The Association of Directors of Environment, Economy, Planning and Transport (ADEPT), has published the results of its first survey on the impact of Covid-19 on public rights of way.
The report, which has been completed by Rights of Way Officers from over 55 local authorities, has found an increase in instances of tensions between walkers and footpath users, farmers and local landowners.
ADEPT has been working with the Institute of Public Rights of Way and Access Management (IPROW), to design the survey.
Government guidance on daily exercise has seen an increase in the use of public footpaths, with some areas especially on the urban-rural fringe reporting a significant rise in walkers. Last week, it was reported that updated police guidance does allow people to drive to get their daily exercise, providing the drive was shorter than the period of exercise.
Local authorities have reported an increase in concerns from landowners over the use and misuse of rights of way and a disregard for social distancing. Two thirds of landowners’ enquiries to councils are requests for routes to be closed or diverted. Equally, there has been a similar increase from members of the public complaining of footpaths being blocked or closed off by landowners. The conflicting views have been causing issues for local authorities with almost 90% of responding councils reporting an increase in tensions.
Legally, landowners are not able to close or block public footpaths, but local councils do not wish to use enforcement powers excessively at this time. Efforts are being made to work informally with landowners to resolve issues, with advice being provided on tying gates and fixing public notices on the Countryside Code and social distancing.
Over 75% of responding councils are reporting some impact to rights of way services with 15% saying there has been a major disruption to services. Overwhelmingly, the reason for these changes are due to a scaling back or suspension of services due to Covid-19 as staff are redeployed and resources reallocated to essential frontline and new services. 82% of responding councils predict a 20% increase in the number of rights of way networks in their area becoming impassable due to this extended scaling back. These disruptions follow many years of cutbacks to public rights of way services as local authorities respond to ongoing budget cuts.
Paul Newark, Chair of ADEPT’s Rights of Way Managers Group said: “The survey clearly shows an increase in the numbers of people using rights of way, which in some instances has led to tensions with local landowners and communities.
“Local authorities are making every effort to resolve these issues informally, we can understand the concerns of farmers, when people are leaving gates open and not following the Countryside code or social distancing guidance. Equally, for members of the public who use these footpaths, they expect to be able to continue to do so.
“We need clear and consistent messaging from government and the police on how local exercise guidelines are being interpreted. We are finding this varies significantly across the country, which causes confusion and increases tension.”
Chris Miller, IPROW President said: "The survey indicates that the increase in usage of local rights of way networks has caused problems and tensions which authorities are not well placed to resolve under current restrictions. Clear guidance to occupiers and landowners is required to ensure that a consistent approach can be made and for the public to better understand how their actions may be impacting on those whose land is crossed by these routes.
The results of the survey can be found on the ADEPT website: https://www.adeptnet.org.uk/news-events/covid-19-updates/covid-19-rights-way-survey-results