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Muckspreader 30 december 04

One of the proudest boasts of the Blair government has been that it has “opened up the countryside” as never before. Centrepiece of this claim has of course been the so-called CROW act, the Countryside Rights Of Way Act. This has led to the designation of large areas of moor and mountain, not to mention ‘downland’, as open to public access for walkers – although jaundiced observers have noticed that most of the land initially designated, such as Snowdonia, the Lake District and Dartmoor was in fact open to ramblers since long before the Beloved Leader came to power.

Alongside this has been a new drive to “modernise” the nation’s rights of way, footpaths, bridle paths and cycle paths, to make sure that these have sufficient signage, parking facilities and access for the disabled and partially-sighted. Here the real achievement has been to set up a new “access industry”, involving thousands of officials and “stakeholders” in “local access forums”, to engage in consultation on how these facilities can be “improved”.

Typical of this exercise has been the leaflet circulated by ‘the communications and marketing group’ of Somerset county council, asking “Do you have trouble accessing public footpaths or getting about in the countryside?”. Emphasising that the aim is “working together for equalities” (the document is “also available in Braille, large print, tape and disc, and can be translated into different languages”), it begins “if you have difficulty negotiating barriers or climbing stiles on public footpaths and bridle ways, and you experience this difficulty due to a physical/sensory disability or through having children in pushchairs/prams, then we would like to hear from you”.

All such ‘stakeholders’ are offered a mileage allowance to attend ‘focus group sessions’ to help in producing an ‘improvement plan for access on rights of way within Somerset’. “Your views” it goes on, “are therefore important to us to help develop priorities and actions”. Similar leaflets are distributed to all those who cycle, use mountain bikes, ride horses or ‘drive carriages’, with a long list of tick boxes to assist in suggesting improvements to the county’s network of cycle paths and bridleways.

The aim is to draw up at least 50 local ‘open access management plans’, ensuring that each area is provided with proper signs, maps, disabled access stiles and ‘kissing gate-type’ access points accessible to wheelchairs. All of which sounds very admirable, until the question arises of who will actually pay for all this blizzard of bureaucratic activity - let alone the provision of all the new ‘countryside furniture’, parking areas and paperwork involved, including “special information packs for schools”.

Not very promising in this respect is a memo from the council’s ‘countryside and gypsy services officer’ to the ‘head of regulation and rural services’, on behalf of the ‘environment and transport policy panel’. This states that the council has been offered a £2511 grant by the Countryside Agency, representing 75 percent of the initial cost of preparing all these plans (equating to £50 per plan), the remaining 25 percent to be made up from redeploying an existing council official to spend “one day per week” on this vital task. Not surprisingly, “the panel should note that at the current time it is understood that the preparation of management plans does not commit the county council to implementation”. In other words, the whole thing is a nice politically correct gesture, but in practice just a complete waste of everybody’s time.