21 January 2014 by Eugene Suggett
Picture a terraced-type house in one of our towns. Many towns have streets of such dwellings, with no front garden and the doors opening directly on to the pavement. Drive down the road, like many folks do all the time, or walk down the pavement, and you’re within feet of the occupants. Day and night, people drive down these roads and walk down these pavements. So they should, if one of the freedoms of citizens in a free state is to move around the country unimpeded.
That, I suppose, is why highway authorities have the duty of asserting and protecting your right to free passage along paths and roads. Despite the nuisance this right causes to residents troubled by traffic noise, road noise, pavement noise and late-night revellers returning under their windows.
It seems that we all accept this; I know of no-one who avoids driving down country lanes or urban streets for fear of disturbing privacy or, at night, sleep as well.
Highway authorities have powers to prevent vehicles from driving down roads. The Road Traffic Regulation Act 1984 empowers it for the prevention of danger to persons using the road, or to “facilitate the passage” of pedestrians or other users.
The Act empowers the prohibition of use of a road by types of vehicles unsuitable to that road’s character, or to the character of the adjoining properties. The Act empowers the prohibition of vehicles from a road which is especially suitable for use by pedestrians and horseriders. And the Act empowers the banning of vehicles from a road so as to preserve or improve the amenities of the area through which the road runs.
In short: to make it safer or simply nicer for pedestrians, or to improve the quality of life for the people who live in houses next to a road, or both, the highway authority can stop the vehicles driving down it.
But they never do. Or hardly ever. Yes, they use the powers to make pedestrianised areas in the middle of towns, usually in the prettier central parts, round the main shops or the town hall or the cathedral, or streets so narrow you can’t easily get a car down them anyway.
But picture, if you will, a quaint cottage-type house on the main road through a village. No front garden; the door opens straight on to the narrow (if any) pavement; the windows of the main rooms look out on to passers-by, in cars or on foot; the passers-by, if they are nosey enough, can reciprocate by looking back in. Cars speed by, lorries rumble past at all hours of the day and night. But ask the highway authority to stop the vehicles thundering past, by means of their useful amenity-preserving powers under the Road Traffic Regulation Act, and they will tell you that they never heard of it being used for that purpose, and that it would inconvenience the motorists.
So why is it that when it is only a footpath, with occasional quiet pedestrians and not a road bearing juggernaut lorries and speeding cars, that goes past people’s windows, it is treated in some quarters as though it contravened the laws of nature, and needs to be shut?
A case in point has arisen in Bedfordshire, where a man built a house by a claimed public footpath and now complains that people use the path, which goes near his downstair windows. Though street-pavements go past millions of downstair windows, the Bedfordshire instance has led lately to press-articles calling for greater “privacy” for people affected by footpaths, and the local MP (the one who once surprised her colleagues by appearing on a television show called I’m a celebrity ... get me out of here) is said to be assisting him in his endeavour.
So are some local councillors, who have raised an order extinguishing the path, despite their own monitoring showing that 9 people use it every day. Why do those who possess such an antipathy to their fellow-citizens buy houses in proximity to where they walk? And why are these councillors not concerned about the “privacy” of those who live in houses which abut roads and pavements? There are plenty of these in Bedfordshire. Or don’t the likes of them “count”? Often wondered.
Eugene Suggett is the Ramblers' senior policy officer. Find out more about his work and read his previous blog posts.