It can’t have escaped anyone’s attention that over the last two weeks or so, Britain – or, more specifically, London – has been hosting the Olympic games. By almost every measure, this has been a roaring success, and Team GB has exceeded expectations with a medal count unheard of for over 100 years. The Paralympics are soon to follow, and there is every reason to be optimistic about the success of this event as well.
So, after seven years of build-up and a summer’s worth of events, we are soon to be moving into what is termed the legacy phase of the project. And the big question being asked is this: can we capitalise on the social, economic and sporting benefits that have been generated by a successful games?
The first two categories are relatively easy to define and measure, being as the impact will be felt in the short- to mid-term. Bar some re-working, most of the construction projects are already complete, and further economic benefit will become evident as the country picks up in terms of tourism and inward investment.
But the sporting benefit – at least outside of the range of our elite athletes – will be slower to manifest itself and harder to measure, taking perhaps a decade or even a generation to become fully clear.
Getting more people involved in more sports is easy to say, but harder to do. One of the major obstacles to achieving success will be the availability of sufficient facilities – there simply won’t be enough tennis courts, swimming pools or cycling tracks available immediately to accommodate everyone whose interest has been piqued.
And this is where walking can step in.
All those who do so on a regular basis know the benefits walking can bring, both physically and mentally. It is simple to get started, cheap to do and easy for all the family to get involved, needing little specialist training or equipment – especially at the outset.
There are also lots of ramblers clubs already in existence across the country for those who prefer a more social, less independent option. And there is a ready-made network of paths criss-crossing the country already in place, ranging from gentle walks in the park to serious mountain scrambles.
Beyond that, there is the undoubted draw that Long Distance Paths and National Trails have on tourism from abroad – something else the legacy committee have targeted to increase in the wake of the Games.
In theory it should be perfectly simple to capitalise on these circumstances. But it is here I feel that an opportunity could be missed if we are not careful. We all know about the cuts in funding to the Public Sector: cuts that have impacted heavily on perceived “non-essential” services such as Rights Of Way departments. In turn, that will have a huge effect on how the ROW network is maintained and protected, with a potential loss of access through unchallenged illegal blockages and poor maintenance the likely result. And nothing is more likely to deter potential users than that.
So I believe the time is right to consider a radical proposition.
Rather than leaving the network at the mercy of the financial axe man as it is at the moment, now is actually the time for some meaningful investment and a long-term strategy of protection and improvement.
It is well understood that every £1 invested in support of the outdoor industry delivers a return several times higher. For what would be a relatively small sum of money (compared to the whole cost of staging the Games) we could deliver a legacy whose ramifications would last for decades, if not generations.
A physically and mentally fitter population; a boost to tourism (and hence the economy) that would allow small businesses to grow and new ones to be started; more jobs, spread across the whole of the country and in areas that often have little or no other work to offer; income for high streets keeping countryside towns and villages vibrant and viable.
It all seems a bit of a no-brainer to me.
But will anything happen?