Sue Rogers – our North Region Access and Bridleways Officer - explains how you can make a difference to off-road riding opportunities in the County
We are over half way through another year – where does the time go?
A question for you, would you have any idea of how many miles of off-road riding have been added to the definitive map in England during 2014? The answer is - no ones quite sure.
The BHS is therefore encouraging all its Access and Bridleways volunteers - and indeed anyone else who is prepared to help gather evidence of path use, or to research any documents that can provide the evidence of public rights of access in the past.
All those routes that are currently unrecorded or that are recorded as public footpaths may well be public bridleways or restricted byways and need to be identified, because in 2026 the right to request changes will no longer exist.
Unfortunately, the gathering of evidence needed for a successful application is only the first step in a long process.
The main task falls to your Local Highway Authority (whether County or Borough Council) and follows the following process:
- The job of assessing the evidence, (which includes a pre-order consultation with owners and occupiers, Parish Councils and user groups), falls to the Definitive Map Team. A committee report is then prepared, with a recommendation to make an order or not.
- It then passes to a committee of elected councillors to make the decision (similar to a planning application). If the decision is to go ahead, then the order will be made, with 56 days given for objections to be received.
- If there are no objections, the Highway Authority can confirm the order itself and add the route to its definitive map - and then riders can start to enjoy it.
- If objections are received, it will be sent to the Secretary of State. This will result in a local Public Inquiry where an Inspector will listen to the case for and against the order and decide whether the order should be confirmed.
As you can see this can be quite a long process.
In some parts of the country it is very much longer than others as there are many opportunities for delay. Stories abound of witnesses dying before their case comes to be heard and of Access and Bridleways volunteers having to spend days defending a route at a Public Inquiry against vigorous (and sometimes intimidating), lawyers and barristers.
In Northumberland, we are fortunate to have a team of two very capable Definitive Map Officers who have been in post for many years. They have a wealth of experience - one even having been an archivist in an earlier career.
However, even a great team can only make a difference if the policy of the council is fully supportive of the public rights of way network and understands its value to all, not just those who explore the countryside on foot.
The preparation of a Rights of Way Improvement Plan (ROWIP) became a statutory duty for all Highway Authorities in 2002. Northumberland produced a draft plan on which the BHS was consulted. We are delighted to report that many of the suggestions sent in, were later incorporated in the plan.
This has led to a number of horse rider friendly policies, for example:
EN2: Improve the fragmentary provision of access for horse riders and cyclists on the public rights of way network and promote linkages which make use of the network of unclassified county roads.
EN3: Identify and address missing links and gaps in the network which will enhance existing access provision.
This all made a good starting point for the work of the team. At the same time, it was also recognised that the elected councillors did not understand basic highway law and the principle of ‘once a highway, always a highway’ and might turn down a perfectly good application because of lobbying from a landowner in his/her constituency.
In order to address this potential issue, each year, new councillors on Northumberland’s Planning and Rights of Way Committee are given a short training course on the principles on which Definitive Map Modification Orders (DMMOs) and Public Path Orders (PPOs), which include diversions, are made. This is a notable step in the right direction.
Another aspect which definitely helps the process, is that all the members of the Definitive Map Team are helpful and approachable. The representatives of all user groups, cyclists and ramblers, as well as horse riders, backed up by the Local Access Forum (LAF), now work together to the same ends. We are very fortunate to have this ‘one team’ approach.
By working together, we find that in Northumberland the number of orders being made and confirmed each year is well above the national average.
A research group has been set up which has the backing of the LAF and whose members come from the horse riding and cycling communities and local history societies. Training is given to each volunteer on their first visit to the record centre so they can get started with confidence.
The good news is that the number of applications coming in from this source is now increasing, there are also others coming in from Parish Councils and local groups, usually based on user evidence. It remains, however, that a major source of evidence on ‘alleged routes’ is generated by the Definitive Map Team itself, in order to meet the aims of the policies set out in the ROWIP.
Northumberland was one of the few counties to have re-classified all its RUPPs by considering the evidence for each one in turn before 2006 (the date when all the remaining ones in the country became restricted byways).
It is now facing up to 2026 in a similar way with regard to unclassified county roads (UCR’s) because the importance of that nearly invisible network (which often provides a much more sustainable surface than many bridleways), is fully recognised.
Every year a significant number of these UCRs recorded on the List of Streets as being publicly maintainable are researched - and orders are made for BOAT, RB or Bridleway according to what the evidence suggests.
The majority are added to the definitive map without the need for a public inquiry - and those that do go in front of the Inspector are nearly always confirmed. These are, of course, not new routes, but by adding them to the definitive map, which will lead to them appearing in time on the OS and having a finger post, will mean that the public will have easier access to a wider network.
They are also – importantly - safe for future generations regardless of what happens in 2026.
In some counties proposals for diversion orders take precedence over DMMOs which means that the delay becomes even greater. Fortunately, in Northumberland, diversion orders are processed along with the DMMOs - so no one, (user nor landowner), has to wait an unreasonable length of time.
Another way in which the process is speeded up in Northumberland is that it is often easier to find out who owns the relevant land. Northumberland is still largely a feudal county with many large estates. The boundaries of these tend to be well known by local people. Where there is uncertainty, the DM team can nearly always help out with the name of the person to be informed before an application goes in so we rarely have to use the Land Registry – this is a huge bonus.
Besides being strong on research, the opportunities for the creation of new bridleways on public land are taken.
BHS members in the south of the county - the old mining area - are known to ride along the edges of many fields and to use old lanes. A map was produced of these everyday routes used by horse riders and an effort is now being made to create new bridleways along them (where appropriate), with the initiative being taken by the Definitive Map Team.
Parish Councils are also encouraged to contact the team if they believe a route in their area needs recording. They will also often support applications put in by the BHS and other groups.
The photograph here, illustrates an example in Chatton Parish where a horse riders (who sat on the Parish Council), became aware of a new ‘Private’ sign that had gone up on a well-used route after a change in land ownership. Research was done, which showed it was an old road, so an application was put in from that Parish Council; it is now on the definitive map as a restricted byway. A great result.
So, it is hopefully now clear that although it is important for BHS members to get down to work in their record office, there are many other ways in which they can help the process along.
The most important thing is to get to know the Rights of Way team, especially those who work on the definitive map and see how working together can help. All opportunities to influence policy - by contributing to consultation, going to ROW liaison meetings, applying to be on your local access forum and talking to local county councillors, should be taken.
The importance of Parish Councils should not be forgotten, likewise, other user groups and those interested in local history. We all have an interest in the future of the rights of way network so we need to work together in the hope that your local highway authority can soon be as productive as the one we are proud of, here in Northumberland.