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14 May 2001

Keep out! By order of the squirearchy

If foot-and-mouth is beaten, why are many footpaths still closed? David Coxinvestigates

By David Cox

The virus has been vanquished. Time, then, to take your ease amid the springtime bluebells. But wait, what’s this? A tatty, laminated notice threatening a £5,000 fine bars your way. Even a hundred miles from a foot-and-mouth case, the countryside is still closed.

It is now six weeks since the countryside minister, Michael Meacher, promised the Commons that the “great majority” of footpaths and bridleways would be open within a fortnight. Yet on last Monday’s Bank Holiday, fewer than one in five public paths were open, and many of these were in towns.

Up till now, public rights of way have been taken for granted. Yet in a land still benighted by a medieval law of trespass, they have long been the main means of access to our countryside. Now we learn that they are also a mainstay of the economy. Wilbur and Amy hear that they are welcome to visit Stratford-upon-Avon, but they can’t walk across a little old English field. No thanks: they decide to stay in Minneapolis, and 250,000 British jobs are suddenly on the line.

So why aren’t the paths being opened? You can’t blame Blair, Meacher and Prescott. They have all pleaded, begged and cajoled. Even the Ministry of Agriculture’s vets have put out assurances that opening paths away from infected areas poses no real risk. Not surprising, since no case of foot-and-mouth ever, anywhere in the world, has been put down to spread by walkers.

For once, however, control-freak Westminster and nanny Whitehall are powerless. Public footpaths and bridleways are as much part of the Queen’s highway as Oxford Street or the M62. Yet the Foot-and-Mouth Disease Order 1983, under which the 150,000-mile path network was closed, gives discretion about reopening to local authorities. In most of Britain, that means the county councils. And the shires are in no hurry, no hurry at all.

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County councils employ rights-of-way officers to manage the paths in their areas. Most of these men and women are hard-working, committed and eager to get their routes back into use. Yet in many counties, they are finding their efforts hampered by their council’s elected members, who are imposing strict rules on the reopening process.

Though rights-of-way teams are under-manned at the best of times, they usually know their networks inside out. However, councillors are often insisting that before any path can be reopened, an officer must have walked it individually, and filed a “risk assessment”. Even more damagingly, they are demanding that officers secure the agreement of local landowners to any reopening, even though landowners have no legal right to a say in these decisions.

Landowner agreement often fails to materialise, even when officers can find no justification whatsoever for continued closure. Why? Ask a farmer. You may be told, as I have been, that the countryside is better without walkers. Why? Do they leave gates open and drop litter? No, farmers will concede, they are surprisingly responsible: look at the way they have obeyed the closure orders. But (with a wink) it’s nice to have the place to yourself.

We need not be surprised by this atti- tude. The “Trespassers Will Be Prosecuted” signs that have disfigured our countryside for so long did not get there by themselves. Yet local authorities exist to represent all of their constituents, not just the tiny few who own land. That means the thousands of rural business people who are being driven to the wall by the shortage of tourists. It means the telecommuters and retired people who choose to live in the countryside so they can walk in it. Why don’t these people count?

To understand, you need to appreciate that the countryside is different. Today, its feudal past is not as forgotten as you might think. County councils are still entangled with a rural ruling class, which owns the land, hunts and shoots, appoints the parson, scratches its members’ backs and decides what’s what. The squire enjoyed a seat on the county council long after he lost his Westminster rotten borough. Today, that tradition is still alive. One of the reasons, remember, for the postponement of the local elections this spring was that so many of the candidates were farmers.

As a result, rural local authorities are often slow to assert the rights of the many against the claims of the powerful few. On the footpath front, county councils are supposed to put up signposts, maintain stiles and gates, remove obstructions and prosecute those who erect them. They are notoriously lax on all these counts, but ready enough to consider landowners’ requests for path diversions.

Against this background, the current fate of our paths is unsurprising. Once the national closure order was made, some councils handed out piles of “Keep Out” signs, carrying the county council logo and threatening prosecution, direct to farmers. The farmers stuck them up wherever they wanted to. Now they are disinclined to remove them, but councillors seem unperturbed. “The county councils have shown that they’re not fit to be trusted with our freedom of movement,” says Marion Shoard, the author of A Right to Roam.

Subsidiarity – the devolution of power to the lowest possible level – may be a fashionable aspiration. Yet parish-pump politics has vices of its own. Cosy, local decision-making, away from the glare of publicity, does not necessarily empower the people. Instead, it can reinforce privilege. In the case of the Closed Paths Scandal, it is doing just that.

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