The Country Land and Business Association’s (CLA) today published pernicious plans for public paths in its report The Right Way Forward. The CLA’s talk about ‘modernising’ the access system is a lightly-veiled promotion of their own selfish interests.
The Open Spaces Society and the Ramblers roundly condemned the proposals. The CLA wants landowners to have powers to move ancient highways when it suits them, away from farmyards, gardens or businesses. There is no mention that paths were there long before these modern activities. It’s the activity which should accommodate the path, not the other way round. Our paths have existed since time immemorial. Yet too many are abused by cropping, ploughing and obstruction, all too often by landowners and their tenants. The CLA is big on what the local councils and path users should do—signposting, waymarking, good behaviour, etc. It doesn’t mention landowners’ bad behaviour in blocking paths, planting crops on them, and intimidating users with big gates and CCTV cameras.
The CLA advocates permissive rather than legal paths but these flexi-paths are not in the public interest. People need to be certain of where they can go; in other words, the path must be a public highway. Then they know it can’t be stopped up or moved without due process, and that the highway authority has a duty to maintain it. Permissive paths can come and go with no protection. They may suit landowners but not the users.
The CLA wants a fixed width for the myriad of paths with no defined width—but the CLA’s proposed widths are mean. Users need the space to pass each other comfortably and not be squeezed up against barbed-wire fence or sprouting hedge.
The CLA reneges on an agreement it reached with other interests only two years ago. It calls for an immediate halt to claims for ancient paths, revoking the age-old rule ‘Once a highway always a highway’. Yet it signed an agreement with users and local authorities [Stepping Forward] which called on government to introduce measures to simplify and speed up the process for claiming paths. Ministers are still considering these, and must implement the proposals before there can be any halt to the opportunity for the public to claim ancient routes for the map.
The CLA uses weasel words like ‘simplifying’ and ‘modernising’ the system. But most of their proposals cut the protection which the system provides to the users.
What we need is for landowners to respect public paths, and acknowledge that the paths were there first, and for government and local authorities to recognise the immense public, health and economic benefits of the path network and to invest in it, in the interests of all.