Campaigners have slammed Government proposals which will mean landowners getting priority in rights-of-way cases.

They say, if adopted, the move will divert authorities from their legal obligations on footpaths in favour of requests from owners to move or close paths.

At present, councils can use their discretion to decide which cases have priority, but the new rules, introduced as part of the Countryside and Rights of Way (CRoW) Act, will force a strict timetable on highway authorities to deal with diversion and closure requests. The Open Spaces Society (OSS) says this will mean officers will have less time to spend on fulfilling their legal responsibility to open up and keep open rights of way.

Under the new rules, authorities will have to act within four months of a request from farmers, forestry owners, equestrian establishments and schools.

OSS general secretary Kate Ashbrook said: “We oppose the introduction of this new law and have called on Defra [the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs] to revoke it.

“Local authorities do not have the resources now to carry out their legal duties of getting all paths in good order and the official record of public paths up to date.

“If they are given a new duty of having to determine, within a specified time, proposals from landowners to alter paths, they will find it even harder to fulfil their vital existing duties of maintaining and improving the network. Yet those duties should have priority over altering routes to suit landowners and land managers.

“There is no need to change the law. If landowners and occupiers wish to move or close paths, they may apply to do so now. However, some authorities rightly give low priority to this, preferring to concentrate on their legal duties.

“These proposals are heavily biased towards landowners and occupiers. There is no equivalent right for the public to apply for the creation of paths in the public interest. Moreover, authorities will incur significant extra costs, only part of which they can recoup from the applicant.”

Ms Ashbrook said the society would fight the proposals, which are against the public interest.

The main effect of the CRoW Act was to establish right-to-roam access areas in England and Wales’s uplands and moors.