Monday 22 December 2014

Stile Council: Where Are We Heading For?

I read an article today – someone sent me a link to it, knowing it would be of interest in my line of work. At first glance, you may be wondering where the walking connection is – but bear with me, and all will be revealed.

In it was described a council that have outsourced or intend to outsource so many of their services – not just the usual suspects such as parking, highways and so forth, but planning, regeneration, HR, IT, procurement, finance, legal services, trading standards, council housing, environmental health, rubbish collection, libraries, care of the vulnerable and the disabled, and even, would you believe it, cemeteries and crematoriums – that in the space of just a couple of years, the council will have shrunk from just over 3,000 staff to just over 300. 

To save their embarrassment, I won’t name them.

According to the article, there appears to be three main concerns about a state of affairs such as this. Firstly, all of these services are being farmed out to a very limited number of massive, privately-owned infrastructure and business services companies that have little knowledge of local issues and concerns, whose contracts are such that the details are often shrouded by “commercial sensitivity” and who can, in a worst-case scenario, go bust. Where would that leave us?

Secondly, these contracts are typically let over lengthy timespans, often as much as 10 years at a time, so the entire democratic process is lost to the local community – whoever you vote for, you get the contracted infrastructure company, like it or not.

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, local expertise is lost. At the end of these lengthy contracts there will be so little experience, expertise and infrastructure remaining locally within councils that it would be almost impossible to return to the “old” way even if they wanted to.

These deals are usually touted as a route to saving money, although it seems that is not always the case. In one example, a deal was meant to deliver £70m savings and 100 new jobs: when neither benefit actually materialised, the contract was transferred back to the council.

So how does this affect walking, I hear you ask?

Well, the obvious answer is that local authorities are responsible, through Rights of Way departments, for the upkeep and maintenance of the all the footpaths, bridleways, by-ways and so forth. But with low priority, reduced budgets and outsourced responsibility, how will upkeep and maintenance of the network be enacted and policed?

The providers are only in it to make money, and I suspect there is little money to be had from contracts like this because we all know that RoW team budgets are miniscule in relative terms, and that a good footpath network runs on the goodwill of many people – landowners and managers, local volunteers, Ramblers’ groups, and the like. Will those volunteers still feel as altruistic if they are ultimately helping to line the pockets of big business and greedy shareholders?

The other aspect – the one that is perhaps most immediately concerning here on Ambles & Rambles – is that my own local authority, Northamptonshire, is set to adopt an “alternative delivery model” like this and follow in the footsteps of the council mentioned above, declaring just last month that it intended to outsource 95% of its work and go down to a skeleton staff.

Quite how this will manifest itself in the future, no one yet knows. It’s one thing to ask local residents to keep an eye out for any maintenance issues, to help fix a stile or put up a new waymarker, but another altogether to expect them to fight legal battles over illegal closures, maintain (or even improve by 2026, the cut-off date for re-inclusion of remembered but lost pre-1949 routes into the network and set out in the CroW Act 2000) the definitive map, or negotiate new access rights with landowners.

Because, in the end, it all comes down to money. It’s the reason that outsourcing is being proposed, and it’s why contractors will take it on. If they can’t make any money out of it, they won’t do it, and I’m sure they will be inclined to minimise outlay in order to maximise profit margins and keep shareholders happy. Unless the contracts are absolutely correctly specified then the contractors will work any loopholes they can find – they have whole departments given over to just that sort of fine-tooth-combery – and exploit them to the full if they can.

And by the time the contracts are re-let, there could be a lot of damage done.

Monday 15 December 2014

Scratchings & Squeakings From An Ill-lit Corner

It’s now mid-December 2014, some two months since my last scribblings (a half-baked rant about energy and wind farms) and even longer since a proper report about walking-related matters has appeared – a short commentary on a long weekend walking bits of the Pembrokeshire Coastal Path.  

Stormy skies above Grasswood from the Dales Way near Grassington

So it’s been a quiet time in this dimly-lit corner of the blogosphere, with nary a sound to be heard but for the odd scratch or squeak every once in a while.

Negotiating Conistone Dib

I must confess that time and motivation for posting to the blog has been in short supply of late, something that has been true for much of the year (and which has also affected the reading of and contributions to other blogs, as well). There have been some notable exceptions – Norfolk, the Peaks of the Balkans and the Camino posts, for example. But, by-and-large, contributions to the blog have been much reduced – around half the number of posts of previous years – and what momentum there was seems to have been lost.

Watching the Wharfe go by

However, a lack of online activity does not equate to a lack of walking or enthusiasm for it: we have been slowly racking up mileage throughout the autumn, and it looks as if we will top last year’s total and post a new best-year-ever figure come December 31st

Weir near Linton Falls

But apart from a couple of weekends away (more of which in a moment) most of this mileage has been accumulated during shorter walks on familiar local circuits – a couple of hours grabbed here and there – and these haven’t really offered enough in the way of new paths, high drama, great photography or worthwhile distance to warrant individual blog entries.

Two weekend trips do stand out, though. Firstly, a budget hotel deal afforded us the opportunity for a brief trip up to the Yorkshire Dales, during which time we walked from Grassington and Bolton Abbey (and photos of which are included in the post). Over the course of the weekend we remained largely dry, inadvertently improved on an established circuit, caught some beautiful autumn colours in the sunshine, and wiped away a tear (not the result of a chill wind but from being relieved of an eye-watering £8 for parking by one of the richest men in the UK).

This information, posted on the gate accessing the path to the Valley of Desolation, did
not appear to be in evidence in the car park. I would have been more than "desolate" if
I'd paid £8 parking only to find there was no access on the moors that day 

The second was a weekend in the White Peak built around a Saturday-night gig in Youlgreave by Whalebone, an entertaining evening of “high energy acoustic music” from talented musicians Steve, Char and Sarah that draws on traditional folk, classic rock and their own compositions for inspiration. If you fancy catching them live or simply want to find out more about the band and their music, further information can be found here:

Descending from Simon's Seat

My plan for 2015 is to gradually get back into the swing of things, and hopefully be a bit more active on the blogging scene. I don’t know if it’s just my imagination, but it does seem to have been a quieter year all round, with many contributors seeming to have posted a little less frequently.

Dales Way path beside the river

Some of the biggest subjects have been controversial, too, which made for higher traffic volumes but a less harmonious online outdoor community – important principles to be defended, perhaps, for those involved (and I would probably do the same in similar circumstances) but a slightly unedifying experience for those watching-on from the outside. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the situation, I suspect this is, in part, a consequence of the time of year: as winter is not yet upon us and Christmas approaches, there are simply fewer interesting topics and trip reports to peruse. Hopefully, all will soon be forgotten as next year progresses and the winter walking season gathers pace.

Finally, because it was a lovely afternoon, I'll finish with a few more photos from our Yorkshire Dales weekend - beautiful autumn colours near The Strid.