The coalition Government is missing a trick by ignoring the worth of green spaces and public footpaths.
That’s the view of Britain’s oldest national conservation society, which responded to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs’ rural statement, which called for a boost to England’s rural economy.
Kate Ashbrook, general secretary of the Open Spaces Society, said: “The Government should invest in public paths and green spaces to achieve its aim of improving the rural economy.
“By underplaying the role of these vital assets government misses a massive trick.”
Ms Ashbrook said the statement was at odds with cost-cutting measures and the move to hand the care of national trails to cash-strapped local authorities.
“There is a brief mention in the rural statement of ‘encouraging local authorities to promote cycling and walking by working with community groups and others to invest in off-road networks and rights of way’,” she said.
“These are fine words but local authorities are cutting their rights-of-way budgets and can only invest in paths if they are funded to do so.
“Public paths and public access land bring millions of pounds into the rural economy, but local authorities are spending less and less on them.
“It seems hypocritical that government is set to hand over the maintenance of national trails to cash-strapped local authorities and volunteers. The trails are the arteries of the path network which provides lifeblood for rural communities.
“And bizarrely there is no mention of horse-riding, yet riders too spend millions of pounds a year in the countryside.
“Government fails to mention the role of the country’s 400,000ha (988,500 acres) of ancient common land, which provide recreation and refreshment for the public and are rich havens for wildlife: commons contribute to the beauty and variety of the landscapes which local people cherish and others come to visit for their beauty and wilderness.
“And it is misleading to claim that under neighbourhood planning communities will be able to ‘decide which green spaces should be protected’; it’s not as simple as that.
“We still await the detail of how the Government’s proposed local green space designation will work.
“So it’s time that government recognised the vital role of paths and access land, commons and green spaces, in boosting the rural economy.”
Environment Secretary Owen Paterson, who took over the job from Caroline Spelman in last week’s Cabinet reshuffle, said: “Rural economic growth is vital for this country. The Government’s role is to ensure that rural areas have all the infrastructure they need to grow.
“Businesses should then be free from the unnecessary Government red tape that has got in the way of rural economic growth in the past.
“For too long, rural England was neglected by central Government and its businesses struggled to achieve their ambitions. We’ve already transformed the prospects of thousands of rural businesses and want to make sure that change is felt in every part of rural England.”