In England and Wales the council that has principal responsibility for rights of way in a particular area, known as the highway authority, is either the county council or the
unitary authority (the latter term includes London and metropolitan borough councils).
Highway authorities may sometimes assign some of their responsibilities to other
authorities. District councils may, by agreement, take over path maintenance and other
duties from county councils. Parish and community councils also have the power to
maintain paths. In national parks the national park authority sometimes takes over
some or all of the responsibilities for rights of way.
Highway authorities have a general duty “to assert and protect the rights of the public
to the use and enjoyment” of paths in their area. They are legally responsible for
maintaining the surface of the path, including bridges, and keeping it free of
overgrowth. They have the power to require owners to cut back overhanging growth
from the side of a path.
Maintaining stiles and gates is primarily the owner’s responsibility, but the relevant
authority must, where the owner is complying with their maintenance duty, contribute
25% of the cost if asked and may contribute more if it wishes. If stiles and gates are not
kept in proper repair the authority can, after 14 days’ notice, do the job itself and send
the bill to the owner.
The surface of the path is for most purposes considered to belong to the highway
authority along with so much of the soil below and the air above as is necessary for the
control, protection and maintenance of the highway. The rest normally belongs to the
owner of the surrounding land.
Undergrowth or other obstructions may be removed by bona fide travellers on the path,
but only as much as is necessary to get through. Many walkers carry small secateurs
for this purpose and the value of clipping back vegetation often goes unrecognised.
Path Teams with the specific purpose of moving obstructions such as undergrowth and
installing furniture will therefore usually require permission from both the relevant
authority and the landowner.
In Scotland, there is a statutory right of access to most land (and inland water) which is
based on traditional, customary access to land, so there has historically been less
focus than in England and Wales on the need to protect and keep open paths. There
are far fewer paths in Scotland, especially in lowland areas, and there are very few
rights of way which are legally protected. One provision of the Land Reform (Scotland)
Act 2003 was the duty on Scottish access authorities (local authorities and national
park authorities) to develop Core Path Plans which would form a framework for local
path networks in their area. These plans have now been adopted across Scotland but
over 95% of the designated core paths are on existing paths, so there has been little
growth in the overall path network and no attempt to redress the lack of paths around
and between communities in particular. Ramblers Scotland continues to advocate for
more investment in extending this path infrastructure. Access authorities have powers
to maintain, promote and keep core paths free from obstruction, but there is no legal
duty to do so. However, clearly there is an expectation that such paths are kept open
as a priority, although this can be at the cost of investment in the wider path network.
Ramblers path teams usually work under the auspices of the access authority, which
means they have the relevant permissions to do the work.