Have you come across any issues whilst out exploring your local routes during lockdown? Do you know who to report them to? Do you know the process for resolving these issues?
When you come across one of these issues, whether it being the responsibility of the local authority or the landowner, you should report it to your local authority (generally your County Council). This can be done online for most authorities or via a customer services phone number.
With the current Covid19 situation a reasonable amount of time needs to be allowed for the local authority to look into the issue and find a solution. Whether it’s a winter clearance issue or something that requires enforcement action. A reasonable time frame for issues to be sorted is 1-2 months.
If you are able to offer assistance, for example: getting a volunteer work party together to clear some vegetation, offering your time to install waymark posts and discs, or if you know the local landowner who may not know there’s a fallen tree over a route on their land. It’s always a good idea to liaise with the Local Highway Authority to see if you are able to help which may be the quickest and most effective way to resolve the issue.
Many local authorities are now facing austerity and are lacking resources which means that they are unable to fulfill their statutory duties. This means the usual method of reporting is not always effective due to the lack of resources and increased number of reports. This fault arises from central government cutting local authority budgets and local authorities setting priorities which will naturally accord greater importance to many other services before rights of way.
If the issue is not something that can be addressed by volunteers helping out then you may have to escalate your report further. If there is an obstruction on a public right of way or the route is out of repair then there is a process to follow to escalate a report to get a solution, you must be sure that the issue is justified compared to other calls on the service’s budget. Local Access Forums can be helpful in gaining explanation of resources available and how they will be prioritised. A bit of bramble growth around a sign isn’t going to be a justified report compared to a damaged bridge.
If you are certain that further action is justified, go as far up the ladder as necessary, but make sure you have undertaken the previous step:
Contact the parish council. The parish council has no greater leverage with the highway authority than an individual, but for the authority, knowing that a parish council supports the complainant can be a helpful indicator that it is important to more than one person locally and it is justified. Where a parish council is strongly supportive of the need for action, it may be possible for the parish council to fund work itself or jointly with the highway authority.
Contact the highway authority’s councillor with portfolio for rights of way. Councillors are responsible for allocation of funds. They need to know what is important to their voters.
Contact your MP. MPs are responsible for government decisions and policies, including how much funding local authorities receive. They need to know what is important to their voters.
Make a formal complaint to the highway authority for lack of action. The authority’s website will give details of how to make a formal complaint. Your complaint should set out the timeline, with copies of correspondence, and make a reasonable evidence-based approach to why they council’s lack of action is sound basis for complaint.
Report the matter, including the complaint and its outcome, to the local government Ombudsman. Its website has details on what to do.
Serve a Section 130A Notice (obstruction) or Section 56 Notice (out of repair) on the authority.
Serving Notice (S130A or S56) is not a process to undertake lightly. This mechanism was intended to force a highway authority to take action but it should be used as a last resort only if approaching the authority’s rights of way officers directly has failed to produce clearance of an obstruction in a timely manner. Serving Notice is a legal process which requires a response from the authority within one month. The authority’s response may be that the task is already in hand and it should explain the timescale, which may be quite reasonably extended because of constraints such as conservation (species and archaeology); weather, water levels or ground conditions; current negotiations (e.g. for a diversion) or pending enforcement action that has a statutory timeframe. Where an authority does not respond within the month, or where the response is not satisfactory, your recourse is to the magistrates’ court. If you are unlikely to proceed to court, there is little point in serving notice as it quickly becomes a toothless threat or a bluff. Proceeding to court involves a minimum cost and there is the possibility of costs being awarded against you should the court decide in favour of the authority. You can get support to serve notice from organisations such as The Ramblers, The British Horse Society and The Open Spaces Society.
Hopefully you’ve not come across any issues on your lockdown rambles but at least you are aware of the best way to solve any long standing or new issues on public rights of way.