The Government’s official body for the outdoors today outlined plans to bring localism to England’s national trails.
Natural England kicked off an eight-week consultation on its proposals to put the care of the 13 long-distance recreation routes, into the hands of trail partnerships set up to manage each of the routes, which includes the country’s first official long-distance path, the Pennine Way.
Natural England’s proposed changes reflect coalition Government policy on handing over decision making to local bodies and away from central control.
The Government advisory body said: “The Government wants to see more devolved and locally responsive solutions to public service provision, so we want to ensure that our national trails deliver the optimum benefits for local communities and users while also achieving the best value for taxpayers.
“With public sector resources under great pressure, we must get even better value from the investment of taxpayers’ money.
“Government is seeking a smaller role for itself, and a bigger one for civil society – delivering more devolved and locally responsive solutions that harness the knowledge, skills and resources of our partners.”
Natural England said the proposals would also affect the nascent path around England’s coast.
“The revised management model developed following this consultation will also provide the foundation for upkeep of the England Coast Path as it becomes established in stages over the years to come,” it said.
“The creation and management of national trails has always been a partnership between central government, through Natural England and its predecessors, and local partners including highway authorities and others such as national park authorities and area of outstanding natural beauty partnerships.
“Natural England has found this collaborative approach hugely valuable and would like to explore the opportunities for broadening this approach to include a wider range of partners, including local businesses and communities. We want to hear from users and user groups to gain their thoughts both about the overall principles and approach, and to explore how we might gather their feedback on an ongoing basis.”
The rushed consultation, which started today, ends in eight weeks’ time, sooner than the usual three-month timescale for such official Government exercises.
Natural England is proposing to continue funding the maintenance of England’s 13 national trails, with cash released over three-year periods, to be administered by the proposed partnerships.
Liz Newton, director for access said; “Our national trails are world-class tourist attractions offering locals and visitors the opportunity to explore England’s rich landscapes and diverse wildlife.
“They are the gold standard for public access but we have to look at how each distinct trail is cared for to ensure they are all on a sustainable course for the future.
“The consultation will provide a valuable opportunity for all parties to share views on the way forward.”
Walkers’ campaign group the Ramblers was cautious in its initial response.
The charity said it welcomed acknowledgment of their importance, but understood the proposals would completely change the way national trails are managed in the future.
“The future management of national trails is to be put open to the public in a consultation which will run for only eight weeks,” it said.
The Ramblers pointed out the routes play a major part in attracting visitors and boosting tourism and the local economy.
“The opening of the Hadrian’s Wall path in 2003 saw a 99 per cent increase in long-distance walkers and a 23 per cent increase in day walkers who in the first four years generated £19m and the South West Coast Path is estimated to generate £307m for the regional economy annually,” they said.
“The current coordination and management of national trails results in trails which are in very good condition and in most cases very well looked after.
“The proposals in the consultation would see considerable change in the current system and will be attempting something that has not been tried and tested.
“The Ramblers are keen to highlight that a shift to localism should not mean lower standards and levels of maintenance.”
Nicky Philpott, Ramblers director of policy and campaigns, added: “We’re pleased to see that the local, national and international importance of our national trails has been recognised as well as a commitment to central funding and high standards across all national trails.
“These proposals may bring significant changes which will ultimately transform the way national trails are managed. The Ramblers look forward to engaging with this consultation and for the full details of how these new arrangements would work in practice.
“This is necessary before we can fully understand the impact it will have on our trails and the walking public.
“National trails attract tourists from across the world and bring in millions of pounds to our ailing rural economies and there needs to be a national gold standard which walkers around the world can expect paths to meet, as well as being adequately maintained and resourced.”
Details of the consultation, which ends at midnight on 5 July, are on the Natural England website.
NE added: “We intend to introduce some changes from April 2013, but the extent and detail of these changes will depend on the responses that we receive to the proposals described in this discussion paper.
“We recognise that the proposed changes may have more significant implications for some of our partners than others and we will be talking to all of them during the autumn of 2012 about how we manage the implementation stages.”