Not all authorities take their duty to mark footpaths seriouslyThe character of footpaths in England and Wales must be preserved, an access pressure group urged.

Not all authorities take their duty to mark footpaths seriously

The Open Spaces Society used the anniversary of the introduction of a landmark law to press for authorities to protect and mark rights of way. This month marks the 40th anniversary of the Countryside Act, which introduced important rights to footpaths and bridleways.

Kate Ashbrook, general secretary of the OSS, said: “This was in every sense a landmark act which was won by the joint pressure of amenity and rambling organisations.

“But the act was just as important for what it did not include.

“It marked the end of a long and selfish campaign by the Country Landowners’ Association and National Farmers’ Union to ‘rationalise’ country paths – that is, to destroy their wandering and historic character in favour of straight-line, field-edge routes convenient to the mass-production, high-intensity farming then in vogue.

“This project was seen off by a committee, appointed by the responsible minister Arthur Skeffington. The committee said: ‘We approach suggestions of a “system” and a “carefully planned network” with great caution because much of the value and charm of footpaths lies in their waywardness’.”

Ms Ashbrook said such observations are just as relevant today, when we value our history and culture more than ever.

She also called on local authorities to fulfil their responsibility to signpost rights of way properly.

“This Act gave highway authorities a legal duty to signpost public paths where they leave metalled roads, and to place waymarks along the route where necessary.
“It also gave cyclists the right to ride bicycles on bridleways, provided they give way to walkers and horse-riders,” Ms Ashbrook said

“Unfortunately, although signposting is now legal duty, many paths remain unmarked. A survey for the Audit Commission in 1999-2000 showed that only two-thirds of paths in England, and fewer than half in Wales, had signposts where they left metalled roads.  

“It’s a pity that local authorities are no longer required to record the percentage of signposts each year.”

She said the 40th anniversary should remind campaigners of their gains and to be wary of losing the hard-fought access rights.

She said: “The Countryside Act 1968 not only gave us signposts where public paths and roads meet, it also stopped the enemies of public access in their tracks.

“We need to remember this victory now, when the same organisations are still clamouring for farmer-friendly paths – that is, routes less attractive to the public. We must roundly condemn such proposals.”

The Countryside Act came into force on 3 August 1968.