Ramblers Cymru is part of the Ramblers’ family. Its Welsh Council consists of volunteers from all levels of the organisation in Wales and meets annually, electing officers and an executive committee, overseeing the work of Ramblers Cymru and passing motions. As president of Ramblers GB I was invited to speak at this year’s meeting in Llanberis. This is the gist of it.
This year I have been researching the history of the Open Spaces Society (OSS) for its 150th anniversary—it is the oldest national conservation body. I discovered that the right to roam was nearly born in Wales. Four years after James Bryce promoted his access bill, Tom Ellis, Liberal MP for Meirionnydd, promoted the Mountain-Access and Footpath Bill for Wales. He was private secretary to John Brunner who was treasurer of the Open Spaces Society.
The OSS achieved some useful victories in Wales—in 1892 the Birmingham Corporation Water Act authorised the construction of the reservoirs on the rivers Elan and Clairwen; the society won the ‘Birmingham Clauses’ which gave the public a right of access to the commons which were bought by the corporation to protect the water supply. The Law of Property Act 1925 provided for landowners to make deeds of access, giving the public the right to walk and ride on common land and the society, in 1932, persuaded the Crown Estate to dedicate its 104 square miles of commons in Wales.
By the time of the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949 the Ramblers, whose 80th birthday we celebrate this year, had been born. The 1949 Act required local authorities to produce definitive maps of public paths and the Ramblers organised coachloads of members to go out into the thinly-populated countryside to claim paths. Ramblers in Liverpool and on Merseyside went into North Wales, Ramblers from Birmingham and the Black Country headed into central Wales. This was a phenomenal job, given the lack of private and public transport and the vast areas to be covered. Those Ramblers did us proud. And because we were so involved in the hard graft of creating the definitive maps, we set great store by them today and look carefully at any plan to alter routes, objecting unless there is a clear public interest in the proposal.
This also explains the strong bonds which exist between Ramblers in the border counties and Wales. In 1988 it was with great reluctance that our Merseyside and North Wales Area agreed to split in two. I well remember that formation meeting for North Wales Area in Llandudno, with Ioan Bowen Rees, former chief executive of Gwynedd Council, pronouncing on the importance of guarding the Welsh mountains for the Welsh, in effect speaking against public rights of access to open country. Fortunately times have changed and that is no longer the ethos—the value of access for tourism, health and the economy is now fully recognised.
I have been coming to Welsh Council regularly since 1984 and I have seen it grow and change. It used to be a one-day meeting at the back of a pub in Llandrindod Wells, now it is a weekend in a hotel or conference venue.
Wales is a small enough country to enable the Ramblers to experiment here. Ramblers Cymru has the opportunity of trying out its own governance arrangements. Whatever units we create for our governance should coincide with the boundaries of our main decision-makers, ie the highway and access authorities. We should not come to a firm conclusion until those are known, and we should then be sufficiently flexible to be able to continue communicating effectively with those decision-makers should their boundaries change again.
There is much happening in Wales and we need to be ready to respond. We have to beware a lack of transparency. For instance the Welsh Government appears covertly to have changed the policies on common land so that in determining applications for works on and exchanges of commons ministers can give greater weight to the economic benefit ad businesses. There was no consultation, despite the government having a commons forum. We need to watch the Planning Bill closely, while we seem to have made headway in preventing Wales from copying England on village-greens law, there is a risk that ministers will take powers to water down the planning role of the national park authorities.
The designated landscapes review continues. The panel, of Terry Marsden, John Lloyd Jones and Ruth Williams, has produced a thoughtful and intelligent report following the first stage. They have rejected the notion of one designation and have recommended that the Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty are renamed the National Landscapes of Wales. The minister, somewhat cheekily, has suggested the panel may want to rethink its first-stage conclusions. I trust not. Designated landscapes should be above politics. And, like paths, they are good for the economy, health and well being.
I wish we could look to the government’s adviser Natural Resources Wales for greater leadership on our landscapes and access, but sadly it keeps its head down. We do need a champion.
A chance to experiment
So what future for Ramblers in Wales? We should make the most of the opportunity to try things out here and then apply them elsewhere.
- We must maximise our campaigning impact by structuring ourselves accordingly.
- We must publicise ourselves more so that everyone knows the terrific work done by our volunteers who are safeguarding their path networks, investigating planning applications, leading walks and much more.
- We must lobby for legislation to give greater public access—‘Scottish access plus’, which retains and improves the path network too. Scottish access is wonderful in theory but in practice it doesn’t always exist on the ground. Try walking round the Scottish coast for instance. It’s hard to get obstructions removed when you don’t have public highways. We need an access model that gives us guaranteed access to land alongside our public-path network. Let’s remember the efforts of Tom Ellis and keep his memory alive in Wales with a new law which really does make a difference.