Paying the True Cost of Access?

For the last few days I have been following an online debate about the pros and cons of charging for access to the Snowdon munition in North Wales. This idea has come from members of the Farmer’s Union of Wales. predictably,t he idea has been rubbished by many outdoors enthusiasts but there are some very real issues for us to consider here.

Munro Car Park

The Scar on the Hill

There is no doubt that outdoor pursuits are getting more popular but the more boots that we see on the ground — and the more bike tyres as well — the more problems we face.

I’ve spoken about Snowdon and Snowdonia before. I love walking here not least because it is so accessible to me in the West Midlands. Of course, the area is also easily accessible from the conurbations in the North West. I’ve long since given up walking the popular hills of Snowdonia in the summer and on bank holiday weekends. There are simply too many people. It’s not just solitude I enjoy but I worry about the impact of the number. I remember a couple of years ago — on a decent day — watching a seemingly endless chain of walkers making their up Tryfan.

The photo displayed above is of one of the Scottish Munros which, as you can see, is easily accessed from a scar park. You can see the path snaking its way upwards. The path — then at least — was quite a shocking scar on the side of the hill, a hit which is in private hands.

Paths have to be maintained. Sometimes large and well maintained paths are unattractive to hillwalkers, I’m thinking about the path up and over Mount Keen (one of the most easily accessible Munros) which has been described as a walker’s motorway. Snowdon is much the same. There are very good paths here and on a good day it is easy and safe to follow them. I can’t really complain here as it is good people are enjoying a hill even if it is a rare event. But there are always children with wonder and awe on their faces; any one of them could be the hill walker of the future. But even when the path is well maintained there are other issues of wear on the landscape and the local environment.

Paths and mountains have be maintained. I’m amazed at the commitment to many who spend their leisure time rebuilding paths and walls so that I ca enjoy them. But even when volunteers are used there are costs. And on the major hills like Snowdon maintenance and stewardship are costly.

Sadly these days, funds to support maintenance are getting harder to come by. Grants from local and national government are harder to come by and National Lottery spend more and more competitive. I suspect this is going to get worse not least as the whole post Brexit world could be even more focussed on low tax. Taxation has become a wicked concept. These days whenever progressive taxation is mentioned on the BBC news there is always some kind of graphic to explain to younger people what it is and why it is progressive. Over the last fifteen years or so we have sen a gradual expansion of the notion that service users should pay for their service — think rail franchises. Where does this take the hill walker and mountain enthusiast?

When  I was a member of the BMC Advisory Group on Hillwalking I suggested the idea of crowdsourcing a mountain (my only real useful contribution I suspect). My idea was based on the notion that many of us have favourite hills and these are probably most likely to be more popular than many. Might hillwalkers be happy to contribute to a crowdsource campaign to support maintenance on that hill? The BMC has since employed this idea to very good effect and I believe the subsequent campaigns have been well supported. These might not generate loads of money but volunteer organisations like the BMC can work wonder with small amounts of money when it comes to maintenance. We are likely to see more of this in the future.

Crowdsourcing will not be an option for our most popular hills like Snowdon and yet the maintenance here are far greater. So, with less public expenditure available should the user pay?  In many parts of the world, of course, there are permit systems for walks and trails. These are really use to minimise the impact fragile and special environments but these systems could have a role to play here.

So, I wouldn’t automatically rule out the idea. At the very least this should provoke some really thoughtful debate. Those of us who use the hills have a responsibility to do so carefully. Maybe we also we should be moving beyond the occasional voluntary financial contribution? We have to think about these things. We can’t always just blame mountain bikers for everything!

Hills like Snowdon are showing what a complicated balance needs to be achieved to manage it properly. How do we balance access and equal opportunity for all with the need to preserve the environment and minimise damage?

I’m not sure what the answer is but I can see the problem all too clearly every time I go to Snowdonia.  

If we are going to see a continued reduction in public expenditure,and in public taxation, then these issues will become more important. As we move from the Big Society to the Shared Society I suspect more of the cost of maintenance will fall on all of us.

A pay turnstile at the beginning of the Pyg Track? It’s not unthinkable.  A permit to walk in some of the more isolated areas of the Highlands? Perhaps, not as outlandish as we think.

The low tax economy will challenge us all. We adhere to and promote high environmental standards. But somebody has to pay. Ultimately, it will be us!


  1. A Right of Way is accessed by Right – its a statutory guarantee so can’t and should not be charged for. As for maintenance of paths there is money available but governments choose to spend it on other things so it is a matter of priorities not cash. As a nation we are today much richer than we have been for most of our history so I don’t believe we can’t fund repairs (the Chancellor easily managed to find £200billion recently to fund Brexit) its just that there no votes in it.

    • A rather predictable reply. My article had nothing to do with access and rights of way.

