PUBLIC RIGHTS OF WAY; HAVE THE RAMBLERS ALWAYS TOLD THE TRUTH?
THE CONDITION OF THE PATH NETWORK IN ENGLAND
AN EXAMINATION OF THE RAMBLERS' CLAIM THAT ONE THIRD OF THE PUBLIC RIGHTS OF WAY (PROWS) IN ENGLAND ARE INACCESSIBLE
have long been concerned by the claims made by the Ramblers (formerly
the Ramblers' Association) about the condition of the public rights of
way network in England. I believe that the number of serious problems
has been grossly exaggerated by the selective use of the official
statistics and ignoring any evidence to the contrary.
will find below a detailed examination of the claims made by the
Ramblers, their use of the statistics to support their case together
with evidence and opinions from experts.
Contents1 The claims made by the Ramblers
2 The Best Value Performance Indicator Statistics
3 The Rights of Way Condition Survey 2000
4 The comments of rights of way officers on the' claims
5 My own experiences of the PRoW network
6 What the Ramblers' Board of Trustees had to say
7 Summing up
1 Claims made by the Ramblers
35% of all public rights of way in England are officially difficult to use (Audit Commission 2004). This claim was made by the Ramblers' for many years but was removed from its website in the first week of December 2009.
are an estimated 177,760 obstacles or obstructions on the public rights
of way network in England, and 105,000 missing signposts, an average of
5.2 obstructions per 10km: in other words, you’re likely to encounter a
problem around every 2km/1.25 miles (Countryside Agency 2001).This is based on an excerpt from the Rights of Way Condition Survey 2000
but another passage from the document stated that, for walkers, only
four per cent of rights of way were impossible to use. A four-page
summary of the report can be downloaded here.
'...a walker is likely to encounter an obstruction or problem every 2 km/
1.25 miles.' Walk Britain (the Ramblers' annual handbook) 2006 edition.
'For walkers,... the latest Audit Commission figures show only 67 percent of paths in England are classified as easy to use...' ibid. 2007 edition.
'In the countryside in England, around one third of the rights of way network is inaccessible.' Ramblers' Association Draft Strategy 2008-13. (Note that 'inaccessible', when used without qualification, means 'impossible to use by anyone'.) Note that this was the first time that this particular claim had ever been made. It was repeated by the Ramblers' Chief Executive in an interview on Radio 4's Today programme, and also in an editorial he wrote for the Spring 2008 issue of Walk. When this statement was challenged, he replied that 'It was justified within the context in which it was made.' Apparently, he believes that facts change according to their context!
2 The Best Value Performance Indicator (BVPI) 178 Statistics
statistics are no longer compiled but they are still relevant because
the Ramblers employ them to support their claim that one third of PRoWs
are impossible to use.
The BVPI 178 statistics were the
Government's official measure of how well highway authorities were
fulfilling their duties in maintaining PRoWs. The statistics were
compiled from the results of a random sample of 5 per cent of each
highway authority's PRoWs. The sample was walked by inspectors who
noted the overall condition of the path and 'failed' it if it was not
legally compliant, or did not match the strict criteria laid down in
the tests. They were instructed:
i) '...to assume ...that the route is being used by a user or users,
consistent with the status of the path, who are suitably attired and
equipped with a 1:25,000 map but without a compass.’
‘... have regard to all users on bridleways and byways and to
consider whether the condition of the path is fit for purpose for all
legitimate public users.’
iii) ‘...confine themselves to the legal line of the path and ignore any
Bearing in these conditions in mind, the following faults which would fail a PRoW, would not make it impossible to use:
1 Minor deviations from the Definitive Map (DM).
are innumerable cases, especially in upland areas, where the
black pecked lines on Ordnance Survey maps show the route used by
walkers which are often at variance from the route on the DM. A 1993
survey of the 520-mile PRoW network on the Isle of Wight identified 232
routes where the line on the ground differed from that shown on the DM.
2 Missing signpost
3 Mud in a gateway
4 Up-growth around the base of a stile
5 Stile slightly out of repair
6 Gate slightly out of repair (e.g. needs to be lifted slightly)
7 Gate cannot be opened from the saddle of a horse
8 Low branches that would obstruct a rider but not a walker
3 The Rights of Way Condition Survey 2000
There is only one nation-wide survey that attempted to measure ease of use. The Rights of Way Condition Survey 2000
conducted by the Countryside Agency (now Natural England) to assess the
progress made by the Milestones Initiative to ensure that all PRoWs were '...easy to find; easy to follow; easy to use.'
A particularly significant passage states '...the national target figures
reported in this document referred to the legal line of the path.
