Rights of way: the way forward

PUBLISHED: 18:28 23 July 2012 | UPDATED: 21:39 20 February 2013

Rights of way: the way forward

Rights of way: the way forward

Rights of way disputes cost time and money, says Leo Hickish of the CLA. Make your voice heard by responding to the Government's consultation

As a county, Sussex offers more than 4,484 miles of public footpath, bridleway and byway, providing as many paths for walkers as there are roads. However, rights of way and rural access have always been a contentious issue as many believe the system is governed by a failing bureaucratic and legislative system which is long-winded, expensive and completely incomprehensible to the ordinary person.

In light of these ongoing issues Defra issued a consultation paper on 14 May 2012 on proposed changes to public rights of way. This offers a rare opportunity to make substantive improvements to public rights of way.

A Stakeholder Working Group set up by Natural England brought together many interest groups including The Ramblers Association, NFU, CLA, RSPB, Open Spaces Society and the British Horse Society. The Group agreed proposals which now form the backbone of this consultation. The CLA believes that adopting these proposals will make a real difference to rights of way, making the system less bureaucratic, more flexible and more pragmatic. They will also help deliver a viable rights of way network at a time when county councils are struggling to fund the maintenance of their existing network, let alone take on new routes or worse still, fund the high legal costs of any application for a modification to the definitive map.

Common Sense

The CLA has long campaigned for a more common sense approach to be taken regarding rights of way. In 2000, Government legislated for a cut-off in 2026 so that after that date no more ancient, long-forgotten paths could be resurrected. The CLA believes it is ridiculous that such forgotten paths can be resurrected, regardless of the impact they might have nowadays, or that it is considered normal for it to take years to resolve rights of way cases. What we need is a network that meets the requirements of modern uses. It should be remembered that many old and disused paths served a purpose that no longer exists for example routes in the High Weald serving the iron industry right up to the 19th century and the industrial revolution.

Earlier this year the CLA published its own policy paper, The Right Way Forward, which sets out the issues that could be improved in relation to rights of way. The Association says it is wrong that cases over rights of way can be fought and won, but then the case can be re-opened and started all over again. It says the system should be fair to all so, for example, if someone is stopped from using a path that they believe is a public right of way, they should bring the claim straight away, not wait for years. And it wants the system to be less bureaucratic, so it proposes a quick, simplified procedure for dealing with inconsistencies on the rights of way map currently, even tiny technical changes have to follow the same convoluted procedure as large and controversial changes.

Sorting out rights of way costs time and money. It costs many thousands of pounds for an authority to deal with a rights of way application, and landowners in Sussex have spent tens, even hundreds of thousands of pounds defending claims of rights of way through their homes.

It is welcome therefore that the Governments consultation takes a wider view than the remit which confined the Stakeholder Working Groups deliberations. It has some sensible proposals about allowing councils to use electronic communications rather than expensive paper advertising and reducing some of the needless bureaucracy surrounding all types of rights of way. The CLA welcomes much of this although there are also areas where further progress could be made.

Have your say

A more pragmatic approach would benefit everyone and so I urge you to respond to the consultation itself by 6 August or to contact the CLA National Access Adviser Sarah Slade who welcomes members views on this consultation (sarah.slade@cla.org.uk).

The CLA stresses that existing access has many benefits. It brings opportunity and engagement, the potential to educate and inform and to offer relaxation and recreation. But access has to work for everybody those who use it and those who provide it. It will require goodwill as well as good legislation and I believe that this consultation is a step in the
right direction.

Leo Hickish is the Chairman of the Sussex Branch of the Country Land & Business Association (CLA). The CLA is the membership organisation for owners of land, property and businesses in rural England and Wales. CLA members own or manage approximately half the rural land in England and Wales, and the resulting expertise puts the CLA in a unique position to formulate policies and lobby effectively.

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