In November 1987, the late Brett Collier, the Lincolnshire Ramblers’ path-champion, led the Conservative MP for Gainsborough and Horncastle, Edward Leigh, on a walk across local farmland. Edward saw at first hand the constant issues which walkers and riders in the county faced: ploughed and deeply-rutted paths across large fields, unrestored and unmarked. At another time of year he would have had to negotiate impenetrable crops.
This outing was a wise move on Brett’s part. Two years later Edward came fifth in the ballot for private member’s bills. Remembering his walk he turned to the Ramblers for advice on the bill he might introduce.
Coincidentally, the Ramblers had been working with other organisations on legislation to strengthen the law against ploughing and cropping of paths and were able to hand him a draft bill. He introduced this into parliament—and the result was the Rights of Way Act, which received royal assent 30 years ago today, 13 July 1990.
The need for legislation was crystal clear. In 1986 the Countryside Commission and Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF) had promoted a ploughing code.
They launched it at the Royal Show in June with Eddie Grundy from The Archers giving it the thumbs up.
The code consisted of a tractor sticker and eight-page booklet, Ploughing and Rights of Way. These had been endorsed by the members of the Rights of Way Review Committee (RWRC) which included organisations representing users, farmers and landowners, and local authorities. About 173,000 stickers and booklets were distributed to English farmers, and in Wales there were 50,000 Welsh stickers and bilingual booklets. So no farmer could plead ignorance.
The code reminded farmers that they must restore paths within two weeks so as to be reasonably convenient for expected use, and not to plough headland paths. Predictably, as so often with voluntary codes, it was not followed. In 1988 the Countryside Commission carried out a nationwide survey which demonstrated that ploughing and cropping formed the single most serious deterrent to walkers in the countryside. Evidently a solution was urgent.
Consequently, the RWRC, which was chaired by Alan Haselhurst, Conservative MP for Saffron Walden, began drafting legislation—which was ready to present to parliament at about the time Edward Leigh was needing a bill.
However, getting a private member’s bill through parliament is fraught with difficulty, and Edward and Alan managed to persuade their government colleagues that the bill should be supported; they could show that the RWRC, which represented all the interests, and the government’s adviser the Countryside Commission, were behind it. For the opposition, Andrew Bennett (Denton and Reddish) and Joan Walley (Stoke on Trent North) were instrumental in ensuring the backing of Labour MPs. User group members lobbied their MPs. The Countryside Commission made its access officer, Roy Hickey, available to work full time on the bill for several months.
The Rights of Way Act itself is quite short, consisting of four sections which add or amend the Highways Act 1980, and one important new schedule (12A), so the act does not stand alone but has been incorporated into the Highways Act.
The main changes were that disturbing the surface, in addition to ploughing, of a highway became an offence. Farmers could no longer claim that they hadn’t actually ploughed the path to get round prosecution.
There was a new duty on the occupier of land to prevent crops from growing on, or falling on or over the path, ‘crops’ being defined to include cereals but not grass grown for silage, pasture or haymaking. Failure to comply with the duty became an offence, for which the public could prosecute. Before this the only remedy for the public was to prosecute for wilful obstruction.
The minimum width to which a path should be reinstated was set out as 1 metre for cross-field footpaths, 1.5 metres for cross-field bridleways, 2 metres for field edge footpaths, and 3 metres for field-edge bridleways or any other highway. Maximum widths were also defined, to enable a highway authority to go in and do the reinstatement itself without fear of being liable for criminal damage.
The enforcement by the highway authority was made much easier. If the farmer failed to comply with any of his duties with regard to ploughing, disturbance or cropping, the authority was empowered to give 24 hours’ notice and then go in, do the work and send him or her the bill, as well as initiating court action. It became possible for the public to prosecute for obstruction by crops.
The problem of ploughing went back to the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949, when the postwar government gave farmers the right to plough paths across fields which had hitherto been an offence. Although that right to plough was replaced in the 1990 act by a wider right to disturb the surface, it was accompanied by stronger measures to secure reinstatement.
The Countryside Commission and MAFF produced some excellent leaflets for highway authorities and farmers. The one to highway authorities explained that ‘each main section of the new act placed a specific duty on the highway authority to enforce the provisions of the section’, and that ‘the provisions in schedule 12A mean that they can do so quickly and effectively’. Local authorities were advised that ‘rights-of-way officers, in particular, will need both the support of their authority and clear policy guidelines—as well as to exercise common sense and good judgement at all times’.
The guidance to farmers was sent to all main farm holdings and was supported by advice from the National Farmers’ Union and Country Landowners’ Association to their members. The aim was that enforcement should not be necessary.
A long way to go
A year later Edward Leigh joined the Lincolnshire Ramblers for another walk, to assess how far his act was working. He met some problems but said that ‘generally the situation is very good’. Ramblers’ president Chris Hall, who was also on the walk, did not agree. ‘We came across fields where the path was not where it should have been. The landowners still have a long way to go in observing the letter of the law,’ he observed.
Of course they still do have a long way to go, but at least since 1990 the law has been clearer and more user-friendly, and it is easier for the highway authorities to act.
We owe a debt of gratitude to Brett Collier and those Lincolnshire Ramblers who were the catalyst for this important legislation, and to all those who made it happen.