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Public rights of way questions
What are my rights on a public right of
Your legal right is to "pass and repass along the way". You may
stop to rest, admire the view, or consume refreshments, providing
you stay on the path and do not cause an obstruction. You can also
take with you a "natural accompaniment", which includes a pram or
pushchair. You can also legally take a manual or powered wheelchair
(mobility scooter) provided you follow the regulations for taking
these vehicles on ordinary roads. However, there is no guarantee
that the surface of the path will be suitable for pushchairs or
wheelchairs. You can take a dog with you, but you must ensure it is
under close control. Note that there is no requirement for stiles
to be suitable for use by dogs.
How do I know whether a path is a public right of way or
The safest evidence is the official definitive map of public
rights of way. You can view and make photocopies of the definitive
map from Medway Archives and Local Studies Centre.
In addition, public rights of way information derived from
the definitive map are shown by Ordnance Survey on its Explorer
Maps (No. 163).
Are all footpaths rights of way?
No. There are many paths that the public are able to use that
are not legally rights of way and therefore do not enjoy the same
protection. Paths crossing public parks and open spaces, commons
and other sites to which the public has formal or de facto access
may not necessarily be rights of way, though some of them are.
Other paths, known as permissive routes, are open to the public
because the owner has given permission for them to be used (often
there is a notice on the path making it clear that the owner has no
intention of dedicating the path as a right of way) and reserving
the right to withdraw the permission. These paths are sometimes
closed for one day a year, with a view to preventing claims that
they are rights of way. The
Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 provides a right of
access to mapped areas of mountain, moor land, down land, heath
land and registered common land, be it on tracks and paths or off
How does a path become public?
In legal theory, most paths become rights of way because the
owner "dedicates" them to public use. In fact, very few paths have
been formally dedicated, but the law assumes that if the public
uses a path without interference for some period of time (set by
statute at 20 years) then the owner had intended to dedicate it as
a right of way. A public path that has been unused for 20 years
does not cease to be public. The legal maxim is "once a highway,
always a highway". Paths can also be created by agreement between
the council and owners or by compulsory order, subject, in the case
of objection, to confirmation by the Secretary of State for the
Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.
Who owns the paths?
The surface of the path is for most purposes considered to
belong to the highway authority (Medway Council). What this means
is that the authority owns the surface of the way and so much of
the soil as is necessary for the control, protection and
maintenance of the highway. The rest normally belongs to the owner
of the surrounding land.
Who is responsible for paths?
The council has principle responsibility for rights of way in
Medway. They are also the surveying authority and have the duty to
prepare and maintain the definitive map. Parish and Community
Councils also have the power to maintain. The council has a general
duty to "assert and protect the rights of the public for the use
and enjoyment of paths" within Medway. It is legally responsible
for maintaining the surface of the path, including bridges and
keeping it free from overgrowth. The council has the authority to
require owners to cut back overhanging vegetation from the side of
Who makes changes to the path network?
As a Unitary Authority, Medway Council is empowered to make
legal changes to the path network, such as Stopping Up Orders made
under the Town and
Country Planning Act 1990, with diversions made under the
How wide should a path be?
The path should be whatever width was dedicated for public use.
This width may have arisen through usage, by formal agreement, or
by order if the path has been diverted. The width may be recorded
in the statement accompanying the definitive map but in many cases
the proper width will be a matter of past practice on that
particular path. Note the width of the right of way itself may be
greater, or sometimes less than the width of any track or
hard-surfaced strip along the route. New public rights of way
minimum widths are:
- Footpath - 1m to 1.5m (approximately 3'3" to
- Bridleway 2m to 2.5m (approximately 6'6" to
- Byway - 3m (approximately 9'10")
Are horses allowed on public paths?
Horse riders have a right to use bridleways, restricted byways
and byways open to all traffic. They have no right to use footpaths
and if they do they are committing a trespass against the owner of
the land, unless the use is by permission. If use of a footpath by
riders becomes a nuisance, the local authority can ban them with a
traffic regulation order. This makes such use a criminal offence
rather than an act of trespass.
Are pedal cyclists allowed on public paths?
Pedal cyclists have a right to use bridleways, restricted byways
and byways open to all traffic, but on bridleways they must give
way to walkers and riders. Like horse riders, they have no right to
use footpaths and if they do so they are committing a trespass
against the owner of the land, unless use is by permission. As with
horse riding, use of any right of way by cyclists can be controlled
by traffic regulation orders and byelaws imposed by local
authorities. Infringement of byelaws or orders is a criminal
offence. Under the Highways
Act 1835, it is an offence to ride a bicycle on the pavement at
the side of a road and under the Fixed
Penalty Offences Order 1999, a person who rides on a pavement
can be fined on the spot by a police officer.
Is it illegal to drive cars or motorcycles on public
Anyone who drives a motor vehicle on a footpath, bridleway or
restricted byway without permission is committing an offence. This
does not apply if the driver stays within 15 yards of the road,
only goes on the path to park and does not obstruct the right of
passage. The owner of the land however, can still order vehicles
off, even within 15 yards of the road. Races or speed trials on
paths are forbidden. Permission for other types of trials on paths
may be sought from the local authority, if the landowner
Are all paths supposed to be signposted?
