Twenty-six years may have seemed a long time for getting the official maps of public paths up to date, but half the time has gone already with little to show for it.
In 2000, the government introduced legislation to cut off claims of unrecorded pre-1949 highways. The cut-off was to take effect on 1 January 2026, preceded by an intensive quarter century of identifying and claiming routes for the definitive maps of public paths.
Discovering Lost Ways
The plan, when the law was introduced in the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000, was for a structured, well-funded exercise to claim all those routes which would be lost 26 years later. The Countryside Agency, the government’s adviser on such issues, started to organise this (Discovering Lost Ways) but without much success. Meanwhile, the surveying authorities (who do much of the work on claims once the volunteers have gathered the evidence), have lost staff, money and capacity. For many, the backlogs of claims are increasing, with no hope of catching up under the present regime.
Nothing happened for some time and then the Countryside Agency’s successor, Natural England, set up a stakeholder working group in 2008, consisting of representatives from landowners and occupiers, local authorities and user groups, to come up with recommendations for changes in the law to enable unrecorded ways to be recorded more swiftly and painlessly. We were told from the start that we had no hope of achieving change unless we reached agreement.
The group met for over a year and at last reached consensus on a package of measures. We agreed that the 2026 cut-off should be implemented provided the measures were put into operation and were working so that useful or potentially useful pre-1949 ways could be captured or safeguarded before the cut-off took effect. Our report, Stepping Forward, was published in March 2010 and sent to ministers.
The general election intervened and in due course ministers consulted on the proposals. Then at last, in July this year, the draft Deregulation Bill was published for pre-legislative scrutiny by a parliamentary joint committee.
Encouragingly, the bill adopts the stakeholder group’s recommendations, since they are designed to be deregulatory. Therefore one would expect all members of the group to be reiterating their support for it.
The Ramblers’ website contains useful information about the bill.
Next year, we hope the bill will be published and that the rights-of-way clauses (only a small part of it) will be largely unchanged, save for some tidying-up detail. It is important that parliamentarians resist any moves to include other issues on rights of way since the vital consensus of landowners, local authorities and users could be broken up, causing delay and acrimony.
It is rare to achieve consensus on rights of way, but we have done so—thanks to the patience and leadership of the group’s excellent chairman, Ray Anderson. It is vital to hold that consensus until the Bill becomes law, and beyond. The prize will be up to date definitive maps of paths and certainty for landowners and users alike, with far less time and money spent by ministers, local authorities, landowners and the public on this important process.
Meanwhile, we must continue to claim paths, and for those who wish to do so, Rights of Way: Restoring the Record is an excellent book to help you.