The society has criticised as muddled, misleading and inaccurate the stories which appeared in the national press on 2 January, with the headlines ‘Homeowners win right to bar ramblers from land’ (The Times) and ‘Homeowners’ victory in battle with ramblers’ (The Telegraph).
The stories suggest that, under the proposed Deregulation Bill, landowners will have a new right to divert ‘historic rights of way’. Says our general secretary Kate Ashbrook: ‘There is no such provision and it would not anyway be new. Landowners can already apply to divert public paths, and the diversion may well go ahead, provided it fulfils the legal tests relating to the convenience of users and so on. Also, it is possible now for a council to make a simultaneous definitive map modification order (to add a path to the map) and diversion order (to move it).’
The aim of the bill, which has support from the Stakeholder Working Group on Unrecorded Ways (of which the society is a member), is to streamline the path-claims procedure and to make it less contentious. It provides that a landowner, having been notified of a claim for a public path across his land, may discuss a simultaneous diversion with the local authority at an early stage. If that diversion meets the current legal tests, ie it is not substantially less convenient to the public, it may be processed at the same time as the definitive map modification order, which may thus be uncontested—meaning that the path is added to the map more easily.
The articles claim that such requests for a diversion would be given a presumption in favour under statutory guidance being drawn up by Defra officials. Says Kate: ‘This is not the case. Defra is discussing the detail with the Stakeholder Working Group, but we have agreed that any diversion must meet the usual public-interest tests—so there can be no automatic presumption in favour of a request.
‘If the bill was to include the provisions mentioned in the articles, the hard-won consensus of the Stakeholder Working Group would crumble and the legislation would become extremely contentious. That would be both tragic and unnecessary. We are pleased that the working group’s carefully-crafted package is included in the bill and we hope it will soon become law.’