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Can public right of way play into the country’s net zero ambitions?

Noah Bovenizer sets his sights on Portsmouth, and the city’s new plan to improve distribution of and access to green space, invest in active travel, and reduce congestion.

Britain is famously attached to its natural assets, so public right of way is an issue councils are constantly dealing with. Ask anyone working within environmental departments at a local authority, and at some point a resident will have contested the closure of, or lack of access to, some beloved green space.  

brown wooden signage near green trees during daytime

The idea is so important it’s recognised in law. The Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 empowers authorities to create a Rights of Way Improvement Plan, reviewed every 10 years. Now, with the push towards net zero emissions by 2050, and some regional policymakers setting more ambitious deadlines, the importance of walkable routes in the built environment is only increasing. Expansion is now a fundamental part in plans for new and improved active travel routes, supplementing investment in cleaner, more efficient and sustainable public transit provision. 

Enter Portsmouth City Council, which recently published a new Rights of Way Improvement Plan spanning 2023-2033, outlining how the 8km of public footpaths in the city might be improved and expanded upon. Cllr Lynne Stagg, Cabinet Member for Traffic and Transportation, wrote the foreword for the document, explaining the most important issue for the council going forward is ensuring people know rights of way exist in the first place. 

‘The main thing that we’re putting in is better signage, because when we did the survey of people, there was a huge number who had no idea what a public right of way was. So we’re making the signage clearer, and we also just published a transport booklet because you have so much going on with transport in the city and we wanted people to know,’ says Stagg. ‘Because people say: ‘Well, what the hell are you doing that for?’ [But] really it all fits into a bigger plan. And the public right of way is explained there as well to encourage more people to use them.’ 

Stagg alo tells us about the struggle the council had upon becoming a unitary authority in 1997, inheriting an incomplete map system from Hampshire County Council. The process of compiling information into a comprehensive single tool was a ‘mammoth task.’ And dealing with disputes over how rights of way are used has continued to the present day, with an ongoing legal debate around Camber Docks one example of the complexities that can arise. 

‘One of the public rights of way goes past the Camber Docks, which is a working port, and the port doesn’t want it to be a public right of way open all year round to everybody. It’s not going to be closed off, but they want to have the ability to close it when there is work going on, which would be a safety risk,’ Stagg says, emphasising the council has no desire to permanently close the walkway, but she believes a ‘sensible and pragmatic’ approach is needed to address safety concerns at certain times. So far, these have been few and far between, with only one closure of the path springing to mind during her 16 years of office. 

Though Stagg sees the public rights of way issue as hugely important, she’s also quick to point out this is just one part of the council’s overall climate and travel network plans. Nodding to a 17-year project aimed at connecting the whole city, at the end of that period, Portsmouth’s ambition is to become a place where ‘you can get from one end to the other: east, west, north, south, and by different methods of transport, all linked up to their own networks with interchanges.’   

man in red shirt riding bicycle on road during daytime

According to Stagg: ‘It’s a bit like a jigsaw puzzle, you know? So, you’ve got all the bits, but it’s fitting them all in, and it’s not going to happen overnight.’ The city will be able to take a step closer to its interconnectivity goals having won £75,000 funding from Active Travel England earlier this year. The grant will catalyse early milestones in the delivery of a wider ‘transport strategy that prioritises walking and cycling’. 

‘It all forms part of the bigger scheme, including improving cycle paths because we’ve got a poor network of cycle lanes due to the nature of the city. It’s a very compact city and the roads are very narrow, so in many places there just isn’t the room to put in a cycle lane. So we’re trying to improve the whole setup and that will include public rights of way,’ Stagg replies when asked about the importance of the award within the context of an overall travel strategy. Not least in terms of getting more people riding bikes. 

The Portsmouth Clean Air Zone (CAZ) clearly also plays into the masterplan, although Stagg is clear this cannot be the only answer on the table. Instead, it should be factored into a more complex multimodal solution to improving rights of way, green space, and reducing congestion in the city. ‘I’m the first to admit you can’t get people out of their cars unless you have really good, reliable, alternative transport systems for people to use, like buses and trains,’ says Stagg.

Bolstering steps to reduce emissions, Portsmouth Council has also upgraded all buses to Euro 6, and secured funding for more than 30 electric models, helping its public transport fleet comply with new regulations. But the current CAZ investment means charges only apply to larger vehicles, such as coaches, HGVs and taxis. As such, Stagg is concerned many in private cars feel they can carry on as normal. 

‘I just don’t know that it’s going to be enough. I will stand corrected when the information comes through if I was wrong. And I’ll be glad. But, you know, we need to get the message out to more people,’ she tells us, explaining that by introducing more green spaces it is hoped car use will fall, with one idea to replace empty clay pits with parkland. ‘There’s no one answer to it all, there’s lots of different bits that will lead to zero carbon.’

Discover how Portsmouth City Council transformed wasteland into a biodiversity-rich wildflower meadow.

Images: Annie Spratt (Top) / Mangopear Creative (Bottom)

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