The Ramblers response to todays Comprehensive Spending Review and Autumn Budget Statement
Chancellor George Osborne presented his Autumn Statement, detailing
£20bn of budget cuts aiming to eliminate the budget deficit. But what does this mean for walkers?
Departments including Defra (Department for Rural Affairs) and Communities and Local Government have shouldered substantial cuts, both agreeing to further budget reductions over the next four years that average around 30 percent.
What this means for our green and pleasant land is unclear, although Mr Osborne had good news for some of the most cherished parts of it, including promising to protect £350 million of funding for National Parks, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and public forests.
Sadly, this overlooks other areas that would benefit from more funding, such as the 138,000 miles of public footpaths, bridleways and byways which thread their way through the countryside; and the parks and green spaces that allow people to unwind in our towns and cities.
These are maintained by local authorities that have seen their direct grants from central government fall by 27 percent between 2011 and 2015. The Department which issues these - Communities and Local Government - has seen its own budget reduced by half since 2010 and with local authorities struggling to plug gaps in vital services there is going to be even less funding available to keep paths open in the coming years.
We would urge the government to look at alternative sources such as the £3 billion Mr. Osborne today pledged to ‘safeguard England’s countryside through the Common Agricultural Policy’ or the millions handed out to Local Enterprise Partnerships every year.
Other, partially built, walking infrastructure also face an uncertain future, particularly the eagerly anticipated England Coast Path. Despite our best efforts, the Chancellor has still not given any assurances about what will be a vital new national asset. Natural England, the agency charged with its creation, face an increasingly difficult task as Defra seeks to implement yet more stiff budget cuts.
Access to the countryside could be affected by today’s announcement of a sell off of further chunks of government land and allowing local authorities to keep funds from sales of assets. We will be investigating the implications of this as we receive further details, along with renewed proposals to privatise the Land Registry and Ordnance Survey.
All this comes at a time of unprecedented pressure on the NHS budget, and whilst that has been protected, local health budgets have been reduced. This will have a direct impact on the long term health of communities across the country, where physical inactivity is now a massive public health problem. Schemes such as Walking for Health, which the Ramblers run in partnership with Macmillan Cancer Support, rely on Local Authority funding in England for more than half of its 400 health walk schemes. Without them, inactive people are more likely to suffer long term health conditions.
Inactivity also places a significant cost upon local economies and health services, whereas walking itself makes a vital contribution. Only this week new figures from Visit England reported walking is worth £1.8 billion a year.