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We have congratulated Henley Town Council on refusing to comply with Oxfordshire County Council’s plan to categorise local paths according to their use. Councillors, advised by the society, considered that this could lead to less-well-used paths being relegated so that they become obstructed and overgrown.
The county council, the highway authority responsible for Oxfordshire’s public footpaths and bridleways, asked the council to take part in a trial approach to categorising the paths, ‘to identify key routes that locals and visitors use, in order to focus efforts on higher priority issues, and to meet community needs’. The town council asked the Open Spaces Society, of which it is a member, to advise it on a response.
The society wrote that the county council ‘is under a statutory duty to ensure that all public rights of way are available for the public to use and enjoy at all times’. It considered that ‘if the town council accedes to the county’s request and “identifies” certain routes as “key routes”, you will be acquiescing in making some paths second-class compared to others. This in turn will make difficulties for your council. All paths are valued by someone, that is why they are there. If you categorise them, as OCC requests, users of the lower-priority paths will be justifiably aggrieved when they find that paths they enjoy are less well-maintained than others. And if paths are not maintained, they are likely to be less used—a vicious circle.’
The society went on to say that OCC was being disingenuous in claiming this was a ‘very limited trial approach’ since it could only mean that the council intends to spend less money on public paths and wants other councils to help it by committing themselves to a prioritisation of routes.
The society recommended the town council to refuse to take part in the exercise and this is what the council has done. Its minute says that it resolved that the town council ‘does not participate in the trial categorisation of paths at this stage, however if reassurance could be given on the way low and high priority paths would be managed and a longer timescale to process the request, then the town council would welcome a further approach in the future’.
Says Kate Ashbrook, our general secretary: ‘We are pleased that the town council followed our advice. We do not believe that Oxfordshire County Council can give the required assurance that categorisation of paths will not lead to prioritisation in maintenance, and we hope that other communities will respond in a similar manner to Henley Town Council. We want the council to stop discriminating between public paths when it has a duty to take care of them all.’
We have written to the other 51 councils in Oxfordshire which have been approached by OCC and urged them to reject the proposals.