Making the case for walkers
Every day, Ramblers volunteers and staff are involved in legal battles to protect and extend our precious network of footpaths and public access to the countryside. Andrew McCloy uncovers the extraordinary work they do and a few of their greatest legal victories
When plans for a major redevelopment of Nottingham Station were announced three years ago, local people were immediately dismayed at proposals to extinguish a well-used footpath across the station that ran over an historic footbridge. Originally part of a route that connected the Trent Bridge quarter with the city centre, it still provides an important pedestrian link that avoids a long road-side plod.
Chris Thompson, the footpath secretary for Nottinghamshire Ramblers, led the local protest, with staff at Ramblers’ central
office helping him prepare the necessary legal documents, as well as instructing a rights of way consultant to act as ‘advocate’ at the inquiry.
“The objectors welcomed the professional support from central office and the consultant,” says Chris, “as this meant that all the right procedures had been followed and could be presented at the inquiry to satisfy the Inspector, who thankfully refused to confirm the order.” Since then, and in consultation with the Ramblers, a new and much-improved pedestrian route has been proposed that will provide lasting public access via the station.”
The Nottingham example – an urban path used by commuters and residents – may not seem like the usual country-footpath dispute for the Ramblers, but in fact it’s typical of the sheer variety of legal cases the walking charity fights on both a local and national level. Since the 1990s, the Ramblers has probably notched up well over 150 major cases involving lawyers, consultants and other specialists. “We embark on about ten new high-profile national challenges and inquiry cases centrally every year,” says Janet Davis, a senior policy officer who works at Ramblers’ central office. “And at any one time there may be as many as 20 cases that are ‘live’. But this doesn’t take account of the hundreds of very localised and often unreported cases, some of which Ramblers volunteers are fighting without our involvement.”
Although the Ramblers is renowned for achieving the ‘right to roam’ in 2000 with its successful national campaign to introduce landmark countryside access laws in England and Wales, it’s these ongoing and often-unnoticed regional cases fought by determined local members that ensure these hard-won rights are protected day-to-day. “There’s a constant pressure on public access from developers and landowners to make it easier to close and divert public rights of way,” says Janet. “Our volunteers are our eyes and ears on the ground.”
Protecting our paths
Janet Davis has headed up the Ramblers’ rights of way team – together with colleague Eugene Suggett – for the past 25 years.
As well as responding to Government consultations and pursuing the occasional high-profile court case, they also work on a busy caseload of local disputes, advising members of the public, and training volunteers on footpath protection. Their guiding principle is to ensure that the law that protects paths and the public’s right to use them isn’t watered down and, where the opportunity arises, they even aim to enhance access.
And there have been some seminal victories along the way: most notably in 2007, when the House of Lords overturned a High Court decision that made it much easier to defeat a claim for a public right of way (see Godmanchester case study, p31). “Being in the hallowed chamber when their Lordships declared unanimously in our favour was, of course, a high point,” says Eugene. “But it’s just as rewarding now, some years on, to see claims succeeding on the strength of this ruling; claims that would have previously failed.”
The Ramblers has also enjoyed some significant legal victories away from the national stage. In the early 1990s, the Ramblers successfully opposed a rationalisation package put forward by Hereford and Worcester County Council (as it was then), which sought to close 98 footpaths and two bridleways at Ombersley. Objections forced the holding of a public inquiry, resulting in the orders being dropped and costs awarded to some of the objectors, including the Ramblers.
Very often it’s the sheer hard work and diligence of a local Ramblers volunteer, with just guidance from Ramblers’ central office, that wins the day. One such person is John Birtill, who made the case for a bridleway at Lockwood to be added to Redcar and Cleveland Borough Council’s definitive map of rights of way following 20 years of public use, citing legislation under Section 31 of the Highways Act 1980. The Inspector initially agreed with him, but then misapplied the law in favour of a landowner’s objection. Ramblers’ central office took legal advice and launched a successful judicial review, so that eventually John’s determination resulted in two miles of path being protected in perpetuity for public use.
Making a lasting difference
The Ramblers’ legal work generally falls into three broad categories: resolving problems, challenging decisions (of Inspectors who
are acting for the Secretary of State or local authorities), or representation at public inquiries or magistrates’ court hearings about proposed changes to the rights of way network. The process begins when a local Ramblers’ footpath secretary or access officer contacts Ramblers’ central office requesting legal or other professional support. This is then carefully considered, usually taking the advice of a solicitor and – in the case of likely action in higher courts – a barrister’s opinion. Potential cases are carefully weighed up in terms of how they might help advance the Ramblers’ current campaigns and overall policy, plus – of course – the likely risk attached to the action.
Naturally, the Ramblers can’t hope to win every time – as was the case with recent access disputes over Dartmoor’s Vixen Tor and Kent’s Bayham Abbey estate. But the actual process of challenging a case can help affect long-term change, since it’s often the interpretation of a particular law that’s the issue. In other words, an individual legal challenge by the Ramblers won’t necessarily change an Act of Parliament, but it might help define a judicial interpretation of that Act that can have lasting consequences.
For example, in the ‘Andrews’ case in 1993 (brought by the indefatigable former footpath secretary for Suffolk Ramblers, John Andrews), a judge ruled that the General Inclosure Act of 1801 did not give Inclosure Commissioners the power to set out and appoint new footpaths over land that was being enclosed, with the result that any right of way deemed to be created in that way was effectively declared null and void. Janet and Eugene at Ramblers’ central office have since been researching the issue, and the charity’s lawyers are currently looking at the case with a view to launching an appeal, so that it can be tested through the courts in the hope of getting it overturned.
What’s clear is that despite the hard-won legal victories – both nationally and locally – there is still plenty of work to do if paths are to be saved and access maintained. Looking ahead, one of the most obvious challenges is the proposed 2026 cut-off for recording rights of way that might result in thousands of paths being lost for ever. “Moneyed landowners seem more willing than ever to spend large sums of cash to try and get rid of paths, or claim that rights of way never existed,” says Eugene. “It’s thanks to the vigilance, determination and financial support of our members and volunteers that we can continue making legal challenges at every level, and so carry on fighting for better public access.”
To make a donation to the Ramblers and help fund vital future legal challenges, please visit www.ramblers.org.uk/donate