Public rights of way are often unwelcome accessories to landed estates. England alone has about 118,000 miles of footpaths, bridleways and byways, and agents are reporting a rise in the number of claims to revive historic paths or expand the use of existing ones to accommodate motor vehicles. At the same time, says Tom Hudson of buying agents Middleton Advisors, privacy is becoming increasingly important to buyers, making rights of way a more pressing issue than ever before.
For every purchaser who sees a public right of way as a bonus like the Property Vision client who recently asked buying agent Ed Heaton to find him a house with a footpath nearby, as the family were keen walkers-dozens of others perceive it as a threat to privacy and security. ‘In a large country home with a small area of land, a right of way is an issue,’ says Napoleon Wilcox of Fine & Country estate agents. ‘But if the way is either at a considerable distance from the main house or not within the line of sight, then perhaps it’s of much less consequence.’
The nature of a right of way will also make a huge difference. ‘A byway open to all traffic is easily the worst, as it’s effectively a public road, but a path popular with dog walkers next to a public car park might also be a real nightmare,’ says Philip Eddell of Savills. By contrast, a quiet bridleway may appeal to horsey landowners, according to Zoe Napier of Zoe Napier Country & Equestrian.
Buyers can check which rights of way affect a property on definitive local-authority maps. But beware: although the public has the right to use every way marked on a map-unless a legal change has taken place since it was compiled-they may also have rights to additional ways that aren’t shown on it.
For this reason, solicitor Elizabeth Earle of Dickinson Dees recommends asking sellers whether they’re aware of anyone walking over their land, other than on designated rights of way. ‘This could indicate a latent claim to have a path dedicated as a public right of way.’ Something maps won’t tell
you is how frequently a route is actually used. To get a clearer picture of this, Mark Lawson of The Buying Solution suggests speaking to local residents and, ideally, checking usage levels at different times of the day.
Even when a path has a high level of traffic, landowners can minimise its effect. ‘The secret is to have well-organised access and, where possible, a screened, fenced and clearly marked right of way, so that users don’t impinge on the day-to-day use of your land,’ says Simon Harrison of Harrison Edge.
Angus Harley of Knight Frank recalls visiting a former rectory in the Cotswolds where ‘a Victorian rector had sunk the right of way into a deep high-sided cutting so that users didn’t obscure his enjoyment of a splendid view down to a trout lake.’ This would probably not be allowed now, but,
he says, landowners can still apply to have a path relocated. ‘In certain circumstances, you can redirect a right of way,’ agrees Miss Earle. ‘I had a client who had one going through his steading. He proposed a less intrusive route, and the council went for it.’
That said, anyone whose land is crossed by a public right of way has to face limitations and responsibilities. Obviously, ‘it’s illegal to prevent the public using a right of way,’ says Mr Harley, and landowners have to keep it free from obstructions, including crops (except hay and silage) and encroaching vegetation. Other liabilities may be harder to ascertain, but generally, says Miss Earle, they include ‘ensuring gates and stiles are in good order, and not putting up misleading signs that might discourage access’.
Likewise, ‘you can’t put anything that can be a hazard in a field crossed by a public right of way’, and there are regulations governing which animals may be kept in a field with a right of way. As a rule, the greater the inconveniences caused by a public right of way, the more it will affect a property’s value. ‘The most damaging ones could reduce value by up to 25%,’ says William Marsden-Smedley of Prime Purchase. This isn’t necessarily bad news for buyers, because it means they can get more property for their money (although they’re also likely to resell it for less).
Ultimately, the decision on whether to buy a property affected by a right of way comes down to individual sensitivities, says Mr Harrison. ‘My advice to a potential purchaser is to dismiss it if they feel it will disturb their peace of mind.’