Last weekend, as patron of the Walkers Are Welcome Towns Network, I went to the towns’ annual get-together. This year it was in Chepstow, at the start or finish of the Wales Coast Path and Offa’s Dyke National Trail. It was organised by Chepstow Walkers Are Welcome, who did a superb job. At the AGM I spoke about Our Walking World, roughly as follows.
Walkers Are Welcome towns make an important contribution to the campaign to get people walking and to give a higher profile to the economic benefits of walking, thereby attracting more funding for paths and access.
Some good things are happening—coastal access around England is progressing with a new stretch in Norfolk due to be opened at the end of the year and the Deputy Prime Minister recently pledging to complete the task ten years early. In Wales we already have the wonderful Wales Coast Path which starts and ends here in Chepstow. England is going one better by introducing spreading room on either side of the path—it would be great if Wales could do the same.
Our three nations are obsessed with development, at the expense of green space and wild land. In Scotland there is the threat of a major windfarm on Rannoch Moor, the first proposal within a mapped area of core wild-land so it will be a vital test of how well wild land is protected. In England we have already lost the chance to register land as village green when it is threatened with development, and Wales may go the same way with its Planning Bill, copying England. The Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act takes effect in England and Wales tomorrow, enabling local authorities to make public spaces protection orders which are not about protection at all and could be abused, keeping people off land without reason.
With the Westminster election next year, it’s a good time for towns to develop their manifestos and take MPs and candidates for a walk, to talk to them about local issues concerning paths and access and to gain their support.
Times are tough, but they also provide opportunities. We can show the economic benefits of walking. We can help the cash-strapped highway authorities with their work—if they will allow us. Ramblers in Herefordshire have had much difficulty getting the council’s contractors, Balfour Beatty, to accept volunteers. Some councils make difficulties over health and safety, but the fact that others welcome volunteers shows that the problems are not insuperable.
Earlier this year I met some visitors from the area hit by the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami in Japan. Here the government has established a national park as part of the green reconstruction with a 700 km trail along the affected coast. The visitors wanted to learn from our experience of promoting tourism and attracting income by providing facilities for walkers, such as trails linked to communities. I told them about Walkers Are Welcome.
Ours is a winning formula, especially in these straitened times. We need some hard evidence of the difference we make and we need to publicise our work and influence politicians. There has never been a better time to promote the Walkers Are Welcome concept.