Is Lancashire's rights of way forum heading in the right direction?

Which way now for the committee which explores rights of way issues in Lancashire?
Which way now for the committee which explores rights of way issues in Lancashire?

A debate over the future of a committee which examines rights of way issues in Lancashire led to a row about what the group has achieved in its near 20-year history.

The Lancashire Local Access Forum (LLAF) is part of a nationwide network which advises local authorities about improving public access to rights of way and other areas where they are permitted to roam. The group also often turns its attention to related issues of countryside concern.

Richard Toon has chaired the Lancashire Local Access Forum for the 19 years which it has existed.

Richard Toon has chaired the Lancashire Local Access Forum for the 19 years which it has existed.

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Lancashire County Council said earlier this year that this month’s quarterly meeting of the LLAF would be the last which it helped to organise. The authority announced its intention to facilitate an annual gathering instead – pointing out that members could hold informal meetings whenever they chose.

The plan drew a furious response from LLAF chair Richard Toon who said the council was trying to “kill off” the committee, which is independent of County Hall, but is entitled to practical support to help it operate.

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As the group gathered for its final three-monthly meeting, Mr. Toon noted that there were currently a number of vacancies on the committee – and no attempt had been made by the county council, or the standalone authorities in Blackpool and Blackburn, to fill them.

“That’s because some people want to see the LLAF wither on the vine and if it ends up with no members, then it won’t exist,” he said.

But committee member and Conservative county councillor Cosima Towneley said it was difficult to recruit people because the forum was regarded as ineffective.

“I’ve come and gone on this committee three times over the last 20 years and we have achieved nothing in that time. It’s the individuals around the table who have made a difference [as part of] other groups – they are effective, but we, as the LLAF, are not,” she said.

In heated exchanges, Mr. Toon said he ”totally disagreed” with County Cllr Towneley’s assessment and cited proposed changes to protection measures for hen harriers and revised guidance about upland access during wildfire risks as examples of the LLAF’s success. He said he could compile a dossier of other achievements over the group’s lifetime.

After canvassing opinion from members and observers, it was agreed that there was a desire for at least two formal meetings per year – and Lancashire County Council’s rights of way manager, David Goode, agreed that the authority would facilitate both.

It is a legal requirement for local access forums to meet at least every six months, but there is no stipulation about how often local authorities are obliged to provide support for such meetings and allow officers to attend them.

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Paul McKeown, representing mountain bikers on the LLAF, said it was important to determine the future ambition for the LLAF under the new arrangements.

“If the council feels it’s not getting value for money, then it should say what it needs [from the LLAF].

“The forum is an exercise in soft power – the user groups can push the [council] officers and the council can test out its strategy. The authority would be poorer for not having [that opportunity], ” Mr. McKeown added.

David Goode said he welcomed that vision of the LLAF, but that it did not currently fuction in that way – adding that it was not up to County Hall to direct how the LLAF operates.

“The problem with local access forums is that they have no power – just a woolly, advisory remit. There’s frustration [at council level] with not being able to get something useful out of it,” Mr. Goode said.

Local access forums should draw their membership from so-called “user groups” – such as ramblers, cyclists and horseriders – landowners and other interest groups like those specialising in flora and fauna. The Lancashire forum is currently dominated by user groups.

Forums can have up to 22 members; in Lancashire, there are 13.