Our network of roads and public rights of way (footpaths, bridleways and byways) cuts across both urban and rural landscapes and can provide natural habitats for wildlife, especially on roadside verges. If left uncut these areas enable wild flowers and plants to flourish, and provide a habitat for wildlife. However, the highway authority has a legal responsibility to keep roads safe this entails verge cutting to ensure visibility is maintained for vehicular traffic and so there is space for the public to use footways and verges. The highway authority also has a responsibility to keep the public rights of way network open and accessible for users. There is therefore a balance to be drawn: between keeping areas for wildlife and keeping the roads and public rights of way network safe, accessible and available to all users.
The amount of surface cutting that a highway authority carries out also has to bear in mind the budget it has available to carry out its responsibilities. When it comes to the public rights of way network it’s not unusual to find that the highway authority prioritises where – and how frequently – annual surface growth will be cut, focussing on popular routes, such as those which provide access to Schools and other village facilities, but leave others to nature and to being kept open by footfall. Many will respond to requests for cutting, and reporting can be done online with most Councils. Occasionally an authority does not have a responsibility to cut a route and it may fall to another party – or no one may have responsibility for the maintenance.
Whatever the reason cutting is not carried out by the highway authority, it is still the legal responsibility of the adjacent landowners to deal with any side growth from hedges on their property which diminishes the width of a route and to cut back overhanging vegetation from their trees. Allowing side growth to diminish the width of a route is considered to be obstruction of the highway. Landowners should consider whether they would be liable for example, if a child encountered a bramble or branch at eye level on a footpath, potentially causing serious injury. Horse riders can be especially vulnerable to overhanging low branches and brambles, with the British Horse Society advising that the average height of a mounted rider is 2.5 metres above ground level. Taller horses and riders may be close to 3 metres.
An assessment of side growth from hedges and overhanging tree branches on roads needs to consider the width and height clearance required to allow wide and high vehicles such as buses and lorries to proceed safely, and ensure that cyclists are able to use the edge of the carriageway easily.
Prior to progressing any assessment of growth to actual works, landowners will need to ensure that any necessary permissions have been obtained, as it is possible that the trees and hedges benefit from protection, e.g. as a result of tree preservation orders, by virtue of planning conditions, or by virtue of being within a conservation area. It is also important to ensure that any cutting or lopping does not impact nesting birds, as this can lead to criminal prosecution. If in doubt we recommend seeking advice from a qualified ecologist at an early stage.
Before any cutting landowners also need to adhere to and consider cross compliance rules and any agri-environment agreements.
At this time of year therefore we recommend that all landowners assess hedgerows and trees adjacent to the public highway, to ensure any hazards or obstructions are removed - especially as the recent rain has speeded up the current growing season.
For further advice on public rights of way please contact Marcia Grice via [email protected] or 01603 756465.
The content of this article is for general information only. It is not, and should not be taken as, legal advice. If you require any further information in relation to this article please contact the author in the first instance. Law covered as at June 2021.