The council has a duty to put up signposts at all junctions of
footpaths, bridleways and byways with metalled roads. The signs
must show whether the path is a footpath, bridleway or byway and
sometimes shows other information such as destination and distance.
When signs are replaced through maintenance, it aims to include the
footpath number on the signs, such as RS101, GB40 or RR14 as this
empowers the public to accurately report any improvements needed on
a right of way. It also has a duty to waymark paths along the
route, as considered appropriate.
What is waymarking?
Waymarking is a means of indicating the line or direction of a
path away from metalled roads at points where it may be difficult
to follow. In Medway, this is done with arrow markings on gates,
stiles and posts.
Are paths numbered?
Yes on the definitive maps and where possible on the public
rights of way signs. Different letters represent the area a path(s)
is in, ie RR for Strood and Rochester, RS for Peninsula, GB for
Gillingham/Rainham and RC for Chatham.
Can a landowner put up new gates and stiles where none
No, not without seeking and getting permission from the highway
authority in circumstances where a stile or gate is necessary to
prevent the movement of animals and then complying with any
conditions to that permission.
Who looks after stiles and gates on a path?
Maintaining these is primarily the owner's responsibility,
however in exceptional cases the council will offer to repair
stiles or replace them through our volunteer team. If stiles and
gates are not kept in proper repair, the council can take further
action against the landowner.
Is it illegal to plough up or disturb the surface of a
path so as to make it inconvenient to use?
Yes, unless the path is a footpath or bridleway running across a
field as opposed to running alongside the field boundary. In this
case the landowner can plough or otherwise disturb the path
surface, provided it is reasonable in doing so. The path must be
restored within 24 hours of the disturbance, or within two weeks if
this is the first such disturbance for a particular crop. The
restored path must be reasonably convenient to use, have a minimum
width of 1m for a footpath of 2m (approximately 6'6") for a
bridleway, or the legal width if known and its line must be clearly
apparent on the ground. If the landowner fails to do this within a
reasonable time frame, further action can be taken through
reporting offences to the Rural Payments
What if crops growing on or over a path are causing an
The landowner has a duty to prevent crops (other than grass)
from making the path difficult to find or follow. You have every
right to walk through crops growing on or over a path, but stick as
close as you can to its correct line.
What is deemed an obstruction on a path?
Anything which interfered with your right to use the path, such
as a barbed wire fence across the path or a heap of manure dumped
on it. Dense undergrowth is not normally treated as an obstruction
but is dealt with under path maintenance. Highway authorities have
a duty to prevent as far as possible, the stopping up or
obstruction of paths.
Can I remove an obstruction to get by?
Yes, provided that you are a bona fide traveller on the path and
have not gone out for the specific purpose of moving the
obstruction and that you remove only as much as is necessary to get
through. If you can easily get around the obstruction without
causing any damage, then you should do so and
report the obstruction.
Can a farmer keep a bull in a field crossed by a public
A bull of up to 10 months of age can be kept, but bulls older
than 10 months, of a recognised dairy breed (Ayrshire, British
Fresian, British Holstein, Dairy Shorthorn, Guernsey, Jersey and
Kerry) are banned from fields crossed by public paths under all
circumstances. All other bulls older than 10 months are banned,
unless accompanied by cows or heifers. If any bulls act in a way
which endangers the public, an offence may be committed under
health and safety legislation.
Can a landowner close or divert a path?
No. A closure or diversion that is a change to a path's route
can only be carried out by local authorities or central government.
The council can make an order to close a path if it considers the
path is no longer needed for public use.
A notice must be published in a local paper and also placed at
both ends of the path. At least 28 days must be allowed for
objections. These must be heard at a Public Inquiry, taken by an
Inspector from the Planning Inspectorate, or by a hearing, which is
less formal than a Public Inquiry, or they may be considered in
writing if the objectors agree.
The council has the power to close a footpath in case of an
emergency without any notice. The Police and Fire Service also have
the power to close a public right of way without notice, provided
it is for emergency purposes. Path diversions may not take place if
the new route will be substantially less convenient to the public
than the existing one and account must be taken as to the effect
the diversion will have on the public's enjoyment of the path as a
Paths may also be closed or diverted in order to enable
development to be carried out in accordance with planning
permission. There are also provisions for highway authorities to
apply to the Magistrates' Court for closure or diversion of paths
and for orders to be made in other circumstances, such as the
construction of new roads, railways or reservoirs, both on a
permanent and temporary basis. Notice of temporary orders must be
given on site, however there is no specified procedure for
What is trespass?
A person who strays from a right of way, or uses it other than
for passing and repassing commits trespass against the landowner.
In most cases, trespass is a civil rather than a criminal matter. A
landowner may use reasonable force to compel a trespasser to leave,
but not more than is reasonably necessary. Unless injury to the
property can be proven, a landowner could probably only recover
nominal damages by suing for trespass, but you may have to meet the
landowner's legal costs.
Criminal prosecution could only arise if you trespass and damage
property. However under public order law, trespassing with an
intention to reside may be a criminal offence under some
circumstances. It is also a criminal offence to trespass on railway
land and sometimes on military training land.