Pandemic prompts surge in Lancashire public footpath complaints – but nobody knows how many problems there really are
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The system used to record problems with the network suggests that there are more than 12,800 faults - but the figure is not regarded as a reliable indication of the number of issues that need addressing, a recent meeting of the full council was told.
That is because the software on which it relies is now 20 years old and has previously been beset with glitches, including an ongoing inability for it to remove duplicate reports of the same concern - meaning that the tally could be incorrectly inflated.
Nevertheless, the pandemic appears to have prompted a spike in reports of rights of way complaints, with the total number registered by County Hall increasing by 20 percent between 2020 and 2021.
Cabinet member for highways and transport Charlie Edwards said that while the raw totals could not be considered even “an approximate” measure of the problem - because of the system’s deficiencies - the rate of increase in reported faults was a “concern”.
He added: “It reflects the significant increase in the number of people using our path network since the pandemic, encouraged to do so by the national messages [about] exercising locally.
“There was a huge increase in reports about blockages of paths in the first year of the pandemic, for example, as fear made many landowners try to exclude the public from using these paths. Many of these [issues] have gone, but…there [are] duplicate reports that remain on the database.
“We do welcome the increase in reports coming in, because it reflects increased use, which is a step forward to encouraging healthy habits in the next generation.
“Our teams work tirelessly throughout the year to keep public rights of way open and accessible for all - and this administration wants to champion the social and health benefits that they bring to the residents of Lancashire," County Cllr Edwards said.
He was responding to a question from Rossendale East County Cllr Jackie Oakes, who raised concern over the increase in the number of fault reports, which had been highlighted by the Lancashire Footpath Access Committee.
She said that even allowing for a significant “margin of error” in the data, there was still clearly a “huge backlog” - and contrasted the current situation with the 1,000 live defect reports held by the county council back in 2010.
Brian Dearnaley, chair of the Mid Lancashire branch of The Ramblers organisation, told the Post that it would be difficult ever to bring the number of problems back down to a more manageable level - and said that people’s enjoyment of Lancashire’s public footpaths was being spoiled.
“Some of the issues are relatively minor - it’s not that there are 12,000 footpaths that you can't walk down.
“But there are also broken styles and bridges, where you do literally put yourself at risk trying to climb over them, which would deter quite a few people.
“Things that I used to hop over - like a locked gate - I now haven't got the balance to climb over, so that becomes a blockage that [I] can’t get past.
“Missing signs is another one. They don't actually stop you from walking the footpath, but they make it more difficult, particularly for people who are a bit nervous when it comes to paths that go down farm driveways or [by] people’s houses.
“They’re not going to go down there if there isn't a sign at the end saying that [it] is a public footpath.
“I also know of a field that you can't get through [for crops] - they are higher than my head. But that will be [resolved when it is] cropped - and Lancashire County Council won't do anything about it. So the farmer will plant it again next year and there will be three or four months again when you can't walk it,” Brian said.
The council meeting heard that County Hall prioritises the most significant paths for repair first - meaning that an urban path leading to a school would be dealt with ahead of a route in rural area with a similar fault.
In a statement after the meeting, County Cllr Edwards said: "We welcome the increased use of our public rights of way and the social and health benefits this brings to Lancashire's residents.
"This has also led to an increase in the number of reports about issues on the network. We have invested in three new rights of way officers and a new reporting system, which will be introduced in the next 12 months, so we can deal with obstructions and defects more quickly.
"We thank everyone who takes the time to report issues to us. We are proud of our public rights of way network and will continue to invest in active travel schemes that make walking and cycling an easier option."