Imagine being able to bring up a map and walk from one town, village or settlement to another on foot by the easiest route, enabling you to walk from place to place for leisure or work with the added benefits of improvement to health, well-being, the environment and personal finances.
The Slow Ways project has been founded by Ordnance Survey GetOutside Champion Dan Raven-Ellison, he is looking for volunteers to work with him to create a national network of walking routes connecting towns and cities. The intention is to use the public rights of way network.
The Slow Ways project has already identified 7500 routes that collectively stretch for 110,000km.
What does this mean for landowners?
The project is asking for volunteers to test routes and they might identify areas where there are few or no public rights of way available. Will they choose private tracks, field edges or other ways or routes which are not identified as being registered as public rights of way or highway? If they do will they be encouraging use of routes which are not public? Could this project encourage more people out in the countryside? We address below some possible implications for landowners.
Maintenance and signs
We have already seen an increase in use of public rights of way and the countryside, perhaps by some who are unfamiliar with the Country Code. If rights of way are clearly marked, signed and maintained it can help to keep users on the right route and reduce straying onto other areas. It is sensible also to clearly mark permissive paths and if appropriate to provide a map. It is always important to make it clear that permissive access is with permission only and it is wise to deposit a map and statement with the Council setting out where existing public rights of way are and making it clear that there is no intention to create any new ones. This will help to prevent new routes from being established where they are not wanted by the landowner.
If it is unclear where the public rights of way are across land seek advice and assistance. Landowners have rights as well as the public.
Rights of Way claims
It is possible that the ‘Slow Ways’ project could attract claims for new public rights of way. The Ramblers Association and others are currently working to identify any historic routes which are not recorded and local highway authorities already have many applications to process, but a renewed interest in walking routes for access, rather than purely for leisure, might lead to a new spate of claims as volunteers attempt to find good routes to walk from A to B.
Councils are already busy with claims because they are being made because of fears that time is running out to claim historic routes. Some have hundreds of pending claims but do not have the allocated resources to progress these applications quickly or lack access to resources. Many authorities may have seen or will see an increase in applications because some people have been making and preparing applications to pass the time during lockdown
The Deregulation Act 2015 will provide (when the relevant part comes into force) for the extinguishment immediately after 1 January 2026 (‘cut-off date’) of unrecorded rights of way. That is if ancient or historic footpaths or bridleways which were in existence before 1949 are not claimed prior to 2026 they will be lost or extinguished. The purpose is to provide certainty to landowners, but it is also leading to new claims that might not otherwise have been made and progressing applications is often slow so that the uncertainty over the status of a route can last for years.
To determine whether or not a route existed prior to 1949 historic documentary evidence is required, which is often found in local record and archive centres and needs expert interpretation. Since lockdown due to COVID-19 many record and archive centres have been closed. Some have now reopened with restrictions and others are making plans to open or are now providing digitised copies of documents on request. This has slowed down the process of examining documents.
Claims for new routes can also be based on more recent evidence of use of a route by the public continuously and without challenge for a period of (usually) 20 years or more. The 2026 deadline does not affect this type of claim.
How decisions are made
After an application has been made the authority will investigate the claim and will make a decision whether a route subsists or is reasonably alleged to subsist so that it should be recorded as a public right of way. This decision will be based on the evidence submitted with the application and researched by the authority.
If the authority decides to make an order to add the application route as a public right of way there will be the opportunity for interested parties to make representations or objections. If objections to the making of an order are received, it will be referred to the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs who appoints an Inspector to determine the order by way of written representations, a hearing or a public inquiry. The Planning Inspectorate are currently carrying out hearings and inquiries virtually or by “blended” events when some participants are present in the room and some are on line.
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 October 2020.