North Yorkshire County Council, which maintains the country’s longest public rights of way network, has admitted it has to prioritise work after being accused of leaving paths obstructed for decades and “stonewalling” residents’ concerns.
North Yorkshire County Council’s countryside access manager Ian Kelly said there was an “acute awareness” about the council’s lack of capacity to deal with the 2,000 reports of issues on footpaths that residents lodged annually across the 6,311 miles of routes it has a statutory duty to keep “in a fit state for public use”.
Mr Kelly was responding to complaints levelled by South Milford resident Leon Foster, who told the county’s Local Access Forum he had repeatedly found public rights of way blocked near his home.
He said: “I find it really sad that I can’t exercise locally during Covid.”
Campaign group Ramblers says walkers regularly face blocked, overgrown and impassable footpaths and the issue of access is getting worse.
Mr Foster, a keen runner, said: “If this ten per cent were the road network there would be uproar and yet we are entering a climate emergency. How any of this fits with the council’s vision that every adult has a longer, healthy and independent life I have little idea.”
He said one path in his area had been closed illegally by a national railway body, while another had been blocked by a dyke, fence and had even seen a sewage works built over it.
Citing another right of way issue he asked: “How can a motorway be built across a path with nothing done for 20 years?”
Mr Foster said the council’s failure to deal with blocked rights of way raised safety issues, making it impossible to use some paths, which made it easier for the council to justify not taking any action, “despite masses of new houses being built nearby”.
He called for greater transparency over footpath issues and for a clear process to allow users to understand what will happen when a path is blocked, including target times for responses and actions.
Mr Foster said when he raised concerns with the council over the path he faced “continued and repeated stonewalling”.
He said: “I fully understand that North Yorkshire is responsible for a lot of footpaths, but why can’t third parties who have blocked these paths be instructed to reinstate the rights of way at their own time and cost with a deadline to do so? I had the naive hope that the council would welcome feedback and act upon it.”
During austerity, the authority cut its paths budget by nearly £275,000 and the meeting was told having obstructions across ten per cent of paths was considered a success by the council.
Before austerity in 2007, the council published a plan to improve the county’s rights of way, highlighting the importance of the routes.
It stated: “Rights of way have served our transport needs for centuries, providing our predecessors with routes to travel between farms, communities and places of work.
“The network is an intrinsic part of our culture, heritage and relationship with our environment to this day. It still provide us with a means of accessing local schools, work, shops, public transport hubs, community centres and other services and recreational facilities.”
Mr Kelly said as the council did not have the capacity to deal with all the issues reported to it, obstructions were ranked partly on risk to users.
He said the council welcomed feedback and the proportion of paths that had issues was not dissimilar to other areas, such as the Yorkshire Dales and North York Moors national parks.
Mr Kelly added: “As a service we are trying to do the best we can.”