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Blocked & Obstructed Bridleways

In law there is a difference between an obstruction and lack of maintenance, even though the difference to the users of a bridleway or byway is the same – they cannot proceed, or only with difficulty. Ultimately, the solution is with the highway authority (county council or unitary authority) to enforce against obstruction and to undertake main-tenance. But sometimes progress can be made locally or through the parish or community council if the landholder is known or if a group of volunteers is prepared to help with maintenance where lack of council funds is the problem.

Obstructions

Obstructing a public right of way deliberately is a criminal offence. A bridleway or byway is a public highway, just like your local high street, and blocking public highways is against the law. Most obstructions are the responsibility of the landholder.

Obstructions vary immensely and are anything which prevents your easy passage along a right of way (unless it is a maintenance matter). Examples of common obstructions are crops or cultivation, locked gates, overhanging vegetation, fallen trees, new fences or walls.

An obstruction may be only part of the width, but is still an obstruction; for instance, an arable path left too narrow by cultivation, or encroachment by fences or buildings, which is common around gardens, farms or developments. An obstruction need not be physical – intimidating notices, threatening animals and ornate domestic gates or industrial type gates can be a form of obstruction if they cause you to doubt your right of way or to decide against using it. Gates with latching mechanisms which are not immediately obvious and possible for all users are also an obstruction, including ones with a keypad or other security feature.

The law permits you to remove enough of an obstruction for you to pass if you can reasonably do so (although you should ensure the safety of livestock) and to go round the obstruction on land in the same ownership.

Gates are primarily for the security of livestock and where there are no animals, such as between permanent arable fields or along an enclosed track, they should be removed or secured open to leave a gap. This saves wear and tear on the gate for the farmer; the rider or carriage-driver is much safer without it and it complies with the “least restrictive option” principle of the Equality Act 2010.

 

Relevant Law 

Problem

Legislation*

Gate unsafe or interfering with passage

HA80S146 

Disturbance of the surface

HA80S131A 

Obstruction 

HA80S137/143/149 

Excavation across path/damage to the highway

HA80S131 

Things deposited so as to cause a nuisance or damage 

HA80S131/149 

Ploughed headland

HA80S131A 

Non-reinstatement of cross field path or inadequate width

HA80S134 

Obstruction by crops

HA80S137A 

Overhanging vegetation

HA80S154 

Barbed wire adjacent to a highway

HA80S164 

Removal of signs which mislead and likely to discourage use

NCPA49S57 

Bulls over 10 months of age unaccompanied by cows or heifers, or dairy bulls over 10 months of age in a field crossed by a public right of way

WCA81S59

 

*Highways Act 1980 (HA80), National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949 (NCPA49), Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 (WCA81)

Government Advice

Defra’s Rights of Way Circular 1/09 includes details of what is an obstruction or out of repair, whose responsibility it is to clear it, and what the Government expects
from highway authorities in managing rights of way.

You can find it at www.gov.uk.

BHS Advice

1) If you know the person responsible for the obstruction, you could approach him or her amicably and request its removal.

2) Inform the highway authority of the problem. The highway authority will be the county or unitary council.

The council will need a description of the problem and its location, with a grid reference if possible. If you are uncertain about the grid reference, a clear description is needed to enable the council’s officer to find the location easily.

Many highway authorities have specific helplines or forms or interactive maps on their websites on which you can report a problem on a public right of way but you can also send a letter or email. If you use an online form, copy the text to a document you can keep so that you have it for future reference.

Keep a record in case you need to refer to it later.

3) An offer of help to, for example, cut overgrown vegetation might be welcomed by a landholder and by a highway authority. They may not have the resources to keep paths clear in the growing season when so much else also needs doing and the type of clearance that can be done with hand tools or a brush cutter may be all that is needed if anyone is willing. BHS affiliated Equestrian Access Groups can be covered by insurance for such work.

4) Sometimes an obstruction has been placed deliberately as a response to undesirable behaviour of users. You could offer to give the matter some publicity, perhaps in the local press, to persuade riders to behave responsibly.

5) Fly-tipping is an increasing problem. The district or unitary council’s environmental health department should remove it if you inform them. If you explain that it is obstructing a public highway and that it is a hazard (especially if it includes glass or metal) some councils will remove it within 48 hours. You will need to give a clear description of the rubbish and its exact location.

6) Some authorities may give a problem greater priority if they know it is causing difficulty for more people because several people report it, so encourage other riders who want to use the path to report it if they also find it a problem.

If you copy your report to your local BHS Access and Bridleways Officer, he or she may be able to give you support and advice, and it will help them to monitor the authority’s performance. If it is a serious, long-standing or recurrent problem, it may also be helpful if you copy your report to local representatives for the Ramblers and the Open Spaces Society (it does not matter whether you are a member), as they may have had reports from their members and also take up the matter with the highway authority.

7) If the obstruction is on a registered common and not a bridleway or byway, the law is different, but it is still likely to be the responsibility of the local authority. You may also seek advice from your local BHS Access and Bridleways Officer.

8) If a parish council reports it to the highway authority, the authority does not have a greater duty to act but it is assured that the problem is recognised locally and of sufficient concern for the parish council to be involved.

Not all parts of England are covered by a parish council, particularly urban areas, and in sparsely populated rural areas you should contact the chairman of the parish meeting instead. In Wales, community councils replace parish councils.

You may also wish to inform your county councillor (or in a unitary authority your councillor) of the problem, and ask for his or her assistance.

9) The highway authority is likely to start with its own approach to the landholder or occupier concerned. Highway authorities have many problems and the process to resolve each can be time-consuming. They may have a published policy of priorities for dealing with reports. Sometimes, lack of resources or even political stance prevents early resolution of a problem so it is helpful to build a file of evidence, including photographs, in case legal action is eventually required to force the authority to take action. You might ask the authority to:

a) officially acknowledge the status of the path and that an obstruction exists;

b) state what steps will be taken;

c) give a reasonable time scale by which it expects each step to have been completed;

d) keep you informed of progress.

10) The attitude of authorities to enforcement varies considerably. Some are robust, with prompt action to assert and protect users’ rights, with the result that there are relatively few obstructions – word soon gets around! – and efficient and economical action taken against new obstructions. At the other extreme, there are authorities that are very reluctant to take enforcement action.

If your authority does not enforce against rights of way offences, approach to a councillor is unlikely to be effective. You may need to involve your Member of Parliament. If he or she is unable to achieve results, it is possible to approach the Local Government Ombudsman on behalf of the path users if it can be shown that the council’s action (or inaction) amounts to maladministration and that the public has been deprived as a result.

11) If your approaches to the landholder and/or the highway authority are unsuccessful, you can undertake a Magistrates’ Court procedure against the highway authority. Details are available in the Defra publication ‘Removal of obstructions from highways: enforcement of local highway authorities’ duty to prevent obstructions on rights of way’. This needs careful consideration as costs in the Magistrates’ Court can be awarded against the losing party if the highway authority is shown to have acted reasonably. (This procedure cannot be used if the obstruction is a building or dwelling.) Court proceedings are made in the name of an individual; a corporate body such as the BHS can only be involved by formal approval.

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