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Public Rights of Way - information from North Yorkshire County Council   ()

There have been a number of requests from landowners for the County Council to close public rights of way because of the risk of transmitting Coronavirus.  Conversely there have been complaints from members of the public about landowners illegally closing public rights of way (PROW) by installing barriers or erecting signage to discourage and prevent use.  The Countryside Access Service has received more than 100 enquiries that fall into one of these categories.

We are issuing guidance to all customers, which is in accordance with Government advice.  This makes it clear that public rights of way should remain open, as exercise is still important for people’s physical and mental wellbeing and the PROW network provides for access to open spaces and exercise.

The risk of the coronavirus being passed on to others from people using public rights of way and other paths and trails is considered to be very low as long as people follow the Government’s instructions to maintain social distancing.

Some landowners are concerned about increased use of public rights of way on their property increasing the risk to livestock, such as instances of gates being left open and dogs not being controlled.  There are also concerns that the use of public rights of way that run through gardens and farmyards is increasing the risk of exposure to the coronavirus to residents and farm workers.

Landowners do not have the legal right to block or obstruct public rights of way. However, in very limited circumstances where large numbers of people are using such routes, Government advice is that landowners may consider the following measures:

tying gates open if it is safe to do so, so that walkers do not need to touch the gate.

·        offering an alternative route around gardens and farmyards only where it is safe to do so (they must gain permission from relevant landowners and make sure the route is safe for users and livestock) provided that the original right of way is maintained.

·      temporarily display polite notices that encourage users to respect local residents and workers by following social distancing guidelines and consider using alternative routes that do not pass through gardens, farmyards or schools.  We can provide suggested wording for landowners if they request it.

(Note: this is a polite request only, and there is no power under the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 or the Highways Act 1980 for landowners to close or obstruct a public right of way or use of access land - these temporary measures must be lifted as soon as social distancing measures are relaxed).

We are confirming to customers that where the landowner has acted to advise people not to use or has closed the route because they feel there is a risk of transmission, that this is not a lawful closure.  The signs have no formal standing so people can make their own decision as to whether they want to continue to use the route.   

People living in close proximity to public rights of way are being reminded that the public have a legal right to use a public right of way, and that they should not block or obstruct paths.  If they are concerned about transmission, they may want to regularly clean any gate latches or other surfaces on any paths across their property.

However, we are asking that everyone is sensitive to people’s fears and consider avoiding using those paths which pass through gardens and/or pass very closely to agricultural and residential properties if possible.

People should follow Government and Police guidance as to whether it is appropriate to travel to access rights of way, and they should practice social distancing while using them and should not congregate on them. If this is the case the Police should be informed who have powers to disperse such groups.

We are logging all reported issues of closures and obstructions and our staff will investigate reports of obstructed paths in due course. 

The Council will take any further actions necessary in the event of any changes to legislation or Government guidance but at this time the Council has no plans to close public rights of way.

This advice has been published on the Council’s website, as will any updates, should the situation change.  www.northyorks.gov.uk/paths Any reports of closures or obstructions should be reported in the normal way to paths@northyorks.gov.uk or via 01609 780780.

Issued: 29th April 2020 by Kerry Green, NYCC Countryside Access Manager