      My points were I suppose political. I personally agree with your stance but we are a million miles away from there.

      So, if the status quo continues I suspect we cannot move forward by burying our heads in the sand.

      So, what are we actually going to do?

  2. Peter Lumley says:

    Andy, we have no RIGHTS, we have only RESPONSIBILITIES, surely that’s the way to stay the erosion and the over-use and the, dare I Isay this? yes, the GREED exemplified in just saying “I have the right…” Truth is we ALLmostly rely upon farmers to tidy and maintain our playgrounds.

  3. Utter twaddle we do have rights and they are enshrined in law. And as for Farmers guardianship of the land – don’t make me laugh – they’ve been pulling up hedgerows, ploughing footpaths, planting windmills , illegally killing raptors for years all the time claiming taxpayer funds

  4. Of course we have rights and they are enshrined in Law — well they are in Scotland.

    My issue is how do we pay for essential maintenance. I’m not advocating this but as we move to a very different economy I think this very real financial problem will continue to grow.

    • It seems to me that we should be paying for it through general taxation – as is the case already with the rest of the UK transport infrastructure. I get that some areas see much greater use than others but is the same not true of the roads? In that case prioritisation should be for funds go to those in greatest need. The truth is we can afford to maintain paths but we as a nation choose not to.

      I do struggle when farmers claim to need additional cash to repair paths when it is they that are driving bulldozed tracks all across the Eastern Highlands! IMHO farmers do far more damage in upland areas than any number of walkers. To consider them as ‘custodians of the countryside’ is to have swallowed their propaganda. Consider as I have mentioned already the removal of hedgerows, windfarms (and single installations) ; raptor persecution, illegal trapping, the burning of grouse moors and the wanton destruction of the Badger populations to name just a few.

      • Basically I agree. However, we do need have an eye to this new ultra low tax economy that the Tories seem to be creating, or at least contemplating.

        I know many walkers don’t like to worry about all this politics stuff but the things have an impact on us. And — in areas like Snowdonia – outdoor enthusiasts can’t claim they don’t have an impact !

        I’ll leave scottish landowners and their bulldozers to another day!

  5. If you managed to find a way to charge for use of the Pyg track or Llanberis track, then would you also start charging for other ways up the hill, which do not incur any maintenance costs (eg via Cwm Glas Mawr)?
    If the answer is No then you have the question of where charging starts – do I pay to walk parallel to the Llanberis path but 10 feet to the side?
    If the answer is yes you have to pay for any access to Snowdon – where does Snowdon start and end? Do I pay if I walk along Crib Goch and descend by the Pyg track without taking the detour to the summit? Do I pay if I just walk up Lliwedd? Or Yr Aran? Or to go climbing at Cloggy?
    Once you admit the possibility of charging then it’s going to be hard to prevent the principle spreading.

    • A difficult subject to resolve. There is a continuous concern about obesity and lack of exercise and any plan to charge for access is hardly likely to improve matters. There is a lot of voluntary interest in giving “free” labour but Government need to fund materials and equipment. I doubt this Government have the will.

      • I would agree wit that. However, none of us should underestimate the impact of the Hammond US-style economic movements.

  6. Andy – this is a real issue that we have to face but it’s not clear to me how the practicalities of charging could work.

    If a system of trail permits, as in the US, is introduced with charges for these permits, how can these be economically issued and monitored? Ticket booths on a track are just daft.

    The only way that I can see is for a general visitor tax to be levied on all visitors with the proceeds made available for improving all aspects of the tourist infrastructure. But such taxes are not that easy to collect, especially for day visitors and need quite a lot of bureaucracy to manage.

    In Scotland, I see some hope of government support in this area but I agree with you that this doesn’t look very likely in the rest of the UK.

    • A visitor tax is a very sensible suggestion and would be helpful in many the big cities as well. Just on my casual observations there is beginning to be a problem with over use.

      • The difficulty of a visitor tax is that it provides an disincentive to spend money locally, rather than staying/shopping/eating outside the area and driving in for the day.

        • Possibly Simon but as this is the norm across Europe and much of the rest of the world I suspect not. We have a problem with innovating at all when it comes to taxation but there is no doubt that there is something of a financial crisis that needs to be considered. A visitor tax could be very modest and lever in some well needed cash.

          When the government allowed councils to impose car park taxes or paid for zones (as in London) many thought it was the end of the world. Nottingham used this income very wisely to help plan and expand its wider public transport network, including its metro system.

          Ultimately, we have to pay for our enjoyment. How we do it is the issue. I’d prefer general taxation but it seems that may not be an option o politicians at least for a generation!

        • Simon – I agree there are all sorts of difficulties with a visitor tax and it is realistically only collectible from people who stay overnight. The ideal is, of course, that paths should be maintained as part of general tourist spending using central funding but, as Andy says, this probably won’t happen.

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