The sorry state of Lancashire’s public footpaths

Double whammy - broken stile and blocked footbridge
Double whammy - broken stile and blocked footbridge
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Brian Ellis does up his size nines and finds out what is happening to county’s public footpaths.

Right to roam is becoming a pain in the backpack for walkers on Lancashire’s public footpaths.

Coun Graham Gooch (second left) examines two broken stiles near Longton

Coun Graham Gooch (second left) examines two broken stiles near Longton

Up to one in four are in such a poor state that the Ramblers’ Association has urged County Hall to act immediately to preserve the public’s open access to the countryside.

New figures show there are now 4,500 “faults” outstanding on Lancashire’s network of 18,000 public rights of way, including broken stiles, overgrown paths and missing signs and waymarkers.

The association says it is “becoming very concerned” about the state of the county’s public footpaths.

“There seems to be a slow, but constant gradual deterioration in the quality of the network,” said a Ramblers’ spokesman. “The number of outstanding faults has increased by over 400 per cent.

It is our opinion that money spent on maintaining footpaths is money well-spent. It enables people to take exercise and to relax.

“It is our opinion that money spent on maintaining footpaths is money well-spent. It enables people to take exercise and to relax.

“But we fear that this could become a more difficult thing to do.”

The Ramblers have released statistics which show the footpaths network had just 790 faults in July 2010. Since then the list has increased steadily to 1,500 in 2012, 3,200 in 2015 and now stands at 4,525.

David Kelly, secretary of the Lancashire Footpath and Access Committee, revealed that LCC staff dedicated to maintaining footpaths had fallen from 17 in 2010 to 10 now.

Walkers following waymarker arrow

Walkers following waymarker arrow

“Some faults can be so severe as to close the footpaths,” he said. “Clearly the number of faults has been going up as the number of staff has been going down.

“We did a survey nationally a couple of years ago and Lancashire was about middle of the table in terms of fixing faults which were reported to them. But we were nowhere near the top.

“We have around 2,300 members in the county and, as a pressure group, we are constantly trying to persuade local authorities to invest in footpaths. We have had our successes, but things are still gettting worse.”

The Post’s walks correspondent Bob Clare, co-founder of the website, suggested repairing public footpaths was not considered as urgent at County Hall as other more pressing issues.

Missing waymarker sign leaving walkers unsure of the route

Missing waymarker sign leaving walkers unsure of the route

“We know that politics is all about choices,” he said. “And I can appreciate things like filling in potholes in the road network might take priority over fixing a stile three fields from the nearest road.

“We have noticed a deterioration in some footpaths and their upkeep. In particular waymarkers are not being replaced as quickly as they used to be. That can’t help when people who are relatively new to walking can’t find the route.

“As far as we can we repair things we find. In fact one of our walkers regularly brings a pair of secateurs to cut back brambles which have overgrown the footpath.”

David Johnstone, who has been secretary of the NorWest Fellwalking Club for 50 years, claimed problems reported to the local authority were usually dealt with.

But he called on LCC to make it easier for walkers to report broken stiles or missing signs.

“The main problem for me is the number of people who don’t report a fault because it is a difficult process,” he said. “They can’t repair what they don’t know.

“If they simplified it then more people would report problems and there’s a chance they would be repaired.

“I can’t disagree with the council having higher priorities. When some footpaths are hardly used from one week to the next they can get into disrepair. And the county council doesn’t have enough money to do everything.”

Lancashire County Council say it concentrates its resources on the footpaths in greatest need of repair.

David Goode, LCC’s public rights of way manager, said: “We’re responsible for maintaining around 5,500km of public rights of way, and with such a large network it’s inevitable that some routes are much more popular than others.

“Thousands of people enjoy Lancashire’s countryside every week, and we focus our resources on resolving the issues which have the greatest benefit by prioritising the most popular routes, and those issues which have the greatest impact on people’s access, such as paths being blocked.

“The total number of issues reported across the whole network, the majority of which do not have a major impact on the accessibility of our public rights of way, is therefore not an accurate reflection of their condition and their availability for people to enjoy.”

Public footpaths - the rules

Everyone has the legal right to walk on public footpaths, which are regarded as part of the Queen’s highway and are subject to the same protection in law as all other highways.

Walkers have a legal right to “pass and repass” along the footpath. You may stop to rest, consume refreshments or just admire the view, provided you stay on the path. You can also take a pram, pushchair, wheelchair or mobility scooter. Dogs are allowed, but they must be under close control.

The surface of the path belongs to the highways authority. That is either the county council or unitary authority.

Highways authorities have a general duty to “assert and protect the rights of the public to the use and enjoyment” of paths in their area.

They are legally responsible for maintaining the surface of the path, including bridges and keeping it free from overgrowth. They have the power to require owners to cut back overhanging vegetation.

The highways authority has a duty to put up signposts at all junctions of footpaths with roads. They also have a duty to waymark paths along the route. Waymarks indicate the line or direction of a path using arrows.

Most paths become legal rights of way because the landowner dedicates them to public use. The law assumes that if the public uses a path without interference for 20 years then the owner has agreed to dedicate it as a right of way.

If a path has been unused for 20 years it does not lose its public right of way status. Legally “once a highway, always a highway.”

Maintaining stiles and gates is primarily the landowner’s responsibility. But the highway authority must in certain cases contribute 25 per cent of the cost if asked. If stiles and gates are not kept in proper repair the authority can, after 14 days’ notice, do the job and send the owner the bill.

Farmers can only keep a bull in a field if it is less than 10 months old. Adult bulls from recognised dairy breeds are banned.

Closure or diversion of a footpath can only be carried out by local authorities or central government and only for specific reasons like development with planning permission.

Misleading signs which deter the public from using a footpath - like Private Land - are not allowed and should be reported to the highway authority.

Councillor’s trek

Ramblers invited a cabinet member from County Hall to “walk a while in our boots” to drive home the message of problem footpaths.

And a rain-sodden and mud-splattered Coun Graham Gooch later agreed the issue needed to be looked at afresh by the authority’s new Conservative administration.

“The day we went it was pouring down with rain and conditions weren’t the best underfoot,” said the former detective who is also a member of the Lancashire Health and Wellbeing Board.

“We got to a place where stiles hadn’t been mended and a post had come down. Also there was one place where there was a bridge missing and an alternative route was being used. It made the footpath very difficult to negotiate.”

Coun Gooch, cabinet member for adult services, was taken on a trek along a footpath between Longton and Walmer Bridge which is in the South Ribble West division he represents on LCC.

“It was good to see what is happening on the ground and the work the Ramblers’ Association are doing to survey hundreds of miles of footpaths,” he said. “Some really do need looking at, like the one where a path near where I live has almost collapsed into Longton Brook.

“I regularly strim back a footpath near my house to keep it clear. And I would appeal to people who have a public right of way near them to try and keep it free for people to use.

“It is true that resources for looking after footpaths have reduced over the years. But we will be looking at it again as a new administration to see what we can do.

“Obviously money is short for everything. We have to prioritise. But it is important to keep these footpaths open because they help with health and wellbeing.”