Sunday, January 27, 2013

When is a national trail not a National Trail?

The Pembrokeshire Coast Path - one of Wales's three National Trails

The Ramblers is urging everyone who enjoys hiking to sign a petition to save England’s thirteen National Trails.

The walkers’ organisation is afraid Government plans to radically alter the way National Trails are managed will lead to historic trails like the Pennine Way and Hadrian’s Wall Path becoming ‘little more than overgrown mud-tracks’.

One of Wales's very own 'mud tracks'
National Trails in England and Wales are currently maintained by two national bodies: Natural England and the Countryside Council for Wales.

The Government wants to hand over management of National Trails in England to what they call Local Trail Partnerships. In other words, they want individual local councils to form ‘partnerships’ with other interested bodies which will then assume responsibility for the management and maintenance of National Trails.

The Ramblers is quite rightly concerned that already overstretched councils will struggle to maintain hundreds of miles of footpaths and trails.

At the moment, the proposals only affect England and there are no similar plans in Wales; however, you don’t need a crystal ball to speculate about what’s likely to happen to our National Trails if the Government gets its way because this haphazard ‘local’ management style is already being applied to the Wales Coast Path.

Confusingly, the much-lauded 870-mile continual trail around Wales is not currently a National Trail despite its high-profile launch and national branding. Take a look at the website and you’ll see listed 22 ‘path partners’ (all of whom are involved in some aspect of the path’s establishment, maintenance and promotion). No less than 16 of these partners are local authorities, each of which has its own (constantly changing) political agenda and increasing budgetary demands. No marks then for guessing that in the current economic climate many councillors will not view the maintenance of footpaths as a high priority (or vote winner).

A muddy stretch of the Wales Coast Path
above Laugharne
Partnership is one of the buzz words in the public sector. A former senior manager of mine once used the immortal words ‘if you’re doing it alone, you’re doing it wrong’. He has been (anonymously) quoted in many a high-level strategy ever since.

The trouble with partnerships is they need managing… and administering… and promoting. Meetings have to be organised, minutes and agendas distributed far and wide. Local government (in Wales at least) already ‘facilitates’ (another word much favoured by council officers) various partnerships, e.g. the Community Safety Partnership, the Health, Social Care and Well-being Partnership, and the Children and Young People’s Partnership.  There are probably others but I’ve been out of local government for over a year now so I no longer need to keep track.

I just don’t think local government needs any more partnerships! Moreover, different local authority areas have diverse priorities and some do not prioritise footpaths.
How many cows trekked the
Wales Coast Path  before us?

A few years ago, Harri and I walked the Pembrokeshire Coast Path – one of Wales’s three National Trails – over several weekends, starting at St Dogmael’s in July and finishing at Amroth the following January. 

As we crossed the Pembrokeshire–Carmarthenshire border, the previously well-maintained and well-surfaced coast path immediately degenerated into a mud-bath.

The sad truth is that despite all the publicity, the boasts of ‘year-round activities’ and ‘family fun’, Wales’s newest tourist attraction is almost unwalkable in places. The churned-up ground along some sections, e.g. the stretch above Marros Sands, suggests the passage of a herd of tap-dancing cows; hundreds of metres are passable only in the sturdiest of hiking boots.

Carmarthenshire’s disregard for its footpaths, even the scenic cliff-top trails comprising the Wales Coast Path, strengthens the argument for continued management of National Trails by a national body.

And, being realistic, local councils can’t be responsible for everything. Most already struggle to maintain the smaller, lesser-used footpaths and will often choose to close a footpath completely (or divert it along a busy road!) rather than invest in its maintenance.

Boardwalks - a 'site' for sore eyes
 (and wet feet)
Newport Council promotes 10 Countryside Walks and, as we’ve walked them all, I speak from experience when I say that most of them have sections which are impassable due to ‘invisible’ footpaths, brambles, inaccessible stiles, etc. I’d like to think someone actually walked them before producing the leaflets but I’m not so sure. Last summer, Harri contacted Newport council about an overgrown footpath and was told that it was impassable because no-one used it. Er, we were trying to use it!

It’s the same story with the Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal. The towpath from Malpas Road to Fourteen Locks is in an abysmal state; at the steepest point, it’s so muddy and slippery I’m surprised no-one has fallen into one of the locks. Carry on past the Visitor Centre towards Risca and into a new local authority area (Caerphilly) and suddenly the surface is flat and even and a delight to walk/run/cycle along.

I’m really proud that this little nation of three million people is the first in the world to have a continual path around its coastline. It’s pretty impressive, eh?

If Cameron’s Government pushes ahead with its proposals for National Trails, it’s possible that these magnificent historic walkways will gradually deteriorate to the standard of the path above Marros Sands or the ‘invisible’ paths promoted by Newport Council.

If you believe that National Trails are worth saving, please sign the Ramblers’ petition today and urge this Government to rethink its crazy proposals.

And just in case you were wondering, the other two National Trails in Wales are Offa’s Dyke Path (shared with England) and Glyndลตr’s Way.

National Trails deserve national and
not fragmented management

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