However, in practice, not all obstructions to the legal line had a
significant effect on use. Therefore, surveyors also took into account
users making minor deviations from the legal line when assessing the
overall effect of path problems. This indicated that in practice all users
found more than three quarters of the path resource to be 'usable'...'.
[The figure quoted for walkers is 89 percent] ...'the general finding
was that most paths were easy to follow, with only...4 percent... impossible to follow.'
Ramblers never use these statistics although they are happy to quote
from other passages in the document. A four-page summary of the report
can be downloaded here.
4 The comments of some rights of way officers on the Ramblers' claims
order to test the Ramblers' claims, I sent a simple questionnaire to
the rights of way department of five county councils and received three
replies which are reproduced below in bold italic:
Local authority: Bucks CC
Percentage of PRoWs that reached the requisite standard in BVPI 178 survey 2007-8: 78
Percentage of PRoWs in Bucks that did not reach the requisite standard: 22
1 Of the 22 percent, do you consider all of them to be impossible to use by anyone? Yes/No No
2 If you answered 'No' what is your estimate of the percentage of PRoWs that are impossible to use by anyone? Very Low no more than say 2 to 3%
3 Do you wish to add a comment? I believe that the CA [Countryside Agency's Rights of way Condition Survey - see para 3 above] assessment
is a more accurate calculation. I am not sure that all the things
you list would fail the test as problems like wobbly step or dodgy
gate could be listed as Attention Required which is not an automatic
Local authority: Wiltshire CC
Percentage of PRoWs in Wiltshire that reached the requisite standard in BVPI 178 survey 2007-8: 70.5
Percentage of PRoWs in Wiltshire that did not reach the requisite standard: 29.5
1 Of the 29.5 percent, do you consider all of them to be impossible to use by anyone? No
If you answered 'No', what is your estimate of the percentage that are
impossible to use by anyone? [No direct reply]
3 Do you wish to add a comment? I would estimate 2/3 of our rights of way failed on signage alone but the routes were still available.
Local authority: Durham CC
Percentage of PRoWs in Durham that reached the requisite standard in BVPI 178 survey 2007-8: 58.3
Percentage of PRoWs in Durham that did not reach the requisite standard: 41.7
1 Of the 41.7 percent, do you consider all of them to be impossible to use by anyone? No
2 If you answered 'No', what is your estimate of the percentage that are impossible to use by anyone? Probably no more than 15 - 20%, but that is only an estimate. It could be significantly less.
3 Do you wish to add a comment? Your
thoughts echo a debate that we have been having here with senior
managers. Our BVPI figure has been falling and we know that it is
not a true reflection of the 'usability' of the network. Many of the
failures are 'technical' or 'legal', for example where there is a
relatively minor discrepancy between the used route on the ground and
the line as shown on the Definitive Map, or where a very clear and
trodden path lacks a signpost. This will not even be noticed by the
path user, but would cause the path to fail.
intention when we do our 2009/10 surveys is to carry out a parallel
survey which measures the path in terms of its accessibility to the
average user, ie disregarding the technical failures. We can then
compare the two survey results and get a better idea of the true scale
of the problem.
don't want to devalue BVPI 178 too much as it has been useful in many
ways and we will continue to gather the data, but the results can
certainly be misinterpreted!
I contacted the Institute
of Public Rights of Way and the Ramblers' claim was posted on the
members' forum and elicited the following responses:
In my experience, based both in my own local area and other counties, a
fair proportion of rights of way have an obstruction to the strict
legal line. However, there is often a walkable route on the ground in
these cases, often in the same landownership, and a route is normally
available to the public for all practical purposes. This could be as
many as a quarter or a third - this is based on an
impression/observation and I have no facts to back up this impression.
I suspect that many of these would fail the strict BVPI criteria (which
is not necessarily applied in its strictest sense when carrying out the
random survey in some areas). To qualify my comments, I mean the
following types of cases:
a) informal diversions around gardens (farmyards, stable yards, factory sites etc) rather than through them
b) headlands which are used instead of cross field paths
c) missing bridges where people can use a nearby culvert
d) buildings on the path where a route is available around the outside of the building
e) places where a stile or gate is in the wrong place in a fence or hedgeline
f) places where a farm track is used in practice and the legal line has become overgrown through disuse etc
would not be surprised at the figure of one third if it means "number
of paths where the legal line is obstructed (even if there is a
walkable line on the ground)". I would question the Ramblers' figures -
are they measuring it by length? By number of paths? By numbers of
paths with a problem? Or has someone commented that it's impossible to
get to the paths, rather than along them?
