The old, white, wealthy and healthy have access to miles more public footpaths in their local neighbourhoods than poor and ethnically diverse communities in England and Wales, according to a study.
The whitest areas enjoy 144% more local footpaths than the most ethnically diverse areas, and the most affluent parts of the countries have 80% more local paths, defined as within a 10-minute walk of the area, according to the research, published by the Ramblers.
The analysis of more than 140,000 miles of public rights of way reveals that public footpaths are missing from communities that could most benefit from the public health gains associated with them, while fewer footpaths are being included in or are close to modern housing estates.
The provision of public footpaths near new housing has steadily declined since the 1970s. Housing estates built in the 1990s have 19% more local public footpaths than estates predominantly built in the 21st century.
The bottom five local authority areas for public footpath provision in England and Wales are Norwich, North East Lincolnshire, Liverpool, Southampton and Blackpool, while the best are Rossendale, Stroud, Monmouthshire, Malvern Hills and Calderdale.
People in Norwich have on average just 129 metres of public rights of way within 800 metres (a 10-minute walk) of where they live, while in Rossendale in east Lancashire, on the border with Greater Manchester, on average people enjoy 9,232 metres of footpath within a 10-minute walk.
The worst parliamentary constituency for public paths is Liverpool Riverside, followed by Cardiff Central.
“We’ve overlooked our paths as critical national infrastructure,” said Jack Cornish, the head of paths for the Ramblers. “This research [shows] that governments are missing an open goal. It’s clear that availability of paths close to people’s home[s] has a massive impact on health outcomes – but at the moment it’s the old, the healthy, the wealthy and the white that are primarily enjoying the benefits.”
According to the study, undertaken by the New Economics Foundation (NEF) for the walking charity, the inequalities of access to public paths could be addressed by reinstating “lost” rights of way, as well as protecting existing paths.
If public rights of way had been fully recorded and protected over the past eight decades, every community would have on average 38% more local public paths than they do today. The most deprived communities in England and Wales would benefit from about 63% more paths in their local area if all public paths had been accurately registered in legal records from the 1950s onwards.
The Ramblers is campaigning for “lost” public paths to be registered before a 2026 deadline. They are also calling for new paths, particularly to enable new edge-of-town developments to reach green countryside and town centres on foot, and the creation of green urban corridors to encourage more walking in busy cities where there are plenty of roads but fewer peaceful, pedestrian-friendly avenues.
Despite hundreds of studies showing the physical and mental health benefits of being active in green spaces, previous Ramblers research suggests that on average only 57% of adults report living within five minutes’ walk of a green space. This drops to 46% for households on incomes lower than £15,000 a year.
The NEF analysis suggests that doubling the average length of paths in a neighbourhood would result in an additional annual 78.5m walks being taken in nature across England and Wales.
The study calculates that the government would need to invest an additional £650m each year – £12 a person – to expand the path network and address the inequalities of access to it and nature.
Cornish said: “It needs to be targeted at local authorities after 13 years of austerity. If local authorities can raise the level of provision, that additional investment would pay dividends because you get almost £2bn of wellbeing value from the network, and that’s not including economic and tourism benefits.”
The Ramblers is calling for stronger planning rules that stipulate footpath provision around new housing, and investment to improve existing paths and make them more accessible. According to a YouGov survey for the Ramblers, 56% of people with disabilities said they did not use public footpaths because of physical barriers.
“We’ve got thousands of stiles in fields that haven’t seen a cow for 50 years,” said Cornish.
Investment in public footpaths is popular, with 71% of nearly 5,000 adults surveyed in the YouGov poll saying that more money, time and resources should be invested in the network of public paths.