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North Yorkshire County Council has consulted on its plan to categorise the county’s public paths so that some will receive little or no attention.
It proposes to put paths into categories to determine the level of their maintenance, with a complicated system of assigning the priority to be given to each route.
We are deeply concerned about this. It appears that those routes which are afforded low priority will be neglected and consequently less used, and they could in effect be lost even if they are not closed legally.
Public footpaths and bridleways are highways in law, just like any road. The county council has a statutory duty to maintain all the highways in its area. It cannot in law neglect them — it would not allow an obstruction to remain on a public road, and it should treat public paths in the same way.
We believe that the proposed categorisation will lead to a distortion of the path network, with urban paths being better maintained than rural ones, and little attention given to paths between communities.
There is no recognition in the consultation document of the economic benefit which can be reaped from public paths. They attract income to the county from walkers, riders and cyclists and therefore it pays to invest in public paths. This is illustrated by the fact that there are Walkers Are Welcome towns in North Yorkshire which are benefiting from the encouragement they give to walkers.
We are also troubled that the council proposes to give lower priority to some of the issues which are reported to it on public paths. We consider that, contrary to the council’s proposals, high priority should be given to reports of ploughing and cropping of paths, otherwise by the time the path is inspected the problem may be different. Ploughing and cropping offences must be nipped in the bud. The council should threaten legal action the first time there is a report and then follow through with a legal notice if the offence is repeated. It must show it means business.
To make the most of its resources, the council should ensure that landowners carry out their legal responsibilities on the path network, mending or preferably removing stiles, cutting back vegetation etc. The council must focus on its statutory duty of removing obstructions and asserting and protecting the rights of the public to the use and enjoyment of the paths.
We also believe that the proposed new processes for categorising paths and problems are immensely complex and will take up considerable staff time to establish, explain and implement.
We have urged the council to abandon its sinister proposal to categorise routes and instead ensure that landowners obey the law and play their part in maintaining the network. The council should also make full use of volunteers, as it is already doing to excellent effect with the Lower Wharfedale Ramblers.