From an article by Rosina Sabur
The Telegraph September 10th 2017
Councils are spending hundreds of thousands of pounds investigating claims by ramblers for public footpaths to be officially recognised, despite many running on private property.
The Government has introduced a 2026 cut off date to record historic routes which existed before official records began in 1949 with the aim of providing certainty to landowners, but the ensuing rush has had a knock-on effect for unsuspecting homeowners, particularly those buying properties in the country.
The current unwieldy system has been criticised by the CLA, in particular the fact that lost paths which have not been used for generations can be claimed on the basis of historic evidence and added to official maps.
Councils are also experiencing huge backlogs, with research by the Telegraph revealing authorities are spending hundreds of thousands of pounds to investigate applications for rights of way by the public.
Essex County Council has spent a staggering £310,000 investigation claims for public footpaths over the last five year, and more than £40,000 defending their decisions when members of the public objected. Cardiff Council has spent £228,000 investigating 38 claims in the last five years – including 25 in the last year alone – and £92,000 processing 23 rights of way orders, while South Gloucestershire Council said it has spent £36,641 investigating nine applications over the same period.
Kent County Council estimates it is spending £32, 000 a year handling rights of way claims but said it has such a large backlog of applications that many received in the last five years are yet to be allocated to an officer. Monmouthshire Council said it currently has a staggering 1, 209 enforcement issues on record.
Bedford Borough Council revealed it had received four claims of a public right of way, which it spent £3,000 investigating, one of which led to a public inquiry, costing £15,000 before eventually being rejected by the secretary of state.
The Local Government Association criticised the spiralling costs. A spokesman said: “Councils, who are facing an overall £5.8 billion funding gap by 2020, have a responsibility to deal with and resolve disputes, of which determining who has right of way on a path is just one example.
“It is crucial that councils are resourced to handle all of these matters, as only with adequate funding can councils deliver for their communities.”
It comes as a row over a footpath in Somerset which has been raging for almost 60 years finally came to an end this week.
A government inspector has ruled that brother and sister Archie and Ivy Peppard, who had insisted for more than six decades that a muddy track outside their house in High Ham, Somerset, was not a public footpath, were right all along.
In some instances, applications are made under the argument of ‘presumed dedication’, such as in the case of Debbie Wiseman, who claims she has been the victim of a sustained campaign by walkers to have a public path recorded through her property which has led to a costly dispute.
A thorough survey by the council and a solicitor seemed to confirm there were no issues with the property, which has stood on the same spot since 1759.
But some time later a group of neighbours applied to Suffolk County Council to claim there was a public path running through the middle of her garden and driveway.
The Council agreed and since then, Ms Wiseman has lost both her Ofsted childminder and foster carer status, as she can do little about the fact strangers may come within close proximity of her home.
Ms Wiseman argues if a homeowner wants to fight the final decision they must often resort to costly legal action – as she is now doing by taking her case to the High Court.
Some landowners have claimed that some keen walkers are using underhand methods to initially secure footpaths on the official maps, which often requires proof the land has been regularly used by the public for the last 20 years under the argument of ‘presumed dedication’.
It has also been suggested that the same names were behind a significant number of applications across the county.
Ann Scott, a retired school teacher, 68, said she has had a similar experience. She bought her cottage in 1998 a full solicitors search of her property found no footpaths on or near the property. But in 2013, a claim was made of a footpath running through her garden.
Norfolk County Council did not uphold the claim but instead decided there was already a public highway through Ms Scott’s garden.
“My garden, countryside and woodland will be destroyed to provide an expensive muddy track, which has never previously existed, for questionable public pleasure,” she said.
“In order to get a court decision I will be obliged to commit a criminal offence by locking my own garden gate to ‘block the highway’. My only other option would be to apply for a judicial review which could cost up to £100,000.”
A Norfolk County Council spokesman said: “The matter is with Norfolk County Council’s solicitors to examine Ms Scott’s claims and therefore we cannot comment further at this stage.”