Environment minister breaks government pledge to save historic paths

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We have condemned the Environment Secretary’s decision to break the government’s undertaking last year to ditch the 2026 deadline for recording lost paths in England.  Thérèse Coffey has now decided not to revoke the deadline but to extend it for five years.

Restricted byway at Paston, Norfolk, recorded in 2021. Photo: Open Spaces Society

The deadline means that on 1 January 2031, public rights over thousands of paths, which are public highways but not yet recorded as such, or not yet recorded correctly, will be extinguished: public rights over them will then be lost for ever.

Says Kate Ashbrook, our general secretary and a member of the stakeholder working group which has been advising government on the rights-of-way reforms: ‘This is a short-sighted and obstructive decision by the secretary of state, and will lead to the loss of thousands of public paths.  At a time when outdoor activity has never been more important for our health and well-being, government decides to reduce those opportunities.

‘Users of the path network have already spent years researching the historic evidence needed to claim paths; but there is no way that they can research them all before the deadline, and the local authorities no longer have the resources to process the applications in a timely manner.

‘We shall continue to call for revocation of this pernicious deadline, as it flies in the face of winning more and better access in town and country, and of saving our heritage of public paths,’ Kate declares.


Full statement from Defra 22 March 2023

In February 2022 we announced Ministers had decided to repeal the uncommenced cut-off date provisions in the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 (CROW) and take forward the right to apply provisions only. This was subsequently extended to the full rights of way reform package as agreed by the Stakeholder Working Group.

As some of you will know, uncommenced provisions in CROW contain a cut-off date of 1 January 2026 for recording historic (pre-1949) rights of way on the definitive map. The effect of these provisions is that after the cut-off date, any historic rights of way not recorded on the definitive map will, with certain exceptions, be extinguished.

The Secretary of State has decided to commence the cut-off date instead of repealing it, and to press ahead with the full package of reforms as planned. In doing so, the Secretary of State is keen to promote responsible access, protect nature and support people who work and live in the countryside.

Commencing the cut-off date will maintain the original intention of CROW to bring certainty to all parties. However, in recognising that the reforms have experienced delays due to Covid, the Secretary of State has also decided to use existing powers in CROW to implement a full five-year extension to 1 January 2031, which will allow time for the reforms to take effect.

As a result, we are now preparing for the cut-off date to come into effect in 2031 and to carry on with our work to implement the reforms. This means we will need to formally commence the CROW cut-off date provisions alongside the reforms.

We understand that for some of you this news will be disappointing. However, the Secretary of State remains committed to implementing the rights of way reform package which will see significant improvements for all parties. We will continue to work with the Stakeholder Working Group to agree additional measures to manage the cut-off date transition, and seek to finalise and lay all the necessary statutory instruments to bring in the reforms as swiftly as possible.

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