On Thursday 2 July I decided to take a stroll on the Buckinghamshire side of the River Thames on Fawley footpath 12. It runs from Henley along the west bank of the river, across a stream on a footbridge, and a meadow with a fine view of the magnificent seventeenth-century Fawley Court (which, with its 27 acres of grounds, is valued at £22 million). It then enters Temple Island Meadow site of special scientific interest and joins the A4155 Marlow road.
Henley regatta was in full flow. When I reached the meadow after the footbridge I found a sign, ‘Private property, no trespassers’, and a blue rope funnelling walkers around the edge of the field.
Naturally I kept walking on the definitive path straight across the meadow, and was accosted by two security men from Dynamic Protection who claimed that I was trespassing and that they had permission to close the path. They were hazy about who had given the permission, speculating that it was Wycombe District Council, and they had no idea of the legislation under which the closure was alleged to have been approved. So I kept walking.
The route was obstructed by parked cars and garden clobber, and there was a stage constructed between the path and the river.
I walked back again, ignoring the protestations of the security men. Naturally I complained to Bucks County Council (BCC) rights-of-way department, who said they knew nothing about it.
The next day a member of BCC rights-of-way staff told me that the highways and traffic department had in fact dealt with the closure application from the Fawley estate, without telling them. I was astonished by this strange and discourteous behaviour.
Meanwhile I discovered that the order had been made under section 16A of the Road Traffic Regulation Act 1984, which is a nasty piece of legislation enabling paths to be closed for special events. There are no regulations and guidance for this section. I asked the council how it justified making an order, why it had not consulted the organisations which have to be consulted about proposals under the Highways Act and Wildlife and Countryside Act, whether it had obtained the consent of the Secretary of State for Transport (as is necessary for closures of more than three days) and other questions.
It took some days to get a coherent response from BCC but eventually I heard from Sarah Davis BSc (Hons), TMA Support Officer (I think TMA stands for Traffic Management Act).
She apologised for initially making the order under the wrong section of the 1984 act (section 14 instead of 16A). She said they did get the consent of the transport secretary. There were no guidelines for section 16A and no requirement to consult or to advertise the closure. She claimed to have emailed ‘various internal and external organisations including the generic mailbox for the rights-of-way team. Unfortunately this has flagged that this process is not necessarily infallible and we are now reviewing our process.’ It is curious that none of those who were apparently emailed actually received anything.
I have asked how the council could be satisfied that the tests in section 16A were met. The event must be a ‘relevant event’ ie any sporting event, social event or entertainment which is held on a road (which includes footpaths). This was not held on ‘a road’, but next to it. Then, the council must be satisfied that the traffic should be restricted or prohibited to facilitate the holding of a relevant event, to enable members of the public to watch the event, or to reduce the disruption to traffic likely to be caused by the event.
The event was private, and it did not need to interfere with the footpath at all. It seems that it did not fulfil the necessary criteria. I have asked whether council staff visited the site to assess the application.
The closure was claimed to be in connection with Henley regatta. This runs from 1 to 5 July, but the closure was from 27 June to 10 July. Even if the closure was justified under the criteria, it surely does not take five days to erect and dismantle a marquee.
There is a requirement to post notices on site to inform the public. According to my friend David Parry (who keeps a close watch on the paths along the river especially during the regatta and subsequent festival), after he, I and others had complained, a flimsy piece of paper was pinned to the path. This failed to state the relevant legislation, it was unsigned, there was no map and the alternative route was not signed on the ground. So it was pretty useless.
It is very important that the processes are followed, because breach of such an order is a criminal offence. However, I was not trespassing on 2 July because the law had not been followed in closing the path.
It really is time the government produced some regulations and guidance for section 16A which make consultation, advertisement and adherence to the criteria statutory requirements.
Bucks County Council has a good record on public rights of way, but now much of the work on highways has been transferred to a private company, Ringway Jacobs. While the rights-of-way staff continue to work tirelessly and cheerfully in difficult circumstances, they have been seriously let down by the traffic people who seem ignorant of the law and have not followed due process.
I still intend to get to the bottom of what happened this year, and to ensure that, if the Fawley estate wants to close the path next year, there is a proper investigation and full public consultation so that there is no more highway robbery.