Public Value Review of Countryside
Comments by David Moxon, a CTC adviser on offroad cycling issues.
My main criticism of the paper is that there is almost no consideration of cycling. Surrey is a wonderful and popular county for offroad cyclists of all sorts, from hardcore mountain bikers to those who just want to get around by traffic-free routes and enjoy the countryside as they go.
There is minimal reference to the Rights of Way Improvement Plan, and none at all to its many recommendations on cycling despite all the effort that went into producing it. There’s a good example in para 23 of the present report which refers to a forthcoming draft document dealing with “spine networks of routes to prioritise improvements for walking and horse riding.” By contrast the RoWIP said:
......... well-connected, good quality and highly accessible linear and circular routes will be developed which are promoted to the public. These routes will be part of the spine network. Recreational cyclists, including family cycling groups, represent a substantial proportion of recreational users, but their needs probably have not been sufficiently recognised. It is proposed that routes for cyclists will be developed and improved.
The current draft perpetuates precisely the problem that the RoWIP identified – the failure to recognise the needs of recreational cyclists.
This reflects a wider problem that SCC produces a variety of reports which deal with the same issues (in this case rights of way) without any real linkage between them. It’s not just that the RoWIP is being ignored - the Transport Climate Change Strategy which forms part of the forthcoming Local Transport Plan identified rights of way as part of the solution to sustainable transport.
Given current pressures it is understandable that the main focus here is on how best use can be made of the modest budget for rights of way and countryside access. But one way of getting better value is precisely by achieving synergy between the various parts of SCC with responsibilities for different aspects of rights of way. There is some recognition of this under ‘Costs’ in paras 76 to 78 these ideas need to be given more weight in the final report and not just an afterthought.
Given the importance of permissive paths in Surrey why are they not considered? They have great value and cost Surrey little, largely thanks to the National Trust and other NGOs.
The Hindhead Tunnel will have a big impact on local commons and access to the countryside. It would be worth acknowledging the importance of this development and the opportunities that will be taken to make the most of the opportunities this opens up for cyclists, walkers and equestrians.
Introduction, aim and objectives
Para 1 The aim should have a broader perspective: Surrey has wonderful countryside which has to do much more than serve the needs of Surrey residents. The countryside is an important resource for people living in towns and cities and Surrey’s proximity to London, in particular, means that it serves many more people than its own residents. This helps Surrey’s economy too – as shown by the findings of the research by Tourism South East which estimated that leisure cycling in the South East generated around £345 million pa. Investment in the infrastructure which helps generate income for the county ought to be part of any assessment of cost-effective use of public funds.
Para 2 Does the objective of ‘reviewing and reducing countryside services including maintenance of rights of way’ mean what it says? Much of what follows seems to be about filling the gap caused by reductions in SCC’s funding of countryside services. The Strategic Financial Outcomes section focuses on ways of increasing the role of volunteers and other potential sources of funding. The challenge is surely to cut costs while maintaining or improving standards, which is what para 3 is essentially saying in apparent contradiction to para 2.
Strategic Financial Outcomes
Para 7 This is just the sort of measure that could help improve standards while cutting costs, and an example of why there should be no assumption that reduced cost will necessarily mean reduced maintenance.
Strategic Quality Assurance Outcomes
Para 13 It certainly makes sense to review the effectiveness of local forums etc. I have attended a couple of meetings of the West Surrey Access and Rights of Way Forum. These provide an opportunity for officers to tell a select group of people what is happening. it would seem more useful to put these reports (or improved alternatives to them) on the web, so that they would be available to anyone who is interested. Looking at the minutes of the meetings it is difficult to see what changes on the ground result from these meetings. People make points which get recorded in the minutes but do they make a difference? If such forums are to be retained they should have a well-defined role and be empowered to make a difference. But there may be better ways of informing, and engaging with, the wider public without the overheads that SCC inevitably incurs in organising these meetings.
