Improving health and wellbeing through better countryside access
Create and develop healthy and sustainable places and communities
Shropshire has a long-established Parish Paths Partnership (P3) scheme, which engages local volunteers in improving access to the countryside. The new P3 in Pontesbury resulted from Shropshire Council's desire to increase volunteering and walking and local demand for better countryside access.
The Pontesbury P3 has kept local footpaths clear and in good condition and opened up new walking routes. This has brought local people together to walk and socialise.
People's health is affected by their physical environment. Access to good quality air, sporting, recreational and cultural facilities and green space all contribute to reducing inequalities as well as helping to create sustainable communities.
Well maintained green spaces can encourage social interaction, exercise, play and contact with nature. This strengthens the links that connect people within communities.
The council's ‘Walking for Life' project set out to establish an integrated package of opportunities for people to walk from their doorstep in Shropshire's countryside.
Improving physical and mental wellbeing through increased levels of active outdoor volunteering was central to the project. This was achieved largely by growing the number of P3s in the county.
The P3s provide local people with the resources and skills to:
- improve the condition of their countryside access and local rights of way
- keep them open
- promote their use.
Residents in the parish of Pontesbury, near Shrewsbury, wanted to:
- improve access to their area through the footpath network
- promote the benefits of walking, cycling and riding in the countryside.
The Pontesbury Parish Plan committed the Parish Council to work with Shropshire Council to form a P3 to make this happen.
Who was involved?
The main funding and strategic delivery partners for the three-year Walking for Life project, 2006-09, were:
- Shropshire Council
- Shropshire Primary Care Trust (PCT)
- Shropshire County Sports Partnership
- Sport England
- Natural England.
The project officer worked with Pontesbury Parish Council to identify a volunteer coordinator to run the new Pontesbury P3 and help set it up.
Shropshire Council funds all 61 P3s across the county. The £34,000 annual budget covers:
- the parish paths partnership officer post
- volunteer training and expenses
- tools and materials.
The council's countryside access team agrees a service level agreement with each P3 and provides training, equipment, materials and advice.
The problem and how it was tackled
Pontesbury P3 set out to make walking more accessible. This meant improving the network of existing paths, opening up new ones and promoting their use. Making pathways more accessible
The council's audit of the rights of way network identified the need for extensive improvements to the network of pathways in the parish. In the first year alone the Pontesbury P3:
- renewed or repaired more than 100 stiles
- repaired bridges
- carried out clearance work
- installed signposting and way-marking.
Pontesbury P3 wanted to go further than simply improving and maintaining the existing network. It wanted to increase access for less able walkers too.
Working with the council's Walking for Life project officer they identified several potential easy, short circular walks from Pontesbury medical centre. Stiles had to be removed to make the walks accessible. So Pontesbury P3 carried out negotiations with landowners and all the practical work necessary to replace the stiles with pedestrian gates.
The parish now has a full Walking for Health (WFH) group, overseen by a paid coordinator and with trained volunteer walk leaders from the Pontesbury P3. They lead two walks every week – one short and on flat terrain, the other longer and more strenuous.
Over 30 people regularly take part, including older people, those recovering from illness and young mothers with babies. The walk leaders recognise the importance of the opportunity to socialise the WFH group offers, as well as the walking benefits. One said:
"The group brings together residents who wouldn't know each other or meet many people otherwise. Some members now meet up outside the group and new friendships have been formed that will be longstanding."
The Pontesbury P3 has gone on to successfully negotiate away many more stiles with landowners elsewhere in the parish and replace them with gates. They are working towards becoming the first parish in the county to be completely stile free. They are providing more easy access routes and helping the council meet its obligations under the Disability Discrimination Act.
Opening up new walking routes
The Pontesbury P3 identified an old railway line as a potential starting point for a series of new, all-ability circular walks from Pontesbury village. When council investigations revealed it was the owner, Pontesbury P3 worked with the council to secure a £13,500 government grant from the Aggregates Levy Sustainability Fund (which closed in March 2011) and sponsorship from Tarmac.
Almost one kilometre of the old railway line was resurfaced in 2010, and the Pontesbury P3 installed benches and gates. The route is well used, particularly by residents.
Devising longer circular walks using only public rights of way proved difficult. So the Pontesbury P3 worked with the council to identify a series of circuits that cross private land. By negotiating permissive routes with local landowners and installing gates and signposts, the Pontesbury P3 created a series of new walks for independent walkers.
Promoting greater use of footpaths
To promote greater use of existing and new footpaths the Pontesbury P3 has:
- produced walks leaflets and route maps to encourage people to explore their surroundings, especially those who take little exercise
- regularly published walks in the parish newsletter and secured good coverage from the local press
- supported an annual charity walk that raises money for the local hospice
- organised events such as family walking days, including one to a local beauty spot on private land previously closed to the public
Outcomes and impact
Rights of way in the parish are now kept in much better condition. New pathways and a former railway line are open. And the network is more accessible to walkers of all abilities.
More residents and visitors are walking regularly in the parish – for health and for leisure – including through the WFH scheme.
In 2009 Natural England published an estimate of the economic and health value of local health walk schemes. This shows that for every £1 invested £7.18 worth of health benefit is delivered. New friendships have also been formed within the WFH group.
The Pontesbury P3 volunteers have:
- met new people
- learned new skills
- benefitted from a general feeling of satisfaction through their involvement.
A survey was carried out across all the P3s in Shropshire. This asked people whether they had increased their knowledge, skills or confidence as a result of their experience or involvement with countryside access. The percentage of people answering ‘yes' rose from 60 per cent in 2009/10 to 77 per cent in 2010/11.
The value of volunteer time to Shropshire Council through the P3 scheme is at least £46,700 a year. This exceeds the cost to the council of running the scheme.
The Pontesbury P3 is firmly grounded in the needs of the local community. Its activities enhance the environment at a very local level and reflect what people said they wanted. The parish plan showed that the pathways would be well used and promoted. This gave the council the confidence to prioritise support for Pontesbury when demand to create new P3s outstripped supply.
Local volunteers with enthusiasm, drive and time are key to success. Funding and officer support are important but can deliver little without a strong core of local volunteers on the ground. In Pontesbury a core group of 12 volunteers go out as a working party most weeks.
The Pontesbury P3 volunteers understand the wider impact of their work. Their commitment to maximising the social, environmental and health benefits was embedded from the start. It is also reflected in the links they make with other individuals and groups in the local community.
Advice and support from a staff member with health expertise and dedicated time has been key. The Walking for Life project officer came from a health background and made links with the sector that would not otherwise have been made.
What could have been done better?
Rights of way law is complex. The P3s need to understand it to be able to enter into what are sometimes tricky negotiations with landowners. But it takes time for volunteers to feel confident enough about the legal framework to build those relations.
Pontesbury P3 has become almost self-sufficient and has enough enthusiastic volunteers to sustain it into the future. The council's involvement is therefore decreasing.
Funding for the WFH coordinators is secure until 2015. The council has been awarded a grant of £4.5 million over four years by the Department of Transport towards a £14 million sustainable transport project across the county. This includes £73,500 a year for WFH coordinators and activities.
Richard Knight, Access Maintenance Team Leader Shropshire Council Email: firstname.lastname@example.org