Public Rights of Way

On the evening of 22nd May members of the Society, together with guests from rambling groups, listened to a spirited presentation by Crispin Percival-Hughes, Rights of Way Officer for Staffordshire. In the space of two hours Crispin managed to successfully explain the Byzantine regulations relating to rights of way, gave us a taste of changes in the legislation and explored many of the issues confronting rights of way officers in ensuring the maintenance of these ancient highways.

He took us through the many pieces of legislation relating to rights of way, explaining that they were subject to Highways Acts and countryside legislation but that in short, all rights of ways whether bridleways, footpaths or the peculiarly named "byways open to all traffic" and "roads used as public paths" had to be shown on the Definitive Map. This is held by the County Council which is responsible for all highways whether they be main roads or public footpaths in the countryside. Indeed County Councils actually have a duty enshrined in statute to protect and assert the public's rights in using public rights of way.

The Definitive Map is, however, the keystone of the rights of way service. If a route is on the Definitive Map, then it proves that it is a public right of way. The map has to be continually reviewed and requests for extinguishments, diversions and additions dealt with by Crispin's staff. This is no mean task when there are 2,500 miles of public rights of way in Staffordshire. Putting new routes on the map is no easy task either. Detailed research has to take place and evidence going back over many years provided as to its use as a public right of way. Even then, aggrieved landowners or other third parties can object to its inclusion in the Map and take the County Council to a public inquiry chaired by a Government inspector. Such are the emotions stirred by rights of way that Crispin told us that issues relating to one of his rights of way had even gone to the European Court!

He then moved on to talk about the work of his staff on the ground, ensuring that rights of way were easy to use and properly signposted. That in itself is no easy task, given the problems of crop obstructions, flooding, bridge collapse and so on. He explained how the landowner has certain duties in respect of maintaining rights of way and the County Council others. For example, landowners have a duty to maintain stiles but the County Council provides 25% of the cost of their repair or replacement. We ventured into the complex area of what animals could be allowed to graze in fields crossed by rights of way and in particular the circumstances relating to bulls. The message was, if the bull is in a field on its own, then that is unlawful but if the bull is accompanied by cows then that is within the law!

We went on a photographic journey looking at the problems that Crispin and his staff have to deal with before he rounded off discussing the strengthened role of rights of way in the new Countryside and Rights of Way Act and in particular the importance of rights of way for leisure, health and tourism.

The promotion of rights of way for these purposes very much points to the future and we can expect to see them achieve a much higher profile as positive community assets.

Roger Hockney
May, 2003