Temperatures rise over path access

By Simon Hacker

Fears that footpaths could be closed off in the Wotton Times area have been met by a warning that any such move is outside the law – despite anxiety over Coronavirus.

With charity campaigners The Ramblers reporting impromptu path closures throughout the UK, the group has sought to bring both landowners and visitors together by outlining legislation and new Coronavirus guidelines.

“Under existing legislation and in normal circumstances, local authorities in England cannot close footpaths for public health reasons, nor can landowners close footpaths which run across their land,” a spokesman told the Wotton Times. 

However, due to the current pandemic, The Ramblers also point to new guidelines from Defra and Natural England aimed at problem areas where large numbers of people are using such routes. This guidance allows for landowners to:

  • tie gates open if safe to do so, so walkers do not need to touch the gate
  • 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
  • offer an alternative route around gardens and farmyards only where it is safe to do so, provided the original right of way is maintained

These temporary measures must be lifted as soon as social distancing measures are relaxed – and they don’t change the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000, which states that landowners have no right to close or obstruct a public right of way. 

Should walkers come across a public right of way that’s been closed or blocked, it can be reported directly to Gloucestershire Highways. Under Section 137 of the Highways Act 1980, the penalty for deliberately blocking a path is a fine and a criminal record – and you can report a blocked path here: gloucestershire.gov.uk/highways/public-rights-of-way. 

One walker who contacted the Wotton Times this week said access is becoming a heated issue – and they had already been turned back by a locked gate near Wotton. 

“Landowners have no right to block us, footpaths are a lifeline right now, especially at a time when so many drivers are speeding on country lanes,” said the reader, who asked to stay anonymous.

However, Sebastian Green, of Greens Chartered Surveyors, which manages the substantial Ozleworth Park Estate says they were adopting measures to balance access against any risk to residents.

“Due to the Coronavirus, there are notices up on the public footpaths near to the houses at Ozleworth asking people to be mindful of social distancing and to wash/sanitise their hands as there is concern that so many people are travelling to the Estate for their exercise during the lockdown period,” he said.

Ozleworth Park Church is temporarily closed due to Coronavirus, he added, with the short length of footpath up to it also shut as it passes very close to residential dwellings.

In the meantime, Mr Green added that walkers in the area will note that work continues to fell and thin woodland affected by ash dieback disease.

“Our work due is continuing with the necessary social distancing in place. We have to carry out this work in the woods adjacent to public rights of way as the dead or dying trees are dangerous and the owners of the Estate are liable for them under the Occupiers Liability Act unless we take the necessary actions.”

For health and safety reasons, a footpath through one of the woods being worked on has been temporarily closed, he added, with Gloucestershire County Highways being aware of the activity.

Access for walkers at neighbouring Newark Park, which is owned by the National Trust, is largely curtailed. Cotswold Warden John Lewis, who lives in Wotton, explains that because most pathways are permitted routes, they are not subject to the same rights for access and will likely remain closed for the duration of the pandemic.

“Outside Newark, if you come across a closed public footpath that hasn’t been clearly re-routed for alternative access, you do have the right to ignore the tape and continue on your way,” he said.

Note: Should walkers come across a public right of way that’s been closed or blocked, it can be reported directly to Gloucestershire Highways. Under Section 137 of the Highways Act 1980, the penalty for deliberately blocking a path is a fine and a criminal record, and you can report a blocked path at: gloucestershire.gov.uk/highways/public-rights-of-way/.