Signs of the times

Staff and volunteers frequently have occasion to refer to books on highway law, since – along with what you might call ‘ordinary roads’ – footpaths, bridleways, restricted byways and byways open to all traffic are all highways in law.

Until 30 years ago there was no modern book devoted to footpaths and the like; it was roads-and-all, or roads-or-nothing. The best we had was a weighty tome called Pratt & Mackenzie’s Law of Highways, of which there has been no new edition since the twenty-first, in 1967: it tells much about turnpikes and disturnpiking, and about the dedication of highways, and about their ownership and about liability to repair, and many other things about obstruction and nuisance, but by no means all there is to know about footpaths (I have never detected mention of the definitive map anywhere between its covers).

Blue Books past and presentThe gap was well-filled in 1983 through an excellent partnership between the Ramblers and the Open Spaces Society, who that year published Rights of Way – A Guide to Law and Practice, written by Paul Clayden of the OSS and John Trevelyan of the Ramblers.

Meant mainly for volunteers of the two organisations, it quickly became popular with local authorities, planning inspectors and even lawyers, and it has gone through four editions and is now thrice its original size (with John Riddall, barrister, replacing Paul Clayden from the second edition onward). And since then a couple of other works on the subject have appeared: Angela Sydenham’s Public Rights of Way and Access to Land, and the indispensable and comprehensive Highway Law by Stephen Sauvain QC (fifth edition 2013), for which we frequently reach.

And since 1990, when it first appeared, we have been keenly subscribing to an absolute gem of a learned journal called the Rights of Way Law Review. It was designed in part to supply the need for commentary on decisions by the courts, or on legislation new and old, concerning rights of way and access law (there was no other system or journal dedicated to its reporting), and it started life at a time when public interest in the countryside in general, and cycling and horseriding and walking in particular, were perceived to be well on the increase (confirmed by the old Countryside Commission’s reports, if confirmation were needed).

The subscription for us was as good an investment as any we have made: every few weeks there have arrived well-written disquisitions on subjects of all sorts. Topics have included definitive maps and their history, the erosion of riverside paths, church ways and coffins ways, highway maintenance, treasure hunters and public access, traffic regulation orders, public rights of way on foot 1750–1835, the travel-journals of Samuel Pepys, the law relating to the creation, stopping-up and diversion of highways, the proof of highway status (with fascinating in-depth treatment of inclosure awards and tithe maps and the like), wayleaves and easements, and commons and village greens, recreation and conservation, the farming crisis and access to the countryside, highway law before 1066, highway law after 2000, and learned commentaries on cases in the courts.

Lining up kissing gateSo it is that hundreds of articles, bringing fascinating insights from many different perspectives to so many aspects of access and rights of way law, have landed on this blogger’s desk since 1990.

‘Many different perspectives’, because contributors have included lawyers, historians and other academics, representatives of the farming and landowning interests, local authority staff, and staff and volunteers from the user-groups. The theme of ‘partnership’ is in vogue at present, and the RWLR was surely the best sort of partnership, one in which we, the Ramblers, had the honour to participate: at least eleven contributors, some more or less regular ones, were from the ranks of the Ramblers.

The RWLR grew to several volumes. The articles are logically set out in sections, and unfailingly accurate and helpful in their headnotes and citations, and are both a delight to read and a powerful authority from which to quote. But in December 2013, the editorial board announced the journal’s closure. This woeful and unmerited calamity is another sign of the times: councils whose budgets for rights of way have been swingeingly and viciously axed can no longer afford to employ staff, never mind instructive and topical material to assist them in their duties, and so, unlike the paths in the well-drenched wealden clays of rural Surrey where these lines are written, the journal’s income has dried up.

Those concerned with the protection of public rights of way will be hard-pressed as to where to look in future for up-to-the-minute commentary on fresh output from the courts or Westminster, or for guidance on any new point with which the textbooks will be slow to deal, and Louise Hastings and the rest of the RWLR’s distinguished editorial board deserve the Ramblers’ profound thanks for their immeasurable contribution to the field of public rights of way and access law.

Eugene Suggett is the Ramblers' senior policy officer. Find out more about his work and read his previous blog posts. You can also read our extensive advice on rights of way and access issues.