The path to 2026: Historic paths and definitive maps timeline

We explore the timeline of events which have had an impact on recording paths on official ‘definitive’ maps, from the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949 to what’s going on now as the 2026 cut-off date for adding historic paths to maps approaches.

Background and definitive maps explained

1949 The ground-breaking National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949 (which paves the way for National Parks and National Trails) requires local authorities across England and Wales to keep an official record of public rights of way known as a ‘definitive map and statement’. These maps have proved invaluable in protecting paths from being closed, obstructed and built on.

1968 – 1981 Completing definitive maps proves difficult. The necessary surveys and procedures involved are complicated and time-consuming. Paths are left off maps and some local authorities are more efficient than others. Changes introduced by the Countryside Act 1968 make matters worse. Further changes brought in with the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 reduce the backlog of paths waiting to be added to maps, but only temporarily. The last definitive map isn’t published until 1982.

1982 – 1998 A succession of Governments (and the public bodies that advise) them look for ways to complete and ‘close’ definitive maps.

‘Closing’ definitive maps to historic paths

1998 The Countryside Commission (later the Countryside Agency, now Natural England) proposes that paths which rely on historical evidence to show they exist should no longer be added to definitive maps. It says there should be a notice period and staggered deadlines to introduce the change, as well as money to research missing paths, but that the maps should be ‘closed’ within 10 years. We argue against this until it can be shown the funding is effectively completing maps.

1999 The Countryside Commission suggests the Government states its intention of closing definitive maps to further changes based on historical evidence, but only if historic paths are researched to a high standard. It also says the Government must give highway authorities and volunteers enough resources to carry out the research. It recommends it explores the scale and cost of researching and recording missing paths and that it prepares a plan for the work so that completion dates for the maps can be set.

1999 The Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions publishes a consultation paper which takes forward many of the Countryside Commission’s recommendations, in particular that any claim for a path based solely on historical evidence should be invalid ten years from the start of new legislation.

2000 The Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 officially introduces the cut-off date for adding historic paths to definitive maps but opposition from the Ramblers and others means the period before the cut-off date is extended from 10 to 25 years. This means paths (footpaths and bridleways) which existed before 1949 and which aren’t recorded on definitive maps by 31 December 2025 will be extinguished.

Discovering Lost Ways project and the Stakeholder Working Group

2001 The Countryside Agency sets up the Discovering Lost Ways project to take forward the Government’s promise (following criticism) that definitive maps should be completed before the 2026 cut-off. We join the project’s steering group. This major project starts with a scoping study and research into the archives of four test counties. Over 200 case files relating to potential ‘lost ways’ are assembled and applications are made to add four routes to the definitive map in Cheshire.

2007 Natural England takes over from the Countryside Agency and reviews the Discovering Lost Ways project. It says that fundamental problems with the system for processing claims for historic paths and recording them on definitive maps means completing them by systematic trawling through archives – and as a result the Discovering Lost Ways project as a whole – isn’t viable.

2008 The Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) agrees the Discovering Lost Ways project should be closed down and that the processes for adding historic paths to definitive maps should be reviewed instead. A group with stakeholders from three key sectors – land owners/managers, rights of way users (including the Ramblers) and local authorities is asked to together come up with reforms to speed up the process for claiming and adding paths to maps and make it less confrontational.

2010 After reaching consensus in a controversial area of rights of way law, the Stakeholder Working Group (SWG) presents its report Stepping Forward to ministers. It contains 32 recommendations, fully supported by Natural England which set out ways of capturing or preserving useful routes before or at the 2026 cut-off date and of improving the process of adding paths to definitive maps in the years leading up to the cut-off date.

The Deregulation Bill

2012 Defra carries out a public consultation on the SWG recommendations and other rights of way issues. We respond to the consultation and give our support to the proposals.

2013 The Government publishes the draft Deregulation Bill (a drive to remove bureaucracy) which includes the main recommendations of the SWG. The draft Bill is examined by a Joint Committee of the House of Commons and the House of Lords. We submit evidence to the Committee and recommend that the rights of way clauses in the Bill, which we worked hard to achieve consensus on with the members of the SWG, should remain.

2014 The Deregulation Bill is published and begins its passage through Parliament and we’re invited to give evidence to the Bill Committee. With less than 12 years to go until 2026 it’s important the SWG recommendations in the Bill become law. If the recommendations don’t improve the process for adding paths the Government will need to think again about the cut-off.

2016 The Ramblers continues to sit on the SWG and pushes for the recommendations to be adopted.

2017 The likely earliest point at which the final form of the regulations are to be adopted.

2026 The current cut-off date for adding historic paths to definitive maps.

Fact

We’ve always supported the idea of definitive maps. Our volunteers helped produce the original maps and we’ve championed them ever since.