A coalition Government minister has praised England’s long-distance footpaths, saying they are important for the economy of the areas they pass through.
Sports minister Hugh Robertson made the remark in a House of Commons debate on outdoor pursuits which also saw a number of MPs stress the importance of outdoor activities for both health and rural businesses.
The Ramblers welcomed Mr Robertson’s support but pointed out that proposals by another arm of Government, the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, will see the end of central responsibility for national trails as they are handed over to local authorities and volunteers.
Mr Robertson told the House: “Access, through rights of way and open access, is probably the best it has ever been in England.
“Access is incredibly important for the economy, and we can be very proud of our network of national trails, which can be important generators for local business.
“For example, University of Exeter research shows that the South-West Coast Path generates around £300m a year for the economy of the region and supports around 7,500 jobs.”
The Ramblers are campaigning for the setting up of a national trails trust to look after the long-distance routes. Nicky Philpott, director of campaigns and policy, said: “We’re really pleased that the sports minister recognises the important role that national trails play for recreation, local businesses and the economy.
“The Ramblers remain concerned that current proposals for the future of national trails will leave them without a national champion and that that the full potential of the trails for health, tourism and the economy will be missed.
“The Government needs to ensure that national trails continue to be a national asset, bringing these benefits across England.”
In the 28-minute debate in Parliament, which followed the historic vote in favour of same-sex marriage, the minister advised mountaineering bodies, who are campaigning to have climbing included as an Olympic sport, to have a long-term strategy.
He said: “The advice to mountaineering – indeed, the advice I would give to any sport – is that it is important to take a strategic long-term view.
“Mountaineering may be lucky in 2020, but if it is not, the sport’s representatives need to keep plugging away, because the programme changes regularly.
“Even in London, we could sense that there were some sports that may not have a long-term future in the summer games.
“There is a case for mountaineering in either the winter or the summer games; as there is a place for it in both, it is well worth plugging away at the strategic level.”
Mr Robertson said the Government would support the Britain on Foot campaign, which launches officially next month with the backing of both the Ramblers and the British Mountaineering Council.
He told MPs: “I give him my assurance that I will ensure that the arms-length bodies give full support to the Britain on Foot initiative.
“The Government recognises entirely the important role that informal outdoor activity and sport-related activity play in supporting tourism and the health and wellbeing agendas.
“There is a unique opportunity to market this country, and we have seen the effects already, with an increase in visitor numbers post-2012.”
Macclesfield Conservative MP David Rutley, co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on mountaineering, began the debate, saying: “The experiences associated with outdoor pursuits, such as hillwalking, rock climbing and mountaineering, are real and tangible.
“If we add mountain biking, kayaking, canoeing and even gill-scrambling, we will see that there is huge potential that needs to be exploited.”
Nottingham South Labour member Lilian Greenwood praised volunteers who ran groups such as those undertaking the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award. She said: “Does he [Mr Rutley] agree that volunteers have a vital role to play in making the outdoors accessible, especially to young people?
Mr Rutley replied: “When we were on Snowdon back in September, we saw a group of Asian girls from London on the Duke of Edinburgh scheme making their first trip up. Those are the sorts of experiences we want to promote and encourage.”
He suggested the UK could trump schemes such as the Great Outdoors Month held in the United States. “I am not particularly competitive,” he said, “but I think we could do a lot more, a lot better than the US.
“The ideas we have discussed this evening would be great for that.”
The debate followed meetings at Westminster attended by members of the Outdoor Industries Association, which is organising the Britain on Foot campaign.