Para 14 The website needs to be kept up to date with work on specific rights of way. Where one finds problems, it would be helpful to know if Surrey is aware of them and, if so, what action is being taken (or why no action is being taken). For example, the maintenance report for Waverley produced for a meeting on 27 February 2008 listed just one high priority bridleway in need of repair (along with three byways for which I note there is a separate budget). This was BW 98 which, almost three years on, has not been touched and has got much worse. There are places where it cannot be ridden on a bike, though at least cyclists can struggle through, but more seriously there are places where the path could not be ridden on horseback. (Local riders avoid it, but those who don’t know the area could well get into difficulties). The backlog of repairs of £2.8 million with a maintenance budget of £438,000 does not altogether explain the failure to deal with the only high-priority path identified in Waverley within several years of prioritising it. Openness about what is going on, an easy thing to do in the internet age, would help. It would also enable people to check for paths which might cause them problems.
I suspect, incidentally, that you underestimate the difficult of assessing customer views on “processes and procedures” and conducting meaningful “visitor and user surveys to provide evidence of use, need, benefit and impact”. These are big topics, and getting meaningful results won’t be easy. To make an obvious point, user surveys (by definition) miss non-users. Walking, cycling and riding in the countryside can enhance quality of life and (as the Kent example cited in para 77 makes clear) by encouraging more people to participate in a range of activities you can promote “health, wellbeing and the local economy”. Any survey should seek to reach people who do not at present get value from the countryside, but might well do so given encouragement. I have been impressed with how many people have been attracted to GO50 cycle rides, organised by Age Concern Surrey: the need was recognised and the response was positive and has proved highly successful.
Another cause for concern is that while so many paths are neglected, some of the work that is undertaken seems unnecessarily extravagant. A good example is the bridge at the bottom of the Devil’s Punchbowl on FP 98a. I am informed (by an impeccable source) that the bridge followed SCC guidance that it should be suitable for wheelchairs. If true this is a pointless extravagance given that the bridge cannot be reached by wheelchair. Whether or not the type of bridge was influenced by accessibility for wheelchairs it is decidedly over-the-top for its location given that only able-bodied people will be able to reach it. There was a long delay during which there was no bridge and the path was officially closed. In fact though, crossing the stream without a bridge was never a problem which underlines the point that a modest replacement would have sufficed. There’s nothing wrong with the bridge – it’s very fine - but given that the budget is so stretched did it really need to cost so much?
Para 23 As noted above - the fact that cycling is not mentioned in relation to the spine network is a surprising omission.
Para 25 It is good to see the proposals to streamline processes. A frequent criticism is that things that are uncontentious and straightforward have in the past got bogged down in an enormous amount of bureaucracy. It is to be hoped that the legal costs involved in straightforward rights of way issues will be greatly reduced. When investigating costs of even the most modest proposals the legal costs can be wholly disproportionate and can result in worthwhile schemes, which are widely supported, being rejected or indefinitely postponed.
Para 26 The use of volunteers to undertake regular inspections of rights of way should be straightforward and the Initial Recommendation P3 is to be welcomed. RA would be the obvious place to start to get volunteers to survey footpaths; CTC and BHS would doubtless help with bridleway and byway surveys. The grading survey undertaken by cyclists in 2007/08 for the Surrey Cycle Guides is a useful precedent and shows what can be done.
Para 27 Organising volunteers can doubtless be time-consuming for staff. But does it have to be? Not all work is suitable for volunteers, but much of it is. The numerous gates which RA have installed to replace stiles has been undertaken by good, experienced teams who have organised themselves. Sustrans, too, work mainly under their own auspices. There may be many tasks – such as cutting back nettles, brambles etc – that can be entirely delegated to local people. The National Trust and Surrey Wildlife Trust both make extensive and effective use of volunteers. Such an approach should free up resources which could then be used on the more challenging maintenance work for which particular expertise or equipment is needed.
Para 29 It is good that SCC produces an annual report on rights of way and countryside access. Although I was sent a copy I can’t see it on the website – surely is should be there so it’s available to everyone
Para 30 Comments on Para 13 apply. From my limited experience I do not feel this forum provides an effective advisory body on specific proposals.
Section 7 Countryside Promotion and Project Development
There is no mention of the Surrey Interactive Map, which is an excellent resource which deserves to be better known. It is a bit clunky to use (eg how many people are going to look for footpaths under ‘roads and transport’?) but has lots of information. I think Surrey is unique in having a scheme which grades every bridleway and byway in the county to help offroad cyclists decide whether a particular route will be suitable for them. I know many cyclists who appreciate these guides and as there is no money for a reprint the interactive map will be increasingly important. (All credit to SCC and Alan Fordham for the Cycle Guides initiative.)
