In 1987, the declaration that all 140,000 miles of public paths in England and Wales would be open to walkers had a popular ring. After all, some 250 million walking trips of more than two miles are made in the countryside each year. But the target, set by the Countryside Commission, is beginning to look an awkward hostage to fortune. Recent surveys indicate that 25 per cent of the network is still difficult to follow without encountering obstacles.
And despite entreaties from their own organisations - the National Farmers' Union and the Country Landowners' Association - to obey the law, a truculent or indifferent hard-core of farmers and landowners seem unlikely to change their ways unless county councils make robust use of their powers under the 1990 Rights of Way Act.
The gap between the commission's target and reality was highlighted yesterday by the Ramblers' Association. At six locations in Britain, footpath activists drew attention to blatant examples of obstruction in the opening shot of a "Free Your Paths" campaign.
Not all the blockages could be blamed on farmers. In Epping Forest district, the association drew attention to a brick wall and wrought iron gate built by a householder across a right of way.
John Holness, the RA's West Essex footpath secretary, said ramblers had been told as long ago as 1991 that the council was taking legal action to get the wall removed. Epping Forest district council acts as an agent for Essex County Council, but, Mr Holness, said: "if the district council was a private company, it would have been sacked years ago for failing to do its job."
Epping is not unusual. In Somerset, RA chairman Kate Ashbrook led a group on a compass bearing through a field of six-foot high maize where the farmer readily acknowledged a footpath should be visible. "Footpath obstruction must be the biggest crime in the countryside," Ms Ashbrook said.
The maize field is in Wedmore, near Cheddar, where local ramblers reckon about half the parish's 100 paths are obstructed. Somerset county council does not expect to have many of them in good order by the millennium.
The commission set its target after conducting a survey which found that walkers in England and Wales had on average only a one in three chance of being able to complete a two-mile country walk on rights of way.
The picture today is better, if patchy. It depends on whether highways authorities have the will and readiness to use scarce resources on implementing the Act, which gave councils power to prosecute or remove obstructions themselves and send the bill to the landowner.
Somerset has a record of not prosecuting while Buckinghamshire, for example, does. As a result, Buckinghamshire looks like meeting the deadline on clearing its paths.
The findings of a re-survey by the commission are due to be published in October. Thanks to a doubling of grant to councils for footpath work, to pounds 25m, and the 1990 Act, these will show that at least three-quarters of the 140,000 miles are open for use. But the RA, some of whose 116,000 members did much of the leg-work for the survey, are concerned that with only three years to go to the millennium, 40,000 miles of network remain impossible or dif- ficult to use.Reuse content