Delivering Rights of Way Work
Practical delivery of accessible networks includes not only providing well surfaced routes with good quality, well designed countryside furniture. It involves providing clear signs and waymarking and good quality information. People using the network need to feel safe and secure, and many older or less able people in particular may need to pause for a break at a comfortable resting place.
All this requires access to sufficient resources and funding, and in order to be delivered well must be planned and managed effectively.
Planning and Prioritising
This article explores the strategic context behind the maintenance of the rights of way network. In doing so, it is necessary:
- To understand the need for a strategic approach to the management of a rights of way network
- To gain an appreciation of how government and local authority policies influence the management process
- To understand the need to carry out monitoring and review of the network
- To explore the need to devise appropriate work programme strategies.
Although at first glance much of rights of way work might be thought to be practically based, there is a need to place this within a strategic context defined by policies and plans. Clearly, if an authority simply dealt with all problems as they were reported, it would run the risk of quickly running out of funds within the rights of way budget. There is a need to plan for the future and also to show the authority's customers, council taxpayers as well as rights of way users, that it is making best use of its resources.
The process of business planning for public rights of way has been dominated by Milestones and Best Value over the last decade but more recently the duty to prepare ROWIPs has largely superseded these approaches.
Even with plans in place, it is necessary to monitor an authority's progress towards the targets it has set, generally through a process of surveying the network itself to assess its physical condition, and perhaps also its ease of use. Allied to this is the need to devise mechanisms for matching demand for maintenance or improvement of rights of way with the resources available for delivering them. Progress toward delivery of ROWIPs must be monitored and reported annually.
The Strategic Background
There are a number of formal planning initiatives that have a role in the development of business plans for the management of the public rights of way network. Some of these are specific to rights of way, while others are more general, dealing with transport or the overall running of the local authority itself. The main plans that can be expected to be met include:
- Milestones Statements – a timetabled and costed action plan stating targets for completing various tasks
- Rights of Way Improvement Plans – a long-term strategic plan setting out how the network of routes will be improved to meet public need and demand (see ROWIPs)
- Best Value – a commitment to continually improve performance and to review progress (see Performance Indicators)
- Local Transport Plans
There might be some temptation to think that all the problems of managing public rights of way can be solved by producing plans and supporting these with data about performance, but if progress is to be made, it is still necessary for plans to be backed up by a robust and adequately resourced programme of works. Some members of the public might be forgiven for taking a cynical view on the production of plans per se and would argue that the money spent might be better put towards physical improvements and enforcement action. Reality lies somewhere between these extremes, with approaches such as Milestones seeking to balance the planning and the doing elements of the task.
Milestones Statements are a business planning approach to managing rights of way. The Milestones Approach was developed to help LHAs to plan to meet the National Target for all PROW to be legally recorded, properly maintained and well promoted by the year 2000. Although the date has passed, the challenge to continue to improve the legal recording, maintenance, and promotion of PROW is still a Government target in the Rural White Paper, and relevant to the Best Value approach introduced by the Local Government Act 1999. The Milestones Approach is still considered by many LHAs to be a useful way to plan and improve the delivery of its rights of way functions, and was advocated by the Countryside Agency in its research note The Milestones Approach to Managing Rights of Way: a Review (CRN 42, 2001). It remains the most popular approach to planning in its field.
In 1987 the Countryside Commission in their publication Policies for Enjoying the Countryside set the National Target that all rights of way should be legally defined, properly maintained and well publicised by the end of the century. A survey carried out the following year suggested that more than 39,000km of the network of public rights of way in England and Wales were blocked and unusable, and that the chance of completing a two-mile walk was no more than 1 in 3.
Even though the National Target was widely endorsed by Highway Authorities, it became clear that progress towards achieving the target was patchy and that in some areas authorities were slow in adopting a strategic approach in assessing where they currently stood in relation to the target and in working out how they were going to progress towards achieving it. The Milestones Approach was therefore devised by the Countryside Commission to persuade local authorities to formally adopt a planning process. The scheme was launched in 1993 and was given extra bite by the Commission making it a prerequisite for any authority to receive grant-aid from them for work on their network that they should have such a plan in place.
The Milestones Statement aims to set benchmarks for the achievement of various component tasks or targets as outlined in the Countryside Commission publication 'National Rights of Way – A guide to the Milestones Approach' (CCP 435).
The five key elements of the Milestones process are:
- identify groups of component tasks and then individual milestones – ie. the stages by which each one of the tasks should be achieved and through which progress is to be monitored
- review the progress made towards attaining the national target. This would involve:
- an assessment of the condition of rights of way and the work that remains to be done
- a critical assessment of the authority's current performance and rate of progress to ensure all routes are properly maintained, legally recorded and well promoted c. base-line surveys, where necessary, to provide the information required.
