Letter: How footpaths fell to the plough

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Sir: Christopher Padley (letter, 3 April) is too kind to highway-disturbing landowners in his statement of the law on the ploughing of bridleways. Cross-field footpaths are similarly "protected" and, in the case of any subsequent disturbance, routes must be restored within 24 hours, not 14 days.

How it came about that historic highways could be destroyed, ecosystems extinguished and country walks and rides ruined in this manner is an interesting study of history and politics. Up to the Second World War it was an offence to plough any highway (footpath, bridleway, vehicular road etc) unless the landowner could show that a "customary" right to plough existed - normally very difficult. This protection was eroded during the war when regulations empowered the Ministry of Agriculture to authorise the ploughing of highways.

After the war the Hobhouse Committee (1947) recommended that this practice continue - ploughing forbidden unless authorisation obtained. However in keeping with the then-prevailing agricultural encouragement policies this recommendation was ignored. The 1949 National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act in effect legitimised the ploughing of cross-field bridleways and footpaths by permitting it in the interests of "good husbandry".

The Rights of Way Act 1990 reversed this presumption in favour of disturbance by permitting cross-field footpaths and bridleways to be disturbed only where it is "not reasonably convenient to avoid disturbing the surface". Even then the line of the highway must be defined and the surface made good for walking, riding or cycling on within 14 days of the first disturbance in any agricultural cycle and within 24 hours of each subsequent disturbance. Unfortunately the vast majority of landowners simply carried on as before, obliterating cross-field routes regardless of whether they could avoid them and then failing to comply with the restoration requirements.

How many local authorities fulfil their statutory duty to consider whether or not it is "reasonably convenient to avoid disturbing the surface"? None in my experience. Assertive action in this respect would transform the countryside.


Princes Risborough, Buckinghamshire