Footpaths campaign gathers pace

Beleaguered property owners fed up with walkers wandering around their homes and through their gardens and farmyards are telling Defra that enough is enough. On the other side of the debate, Ramblers (, formerly the Ramblers’ Association, will be in the Peak District today, announcing a ‘big conversation to define our vision for the outdoors’. The Peaks were chosen because of the 1932 ‘mass trespass’ of Kinder Scout, the genesis of the access movement, but this will cut little ice with embattled property owners preparing for their own ‘big conversation’.

The Intrusive Footpaths Campaign will meet Defra officials in Somerset on September 10 to negotiate relief for landowners who say they are tormented by walkers’ access to their land. The campaign will present cases involving paths slicing through cottage gardens, past sitting-room windows- which some ramblers have no inhibitions about peering into- and through potentially hazardous working farmyards. All this upsets landholders of more modest means than the vast estates the Kinder Scout protestors confronted 80 years ago.

It will also put forward stories of life savings lost in legal battles, countless stress-related illnesses suffered by those unable to cope with strangers trampling around their property and even two suicides. Colin Ray, who started the Campaign 18 months ago, hopes the draft Deregulation Bill will be a mechanism for change. ‘We all appreciate that walking improves well-being, but you can’t use an ancient network that evolved to get farm labourers to work across the fields centuries ago to match this new use. County councils tend to sustain a lot of criticism over access, although they have to work within three pieces of legislation [The Highways Act 1980, the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, and the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 (CRoW)] that all presume in favour of the walker.

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That’s why we want changes to the primary legislation, rather than fighting it piecemeal in the courts. Family homes and farmyards must be recognized as exempted land.’ Defra Secretary of State Owen Paterson is in contact with some sufferers, but Dorset campaigner Richard Connaughton believes most letters to Oliver Letwin are not seen by the Minister because civil servants have created an ‘impenetrable curtain’- an opinion that echoes the conclusions of Henry Hobhouse’s strident independent report of 2011.

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In 1947, when 90% of the population occupied 10% of the land, Mr Hobhouse’s grandfather, the Liberal local-government politician Sir Arthur Hobhouse, chaired a special committee into ‘health and well-being’. It led to the creation of the national parks, but Mr Hobhouse feels its thinking about rights of way was hijacked. ‘The impression often given of rightsof- way initiatives as being dedicated to the common good is fallacious,’ he explains. ‘There is an unbroken chain of control running down from Defra, through its agency in the Planning Inspectorate, the Countryside to the grass roots.’

Some ongoing disputes began in the 1970s, when paths reappeared on the definitive map without the owners’ knowledge. CRoW accelerated the flow, obliging local authorities to revive ancient byways and making ramblers bolder about claiming others. In one example, in 2000, a path was drawn through the sitting room of Mr Ray’s modern house in Warwickshire; he once found the representatives of an athletics club in his garden, planning a marathon. To claim right of way, it must be proved that a route has been continually used for a 20-year period, an activity that can be prone to exaggeration.

In 1996, Peter Sanguinetti cleared an overgrown, boggy track on his dairy farm near Wedmore, Somerset, and allowed a neighbour to ride on it. ‘Suddenly, people we’d never seen in all the 25 years we’d lived here signed bits of paper saying it was a well-used bridleway. Then, we got motorbikes every Sunday afternoon.’

In 2003, he spent £27,000- a typical sum for a public enquiry- fighting a further upgrade to the track, but the end result was a compromise. ‘We were so relieved to have seen off the Byway Open to All Traffic (BOAT) that we put up with the bridleway.’

In another case, the elderly Peppard siblings fought a path outside the windows of their remote woodland cottage at High Ham, Somerset, for 20 years from 1973, before running out of money. Marlene Masters, a farmer’s wife with no legal training, then took on their case and proved that a homeowner’s apparent failure to lodge an objection to the definitive map did not mean he accepted the path. In July, her efforts were further rewarded when Defra acknowledged the flawed application of the law by a Rights of Way inspector just weeks before the case was set for judicial review. She wants a statutory public enquiry to unravel the authorities’ treatment of the Peppards, who are both deceased. ‘It’s so wrong that people should be told they’re criminals for not wanting people walking over their land,’ she says.

A major issue is walkers’ perceived unwillingness to agree to detours. Last year, the CLA produced The Right Way Forward, a commonsense approach to resolving issues. Its legal advisor, Andrew Gillett, says that ‘positives’ of the Deregulation Bill include making it easier to amend administrative errors, which could free up council time to address the mountain of unresolved map-modification orders-the sheer number ‘means applications for diversions don’t get a look-in’.

The CLA has assisted Mr Ray in obtaining the meeting with Defra and officials will visit Eileen O’Hara- who was ‘shocked’ when a path, with a dead end, was listed through her garden in 2000-to see the problems at her former stable yard firsthand. Mrs O’Hara has seen her house sale fall through and been refused planning permission because of the path’s proximity and she also feels that its existence has caused her to be burgled six times and her property vandalised.

Summing up landowners’ concerns, she comments: ‘CRoW was supposed to bring freedom to the individual, but what does freedom have to do with walking up a path that goes nowhere, turning round and walking back the way you came?’

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