Blocked Footpaths

More of Norfolk’s public footpaths are becoming blocked.

15th August 2014. The EDP reported last week how Norfolk’s long-distance trails the Weavers’ Way and Paston Way–are to get a half-million pound boost.  But concerns have been raised that money is being targeted in only one place when other public rights of way across the county are being left to become overgrown and unusable.

Ian Witham, Open Spaces Society Local Correspondent for Norfolk, said there was a “huge disparity” between the quality of those Norfolk public paths which form part of the Norfolk Trails Network, and those which do not.

He said where PROW (public rights of way) go across fields the county council is under a statutory duty to enforce occupiers of land to comply with their obligations to reinstate path surfaces where they have ploughed them up, and to keep them clear of crops.

Norfolk County Council’s comments

A spokesman for Norfolk County Council, said:

“The Norfolk Trails network brings together over 1,200 miles of walks, cycle and bridle routes throughout our beautiful county.

“Hundreds of thousands of visitors and residents use the Norfolk Trails each year, generating around £12 million for Norfolk’s economy and bringing vital investment into local communities and businesses.

“Over recent years we have grown the Trails network to include existing public rights of way, adding circular, long and short walks. We are actively maintaining, developing and promoting those routes to a high standard.

“But we are also investing in our public rights of way that aren’t included in our Trails network.

“This year we are spending £75,000 on proactive cutting, for example.

“As in the past, a proportion of public rights of way are maintained reactively. Whilst our staff systematically inspect rights of way, we assess and prioritise our response to issues and complaints that are flagged up to us about the network.

This could include us taking direct action, or encouraging landowners to take action.

“Fifteen per cent of the network is cross field paths where the landowner, not the county council, has responsibility. We encourage local solutions, often working with town or parish councils, but have also stepped up our enforcement procedures when required.”

But he said: “The council is failing to enforce promptly, if at all.”

He said other problems included a reactive approach to vegetation cutting and poor quality signposting which is vulnerable to being vandalised.

He said: “Increasingly, signposts are becoming hidden by, and embedded within, adjacent overgrown vegetation.”

Ian Mitchell, Ramblers Norfolk Area Footpath Co-ordinator, said: “All the paths within five miles of these two trails (Paston and Weavers Way) should be brought up to the standard of the trails themselves in terms of vegetation (and crop) cutting this autumn and next year.”

National Farmers’ Union Comments

National Farmers’ Union County Adviser Alex Dinsdale said: “Farmers want the public to enjoy Norfolk’s beautiful countryside and they welcome walkers who follow the Countryside Code.

“Norfolk farmers are generally very good at reinstating cross-field footpaths after carrying out field operations, as they are required to do, not only by law but also under the terms of their CAP payment receipts.”

Ken Hawkins from Dereham, who is voluntary footpath warden for the town council said the problem was that when a footpath did become blocked it could create a whole raft of problems.

He said: “When this happens, not only is the blocked path not available, but those which lead to it and from it don’t get used either, so they become overgrown too, and so the blockage spreads, just like a thrombosis – and, just like a thrombosis, it will eventually prove fatal to the whole network.”

But now a Norfolk-based member of the Ramblers has won a landmark High Court case which will protect walkers from being crippled by costly legal fees in public right-of-way disputes.

When public footpaths are blocked or closed to walkers, the Ramblers often apply to the local council to have the obstruction removed in order to allow free access. If the case goes to court, the charity, which runs entirely on donations, may be stung by expensive legal costs.

This practice has been challenged by a recent High Court appeal involving Roy Wheeler, a rambler, who complained to Norfolk County Council about obstacles, including trees and a gate, blocking a public footpath in Brampton.

The county council took the view that there was “no unlawful obstruction” and the dispute was later taken to the magistrates’ court.

The court rejected Mr Wheeler’s case against the council, and ordered him to pay the legal costs for the entire proceedings, amounting to over £2,000, made on behalf of the defendant, Norfolk County Council, but also on behalf of the individual landowner originally accused of blocking the footpath.

Mr Wheeler represented by Alistair Williams, a paralegal at the law firm Bates Wells Braithwaite, launched an appeal process which eventually made its way to the High Court and won.

His appeal was based on the argument that while a magistrates’ court has the right to award legal costs to either the complainant or the defendant in a case, legal statute does not allow the court to allocate costs to “third parties” such as the private landowner.

The decision has now set a new precedent for future disputes meaning charities like the Ramblers will be able to bring their concerns to court without being made to pay extortionate legal fees in respect of third parties.