Frequently Asked Questions: Rights of Way

Q. What is a right of way?

A right of way is a path that anyone has the legal right to use at least on foot, and often by other means, whether on horseback, cycle, horse-drawn carriage, or motor vehicle.

  • Public footpaths are normally open only to walkers
  • Public bridleways are open to walkers, horse-riders and cyclists
  • Restricted byways are open to walkers, horse-riders, and drivers and riders of non-mechanically propelled vehicles (such as horse-drawn carriages and pedal cycles)
  • Byways open to all traffic (BOATs) are open to all classes of traffic including motor vehicles, though they may not be maintained to the same standard as ordinary roads.

The ordinary road network also comprises rights of way, although they are not normally described as such.

Some minor roads in the countryside are not tarred, but they are open to all traffic, like any other road:

you may see these signposted as ‘byway’ or ‘public road’, and they are usually marked on Ordnance Survey maps with green or red dots (depending on the type of map) and labelled as ‘other routes with public access’.

Q. What are my responsibilities

  • Try to follow the Country Code
  • You have a right to pass along a right of way consistent with its designation: so you have no right to cycle along a footpath, or to drive a motor vehicle along a restricted byway. Byelaws (particularly in towns) may make it a criminal offence to cycle or ride on some footpaths, and it is always an offence to drive a motor vehicle along a footpath, bridleway or restricted byway, unless the owner has given his permission.
  • If you take a dog with you, keep it under close control, and on a lead in fields with livestock; you have no more right to allow your dog to stray from the right of way than you do.

Q. Does the landowner have responsibilities too?

Yes, the landowner must keep the right of way free of obstructions (such as fences and locked gates).

  • The landowner must also provide access through or across any fence — typically by providing a gate (but landowners must not erect new fences across rights of way without the permission of the local authority, even if a stile or gate is fitted).
  • The landowner must not cultivate a right of way (such as by ploughing it), except that a cross-field footpath or bridleway may sometimes be cultivated if it is reinstated, convenient for use, within a fortnight on the first occasion each year, and within 24 hours on any subsequent occasion.

Q. What if a way isn’t recorded on the definitive map and statement

Not all rights of way are recorded on the definitive map and statement, nor shown on the Ordnance Survey map: some ways which have been used for many years without challenge, or where there is historical evidence that a right of way exists, are also unrecorded rights of ways.

  • You can apply to the local authority to have a way recorded on the definitive map and statement through a ‘definitive map modification order’, because it has been used for many years without challenge, or because historical evidence exists of a right of way.
  • Your county council or unitary authority should have details on their website about making applications — but in order to be successful, you will need good evidence to support it.
  • We may be able to help you if you are considering whether to make an application.

Q. What do I do if something is wrong?

  • First, check whether the problem is truly on a right of way. If you’re not sure, check the definitive map and statement held by the local authority — try online first.
  • If it is, most local authorities allow online reporting of problems — this makes it easier and quicker for them to respond.
  • Report it to our local correspondent, if there is one — local correspondents may be able to lobby the authority for quicker action.

Need to know more? - Follow the links below for more information.

Q. What are my rights?

  • You have the right to pass and repass along a right of way.
  • You also have the right to do anything reasonably ancillary to passage, according to the nature of the route — for example, on a broad downland track, it would be reasonable to stop and take a sketch or eat a sandwich.
  • You may take with you anything which is a ‘reasonable accompaniment’ — such as a pram or a dog (but please refer to What are my responsibilities?  regarding dogs on public paths) — but a right of way need not be sufficiently wide or convenient to accommodate anything you take with you.
  • You may use the right of way, even if it is obstructed, obliterated by cultivation or otherwise made inconvenient — but you should try to make sure that you really are correctly following the right of way (see below about the definitive map).

