It’s Volunteers’ Week (1-12 June)—a fine opportunity to celebrate the tireless work of all those who protect and improve our public paths, and to consider what are the impediments they face in carrying out their excellent work.
The Open Spaces Society, Ramblers, British Horse Society, Walkers Are Welcome towns and many other bodies have activists who go out to check paths, comment on path changes or form work-parties to clear routes and install essential structures.
The Ramblers have 107,000 members of whom a staggering 25,000 are volunteers, many of them working on paths. There are 160 maintenance teams in England, Scotland and Wales.
For the last 25 years the South Wiltshire Ramblers’ Heavy Gang has worked at least one day a week, giving more than 4,000 person hours. In 2015 they won a Ramblers’ President’s Award for protecting where we walk. They received a well-deserved letter in June 2015 from Philip Whitehead, Wiltshire’s cabinet member for highways and transport, congratulating them: ‘Your sterling efforts do not go unrecognised by the members and officers of the council, so this is an ideal time for me to express our heartfelt thanks for your dedication and achievements’.
Six months later however, Graham Read and Norman Martin of the Heavies were writing to Mr Whitehead to express their deep concern that cuts in funding had resulted in ‘draconian measures that have brought volunteer work to a virtual standstill, with purchases for the most basic and inexpensive materials such as nails, wire and cement having to go through several layers of management up to the highest level in order to be allowed or not’. They met councillors and officers in April and were able to achieve a relaxation of this ridiculous bureaucracy.
The Anglesey Silver Slashers have been going for 11 years and have turned out 500 times to do a range of work on paths including boardwalks, bridges and steps.
They go out in all conditions and all weather, and are certainly not deterred by a bit of mud!
Until last February when he moved to Wales, the Open Spaces Society’s trustee and local correspondent Peter Newman ran the Kington Footpath Scheme in north-west Herefordshire with the council and Hereford Probation Service. For 25 years, offenders on Community Payback worked with Peter and the council to install about 800 stiles and gates, a similar number of waymarks and fingerposts, and many notice-boards and footbridges.
But it is not all easy. The councils may not be enthusiastic to have voluntary help. Their excuses include health and safety and problems over insurance; they don’t have the time to train the workers; with budget cuts they don’t have the staff to supervise the work nor to prepare the ground by talking to landowners and sorting out consents.
Some authorities, such as Powys County Council, do not allow the volunteers to suggest work and treat volunteers as unpaid employees. Where an authority subcontracts its work to a private company that company can make difficulties. For instance, Herefordshire Council uses Balfour Beatty Living Places (BBLP). Despite Peter Newman’s successful project mentioned above, Herefordshire Ramblers say that they have to go through ‘extraordinary hoops because BBLP’s safety policies are not appropriate for pathwork, yet it still imposes them on us’.
And on the volunteer side, some path workers are understandably worried about carrying out authorities’ statutory duties.
But as budgets are reduced the role of volunteers becomes ever more important, and councils penalise themselves if they do not invest in volunteers.
Earlier this year, as the Ramblers’ Area footpath secretary in Buckinghamshire, I pointed out to Mark Shaw, Bucks County Council’s portfolio holder for transportation, that it was a false economy to cut staff to the extent that the council could not take advantage of voluntary effort on paths (see blog). In Bucks this effort is provided by the Chiltern Society in the south and North Bucks rRIPPLE (ramblers repairing and improving public paths for leisure and exercise).
We need to standardise and formalise the procedures, so that there are national protocols between the authorities and volunteers. These could be brokered by the Institute of Public Rights of Way and Access Management (IPROW), and they could cover health and safety, insurance and ways of working, ensuring that councils allocate sufficient staff time to managing the volunteers and initiating work and talking to landowners.
In these times of austerity it is essential to find ways of ensuring that our volunteers can carry out their work without obstruction or interference. Come on authorities, make the most of what is freely available!