Still out of bounds: half the footpaths in Britain

Still out of bounds: half the footpaths in Britain

June 23, 2001 The Independent (London)  by Steve Connor

IF YOU feel like stretching your legs, filling your lungs with fresh air and taking advantage of the summer sunshine - beware of pounds 5,000 fines, because there is a 50: 50 chance of your favourite footpath being closed this weekend, though no one seems to know why.

Despite the demise of foot-and-mouth disease, only about half the nation's footpaths have been reopened. In some areas - often those furthest from the outbreaks - more than 80 per cent of paths are closed with no sign of them being reopened.

Veterinary scientists say it is unnecessary, rural tourism doesn't want it and now Margaret Beckett, the new Environment Secretary, has called for an end to this mid-summer madness.

"Some local authorities have kept paths shut when it is really quite difficult to see that it is justified in the face of what are assessed as very slight risks," she said this week.

Ostensibly, the closures are to protect farmers against the spread of foot-and -mouth disease, yet veterinary scientists, Government ministers and the countryside agencies all say there is no logical reason why any footpath further than 3km (1.9 miles) from an outbreak should be closed.

It has been dubbed the "policy of silly walks" by commentators who believe there is more to the closures than concern about foot-and-mouth. Some suspect that powerful local landowners, in cahoots with Conservative-controlled local authorities, are happy to shut down ancient rights of way they were never keen to keep open in the first place.

In Lincolnshire, for example, the county council has only opened 15 per cent of its footpaths despite being more than 100 miles away from the nearest outbreak of foot-and-mouth.

In Hertfordshire, which is so far free from foot-and-mouth, nearly half the public footpaths remain closed. Neighbouring Essex, meanwhile, has opened all its footpaths, despite being the place where the outbreak was first identified.

Professor David King, the Government's chief scientific adviser and foot- and -mouth supremo, sees no sense in it. "There is no scientific justification for closing footpaths in areas that are unaffected by the disease," he has told the Cabinet Office committee dealing with foot-and-mouth.

It is advice of which the recalcitrant county councils cannot claim to be ignorant. On 23 May, veterinary scientists issued guidance to all local authorities stating that although it is "theoretically possible" for walkers to carry infection to uninfected animals, "there is no evidence that this has actually happened, and the risk, if any, is small in comparison to other transmission risks".

The guidance stated that only footpaths within a 3km radius around an outbreak need to be closed. The veterinary scientists said that only walkers who have recently handled susceptible livestock or who had come into direct contact with them run a risk of introducing infection from elsewhere.

All the available evidence suggests that the continuing sporadic outbreaks of foot-and-mouth disease can be traced to the movements of farm workers or vehicles, rather than members of the public out for a walk.

Yet many local authorities, who were given blanket powers by the Government at the outset of the epidemic to close public rights of way, have proved remarkably reluctant to accept the scientific evidence.

A spokeswoman for Hertfordshire County Council said that its policy is to keep closed those footpaths that run across fields with grazing livestock because the county is still defined as having an "at risk" status. Asked to explain this status, she referred The Independent to the leader of the Conservative-controlled council, Robert Ellis, who was unavailable for comment.

Lincolnshire County Council's policy is to open only footpaths on non- farming or arable land - which is why 85 per cent of them remain closed.

"We have a lot of pig farms and they are particularly susceptible, so we don't want to take any risks," said a spokesman.

Lincolnshire has also given local parish councils the right to veto the reopening of a footpath. Some Labour members of Lincolnshire's council believe this will make it less likely for the rights of way in the county to be quickly reopened, given that parish councils are more likely to be influenced by the views of local landowners than of urban ramblers.

On the ground, there is great disappointment. In Lincolnshire, the Louth area near the scenic Viking Way has been one of the worst affected districts. One pensioner, Ernest Marshall, aged 70, moved to the area from Nottingham, 60 miles away, mainly to take advantage of the picturesque walks. He said last night: "I know of no cases of foot-and-mouth and yet the footpaths remain closed. There are many lovely beauty spots and superb walks which retired folk like me are unable to use. It really is a terrible shame."

The Ramblers Association is pressing the Government to take firmer action against local authorities that persist in closing footpaths outside the 3km zone.

"The idea that paths are a risk is a completely false one," said Jackie Sanders, a spokeswoman for the Ramblers Association.

"We went along with the closures at the beginning, but since risk assessments were done showing that footpaths pose minimal risks, we've argued for all of them in areas unaffected by foot-and-mouth to be reopened.

"Our members have been incredibly understanding and continue to obey the signs, but what we are seeing is that people are getting increasingly frustrated with local councils. We are advising them to write and complain."

However, footpath closures are not about keeping the public out just for the sake of it, according to Hugh Reeves, chairman of the Hertfordshire branch of the Country Land and Businesses Association and manager of Gorhambury Estate near St Albans, which closed its private footpaths - known as "permissive rights" - in March.

"We know the scientific risks are minimal and we are trying to encourage the reopening of footpaths where we can, but you've got to take into account the feelings and sensitivities of the occupiers of the land," Mr Reeves said.

"You cannot check where walkers come from and whether they have recently been to an area, such as the Lake District, were there has been a foot- and-mouth outbreak."

The argument, however, is unlikely to satisfy an increasingly impatient public and a Government keen to demonstrate that the British countryside is "open for business".

Mrs Beckett warned that the time has come to reconsider the powers given to local councils to close footpaths.

"Revoking remaining blanket closures will both increase the number of paths open and, equally important, make much clearer which paths are open and which are closed," she said.

"It will mean that by the summer holidays the vast majority of the countryside will be well and truly open, and seen to be open for visitors and for business."

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