Landowners call for ‘radical shake-up’ of public rights of way system

LANDOWNERS’ leaders are calling for a radical shake-up of the public rights of way system in England and Wales.

The Country Land and Business Association (CLA), which is highly critical of the present system, has produced a controversial new report, published today, called ‘The Right Way Forward: The CLA’s common sense approach to access in the countryside’.

“The public rights of way system in England and Wales is governed by a failing bureaucratic and legislative system which is long-winded, expensive and completely incomprehensible to most people,” said CLA national President Harry Cotterell.

“Even to call rights of way a ‘system’ suggests an order and logic not apparent in reality. Many thousands of pounds of public money can be spent pursuing claims for paths which have not been used for centuries while present-day users struggle along overgrown paths because there is not enough money for maintenance. This cannot be right.”

Suffolk CLA chairman Andrew Blois criticised the current public access system as “a minefield of legal complexity, a tortuous and archaic system beloved only by those who can turn its convoluted procedures and subtleties to their own advantage”.

“It is absurd that authorities are required to go through the same long drawn-out bureaucratic process to correct small errors on the definitive map as they would have to follow to make significant alterations such as a path closure.

“It is highly desirable to reform access in a way that enhances the system, boosts efficiency and gets better value for money.”

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Mr Blois argued that it can take many years to process a rights of way claim, resulting in enormous cost and ongoing uncertainty for all involved.

“Even once fought and won, cases can be re-opened and examined all over again – hardly a sensible use of resources. Although local authorities have seen their budgets cut, the grand plan for an all-England coastal path, complete with ‘spreading room’, remains a key objective of Natural England,” he said.

Mr Blois who farms 400 hectares in the Blythburgh area and has been involved in the management of public rights of way says he has encountered many of the peculiarities of the current system. He cited a plan to make a minor diversion of a bridlepath around the edge of a field to include a section that meant that users would not have to walk down a busy ‘B’ road was blocked by demands that the route follow ‘its historic path’.

“It may be historic,but it is not better and safer for today’s users,” he said.

Mr Blois also claimed there were cases where access tracks through the middle of grazing fields have been designated as by-ways years after they have been fenced, which makes it suddenly illegal to close the gates. It claims new routes have even been created solely as a result of ‘spurious’ cartography drawn 200 years ago.

“And this despite the fact that it is currently impossible to use them because of wet boggy ground,” he said.

“We need a new system that provides a network of access to suit the needs of everyone today from responsible users to the landowners over whose land they pass. The current system lets everyone down.”