Over time it would be good to see the interactive map extended to cover permissive paths. An online map is particularly useful in this context as paths can be deleted in the rare instances where their status changes. OS maps have their limitations in counties like Surrey, simply because, though nearly all paths are shown, their legal status is usually only shown where they are on the definitive map. There must be many hundreds of miles of excellent paths that are simply not on any map that is generally available.
Final point (as a retired researcher rather than cyclist)
Para 82 Good surveys can be very informative. But more often surveys are unrepresentative, bland, shallow, ambiguous and of little real use as a basis for sound decision-making. Good surveys rarely come cheap and there is as much need to get value for money from them as from any other activity. And it’s not easy. Unless you already have a strong in-house team, consider finding volunteers who can help with survey design.
Tables 3 and 4
Maybe I’ve overlooked explanatory notes somewhere but I found these tables hard to understand. Why is Buckinghamshire on the list? If it’s as a point of comparison the figure of 669 hectares in the table is at odds with the 3009 acres (around 1200 hectares) quoted on the council’s website: “Buckinghamshire has 106 acres of Open Access Land and 2903 acres of Common Land”. The City of London website says: “The City of London owns and manages over 10,000 acres of open spaces in and around London.” Presumably the figure of 470 hectares in Table 3 refer to the land they own and manage in Surrey (such as Ashtead Common). Some other City figures, though, seem to have a different basis. For example, the Total budget figure of £1.2 million looks like the rounded up figure for the cost of the City Corporation’s Open Spaces Directorate. If so, it would obviously be wrong to divide that figure by the number of hectares to get the very high cost per hectare figure in the table. (It looks as if Surrey’s share of City’s total open spaces is under 12 per cent.). The National Trust figure in the table is presumably just the figure for Surrey – in which case it is interesting that the NT is responsible for more of Surrey’s land than the council is. The hectare figure for Surrey itself must be the figure for the county less Waverley, but that ought to be spelt out. (Why has Waverley been split off? Why not give either a Surrey figure, or the figure for each of the Boroughs plus the Surrey total?) Para 46 states that the Countryside Estate consists of 2600 hectares. How does this relate to Table 3 (since none of the individual figures add up to 2600).
What would be really useful to have a table which sets everything in context. Eg:
- The total area of Surrey countryside open to the public
- Who owns the land (SCC, National Trust, City of Lond etc)
- Who manages the land (Council, SWT etc)
- Total rights of way
- Total permissive footpaths, bridleways etc
As things stand the information is often very piecemeal and it’s difficult for those who are not immersed in the topic to get a clear feel for the bigger picture.
Summary of key points
- As in the final point above, start with a scene-setting table and discussion which provides key facts about Surrey’s countryside – who owns and manages what, and which aspects the present paper is primarily concerned with. Few Surrey residents know much about the complexities in terms of who owns, who manages and who pays for what: the paper needs to be accessible to all.
- Give more information of direct relevance to those using Surrey’s paths and countryside, including where there are problems on a path that would not justify closure but where some might have difficulty in using them (such as eroded bridleways that can be walked but not ridden).
- Avoid profligacy (such as the FP 98a bridge) so that the money stretches further.
- Include in the paper the enormous value of the countryside as a resource for cyclists: reflect the spirit – and specific recommendations – of the Rights of Way Improvement Plan.
- Do everything possible to cut bureaucratic overheads – the proportion of money that goes into legal costs, for example, is wholly disproportionate to the sums spent to maintain and improve the rights of way infrastructure.
- Establish a regular inspection scheme for rights of way using volunteers, building on SCC’s own success with cycle grading.
- Put much more material on the web (including just about everything that currently goes to Forums). Clear documentation which does not assume prior knowledge is always important, but the wider the audience the more important it becomes.
- Don’t keep doing things – like holding meetings – if they aren’t making a significant difference. Every activity needs to be tested for value and dropped if it fails the test.
- Make more of the interactive map. It is a great resource whose potential has not yet been fully exploited. It’s a matter of making it better known and more intuitive to use.
- By all means undertake surveys, but make sure they will produce robust information which can be used to improve decision-making and therefore value for money. (Some questions about people’s knowledge of, and views about, the interactive map could be included.)
- Provide feedback on consultations!
27 November 2010