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Country matters: in May Kent County Council officially launched its 10 year Countryside Access Improvement Plan (CAIP), to ensure that walkers, cyclists and horse riders can more easily enjoy the often inaccessible rural areas of the county. Mel Armstrong looks at the plan and how it will be implemented in the next decade.

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Sandwiched between London and Europe, Kent is nationally known as the 'garden of England' and around 70% of the county's land is agricultural, with about a quarter of all residents living in rural areas. The landscape comprises rolling chalk downs, secluded dry valleys, ancient woodland and orchards, chalk cliffs, salt marsh, sand dunes and historic villages and sites.

There are 18 towns and one city, all with very strong ties and links to rural areas. A high volume of traffic (much of it freight) travels through Kent from other parts of the UK to the Channel Tunnel and Port of Dover as the county serves as the principle gateway to Europe.

This is also a popular commuter area, with many people travelling to and from London each work day.

A wide variety of rare and protected species of plants and animals have a home in Kent, including the doormouse, Adonis Blue butterfly, lady orchid and man orchid and many insects peculiar to the county. More than 25 UK priority Biodiversity Action Plan Habitats and large numbers of wintering, breeding and migrating birds can be found here and many areas are protected as Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty. In fact there are 500 conservation areas--more than any other county in the UK.

A two pronged plan from Kent County Council, the mission of the council through the CAIP, is to safeguard and enhance public rights of way (PROW) to act as a gateway for visitors and residents to explore the county's wildlife, heritage and iconic landscapes, which will then lead to reduced congestion as people leave their cars at home. But how will it work?

Access all areas

Kent County Council has recognised that, as well as being a heritage source itself, Kent's vast public rights of way networks could offer endless potential for accessing the county's heritage on foot, bicycle and horseback. And this would not only benefit residents, but also the high levels of visitors, who flock to the area throughout the year.

The CAIP, which has been drawn up with advice from Natural England, will require the involvement of many other government departments, its internal services and external organisations, to ensure its success, including community groups, Defra, Department for Transport, Department of Health and SEEDA.

Its sole purpose, says KCC, is to increase the usage and enjoyment of public rights of way and open green space in Kent.

Reduced congestion, more support for rural business and economy, improved health and quality of life will be added benefits from the plan.

Action plan

The Improvement Plan Project was originally split into three phases and began in 2003 with a literature review, public/user group consultations and demonstration projects. By 2005 the information was ready for analysis and between 2006/7 the plan was written up. In the spring of this year it was formally adopted by the County Council.

Seven major objectives for the improvement of public rights of way have resulted from the extensive research:

* Well maintained countryside access

* Growth and development

* A more sensible network

* Knowing what's out there

* Improving safety

* Education and respect for the countryside

* Working smarter and improving customer service

Within the plan KCC has promised to increase and improve structures such as stiles and signposts, install bridges where missing and tackle poorly maintained paths, clear away dumped rubbish and improve the overall management of access land and green space. No mean feat when some landowners and farmers are still quite hostile to walkers, riders and ramblers.

Access for disabled users will also be vastly improved over the ten year period.

Planned development throughout the county poses an additional threat to green space access--around 80,000 homes and 100,000 jobs have been proposed over the next three decades. This will require very careful management and development.

KCC plans to work closely with developers and planning authorities to create a green infrastructure that not only protects existing rights of way, but develops multi-user routes from towns to the wider countryside.

Horse riders and cyclists are often forgotten as users of the countryside and access for them is much more difficult than for walkers. To help address this the plan advises increased provision for these users through efficient and timely maintenance of paths and bridleways.

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People power

Often people would like to explore the countryside but just don't know where to go or what to do when they get there. KCC provides an excellent resource through the 'Explore Kent' area of its website. Users can access information and suggestions on what to do and where to go, as well as maps of the area. The site is interactive, allowing users to make their own suggestions and rate the site's usability and effectiveness.

KCC plans to expand and enhance to site to make it an invaluable source of information for visitors and residents.

Safety is a big issue and hasn't been neglected--the aim is to provide safe alternative routes so that walkers/ cyclists and so on can avoid travelling along busy roads.

Landowners, tenants and land managers will be encouraged to work with KCC and other bodies to fulfil their responsibilities for protecting rights of way. However, appropriately located information and signage will hopefully lead to greater understanding and appreciation of the countryside. This will help protect landowner interests and the habitat and landscapes of the county.

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Above all, says KCC, all the natural environment must not be compromised and visitors will need to be educated to minimise their impact and protect, as well as enjoy, the countryside on offer.

Implementing the plan

Heavily reliant on the support and good will of landowners and managers, user groups and members of the public, financing is also a big issue for the Plan's successful implementation.

