The Way Ahead – A network fit for the future

2020 has really shown the value of getting outdoors into nature. According to Natural England nearly half of the population (46%) have been spending more time outside than before Covid.

Public Rights of Way are the routes that we use to access the countryside and give us legal rights to be there. These Public Rights of Way consist of footpaths (accessible on foot only), bridleways (accessible on foot, cycle, horse back and leading a horse), restricted byways (accessible by all on bridleways as well as non-motorised vehicles i.e. carriage drivers) and byways open to all traffic (accessible by all including motorised vehicles).

Town and country planning in the UK can have a significant impact on how we access the countryside through effects on Public Rights of Way, green spaces and quiet roads. Planning decisions can affect you and the routes and places you use every day.

Decisions on planning applications are made in accordance with local and national planning policies so it is key that we ensure our local policies include the user groups we need them to. Most policies include pedestrians and cyclists and the national policies focus on walking and cycling but horse riders and those with mobility issues are largely forgotten. To name a few these policies include: Local Plan, Local Transport Plan, Neighbourhood Plans, Planning Policy, Cycling and Walking Investment Strategy, Active Travel Strategy.

Most people are aware of the obvious impact of planning applications for new buildings, from a house extension to a new industrial estate, which may close or divert Public Rights of Way but other effects are
less obvious and may not be evident until too late if the development has taken place. Examples of planning applications which can have a negative impact are: a ‘ change of use’, such as from field to garden, can alter the nature of a bridleway by new landscaping; a solar farm may reduce an unrestricted cross-field path to a fenced corridor; new buildings or fencing alongside a route may make it too narrow to pass others safely. Consent for sites some distance away may increase road traffic, making quiet lanes unsafe or road crossings impractical or may introduce many more heavy goods vehicles.

Although changes in surface or the width of Public Rights of Way are protected by highway law, it is not uncommon for planning consent to have been given without due consideration of the Public Right of Way or for development to have taken place without first making provision for the right of way. Planning officers are rarely able to be on site frequently enough to monitor accordance with the consent. Once the work has been done, it can be very difficult, if not impossible, to reverse it.

This is why as individuals we need to be aware of the planning process and to become involved in protecting our interests and those of future generations.

Early involvement can produce positive outcomes, for example:
• Undesirable diversions or loss of access can be prevented.
• A new route may be provided as part of public gain as a condition of permission for a development.
• A recorded width may be impractically narrow if bounded by fences or buildings but a safer width can be incorporated in the planning consent.
• A path you have used may not be recorded and therefore will not automatically alert planning officers but provision can be made for it in the development.
• A route that is in demand for equestrians may enable it to become a bridleway or restricted byway rather than a cycle track (with no equestrian access).

Influencing development in your area occurs on two levels – first the Local Plan and associated documents which comprises policy and strategy, and secondly, planning applications.

You can oppose or support individual planning applications, but your action will be much more effective if it is reflected in the Local Plan. In Scotland, Access Strategies and Core Path Plans have a major role and are of great importance in the effect of development on access.

You can seek help from organisations such as the Ramblers or The British Horse Society for guidance on how to influence policies and respond to applications.

It is hugely important for us to get involved in our local area in these developments and infrastructure projects to ensure our treasured Public Rights of Way and greenspaces are still available and creating new routes providing us a network fit for the future.

I live in Suffolk and here there are huge plans going on which will affect how we access the countryside. Plans for the UK’s biggest Solar Farm, Sunnica Energy Farm, covering 2,500 acres will have a huge impact on access. As will plans for Sizewell C for a new nuclear power plant. East Anglia One offshore windfarm will also impact access as infrastructure is implemented on shore to harness the energy. These are all Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects (NSIPs), alongside these there are hundreds of planning applications made to the local planning authorities each year which can affect Public Rights of Way. There is a lot to keep on top of but if we want these beautiful places on our doorsteps to be protected then we need to take responsibility to take part in responding to these applications and consultations.

public rights of way

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