The Government has just announced funding for farmers and landowners to open routes for walking, wheeling and cycling. Dan Simpson, our Senior Policy and Parliamentary Officer, explains why this is an important step forward.
When Government, charities and individuals work together, we can give everyone the opportunity to get out into nature. Credit: John Linton
When out in the countryside, do you think about how that path was created?
Whether it’s down an old railway track, a tarmacked riverside route or just a slightly beaten down line across a field, people made it.
At Sustrans, we know a bit about opening new routes. We’re custodians of The National Cycle Network – almost 13,000 miles of routes which people use to walk, wheel, cycle, ride horses and explore outdoors.
Opening them takes time, with legal, environmental, financial and engineering considerations. Anything which can speed up that process can only be a good thing.
This year started with some good news: the Government announced a series of grants to encourage farmers to create paths on their land.
Getting landowners on side
We know from experience; if someone doesn’t want a path on their land, it’s much harder to make it happen. We spend a lot of time working with landowners.
We’ve found many landowners don’t oppose a route in principle. Getting their support is more about making it work for them.
For a farmer, losing a couple of metres at the edge of their field might be off-putting.
In the last few years, this has stalled some attempts we’ve made to move sections of the National Cycle Network from the road to traffic-free parallel paths.
But this isn’t just a barrier for us – local authorities and all sorts of community groups would like to open or improve routes.
They want to make it easier for people to get around and get out into nature.
Sustrans are thrilled that the Government has announced that it will give landowners extra funding if they open new or improved public routes across their land. Credit: Julie Howden
How the Government is helping
That’s why we’re welcoming the Government’s announcement that it's going to provide funding for new routes.
For a long time, the Government has provided subsidies to farmers to encourage food production.
For the last few years, it has been reforming this to support farmers based on the ‘public goods’ – benefits to people and the environment – they provide.
This is something we’ve been calling for since the reforms were announced, so we’re thrilled that it’s been taken on board.
How this benefits all of us
We know that being in nature is good for us.
The charity Fields in Trust estimate that green space already saves the NHS £100 million a year from fewer GP visits.
Walking, wheeling or cycling through nature improves our health in multiple ways.
It’s great for mental health, respite from pollution and improves physical fitness.
Opening new routes can bring people more of those benefits.
There’s also going to be additional funding for improving existing routes. That includes allowing cycling where walking and wheeling was already allowed.
Crucially, it also includes specific money for accessibility improvements.
Even where there are existing rights of way, uneven paths, stiles and steps can mean that many disabled people can’t enjoy them.
People with visual or cognitive impairments might find them difficult to navigate.
Meanwhile, people with mobility impairments may not be able to physically get through.
These problems even exist on the National Cycle Network.
However, we’ve acknowledged that we need to go faster.
This ringfenced funding for accessibility improvements will help with that.
Next time you are out in the countryside, we encourage you to think about how the path came to exist. Credit: John Linton
Will the new funding work?
That’s the key question.
This money clearly shows positive intent, but will it lead to more routes being opened? Or existing routes being opened to everyone?
The short answer is that we don’t know yet.
We also don’t know how the Government will make sure that the routes are of a good quality.
And will they prioritise funding for routes which are particularly needed?
That’s especially important given research from the charity, Ramblers, which shows that access to existing public rights of way is deeply unequal, with far fewer paths in the most deprived areas. Will the funding be spent where it’s needed most?
But, ultimately, it is very positive to see this new system of support.
We can improve it as we go – adjusting payment levels, updating guidance.
Getting something over the line is the main thing.
So, next time you’re out in the countryside, think about how the path came to exist.
And perhaps think about what could exist in your area.
What new routes would you love to exist?
How could those you already use be improved?
Is there someone you could mention this funding to?
When Government, charities and individuals work together, we can give everyone the opportunity to get out into nature.
Want to find out more about our work to improve the National Cycle Network? Read our vision for a UK-wide network of traffic-free paths for everyone.
About the Author
Dan Simpson is Senior Policy and Parliamentary Officer, working in the UK-wide Policy and Public Affairs team at Sustrans. He’s previously worked on housing policy for the Archbishop of Canterbury and in public affairs for Alzheimer’s Society.