>Path dependence in West Sussex


I was annoyed to discover that our local regional authority, West Sussex County Council, plans to close and block up the public footpath that leads from out street to the town centre. It is quick, traffic free and ideal for parents with small kids. Alternative routes are much longer and involve crossing roads. The reason, as I later discovered, is that part of the path cuts through a local secondary school and the head teacher, in his wisdom, had put a request for the path to be closed to the public and blocked because he thinks it ’causes’ anti-social behaviour, crime and vandalism, which – like a lot of secondary schools – his school is prone too.

This would be all very well, if true, but I don’t buy these arguments all. The school is on accessible open site near the town centre and drug dealers, vandals and burglars could easily simply walk through the car park or across the playing field to gain access to the school buildings. Indeed, I would have thought without a regular flow of regular citizens walking to the shops and back, they would probably be more likely to do so unhindered. Ironically considering it wants to keep the local community out, the school styles itself a ‘Community College’.

What’s most annoying is the secretive – or perhaps I should say ‘pseudo-open’ – nature of the whole process. You can, if you know of what is going on access the minutes of the relevant council committee meeting on the web and read how the head’s arguments about ‘security’ trumped anything else anyone could say (Why a decision about a local footpath has to be made in Chichester two hours drive away by authority responsible for 500,000 people, I don’t know, but I guess that’s another issue). I, and anyone else living locally, could theoretically even have made written and orally submission to the committee asking for path to stay open, if, of course, we had actually known about the proposal in the first place. But what normal person habitually reads county council agendas and minutes?

It would have been helpful if they could have put up a notice for passers-by to read, but that would clearly have been too transparent. Instead, very oddly the Council informed two well established and worthy bodies, the Ramblers Association and the Open Spaces Society. In an oddly corporatist twist, this is standard practice with proposed footpath closures – the RA and OSS are deemed to represent all footpath users, so wider publicity is unnecessary. They at least did have the decency to object to this closure and the OSS mentions that local people use the path to get to town, but it’s easy to imagine how they were just seen as lobby groups going through the motions, while local headteacher appeared more of real community leader . The committee minutes, it should be said do mention local councillors (it’s not clear how local, as there are three layers of local government in this part of the world: town council, district council and county council) transmitting some residents’ concern about access to their fences, but this seems to refer only to a few houses near the school. I do find it a little odd, that despite living here for two and half years and assiduously reading public notices and anything from local council or political parties that came through our letterbox, I knew nothing about it.

I found out about the in a pretty odd way – in a leaflet put through out door by the local Neighbour Watch – a government backed community crime prevention scheme. The leaflet suggested anyone concerned should email our town councillor. She actually lives in the same street as us, so I did this a week ago, but have had no reply whatsoever. This kind of suggests that she is not bothered by the footpath being scrapped and that the mention in the Neighbourhood Watch leaflet was probably inserted by someone other local person bothered about it, rather than her.

Thoroughly fed up, I made a mental note not to vote Liberal Democrat in the local elections again and wrote a letter to the local paper. God knows if this will have any effect. Local government at this level kind seems to be about various local elites agreeing things between themselves with minimal and token public consultation – and the perhaps the occasional sharp prods from central government.

As far as I can work out, footpaths have quite strong legal protection so it may still be possible to make some kind of formal appeal against the decision – please leave a comment if you do. Otherwise, I guess the kids I and will join local yobbos in skirting across the playing field to avoid whatever defences the head teacher plans to erect.

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