31 March 1995

Countryside access rip-off allegations strongly denied

By Peter Bullen

Political correspondent

RAMBLERS claims that the countryside stewardship access scheme is a "scandalous rip-off" have been rebuffed by the Countryside Commission.

The Ramblers Association launched a scathing attacking on the £8m being spent on the scheme over 10 years. It accused landowners and farmers of taking grants to provide access which was already open to the public, was inaccessible, obstructed or more or less secret.

Labour MP Paddy Tipping, Nottinghamshire Ramblers president, said three years research by over 200 ramblers revealed only a handful of sites were problem-free.

It was "nothing short of a scandalous public rip-off". He was reporting the matter to the Commons Public Accounts Committee and the National Audit Office.

Association vice-chairman Kate Ashbrook said an independent report by Reading University supported its views by questioning the value for money of the scheme.

She added: "In every corner of England there are public access sites of which the public is unaware, paid for by the government, with problems such as barbed wire, locked gates, unlawfully ploughed rights of way, electric fencing, private notices, shooting ranges, working railway lines and much, much more."

Much of the £8m wasted could be better spent by local authorities restoring rights of way including tracking down and prosecuting the many criminal landowners who persistently blocked or ploughed up public footpaths, she said.

The association even organised a Press visit on Wednesday to an access footpath in Derbyshire, which, it claimed, forced walkers illegally to cross a dangerous main railway line.

But in a tough statement rebuffing the ramblers charges Michael Dower, Countryside Commission director general, pointed out that the Derbyshire site chosen by the association to illustrate the alleged shortcomings was no longer part of the scheme.

Its agreement was ended last autumn because the commission was unhappy with the provision being made, he said.

Much positive feedback had been received since the scheme was launched four years ago including supportive comments from local members of the Ramblers Assoc-iation, said Mr Dower.

"The views now expressed by ramblers leaders do not tally with those of their local surveyors, who have endorsed many of the sites they have visited as giving good value for money," he added.

They had welcomed ramblers comments and where there had been faults had set about correcting them. "We have cancelled a small number of agreements because of faults discovered or non-compliance by the landowner. But, for a new scheme, this sort of failure rate is not unexpected."

More than 1000 agreements would secure improvements to large areas of countryside and public access to 13,517ha (33,386 acres) of private land and 398km of new permissive footpaths. &#42