- what the authority has achieved since 1987
- the authority's overall objectives for rights of way – ie. its own practical translation of the national target for rights of way
- an outline of the strategy to be followed in order to achieve the objectives, including component tasks that are involved and stages or milestones that will be used to chart progress
- a programme of work and funds required in order to carry it out.
- measurements used to monitor progress, and how this information is to be gathered.
Approximately 70% of the area of England and of the length of the network of rights of way was managed according to Milestones principles and there had been a substantial increase in the number of authorities with statements since the last survey in 1996. Adopting the Milestones approach seemed generally to have been successful in encouraging authorities to increase their funding for rights of way – in almost 75% of cases an increase in resources was reported. Elsewhere in the report figures for the overall expenditure on rights of way showed that resources for rights of way in England had risen by some 46% in the decade between 1990 and 2000 and 12% since 1996. Once inflation is taken into account the effect is less marked with the 12% increase mentioned above equating to only 4% in real terms.
Where Milestones seems to have been less successful was in enabling authorities to achieve the year 2000 National Target. Earlier research in 1996 suggested that by the end of the millennium some 43% of milestones targets would have been completed. The 1999 research revealed a very different picture, with only 8% being anticipated to be completed in time for the end of 2000. Many authorities appeared to have been unable to fund rights of way work to the extent needed to meet their initial, optimistic, milestones targets and had subsequently put back the targets, and in a number of cases made them open ended, so that they could be achieved within their existing budgets. It was particularly noteworthy from the research that a further 340 fte and £23m per annum would be needed before the targets set in the statements could be achieved.
(see Performance Indicators for more information on best value)
In 1999 the Local Government Act placed a new duty on Local Authorities to make arrangements to secure continuous improvement in the way in which its functions are exercised, having regard to a combination of economy, efficiency and effectiveness. All authorities have a duty to review all their activities, including public rights of way management, in line with the legislation and to put in place Best Value action plans to ensure that improvement will take place that is relevant to the needs of the local community.
Like Milestones, the Best Value regime is based upon principles of sound business planning and seeks to encourage Local Authorities to:
- Be accountable to local people
- Continuously improve their services
- Set targets and report on their progress towards them
- Be innovative and to look beyond current departmental boundaries
- Develop partnerships
- Be open about service delivery
Each authority has to consult their council tax and business ratepayers and those with a particular interest in that area of work. They produce a Best Value Review programme that identifies the order in which the individual reviews will take place. Generally there is a tendency to avoid a large number of very small reviews and opt for a more effective approach with a smaller number of large reviews. In practice therefore public rights of way is likely to be dealt with as part of a larger review, possibly centred on Transport functions.
The review must consider the so-called 4Cs:
- Challenge – why and how a service is being provided
- Compare – performance with others to identify improvements
- Consult – local taxpayers, service users etc.
- Compete – to provide the best service
The authority has to report on its progress each year with a Best Value Performance Plan and the whole process is closely audited. If an authority fails to provide a satisfactory service, the Government reserves the right to intervene – in the most extreme instance by taking over the management of the service.
The process of benchmarking is associated with the'compare' element of Best Value and involves authorities comparing their performance on a regular basis with the better performing authorities and other authorities with which they are similar – eg. family groups of Local Authorities. In addition, closely located authorities have set up local benchmarking groups which share detailed information on processes related to public rights of way. The problem which is often encountered in benchmarking is that authorities operate different systems and record information in different ways – it can be very difficult to identify common ground on which meaningful comparisons can be made and there is a tendency towards settling for the lowest common denominator.
Perhaps the most significant spin-off from the increased benchmarking activity that has accompanied Best Value is the realisation of the benefits which would flow from the rights of way profession establishing more appropriate protocols for exchanging information. The development of a standard methodology for assessing path condition is a good example of this. Another benefit that should not be underestimated is the better understanding of the implications of their own procedures which authorities can obtain from a serious study of this type.
Rights of Way Improvement Plans
(for more information see ROWIPs
The latest addition to the group of strategic planning documents that impacts on rights of way management is the Improvement Plan,introduced by sections 60 – 62 of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000.
The need for improvement plans stems from the absence in the National Target for public rights of way of any incentive or requirement on authorities to go beyond maintaining, defining and publicising the network, to actively seek to improve it.
