Budget cuts hit country walkers across Devon and Cornwall
Budget cuts could deny walkers the chance to enjoy some of the Westcountry's most beautiful countryside, it has been claimed.
A report compiled by the Ramblers said more than 70 per cent of councils have cut their rights of way budgets over the last three years.
It claimed that 40 per cent of local authorities had cut finances by more than 20 per cent with 11 per cent of councils reducing funding by more than half.
And the group warned the cuts were having a real impact on the ground, with paths becoming overgrown and stiles, gates and bridges falling into disrepair.
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The Ramblers said this not only damaged people's ability to get outdoors but would increasingly impact upon tourism, the economy and the nation's physical and mental health.
Nicky Philpott, director of campaigns and policy at the Ramblers said: "These cuts are worryingly short-sighted. Our path network is the gateway to the countryside, and connects people from their doorsteps to parks and green spaces in towns and cities.
"They enable people to get outside, reconnect with nature, spend quality time with loved ones, clear their head, spot wildlife, revisit history and explore the beautiful cities and countryside which England has to offer.
"In the current economic climate, we didn't expect funding for rights of way to be untouched. But these statistics show the disproportionate effect of council cuts on rights of way and the teams which look after them.
"Keeping paths clear is a small cost compared to the huge benefits they can bring to tourism, the economy and the nation's health and happiness and it is vital that councils properly invest in them."
Devon County Council's rights of way budget has been cut by £168,572 from £827,072 in 2009-10 to £658,500 this year.
In the past the county's footpaths have always ranked highly in nationwide surveys of walkers.
Eileen Linfoot, the countryside officer with the Rambler's Association in Devon, said the vast majority of paths were "pretty good".
But she said "no cuts in any budget are good".
She added: "They are now accepting our help with footpath clearance which they have never done before because they have never needed us."
Councillor Stuart Hughes, Devon County Council cabinet member for highways and transport, said: "The health and economic benefits of having a well maintained path network are fully recognised by the council and every effort is being made by Devon County Council to maintain the network to a high standard.
"Over 90 per cent of our paths remain 'easy to use'.
"We have invested more than £13 million in cycling and walking trails over the past three years, with a further £5million from our Investing in Devon fund."
No budget figures were yesterday available from Cornwall Council which was not included in the Rambler's report.
Mike Knutton, from Cornwall Ramblers, said there were "problems" in the county, particularly on less well used routes, which were already of long standing.
"Obviously the council has cut back the maintenance programme," he said. "The lower ranked paths were neglected even before these cuts and they are just going to make it worse.
"The danger is some footpaths will disappear completely and be lost forever."