Attracting external funding in addition to funding from existing resources will be vital to the success of the plan overall. Potential sources include S106 Agreements, Landfill Tax Credit Scheme, Primary Care Trusts, Lottery funding, Aggregates Levy Sustainability Fund, Agri-Environment Scheme Access Payments and European grants.

An executive steering group will oversee the ongoing process of implementation and reports made on a biannual basis. A statement of action outlines tangible and realistic targets, against which the plan's ultimate success will be measured.

All change

Changes that people can expect to see over the next ten years include a reduction in the number of stiles, replaced by gaps and gates, better signposting and waymarking with more informative destination signs, promoted walks and rides and better upkeep of the paths. The Council wants residents to have increased confidence in using the rights of way available to them and to make Kent more attractive to tourists.

"Sustainable transport systems and the provision of high quality green space are key to the success of new developments. Opportunities will be taken to include facilities which reduce traffic congestion, improve safety and provide communal recreational facilities.

"The existing rights of way network and provision of green space will be enhanced as a consequence of new development, reducing the impact of the growing population, traffic and loss of land," says KCC.

Obviously the production of the Improvement Plan is only the start of a long term and evolving process for delivering countryside access improvements to satisfy public demand. However, KCC's commitment to the plan is absolute and this will be key to meeting the targets it has set itself over the next decade.

Demonstration projects

A number of demonstration projects were undertaken during the production of the plan to assess achievements, given the appropriate funding.

These were either research led, community led or delivered jointly with other partners and stakeholders.

The first demonstration project was the creation of a 300 metre accessible footpath in a field alongside the A225, between the villages of Eynsford and Farningham. The two villages are intrinsically linked by the fact that they share essential community facilities, for example the children from Farningham attend the school in Eynsford. Through the generosity and efforts of the local residents a field known as the Millfield was purchased.

The trustees of this field worked in partnership with the County Council, to dedicate a footpath through the field. The new route provides an alternative to walking on a narrow and rather dangerous footway adjacent to the A225. As the route would be used by school children, mothers with pushchairs, and the elderly, the route was designed with a high level of accessibility.

To test the success of the project a pedestrian counter was installed. The counter is currently recording around 2500 walkers per month.

For a copy of the full plan please visit www.kent.gov.uk/publications/leisure-and-culture/explore-kent /countryside-access-improvement-plan.htm

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The Plan

* Evaluates the extent to which local rights of way meet the present and likely future needs of the public

* Assesses the opportunities provided by local rights of way for exercise and other forms of open-air recreation and the enjoyment of Kent

* Assesses the accessibility of local rights of way to blind or partially sighted persons and others with mobility problems

* Provides a strategy for future proactive management of countryside access in Kent to put in place a more meaningful and sustainable network

* Supports bids for external funding by demonstrating links to a wide range of local and national strategies, in order to maximise opportunities for funding

* Provides a catalyst for actions that both improve countryside access and raise its profile

History and heritage

People have been living and working in Kent for almost half a million years and the traces of their activities can be seen all over the county. Their houses and homes, farms, settlements, towns and villages and places of worship and burial have helped shape modern Kent and remain important and visible links with the past.

Kent was the site of the first Roman invasions and the county contains some stunning Roman remains.

Richborough Fort, near Sandwich, is described by English Heritage as one of the most symbolically important of all Roman sites in Britain. Both Richborough and the dramatically situated Reculver Fort can be visited from the popular walking trail, 'The Saxon Shore Way'. Kent has many castles, including Dover, with its secret wartime tunnels from where the Dunkirk evacuation was organised in World War II.

Home to four of the original 'Cinque Ports' first mentioned in the Royal Charter of 1155, Kent's coast is steeped in fascinating maritime heritage, from the oldest sea-going boat in the world, the Dover Bronze Age Boat (now in Dover Museum) to the great Georgian seaside resorts of Margate and Ramsgate.

Over 18,000 listed buildings demonstrate the character and variety of the built environment, which includes the locally characteristic oast houses and windmills. Sandwich has a greater density of listed buildings than any town in England and the most spectacular architectural achievements can be seen at the UNESCO world heritage site of Canterbury, which includes its famous cathedral. CAIP 2008

Biodiversity

Biodiversity, as well as being important in its own right, makes a significant contribution to the quality of life and well being of the people of Kent, and to the attractive environment in which they live and work. Carefully managed access and educational material can increase awareness and appreciation of our fragile environment.

The richness of our countryside is due largely to the careful management of reserves by organisations such as Natural England, The National Trust, Kent Wildlife Trust, The RSPB, The Forestry Commission, together with the work of private landowners and our own country parks and countryside management projects.

CAIP 2007
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Author:Armstrong, Mel
Publication:Green Places
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jun 22, 2008
Words:1939
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