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Ron Bendell: Footpaths not a priority if hospitals are closing down

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: October 10, 2012

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Just what an app is I'm not entirely sure but it seems essential that everyone at the moment must consult one of the things before they can cook a meal, go the shops or even visit to the lavatory. Without them normal everyday life is quite clearly impossible.

Intriguing, for example, to see a leading medical insurer offering a free app telling us how to walk. Don't know about you but that was something I mastered at quite an early age. Not that it took any exceptional talent, you understand – 50 million years of evolution probably had much to do with it. But now we have entered a brave new world in which none can put one foot in front of the other without staring down into a little electric box.

And now a fresh horror. Not only do we need the wonders of Silicon Valley to help us get out of the house, we need loads of money too. According to that venerable organisation The Ramblers, that is.

Time was when a walk in the country meant grabbing a warm coat and a well-primed hip flask and simply heading for the fields to stroll at will. As long as you closed the gates and didn't frighten the sheep nobody seemed to mind. These days, though, you have to have bright cagoules and sat navs and, more to the point, follow strict routes as advertised by twee little signs. The cost of maintaining and regimenting these footpaths for our army of happy wanderers is increasingly a luxury we can ill afford.

The Ramblers say that council spending on rights of way has been slashed with many cutting budgets by more than a half. In Devon, for example, the money has gone down from £827,000 in 2009/10 to below £670,000 this year.

Many paths, they reckon, are becoming overgrown and unusable with many in danger of being lost altogether. And guess what? Yes, it's something that will ruin the tourist trade. Those few brambles inching out across old farmer Wonnacott's field have joined a missed opportunity to maintain BST all year round, a failure to capitalise on the Olympics and the Government's refusal to assist the hospitality industry in deterring millions from visiting the warm and sunny counties of South West England.

I can just hear them now in New Dworkin, Massachusetts: "No UK holiday for us next year, Hortense. I hear the stiles on Bodmin Moor are in a terrible state!"

Our network of footpaths. They encourage folk to get out and about and can lead to some wonderful places. Above all they mean that access to the countryside is a right that belongs to all.

But what of the old adage that there's nothing easier to maintain than a well-used path? Surely if a by-way across some remote hillside is in great demand, the footfall of a thousand boots will keep it clipped, marked and guaranteed, but if demand is such that it's visited only once in a blue moon yes it will start to get a bit rough. And that could be the time to kiss it goodbye.

An old boy once told me that during the war one of the village postmen was called up for military service leaving just one deliveryman for the entire parish. To make life easier for the bloke he made a small bridge over a stream on his land that cut a good mile or so off the route.Somehow the short cut found its way onto some sort of official map and even though no one had been seen on the land for years, in the 1980s an official with a clipboard turned up demanding instant and expensive repairs.

No lives have been ruined by the absence of the crossing and there are no parties of tear-stained and frustrated walkers left with nowhere to roam. Any money that could have been spent would have been completely wasted. To The Ramblers, anecdotal evidence like this will be neither here nor there but their biggest problem with a campaign to maintain spending is one of timing.

Budgets are being cut across the board. Just this week Chancellor George Osborne has announced savings of another £10 billion and they will have to be found somewhere. If walkers keep the money spent on their hobby it will simply mean disproportionate cuts elsewhere.

Just what school or hospital would the Ramblers like to see closed to make up the shortfall? I'm sure there will be an app available to help with the decision.

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