COVID-19 leads to rise in tensions over public rights of way, research finds

A survey of rights of way officers at local authorities has found an increase in instances of tension between walkers and footpath users, farmers and landowners as a result of COVID-19.

Carried out by the Association of Directors of Environment, Economy, Planning and Transport (ADEPT) and completed by rights of way officers at more than 55 local authorities, the survey found:

  • Local authorities reported an increase in concerns from landowners over the use and misuse of rights of way and a disregard for social distancing.
  • Two thirds of landowners’ enquiries to councils were requests for routes to be closed or diverted.
  • There had been a similar increase from members of the public complaining of footpaths being blocked or closed off by landowners.
  • The conflicting views had been causing issues for local authorities with almost 90% of responding councils reporting an increase in tensions.

ADEPT said: “Legally, landowners are not able to close or block public footpaths, but local councils do not wish to use enforcement powers excessively at this time. Efforts are being made to work informally with landowners to resolve issues, with advice being provided on tying gates and fixing public notices on the Countryside Code and social distancing.”

The survey found that more than 75% of responding councils were reporting some impact to rights of way services as a result of the outbreak, with 15% saying there has been a major disruption to services.

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“Overwhelmingly, the reason for these changes are due to a scaling back or suspension of services due to COVID-19 as staff are redeployed and resources reallocated to essential frontline and new services,” ADEPT said.

Four in five (82%) of responding councils predicted a 20% increase in the number of rights of way networks in their area becoming impassable due to this extended scaling back.

Paul Newark, Chair of ADEPT’s Rights of Way Managers Group, said: “The survey clearly shows an increase in the numbers of people using rights of way, which in some instances has led to tensions with local landowners and communities.

“Local authorities are making every effort to resolve these issues informally, we can understand the concerns of farmers, when people are leaving gates open and not following the Countryside code or social distancing guidance. Equally, for members of the public who use these footpaths, they expect to be able to continue to do so.

“We need clear and consistent messaging from government and the police on how local exercise guidelines are being interpreted. We are finding this varies significantly across the country, which causes confusion and increases tension.”

The results of the survey can be found on the ADEPT website: https://www.adeptnet.org.uk/news-events/covid-19-updates/covid-19-rights-way-survey-results

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