Ramblers' Association chairman Kate AshbrookTwo campaigning groups have forced an authority to abandon plans to close a right-of-way.

Stockport Metropolitan Borough Council wanted to shut the town’s historic Stringer Street Steps, but was ordered this week by a judge to come up with a plan to keep the route open. The Ramblers’ Association (RA) has also received £30,000 damages following the case, which it brought with the Open Spaces Society against the council and the Nelson Tool Company.

Ramblers' Association chairman Kate Ashbrook 

It was argued by the council in 2002 that the steps could be closed because they were not needed for public use. However, District Judge Alan Berg agreed with local residents and walkers’ groups that the public had been prevented from using the steps because the council failed to maintain them as it should have.

He said the authority was guilty of a combination of ineptitude and indifference. Handing down his judgement in magistrates court, Judge Berg said: “The council cannot gain an advantage as a result of their own wrongdoing and rely on what flows from that wrongdoing to show an absence of use by members of the public, and because of that, assert that the route is therefore unnecessary.”

Judge Berg said the council was trying to have its cake and eat it. Stockport council must now appear before him in March next year with a plan for reinstating the steps.

80 locals had signed a petition in favour of keeping open the steps.

Kate Ashbrook, chairman of the Ramblers’ Association and general secretary of the Open Spaces Society, said: “The Stringer Street Steps battle reflected an all too common tendency of local councils to stifle grassroots opposition to unpopular path closures by pursuing cases through the costly and intimidating magistrates court.  

“District Judge Berg’s decision to retain Stringer Street Steps as a public highway upholds community wellbeing and access rights over the interests of private landowners.

“Stockport council has incurred a heavy financial penalty for using the magistrates court in pursuing this case. This signals to councils nationwide that they must no longer use the courts to bypass democratic procedures.”

Two months ago, grough reported how the RA was landed with a £19,800 bill after it lost a case at Witney Magistrates Court, brought by car giants BMW and Oxfordshire County Council. The parties succeeded in closing a bridleway through its Cowley plant, where the MINI is made. At the time, the RA’s footpath team head Adrian Morris called the magistrates court procedure outmoded, and designed to frustrate residents’ objections.