Thursday 31 January 2008

Notes on a scandal

A public right of way in the London Borough of Waltham Forest. And guess what building it is directly opposite (see below).

The London Borough of Waltham Forest has always been contemptuous of walkers and walking. Now there is historical proof. And this really is a scandal. The Council has broken the law – repeatedly. The Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 required all Councils to publish a Rights of Way Improvement Plan by November 2007. This was a statutory legal requirement.

Waltham Forest hasn’t done so. In its usual languid, self-satisfied, arrogant way it has broken the law. It is breaking the law at this moment in time. In fact it emerges that it has been breaking the law throughout the period of Clyde Loakes’s leadership, and earlier than that.

All the Council has managed so far is a draft, which fails to supply any details of rights of way in the Borough. This draft is a fascinating document, because it opens up a gigantic can of worms.

As long ago as 1949, under the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act, local authorities were required to produce a Definitive Map and Statement of rights of way (DMS). In 1953 Essex County Council met its obligations under the Act and produced a Map and Statement – but only for Chingford and Walthamstow. It didn’t bother with Leyton. The excuse offered was that ‘the area was so fully developed as to make a survey inexpedient’. This was a plainly bogus excuse but I am not sure what lies behind it. In 1963 the Map and Statement for Chingford and Walthamstow were updated.

In 1965 these three areas were amalgamated to form the London Borough of Waltham Forest. And what did the Borough do about its statutory obligation to maintain and keep a Definitive Map and Statement (DMS)? Nothing. And for the past 43 years the Borough has been in breach of its legal responsibility. To make matters worse the Council has lost its copy of the 1963 DMS.

The 2000 Act should have been a wake-up call to this complacent walking-indifferent Council to get its act together. Naturally it decided to flout the law rather than meet its responsibilities. What it really needs is a body like The Ramblers Association to take the Council to the High Court and seek a judicial review of its contempt for its statutory obligation to produce a DMS.

The sketchy draft plan which has now been published in late January (backdated and entitled ‘November 2007’) is full of equivocations and vague promises. The development of a walking strategy will ‘require action from the Transport Planning Team and an additional budget will be required’. Improving information for the public ‘will require action from The Transport Planning Team and an additional budget will be required’. So the Council is planning to spend money on looking for funding ('Funds will therefore need to be made available to seek the grants that may assist' p. 22).

However, every cloud has a silver lining. A Council which is reluctant to promote cycling at the expense of motorists and parked cars sees the chance of making walkers pay the cost of improvements for cyclists: ‘it is possible that links could be made through existing public rights of way which could be converted to cycle tracks’ (p. 15). It also means that any sluggish efforts towards catching up with statutory legal requirements can be claimed to 'assist in the delivery of The Walking Plan for London' (p. 20) and thus be trumpeted as yet more evidence of the Council's passionate commitment to walking.

Business as usual, in short. You can read the document online (in PDF format) here. Hard copies are available from local libraries, Waltham Forest Direct Shops and the Town Hall.

The 'Improvement Plan' is a deeply dishonest document in two particular ways. It is very coy about what members of the public commented in response to an earlier consultation, vaguely saying that among issues raised were 'maintenance', 'public safety', 'signing' and 'barriers/gates'. What members of the public undoubtedly complained about were this Council's contemptuous neglect of its PROW network, its indifference to illegal obstruction of it, its gross failure to maintain its footpath network to an acceptable standard, and its failure even to sign the vast majority of local public rights of way.

The 'Improvement Plan' contains a number of pretty photographs of footpaths and cycle lanes designed to muffle those realities. Such scenes are unrepresentative, misleading and dishonest. The photographs I've used here all show the current state of a public right of way which runs from The Drive E17 to Forest Road. My final photograph shows the building it is directly opposite. As all it involves is crossing a road I think the two individuals most responsible for this state of affairs should be invited to come and clean it up themselves. They are Martin Esom, Executive Director of Environment and Regeneration, and Councillor Belam, Cabinet member for Environment. Why not drop them a line?