Public Rights of Way & Covid-19

As we all continue to do our bit to help slow the spread of coronavirus and stay at home, never has our daily exercise been more important both for our physical and mental wellbeing. While this has led to the discovery of new public footpaths for many, it has also caused implications for associated landowners. In our latest article, Jonathan Cheal discusses landowner and public responsibilities around rights of way when out and about.

The significant increase in the numbers of people using public footpaths over the last few weeks has been a cause for anxiety among many landowners, particularly where public footpaths run through, or close to farmhouses, buildings and yards. With increased instances of gates being left open and dogs not being controlled, farmers have raised concerns that this could put people who live and work in rural areas at risk, as well as increasing the risk to livestock.

While the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has provided the option for farmers to offer alternative routes so that everyone can remain safe, the rights of way network remains open. Landowners do not have the legal right to block or obstruct public rights of way or access as closures could limit opportunities for people to exercise locally or access essential amenities.

However, recognising that these are unprecedented times, Defra has permitted landowners to consider a number of temporary measures that will help reduce any associated impact to livestock, for those who live in and around the local area. Such measures may include the following:

  • tying gates open if it is safe to do so, so that walkers do not need to touch the gate
  • displaying notices that encourage users to respect local residents and workers by following social distancing guidelines
  • offering alternative routes that do not pass through gardens, farmyards or schools but only where it is safe for users and livestock to do so.

Defra have said that this flexibility is temporary.  They also remind farmers to check their public liability cover, as having the public walk other than on a public right of way is potentially at the farmer’s risk.

If you are thinking of applying for a permanent diversion of the path, so as to move it out of the garden or the farmyard, please do take advice in advance, as it is not a straightforward process.  Although most walkers prefer to avoid walking through gardens and yards, and thus will welcome a diversion as long as the new path is just as good if not better, the sad fact is that some of the user groups have a policy of opposing diversions on principle.

We have been party to lobbying for law reform on this in recent years, to raise a statutory presumption that a diversion application should succeed unless there are very good reasons to the contrary, but this has not yet reached the statute book.

If you have any questions about any of this, please get in touch with Jonathan Cheal of our Agriculture team on 07901 332 642.

Mogers Drewett

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