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We are delighted that the government is to scrap the 2026 deadline for recording historic paths in England. This deadline has, for more than 20 years, threatened our unique path-network.
The deadline meant that on 1 January 2026, public rights over thousands of paths, which are public highways but not yet recorded as such, or not yet recorded correctly, would have been extinguished, with those rights being lost for ever. If a way is not recorded on the definitive map and statement of rights of way, it can disappear under development.
Users have been frantically researching the historic evidence to claim paths, but there was no way that they could research them all before the deadline.
On 16 February, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) told the stakeholder working group (SWG: made up of representatives of users, landowners and farmers, and local authorities) that it would ditch the deadline, since considerable work remained to get the proposals ready for legislation. Defra, Natural England, and the SWG have been working on this since 2008.
Says Kate Ashbrook, our general secretary and a member of the SWG since its inception: ‘We are greatly relieved that Defra has recognised that the 2026 guillotine is impractical. Much legal and technical work remained to be done before it could be imposed, and this has stalled for some time. We are pleased that Defra has taken this sensible and pragmatic decision.
‘Now, users can carry out their work without a Sword of Damocles hanging over them, and we can ensure that valuable ways are saved. However, it is also important to record them in order that people know where they are and they can be protected from development. Therein lies a serious problem because local authorities have a long backlog of applications.
‘The rights-of-way reform package, agreed by the SWG and included in the Deregulation Act 2015, was intended to expedite path claims and assist local authorities in processing them. We hope that these can be extracted and implemented in any case, to help the applications from building up.
‘We are concerned, however, that Defra proposes instead to focus on implementing measures to give landowners a right to apply for path changes, which could divert hard-pressed local authorities into prioritising proposals which are not in the public interest. We shall be advising and lobbying on these provisions’, says Kate.
In Wales, ministers have already agreed to repeal the 2026 deadline.
The 2026 cut off was introduced in the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000. In 2008 Natural England set up the SWG to agree a package of legal and procedural changes to enable the cut off to be implemented. The SWG agreed a package in 2010, and government passed legislation in the Deregulation Act 2015. However, the necessary regulations and guidance have not been completed, having proved to be more complex than originally envisaged.