a 58 per cent cut, and paths must compete with childcare, housing and schools.
Times are tough. The government remains obsessed with development, our green spaces are at risk. We won a reprieve for national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty when government did a U-turn on its plan to change the permitted development rights so that redundant agricultural buildings could be converted to housing without planning consent. But development continues apace on the boundaries of our protected areas. And the relentless budget-cuts continue to damage our interests.
In Wales, the government has produced a host of consultation papers and draft bills, but we are unclear what will happen. There is a threat to remove planning powers from national park authorities and to copy England in making it harder to register new village greens; there is talk of an access and recreation bill but no sign of it yet. The quangos in all three nations—Natural England, Natural Resources Wales and Scottish Natural Heritage—are weak, they are starved of cash and are not allowed to champion their cause.
So what does the Ramblers need to do? I think the hardest part for us is to change so as to be relevant to today’s society while holding on to our great tradition. Our work with young people in Wales is exemplary, and the Scottish medal routes are another fine example of reaching out to new people.
Our traditions can too easily slip from our grasp as memories are lost. In the last two months we have lost two dear friends: Rodney Waddilove from West Riding Area, former chairman and countryside secretary, and Roy Bullen from Sheffield who used to write to me with, on the back of the envelope, the letters YWTMOK—‘Yours while there’s mist over Kinder’, a beautiful expression.
There are plenty of opportunities for us:. the UK election in 2015 and elections in Scotland, Wales and London in 2016, for instance. We should take our MPs, Scottish MPs and Assembly members and the candidates for walks— there’s nothing like showing them the issues and discussing our concerns in the fresh air.
We must do much more local publicity about our issues, not just about our walks. The volunteer awards last night showed just a tiny example of the sheer volume of impressive work our people do. But most members don’t know about this, they don’t understand the value of our skilled, professional staff, they don’t know our history.
We are not a fringe group. We are mainstream. We change lives. We save lives. We must tell the world what we do. Our local walks should visit local issues, problems and successes. Why not organise path-survey walks—a walk with a purpose?
You elected me two years ago to help you with your campaigns, but I could do with more invitations. Please use me to help you plan or implement your campaign, meet councillors, or celebrate your success. Use me to boost the campaign and help get publicity. (Funnily enough, I managed to get publicity for not going to a meeting, see the cutting below.)
Earlier this year I had a really inspiring day. Marika Kovaks, who is visually impaired, led a six-mile walk up three hills, across muddy fields and slippery bridges in Herefordshire. Marika shows us that anything is possible.
With our proud history, our staggering number of active volunteers and the esteem in which we are held, there is much we can do. We must be flexible and take calculated risks. We must become the organisation that no one can do without.