The network had proved very popular and there had been a 153% increase in use of the Exe Estuary Trail at the southern end, with much work to ensure social distancing.
Landowners had been permitted to put in temporary unofficial diversions on public rights of way where they felt vulnerable. These had been logged.
The asset and enforcement team had adapted to new ways of working and to an exponential rise in reports from the public. Many more new users were accessing the countryside who were less familiar with public rights of way and the off-road recreational trail network. Occasionally there were tensions when people strayed from paths and expected a parkland type experience – somewhere to play. It was a balance between managing people and their expectations and new challenges such as electric bikes and inexperience of farm animals and wildlife.
There had been some supply chain issues affecting maintenance work, for example quarries were closed, and contingency planning for the next six months was in hand. Expressions of interest were being sought by DCC for the next framework contract (2021-2025) for the maintenance and improvement works to approximately 5,000km of Public Rights of Way (comprising footpaths, bridleways, restricted byways and byways), 230km of off-road recreational trail network (for example, the Tarka Trail) and 590km of minor road network (mainly unmetalled). This included the South West Coast Path National Trail for which DCC is responsible, along with the areas covered by Stover Country Park and the Grand Western Canal Country Park. The historic annual spend for this work has been approximately £1.5m.
Capital budgets for big schemes such as resurfacing and bridges had been secured from central government, but revenue budgets were on the decrease. This would be a challenge in the future.
Helen Clayton, Legal and Development Team, reported a different impact with limited public engagement and face to face meetings. The Definitive Map Review team had been forced to suspend order making due to the statutory requirements for advertising. The team is now finding alternative ways of complying. Informal consultations had been suspended to avoid encouraging any unnecessary travel. The record offices had been shut, limiting historic research, and the Public Rights of Way Committee due to take place in July had been cancelled. The November PROW Committee would take place virtually.
P3 activities had been constrained but now volunteers were gradually undertaking work with COVID-19 measures in place.
More people were interested in claiming historic routes and enquiries had increased. Publicity about 2026 during lockdown had encouraged interest. A summary had been added to the Public Rights of Way website https://www.devon.gov.uk/prow/definitive-map-2026-cut-off-date-for-historic-paths/
It is likely that Planning Inquiries will be virtual, with the first one planned in late September. These will be lengthier due to limits on screen time.
Activities were being carried out in a different way. The team is looking at Microsoft SWAY, a presentation application, to present information to the public in conjunction with virtual meetings with parish councils.
A question was asked about the impact of shared access and any research into people’s perceptions and social media complaints. Ros Mills responded that there was data about numbers from key counters and social media feedback for popular routes. The Country parks had been very busy, despite the lack of facilities, as visitor centres and toilets were directed to be closed. The parks are still very busy, and facilities are opening (suitably risk assessed).
It was noted that mountain bikes using footpaths illegally and the increase in electric bikes on trails could heighten safety issues. Educating users and appropriate campaigns could take place but were complex and costly. The value of using outdoor space was increasingly recognised.
It was noted the University of Exeter had undertaken statistical analysis quantifying the benefits of green space which could be a useful starting point.
It was mentioned that people had been encouraged out during lockdown but lack of toilets and other facilities, which varied by district and town, had exacerbated some issues. This needed further thought in terms of public rights of way and trails. It was confirmed that toilets at Stover and the Grand Western Canal, under the auspices of DCC, had opened as soon as safe to do so. It was suggested the Forum might develop a position statement on toilet provision.
Some signs had been developed during the lockdown period by different organisations and a plea was put forward for continuity to ensure the same message was conveyed. Ros Mills, DCC, said that a downloadable sign had been available (from the Welsh Assembly and Natural England) and had police support and NFU support in Devon. PROW had tried to assist landowners, especially as lockdown was at its height at lambing time. Helen Clayton, DCC, confirmed there was no national sign. Guidance on keeping the message simple with links and qr codes had been promoted together with awareness of social distancing and dog control. Links to national websites were used as too much information on posters could become outdated. The Countryside Code had been updated and some national organisations felt additional promotion would be helpful.
Coronavirus presented a huge number of issues. New users on the ground were a good thing in terms of mental and physical health benefits and the value of green space was more appreciated. At a local/national level it was important to consider recommendations to ensure the countryside was used responsibly. It was agreed that national initiatives, such as public information films or announcements in an accessible format, would be useful. The Aardman films had connected with people.
The Chair suggested that the Forum should consider how to take things forward and she would speak to Ros Mills and Helen Clayton in the first instance.
Action: DCAF Chair to speak to Public Rights of Way staff.