Gaps, gates and stiles are something that come up in my line of work week in week out, they’re also one of the most common topics of questions I receive on social media so here’s a lowdown of how these structures work on Public Rights of Way in England.
Gaps are preferred, then gates, then stiles.
Local authorities who manage the Public Rights of Way networks throughout the country will generally aim to have a network of public rights of way that are as free from barriers as possible which are easy to use by everyone.
In practice, there are places where structures are needed by owners of agricultural land to control livestock. The law understands this and makes provision for land managers to apply for authorisation for structures if it can be proved that they are needed and there is no reasonable alternative. Land managers must therefore apply to their local authority for permission to erect any type of structure on or across a public right of way.
When are structures allowed on public rights of way?
A gate, stile or other barrier can only be erected on a public right of way if either: –
• The Definitive Map and Statement has recorded the presence of a structure on the public right
of way. The County Council can check this for you.
• The structure has been authorised by Suffolk County Council using the powers of the Highways Act 1980 section 147
If a structure is not recorded on the Definitive Map and Statement or has not been authorised by the local authority, then it is an unlawful obstruction. If a land manager erects a structure without permission, then they are committing an offence and the County Council will take action to remove it.
There are times when the County Council installs a barrier on a public footpath for the safety of the public users. This is justified through the Highways Act section 66 with the County Council having substantial evidence that the public is at risk, including the support of the parish council, the local police and actual physical evidence on the ground. The rights of private users also have to be taken into account.
Getting permission for a structure – the Highways Act section 147
Local authorities can grant permission to erect a structure on footpaths and bridleways if there is a need to control livestock on agricultural land. Agricultural land includes land that is being brought into use for agriculture, nurseries, land used for grazing, forestry and for the breeding and keeping of horses.
Permission can only be granted if the provisions of section 147 of the Highways Act can be met:
• if it can be justified that the land crossed by the public footpath or bridleway is being used for agriculture
• and that in order for this agriculture to be carried on efficiently, a structure is needed to control the ingress and egress of animals.
For example, land used to graze sheep or commercial forestry plantations needing to keep deer and rabbits out, would both meet the provisions of this section. If the land stops being used for agriculture and there is no longer any need to control livestock, then the structure should be removed.
The law does not allow new structures to be erected on Byways Open to all Traffic (BOATS) or Restricted Byways.
What type of structure?
Local authorities have a duty to positively promote disability equality and has to have regard to the needs of persons with mobility problems when authorising structures. (Countryside & Rights Of Way Act 2000 and Disability Discrimination Act 2005). In authorising a structure, the local authority will normally give permission for simple hand gates unless the land manager can make the case for a more restrictive structure such as a kissing gate. Each application is judged on its merits considering the type of animals involved, the level of use and status of the path, the likely impact on users and whether it is more reasonable to fence the path out from the land thereby avoiding the need for any structure. Any new structures should conform to the British Standard on Gaps, Gates and Stiles 5709 –2006. As a principle, gates on bridleways will be easily opened from horseback and on foot and must open to at least 1.5m (5 feet).
Who is responsible for paying for structures?
As a structure is usually erected for the benefit of the land manager, it is the applicant who is responsible for providing it and looking after it. For new structures, the applicant is responsible for the costs of the structure and installation. When there is an existing authorised structure, the local authority will contribute 25% towards the reasonable costs of repair or replacement so long as this is agreed in advance with the appropriate Area Rights Of Way Officer. In practice, this contribution may be in kind, such as materials, but
this does not imply that the County Council takes responsibility for the structure in future. If the applicant wishes to change an authorised stile to a gate or kissing gate, then the local authority may enter into an agreement with you and be prepared to offer a more substantial contribution.
Who looks after the structure in the long term?
The land manager is responsible for looking after the structure and making sure that it is always safe and easy to use. This is described in the Highways Act s146, which places a duty on the owner/occupier ‘to maintain the structure in a safe condition and to a standard required to prevent unreasonable interference with the rights of users.’ As the structure is not part of the highway, the onus for liability is placed on the owner by the Occupiers Liability Act 1957. If an owner refuses to repair a structure or the repair is unsatisfactory, then the law does give the local authority powers to do the necessary work and to charge the owner.
Each application is assessed to determine the most suitable type of structure, appropriate to the use of the land and the needs of the users of the path. There is no appeal against the local authority’s refusal to grant authorisation or its imposition of conditions.
There are a number of structures that can be authorised which prevent some users and not others such as horse stiles or horse friendly vehicle barriers. These are important to protect routes from illegal and irresponsible behaviour whilst still allowing legitimate users to pass and repass on the Public Rights of Way network.