In attendance for this item were:
Ian Bamforth, Highways and Public Rights of Way Manager
Phil Coulson, Public Rights of Way Operations Manager
The Panel received a presentation, the slides of which had been included in the agenda papers. In the course of the presentation and discussion, the following main points were raised:
· The Public Rights of Way (PRoW) Team managed 4604km of network across the County. This was the third densest network in the Country. Managing the network was a statutory duty. There were 4.3 FTE staff (with one vacant post) in the PRoW Mapping Team and 7.4 FTE staff in the PRoW Operations Team.
· The routes were used by walkers, cyclists and horse riders and had recreational and health benefits. The network included a number of high-profile routes which attracted tourism into the County, such as the Worcestershire Way.
· The PRoW Mapping Team’s duties included processing Definitive Map Modifications Orders (DMMOs) which may result in changes or additions to the definitive map. It was confirmed that instances where the reality on the ground was not reflected on the Definitive Map would be prioritised. The number of planning and other development applications requiring temporary closures was increasing each year.
· It was confirmed that the County Council would be responsible for work in relation to large infrastructure projects whereas smaller developments would be looked after by the District Councils.
· It was confirmed that work in relation to Public Rights of Way was not holding up any developments. Engagement between District Council Planning Officers and the PRoW Team had improved recently leading to a better end result.
· The Chairman of the Panel expressed concern about a particular DMMO in Badsey which had been on the list since 2012. The Highways and Public Rights of Way Manager reminded the Panel that there was a defined amount of staff and the Team did what it could within available resources. This reflected the national situation. Work was managed and prioritised in an orderly fashion and to best effect. It was suggested by the Chairman of the Panel that the completion of only one DMMO per year meant there would be a 55-year backlog.
· A potential future challenge was the implementation of the Deregulation Act. It was not yet clear when this would be put in place but the Service was watching to assess the possible impact.
· A Member of the Panel expressed concern about the reduction in the useable bridleway network as a result of erosion and other damage. Some riders had experienced following a route only to find some of the bridleway was unusable. The Public Rights of Way Operations Manager reminded Members that, if riders were aware of an issue with the network, they should raise it with the team and it would be dealt with in a prioritised way. Issues with the network could also be reported on the County Council’s website. Members were reminded that not wanting to ride on a damaged bridleway was a matter of safety rather than rider competence. The Panel was informed that the PRoW Team also took advice from the British Horse Society when assessing bridleways.
· The PRoW Operations Team resolved around 2000 reported defects and obstructions per year. There was currently a backlog of 5400 defects reported. These were detailed on the PRoW interactive map on the WCC webpage.
· Repairs to the PRoW network were carried out by either:
o PRoW approved small-scale local contractors;
o Community Payback, typically working with six offenders on litter picking or clearance work;
o PRoW Volunteers, currently around 250 volunteers who carried out 25% of all practical work including the majority of new gates or stiles and a good amount of waymarking. There were different volunteers, as follows:
§ Countryside Access Volunteer Groups (currently around 19 groups)
§ Recreational Route Wardens (currently 20 volunteers)
§ Parish Path Wardens (currently 125 volunteers).
· The Service had a budget of £420k. All reports of defects from members of the public were inspected within a month and some more quickly.
· The Chairman referred the Panel to the Pebworth Countryside Access Volunteer Group which he had been involved with to improve footpaths around the village. Just over 20 months ago there had been 75 defects to the PRoW around Pebworth and some of these reported defects had been outstanding for years. In Feb 2018 the Group was set up involving up to 16 local residents. They had replaced several broken PRoW bridges, replaced stiles, fitted new gates, improved way marking and cleared overgrown vegetation. They were proud of their work and had a great community spirit. The number of defects around Pebworth was now much reduced to less than a third of what it was 20 months ago. He felt that the use of volunteer groups was a fantastic scheme which should be further promoted by the County Council. It was suggested that it would be helpful for Members to have access to an information leaflet that they could distribute to members of the public who may be interested in setting up a volunteer group.
· Members were reminded that, although volunteer groups were a great way to get things done, they still needed some officer support in the form of a vehicle or supervision in the initial phases. Volunteer groups also needed ‘drivers’/local champions – those people who would push the group forward. The Chairman of the Panel agreed but noted that there were many projects that volunteers could undertake without the need for officer support such as signage, strimming and vegetation clearance. The Panel was reminded by the officers that staffing within the Service was very lean.
· The Service often relied on the good will of landowners when completing work. A Member suggested that it was sometimes the case that landowners would undertake the work themselves and asked whether there was some way of recognising this. It was confirmed that, broadly speaking, the Service had very good relations with local landowners.
· Although one Member reported that local landowners were looking to open up their land by creating clear paths across, another Member suggested this had not been his experience, having witnessed landowners deliberately making footpaths impossible to use. The Public Rights of Way Operations Manager reported that the number of issues with landowners was small.
· In response to a question from a Member of the Panel, it was confirmed that in terms of accessibility, the Service conformed to British Standard for gates and stiles being one of the first counties to work within this. If a stile was in disrepair, accessibility would be considered when it was repaired, taking into account the individual location. The Service also took advice from the Chair of the Disabled Ramblers Association who lived locally.
· There had been an increase in the number of volunteers in recent years. Volunteers were provided with training in, for example, practical work, safety and Rights of Way legislation.
In summary, the Chairman highlighted the following points from the discussion:
· The Countryside Access Volunteer Group schemes were a Worcestershire County Council success story.
· Promotion of Countryside Access Volunteer Groups should be encouraged, including the production of a one-page information sheet for Councillors to give to interested members of the public.
· The rate of completion of DMMOs (at one per year with 55 outstanding) was considered poor performance and at the current rate meant the Council had a backlog of 55 years. Cabinet Member, Alan Amos, agreed to look into this area.
· The Panel would like to receive the following Performance Information as part of its quarterly updates:
o Number of outstanding PRoW defects
o Number of new defects received in the month
o Number of defects completed in the month
o Number of new Countryside Access Volunteer Groups set up in the quarter.