National parks rights of way row set to reignite

A footpath in the North Yorkshire area of the Yorkshire Dales National Park. Picture: LDRS.

A row over the funding of rights of way maintenance in the Yorkshire Dales and North York Moors national parks looks set to reignite with the publication of a report concluding a “disappointing” amount of popular routes were now easy to use.

The document being presented to a meeting of the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority on Tuesday (June 25) repeatedly underlines how North Yorkshire Council has declined to offer a contribution towards maintaining the protected area’s 2637km rights of way, despite being legally responsible for the paths.

The annual rights of way report follows the park authority warning it would cut back on its rights of way maintenance in the North Yorkshire part of the park.

In addition, in March the North York Moors National Park Authority agreed if no agreement for rights of way funding was reached with North Yorkshire and Redcar and Cleveland councils over the next 12 months, the park authority could offload both its responsibility for maintaining many routes as well as potentially costly liabilities to maintain bridges and paths.

While Westmorland and Furness Council has agreed to start contributions, members of North Yorkshire Council’s ruling Conservative group have called for alternative sources of funding to be explored by the park authorities.

The Dales report states volunteers contributed the work of about eight full-time staff last year to maintaining the routes.

The report reveals while volunteers gave up 1,193 days for practical work and 470 days to survey the national park’s routes in the 2023-24, a potentially misleading sample of five per cent of the paths found only 89 per cent were in good order, which it said was “disappointing”.

Park rangers believe both the weather conditions during 2023 and the continued high levels of use could have contributed to the authority falling slightly below its target.

The report emphasises how the authority undertakes maintenance of public rights of way at no cost to local farmers or landowners and that the failure to reach a funding settlement with North Yorkshire Council has meant the park authority has scaled back the rights of way programme in North Yorkshire.

It states: “The impact of this two-tier approach will be felt in the longer term, with the national park ultimately having to manage the reduction in the quality and condition of rights of way in North Yorkshire in the coming years.”

A Yorkshire Dales visitor survey in 2022 found two out of every three visitors undertook a walk of an hour or more during their visit and a survey of the park’s residents in November found 88 per cent put maintaining rights of way as the park authority’s most important function.

The report adds how the rights of way maintenance issue “contrasts sharply with the situation outside the national park where such responsibilities
sit with the local authority and the landowner”.

The document concludes: “Rights of way maintenance and volunteering continue to make an important contribution to the delivery of our objectives and specifically our second statutory purpose.

“As a priority programme our aim is to ensure the national park has one of the best maintained rights of way networks in the country. This work is undertaken on behalf of the councils who retain the statutory responsibility.”