I worked with A and since then I have worked in Essex and
Monmouthshire. I agree in general about 10-15% have obstacle or
obstructions that make the path effectively impassable but there are
very many with alternative routes available by minor unnofficial [and
often safe and sensible] diversions. I have heard of one County that
thinks 50+% of its paths are not on the DM line. I can think of several
paths which would fail BVPI because a dogleg DM line is not reinstated
through a crop but there is a lovely clear straight line sprayed out. I
am also aware of one authority that has 144 paths with possible
building obstructions on them affecting 200+properties but many of
these are in housing estates where no one is really bothered.
Our current BVPI figures say that 70% of paths pass the test, thus
leaving 30% which are not - arguably fitting the Ramblers fgures, but
of these 30% not all are impassable, many are passable, just not
meeting the criteria. I think B’s figure of maybe 10-15% being truly
impassable, with another 15-20% being passable but perhaps not quite
right in some way (which may not be discernible to the user) seems
I find the figure quoted by the Ramblers seems a bit high too, but
would echo A's comments, you might find many paths where there is
something less than perfect, but the path is nonetheless passable.
This reply came from the moderator of the forum:
responses to your request since 3 April so here they are; not many I'm
afraid but from my experience, I would say that the majority of
officers would concur with these posts, and certainly in the authority
where I used to work, my colleague and I found that strictly speaking
at least 30% were not open on the definitive line, but Joe Public with
an ordinary OS map would never be aware of that, or care, because a
clear route from A-B which approximated that on the map was available
and in many cases, advanced survey skills were needed to know that the
available route was not the definitive line. One of the problems
of BVPI was interpreting the 'tolerances' realistically and that leads
to a subjective result to some extent. A also makes a very valid
point in the last para about how are the RA calculating this statistic
as those variants can make a big difference.
5 My own experiences of the PRoW network
am a professional guide and lead walks in many parts of the country yet
I have never had to alter my planned route because the paths were too
difficult to use. On this website is a description of more than 70
walks totalling nearly 700 miles, within a 90-minute train journey of
central London. They were planned from maps, not footpath guides, and I
have walked every route at least twice over a period of nine years.
Yet, in walking approximately 1900 miles, I have only encountered the
following serious problems:
5 ploughed fields in which the PRoW had not been reinstated
1 headland PRoW obstructed by maize
1 locked gate
1 missing footbridge
2004, I planned from maps and then backpacked an 80-mile route from
Westminster Bridge to Littlehampton in Sussex, the only serious
problems were one broken stile and a misleading notice about
non-existent dangerous dogs. That is two serious problems in 80 miles,
or an average of one serious problem every 40 miles. Yet, according to
the Ramblers' Association, I should have encountered 64.
2006, I planned from maps and then backpacked 310 miles from Minehead
to Edale. Apart from walking 50 miles of the Cotswold Way, I did not
use designated long-distance paths. The only serious problems I
Two contiguous fields of 6-foot high maize blocking the PRoW.
Three contiguous fields of growing crops obstructing the PRoW with no access through the hedges.
Two contiguous fields lacking access through hedges.
One missing footbridge.
This amounts to an average of one serious problem per 31 miles. Yet, according to the Ramblers, I should have encountered 248.
6 What the Ramblers' Board of Trustees had to say
drew the attention of the Ramblers' Board of Trustees to the
evidence I had collected (except for the responses from rights of way
officers recorded in para 5 above) but they endorsed the statement made
by the Chief Executive.
means that, despite all the evidence to the contrary, it is now the
official position of the Ramblers that one third of the public rights
of way in England are impossible to use.
7 Summing up
is not my contention that the PRoW network is in perfect condition. I
am well aware that there are parts of the country where the state of
the paths leaves much to be desired. Nevertheless, I believe that these
areas are in a minority and that, overall, the path network is in
reasonably good shape and that walkers can, generally, be confident
that they will meet few serious obstacles.
believe that the Ramblers are guilty of claiming that the network is in
a parlous state by interpreting the official statistics, known as the
Best Value Performance Indicators, published by the Audit Commission,
in a manner that the evidence does not support.
Ramblers can only justify their claim by assuming that every
fault recorded in the statistics renders a path impossible to use
whereas, in practice, many amount to no more than a minor inconvenience.
only claim that the Ramblers can legitimately make is that
nearly one third of PRoWs fail to reach the strict standards required
by the Audit Commission.
Does it matter? Yes, it does
because a campaigning organization can lose credibility if it relies on
false claims. The Ramblers want to encourage more people to walk and
yet they publish false information which is likely to discourage people
from walking! Also, the Ramblers state in Fresh Air, Firm Ground; The Ramblers' Association's Strategy 2008-2013
that it will work to be '...respectful of others, honest in what we
say, and thinking through the consequences of what we do,'
It is not honest to claim that one third of public paths in England are impossible to use.