Local Transport Plans
Local transport plans are a mechanism for allocating funding to authorities for transport related schemes. The emphasis is on integrated thinking across all areas, so that policies on transport are in step with those for health and education etc. and that the opportunities for the public and private sectors to work together are maximised.
Funding is no longer provided by central government attached to individual projects, but is allocated on the basis of a strategy, for local government then to spend within this framework. Local Authorities have to draw up five-year integrated transport strategies that are to cover, and link together, all modes of urban and rural transport. This provides an important opportunity for certain aspects of an authority's work on public rights of way to be included within the strategy and to attract funding through the LTP process. The Government has indicated that ROWIPs will formally become a part of the LTP process in the near future. Guidance on how this happens in practice can be found in the internal consultation section of LTP.
Walking and Cycling are specifically identified within the official guidance on the content of the plans. Links between walking and health are stressed, as is the important role that walking has to play in integrating other modes of transport.
The production of LTPs is outside the scope of the GPG, but Local Authorities will have experts in this field who will be in a position to give more detailed advice on how rights of way work can fit into, and benefit from, the initiative.
Monitoring and Review
At the centre of any strategy must lie a clear and up to date understanding of the physical condition of the network of public rights of way for which an authority is responsible. It is probably true to say that in the past this area of work was neglected; in the short term it is easier to justify the expenditure of resources on tangible works on the ground than on building up and maintaining data on a whole network's physical condition. If you wish to find out in detail about the condition of a path you have to survey it –and the only way to do that is to arrange for it to be walked and inspected.
Following the Countryside Agency's year 2000 condition survey, it supported, along with CSS and IPROW, the development of a consistent method for local surveys to provide BVPI 178 (see below) with a view to building up national trend data on the condition of public rights of way.
Best Value Performance Indicator – BVPI No. 178
For Rights of Way the BVPI is number 178. The national methodology for surveying rights of way to provide data for the Best Value Rights of Way Performance Indicator (BVPI) is available under Performance Indicators. It was produced by CSS in conjunction with the Countryside Agency and IPROW.
The plans described above will through their strategic content define the overall course in which a local authority wishes to progress over a number of years with regard to its functions for public rights of way. The plans will also have attached to them work programmes which, in varying degrees of detail, will identify areas where the authority intends to be proactive and state the targets towards which it will work. The documents should also give an indication of the likely costs of the programme and how finances, along with other resources, will be managed.
There will however be a second stream of work, which is not necessarily contained within the plan, over which the authority will have less control, although it will continue to have a significant effect on the overall resources available. This will relate to reports and complaints brought forward by members of the public, as well as applications for additions/deletions from the definitive map and applications for diversion or extinguishments of rights of way. Many of these matters relate to functions for which the authority has a statutory duty and in some cases, for example failure to maintain the surface or to take action over obstructions, the public have the power to force the authority to take some sort of action or at least address their complaint. In the background too stands the Commission for Local Government (the Ombudsman) with its powers of investigation and reprimand. (see Local Government Ombudsman for more information)
The local authority will therefore have to balance these demands, which will be difficult to predict, against the need for it to pursue its own course of actions as defined in its strategic planning documents. Those authorities which have in the past neglected their rights of way network, may therefore find themselves in the difficult position of trying to turn the situation round by introducing through the Milestones process an ambitious programme of improvements, while at the same time having to cope with a higher than average number of complaints generated by frustrated would-be users of the network.
Many authorities have attempted to introduce some element of control into this situation by the introduction of a regime of priorities which are effectively used to filter out various types of complaint which they are not at that time prepared to invest time investigating or resolving. These priorities can be applied in various ways, for example by:
- Creating a distinction between reports of problems and more formal complaints
- Defining a hierarchy of problems which will be used to allocate resources
- Defining a hierarchy of routes that will attract differing levels of response.
There is evidence to suggest that the Ombudsman when investigating complaints of maladministration by a highway authority will attach some weight to a suitably drawn up and sanctioned scheme of priorities. This acceptance will only go so far and an authority will have to show that they apply the scheme fairly, but with some scope for flexibility, and that the scheme is not framed in such a way that some routes or problems will never receive any attention. It is the nature of highway law, however, that members of the public have the ability in certain circumstances to make use specific procedures to by-pass priority systems. Section 56 of the Highways Act 1980 is a case in point.
System for prioritising surface work
Kent County Council uses a system for prioritising surfacing work very successfully. A similar format could be devised for many other capital projects. Using such a system enables officers to demonstrate a coherent approach to investment and to defend or justify priority order. This can be especially helpful when a demand from the public, particularly when escalated by a councillor or senior management, is for work that the officer does not consider significant against the list of priorities.