Two out of every five councils in Scotland have failed to spend the money they've been given by taxpayers to improve public access to the countryside, according to figures released by the Scottish Executive.
Over the last two years 13 local authorities have diverted a total of £2.3 million meant to maintain and expand footpaths into funding other activities. This has been condemned by recreation groups as "misappropriation" - a criticism that is fiercely rejected by local authorities.
The Scottish Executive has long published details of the amounts councils spent on access, but has been reluctant to say how much each council was allocated. But in response to a request under freedom of information legislation, officials last week supplied the figures to the Sunday Herald.
The figures show that a substantial minority of Scotland's 32 authorities have significantly underspent their access budgets. A majority say that they spend more than they're given to enhance public access.
According to the Executive's tables, by far the worst offender was South Lanarkshire, which failed to spent over £700,000 allocated for access between 2005 and 2007. South Ayrshire, West Lothian and Dundee City each recorded underspends of more than £200,000, and a further five councils had underspends greater than £100,000 (see table below).
"I've suspected for some time that certain local authorities have been surreptitiously diverting their access money into other budget areas," said Mike Dales, the access and environment officer for the Scottish Canoe Association.
"The scale of what is going on now is alarming and a total disgrace. In future this money must be ring-fenced and local authorities' dislike of ring-fencing should be brushed aside."
Dales suggested that some of the councils which seemed to be investing much more on access than their allocations may be including spending on parks or long-distance footpaths which would have happened anyway. "There needs to be far more rigour in the way the data is collected," he argued.
The City of Edinburgh claimed to have spent £7.1 million more than it was allocated, while Glasgow City said it spent £2.2 million more. Both North Lanarkshire and Highland councils recorded spending £1.9m more than their allocations.
The underspending was described as "deeply worrying" by the former MSP Dennis Canavan, who is now president of Ramblers Association Scotland. "We cannot allow local authorities to thwart the will of the Scottish Parliament when it passed the land reform legislation and its requirement to deliver much better path networks throughout Scotland," he said.
"At present we probably have the worst density of paths around our local communities in any European country and this needs to change, rapidly. We need an investigation to find out why path development is going so slowly."
Canavan suspected that one problem was "maverick farmers and landowners" blocking plans for new paths. He urged local authorities to make much more use of their powers to compulsory purchase land, and called on the Scottish Executive to change the law to allow communities to buy land more easily.
But the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (COSLA) strongly rejected the criticisms. "Local authorities are committed to increasing people's access to the countryside and through this their quality of life," said COSLA President Councillor Pat Watters.
He pointed out that councils overall had spent about £15 million more on access than they had been allocated in 2005-07. The grants they received were not targets or fixed budgets for spending on access.
Councils which seemed to be underspending would spend more on access "over the long term", Watters argued. "Once such monies are provided by the Executive it is up to local authorities to determine priorities and allocate funds accordingly," he said.
"For a variety of reasons, projects and initiatives will be implemented over a number of years by local authorities. Thus, from time to time, it may appear that some councils are 'underspending'."
The Scottish Executive insisted that the right of responsible access was an important aspect of Scottish government policy. "Local authorities are delivering a variety of projects across Scotland improving access," said an Executive spokeswoman.
"Access to and enjoyment of Scotland’s countryside is increasing, for example with improvements to the Deeside Way in Aberdeenshire and Devol Glen in Inverclyde."
Scotland's local authorities have invested £31.4 million on access projects over the last two financial years. This is nearly double the £16 million grant-aided expenditure for access.
The Executive pointed out that the money allocated for access was not a spending target. "It is the responsibility of individual authorities to determine priorities and report separately how their resources are allocated taking account of local circumstances," said the spokeswoman.
Council underspending on public access: 2005-7
South Lanarkshire / £733,750
South Ayrshire / £231,448
West Lothian / £230,400
Dundee City / £228,600
Renfrewshire / £175,973
Midlothian / £142,340
Scottish Borders /£127,371
West Dunbartonshire / £107,384
Inverclyde / £100,219
Aberdeenshire / £92,617
Angus / £82,171
Argyll & Bute / £60,996
East Renfrewshire £36,800
Total / £2,350,069
source: Scottish Executive
Download a copy of the spreadsheet on access spending released by the Scottish Executive here (280KB xls).