Both the Country Land & Business Association and the Open Spaces Society – usually at either ends of the issue – said they welcomed the proposals Defra Minister Richard Benyon announced yesterday to end the turmoil over footpaths and bridleways.
The Government, and its countryside quango Natural England, have pledged to slash the amount of bureaucracy – and the years – it takes for a so-called ‘hidden highway’ to be formally recorded and opened up again.
Ramblers groups and campaigners for greater access to the countryside said there are thousands of old footpaths and tracks that are still used by the public but have never been made official as rights of way.
They warned that part of New Labour’s controversial CROW Act from 2000, which opened up vast swathes of the countryside under ‘right to roam’ legislation, put a time limit of the year 2026 on making those hidden highways official.
Any that did not get recorded by then would be lost and closed off, and even though that is still 14 years away, campaigners said the amount of time it took to get each one recorded meant hundreds would be closed.
The Government’s compromise will see the bureaucracy slashed, but also a presumption in favour of landowners’ claims to move or close unused footpaths.
Landowners and campaigners welcomed the move. “This consultation marks the first stage in reducing the needless bureaucracy that plagues public rights of way,” said CLA president Harry Cotterell.
“It is wholly unacceptable that it takes so many years for rights of way issues to be resolved.
“If the report’s recommendations are implemented, it should cut red tape, allow landowners to put forward legitimate concerns about rights of way and while making the system better and easier.”
The general secretary of the Open Spaces Society, Kate Ashbrook, said there was a ten-year backlog of cases in Gloucestershire alone. “The maps will never be up to date unless the processes are simplified and streamlined,” she said.
“It is unusual for so many organisations with different interests to become bedfellows, but the Government’s consultation proposals are backed by the Open Spaces Society, British Horse Society and Ramblers, as well as the Country Land and Business Association, National Farmers’ Union and local authorities and other bodies.
“In the 12 years since the 2026 cut-off was introduced in law, local authorities’ backlogs of path claims have increased, not least due to budget cuts.”