Q. How can I find out about rights of way?

  • Most rights of way are recorded on the definitive map and statement held by county councils and unitary authorities: you may be able to view a copy of it online.
  • Rights of way shown on the definitive map appear on Ordnance Survey maps in the Explorer and Landranger series. You may be able to obtain local Ordnance Survey mapping on the internet, or on apps for phones, but beware of getting lost if you don’t have a signal or your battery fades.
  • Changes are made to the definitive map and statement from time to time, and these changes may not appear on Ordnance Survey maps until some time later. Check with the local authority if you are uncertain about a particular route.

Q. Is there a shortcut process to allowing cyclists to use footpaths?

Changing public rights on a footpath to allow use by cyclists can be achieved in a number of ways:

1. The simplest mechanism is for the owner of the land to permit use by cyclists (or horse riders) by replacing stiles with gaps or gates. However, it is important to be aware of several drawbacks:

i. the footpath may cross lands in different hands, and the owners may not agree.

ii. there may be doubt about the ownership of specifically the footpath (perhaps the land has no registered proprietor).

iii. pedestrians may object to use by cyclists (even if permitted by the owner), particularly if there is insufficient room to pass (though the owner could provide additional space on a permissive basis).

iv. there is an argument that, because the highway usually is vested in the highway authority, the authority must join in approving the wider use.

v. in extreme situations, such as a footpath in a confined space (g. a narrow alleyway), permitting use by cycles (or horses) may be a public nuisance giving rise to criminal liability (although I have not heard of a prosecution in modern times).


2. The highway authority may use the Cycle Tracks Act 1984: see 3.  Use of the Act requires the consent of the owner and occupier of any agricultural land (see s.3(2)), and there may be an entitlement to compensation (s.5).  The downside is that, having redesignated a footpath as a cycle track, it must be removed from the definitive map and statement (although the rights are enhanced by the addition of a right to use a cycle — the effect on the definitive map and statement is purely an administrative necessity).


3.  The gold standard is to 'upgrade' the footpath to a bridleway, so that it becomes accessible to cyclists and horse riders.  Upgrade can be done by express dedication by the owner, agreement between the owner and the parish council under s.30 of the Highways Act 1980, creation agreement between the owner and the district or county council under s.25, or a creation order made by such a council.  It may be necessary to secure additional width beyond the confines of an existing footpath.  In addition, use of a bridleway by cyclists is subject to s.30 of the Countryside Act 1968, which requires that: 'cyclists shall give way to pedestrians and persons on horseback.'  Failure to give way may give rise to criminal liability for careless or inconsiderate cycling under s.29 of the Road Traffic Act 1988.

Further resources about Frequently Asked Questions: Rights of Way

  • Deregulation Act

    A small but important part of the act concerns public rights of way, and will take effect once the regulations and guidance have been completed.

  • Claiming a Public Footpath

    It is possible to apply to include on the definitive map routes which have been used by the public, ‘as of right’ for twenty years.

  • Getting Decent Widths in Path Diversion Orders

    Some slightly random thoughts on the matter to encourage action.

  • Information on Highway Verges

    Along many of the highways of England and Wales are to be found strips of land open to the public.

  • Parishes dealing with highway obstructions

    Town, parish and community councils are likely to take a strong proprietorial interest in their parish rights of way, and in their local highway network generally.

  • Government Guidance - Public Access and Rights of Way in England

    Insider hacks: three Government publications that will help you to protect public access and rights of way.

  • Taking action

    Challenging councils who have failed to make progress with definitive map change applications

  • Local Access Forums: role of the local authority

    As a local authority or national park authority, find out what responsibilities you have for your LAF.

  • Local authority rights of way improvement plans

    As a local authority you must review your rights of way improvement plan every 10 years.

  • Authorising structures on rights of way

    Good practice guidance for local authorities on compliance with the Equality Act 2010

  • Path Paraphernalia

    Removing and improving path-paraphernalia

  • What to do about overgrown paths

    Our recommended action if you come across an overgrown path.