Countryside Act at 50

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On 3 July we celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the Countryside Act 1968, an important piece of legislation.  The Open Spaces Society, with the Ramblers, played a major role in its genesis.  Our general secretary, Kate Ashbrook, explains its history and significance.

The National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949, which led to the designation of our top landscapes as national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty (AONBs), was pioneering legislation, born out of post-war idealism. By the 1960s there was an increase in leisure time, mobility and income which some feared would become a crisis. Michael Dower (son of John Dower who was the inspiration behind our national parks) wrote in 1965 of the ‘fourth wave’:

Three great waves have broken across the face of Britain since 1800. First the sudden growth of dark industrial towns. Second, the thrusting movement along far-flung railways. Third, the sprawl of car-based suburbs. Now we see under the guise of a modest word the surge of a fourth wave which could be more powerful than all the others. The modest word is leisure (Fourth Wave, the challenge of leisure, A Civic Trust Survey, 1965).

A series of conferences entitled The Countryside in 1970 was held in 1963, 1965 and 1970 and helped to sharpen this sense of threat. The first two resulted in a government white paper, Leisure in the Countryside, published in 1966. This proposed, among other things, the creation of country parks which would ‘make it easier for town-dwellers to enjoy their leisure in the open, without travelling too far’, help to ease the pressure on wilder areas and ‘reduce the risk of damage to the countryside’.

In 1967 the Gosling Committee report was published. This committee was established by ministers to carry out a comprehensive examination of the ‘present system of footpaths, bridleways and other rights of way’.

Cross-field path at Melbourne, Derbyshire

The society gave evidence to the committee and was pleased that many of its proposals were adopted at least in part, including reinstatement of ploughed paths and signposting of rights of way. We also wanted bulls over 12 months old to be prohibited from fields crossed by paths, and for all towpaths to be made into public rights of way—these were not adopted.

Leisure in the Countryside and the Gosling report were the stimuli for the Countryside Act 1968, which applied to England and Wales. It was introduced as a bill designed to tackle the problems of the countryside. Strangely, recreation and access were considered as distinct matters and occupy difference sections.

The initial bill contained some alarming provisions, such as the temporary closure, or diversion without time limit, of paths to facilitate ploughing. Fortunately, these were amended by the select committee, whose members included MPs sympathetic to the society’s views: Paul Channon, Carol Johnson, Peter Jackson and John Parker.

The Countryside Act expanded the remit of the National Parks Commission (established by the 1949 act to oversee national parks and AONBs) to the countryside as a whole and renamed it the Countryside Commission. The act empowered local authorities to create country parks and the Countryside Commission could offer grants for these and other recreational facilities. Local authorities could also provide services for the enjoyment or convenience of the public on commons with public rights of access, subject to a dedicated common-land consent process.

Denham country park in south Bucks

In the ten years following the act 150 country parks were established, with 220 by 1988 and 250 by 1998. Today, regrettably, many local authorities are selling or neglecting their parks although they still fulfil an important need.

The commission was also given powers to undertake or grant-aid experimental or research projects, which it and its successors have done to great advantage. The commission tested upland-management initiatives with small grants aimed at reconciling conflicts between farmers and recreational activities. It piloted agri-environment schemes which were later incorporated into European Union funding regimes.

The act extended the definition of open country, on which access agreements or orders could be made, to include woodland, riversides and canal sides. The intention was to provide access close to people’s homes—but the measure has been rarely used. The 1949 act’s definition of open country was land which is predominantly ‘mountain, moor, heath, down, cliff or foreshore’.

Signpost and waymark
The section on rights of way included a legal duty on highway authorities to erect a signpost where a public path leaves a metalled road (see page 14), and to waymark a path so as ‘to assist persons unfamiliar with the locality’ to follow the course of the route. The authorities were also obliged to include destinations and distances on signposts if it considered this to be convenient and appropriate.  It placed a duty on the landowner to maintain stiles, gates and other structures in a safe condition, and to make good the surface of a path after ploughing within three weeks, or six weeks if notice was given to the highway authority.

The act gave highway authorities a duty to erect signposts

Cyclists were given the right to ride on bridleways provided they gave way to walkers and riders.

Traffic regulation orders could be made for rights of way in national parks, AONBs and other designated areas for the conservation or enhancement of natural beauty, or the better enjoyment by the public.

Many of the provisions in this act have been superseded, but they were largely steps in the right direction.  And some of the provisions, such as the duty to erect signposts and waymarks, have still not been carried out.  The society and other user groups continue the campaign to ensure that the Countryside Act 1968 is fully observed.

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