Public Rights of Way – landowner responsibilities
If you are new to owning land with a public right of way across it, what are your legal responsibilities?
Landowners must provide access to a public right of way and make sure it isn’t obstructed and they also have obligations to maintain it. Depending on the type of public right of way your Local Authority may also have some maintenance responsibilities, ie surfaced paths.
Landowners should ensure that public rights of way are clear of vegetation and if it is a bridleway, make sure it is wide enough and free of overhanging trees which may stop a rider riding along it. Keeping rights of way clear also helps to reduce the public’s temptation to stray onto other land to avoid the issue, or inadvertently cause damage perhaps to fences whilst trying to navigate them.
Landowners must maintain gates and stiles, so they do not restrict use of the path. Landowners replacing any of these features need to be aware that The Equality Act also imposes a duty to make reasonable adjustments to provide disabled people with access to services. Where possible they should be adapted in the future for more inclusive use.
If you keep animals on land where there is a footpath or allow someone to graze their animals on your land and they cause injury to a member of the public, then you may be liable. Depending on the type of animal there are different rules, for example bulls of recognised dairy breeds older than ten months old should not be kept on a field by a public right of way and bulls over ten months of any breed must be accompanied by cows or heifers.
That said, cow attacks are not uncommon and in June this year a Wiltshire Landowner was fined £15,000 by the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) after members of the public were seriously injured by cattle on footpaths on his land in two separate incidents.
HSE figures show in 2020-21, 11 people were killed by cows, five of them members of the public and 31 people suffered non-fatal injuries.
It is possible to change a public right of way and create a new public right of way or apply to your local authority to extinguish, upgrade, divert or in some circumstances downgrade a footpath, bridleway, or a restricted byway. Defra has published new guidance effective from 1 August which states that when an application is made to divert a path, “an authority should consider the impact of the existing path on the property owner / or occupier against the benefit that having the right of way through the land brings to the public.”
The local authority must in the future be able to show they have considered the benefits to privacy, security, and safety of diverting or extinguishing the right of way.
Buying land with public rights of way can be daunting so understanding your legal responsibilities from the outset is essential.