A footpath in North Yorkshire. Photo: Bob Smith/grough

A footpath in North Yorkshire. Photo: Bob Smith/grough

Campaigners fear rights of way in England’s biggest county could be lost under an authority’s plans to categorise public paths.

The Open Spaces Society said North Yorkshire County Council should abandon proposals to rate paths and bridleways across its area.

Britain’s oldest national conservation body said the authority has run a consultation on categorising the county’s paths to determine how much maintenance will be devoted to them. But is says the system is complicated and puts some routes at risk.

Kate Ashbrook, general secretary of the society, said: “We are deeply concerned at the proposed categorisation of public paths.

“It appears that those which are afforded low priority will be neglected and consequently less used, and they could in effect be lost even if they are not closed legally.

“Public footpaths and bridleways are highways in law, just like any road. The county council has a statutory duty to maintain all the highways in its area. It cannot in law neglect them; it would not allow an obstruction to remain on a public road, and it should treat public paths in the same way.

“We believe that the proposed categorisation will lead to a distortion of the path network, with urban paths being better maintained than rural ones, and little attention given to paths between communities.”

Ms Ashbrook said the consultation document does not recognise the economic benefit to communities of the use of public rights of way by walkers, riders and cyclists. She said it pays to invest in paths and points to Walkers Are Welcome towns in the county, which have demonstrated the value of encouraging outdoor enthusiasts.

Kate Ashbrook: 'offences must be nipped in the bud'. Photo: Bob Smith/grough

Kate Ashbrook: 'offences must be nipped in the bud'. Photo: Bob Smith/grough

“We are also troubled that the council proposes to give lower priority to some of the issues which are reported to it on public paths,” she said. “We consider that, contrary to the council’s proposals, high priority should be given to reports of ploughing and cropping of paths, otherwise by the time the path is inspected the problem may be different.

“Ploughing and cropping offences must be nipped in the bud. The council should threaten legal action the first time there is a report and then follow through with a legal notice if the offence is repeated. It must show it means business.

“To make the most of its resources, the council should ensure that landowners carry out their legal responsibilities on the path network, mending or preferably removing stiles, cutting back vegetation etc. The council must focus on its statutory duty of removing obstructions and asserting and protecting the rights of the public to the use and enjoyment of the paths.

“We also believe that the proposed new processes for categorising paths and problems are immensely complex and will take up considerable staff time to establish, explain and implement.

“We have urged the council to abandon its sinister proposal to categorise routes and instead ensure that landowners obey the law and play their part in maintaining the network. The council should also make full use of volunteers, as it is already doing to excellent effect with the Lower Wharfedale Ramblers.”

North Yorkshire covers 8,654sq km (3,341 sq miles) of mainly rural countryside, including the major part of the North York Moors and Yorkshire Dales national parks, which have their own separate authorities responsible for rights of way.

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