Real life

I enjoy making a nuisance of myself for a good cause

24 July 2021

9:00 AM

24 July 2021

9:00 AM

The scaffolding pole across the public footpath led to a farcical conversation with the local council. I had been walking the dogs down this well-used path close to where we keep the horses when I discovered that the pole, which is attached to a post on either side of the path and which has been there for some years, was now padlocked to one of the posts so that I could no longer move it to go through.

I rang it in, thinking I was being a good citizen. But no. This act of public service opened up the seventh circle of administrative hell. The staff at the rights of way department at Surrey County Council left me in no doubt that I was being a nuisance for mentioning it. At first, they refused to answer my emails. Only when I sent one to the press team did I get a response.

They asked me to explain why I wanted to write about such a thing. Oh, I don’t know. I just thought it was a matter of public interest that townies who have built big modern houses in the countryside are slinging scaffolding poles across public footpaths on their land to block walkers.

I then got the old ‘Well, no one else has complained’. No, I’m sure they haven’t. People would rather clamber over and under metal bars than spend hours on the phone and sending emails to the local council and being tortured by bureaucrats. I only do it because I write about it. And yes, perhaps I do enjoy making a nuisance of myself while I’m at it. So, what about this locked bar across the footpath?

A few days later, the lady in charge emailed to say that as luck would have it, one of their operatives happened to be passing by that rather remote spot just after I contacted them, and he had told the landowner to cut back a rhododendron hedge so that I could squeeze round the side of the bar. ‘A member of the team managed to take a look on the way to another meeting’ is how she put it.

I sent her the photos again, showing the land at the side of the bar falling sharply away into a ditch and pointed out that whether a bush is cut back or not is irrelevant — I will still fall into the ditch. But she ignored me.

‘Can I ask what the rights of way department does, because it seems to me you help landowners close off public footpaths they don’t like?’ I asked. She didn’t reply.

The long and the short of it is that I’ve got this lot banged to rights, if you’ll pardon the pun, for allowing a householder to put a scaffolding pole across a footpath and lock it into place, which is illegal.

I tried the police but they weren’t interested, although they did take a dim view of the man in camouflage gear with the big dog who followed me down the track and told me I was harassing his boss by walking the footpath near his home. That bit the cops are investigating.

The lackadaisical attitude of the council, meanwhile, prompted me to do some research and it turns out there is a new hazard for all of us who enjoy country walks.

Any pre-1949 right of way not registered on a new local authority database before 2026 can then be shut off by a landowner, forever. So I guess a lot of landowners are gearing up for this great day by closing off footpaths now so people don’t register them.

Perhaps the attitude of local authorities is a sense of oncoming relief that soon they won’t have to do anything about hundreds, potentially thousands, of footpaths all over Britain. And if a landowner wants to start shutting them off now, that’s just fine.

What council employee wants to trudge down muddy tracks to tackle nouveau riche homeowners who don’t want the public near their mock-Georgian piles? Not when these taxpayer-funded bureaucrats can sit back and have a nice cup of tea at their laptops at home — post-lockdown remote working at its best.

‘A member of the team managed to take a look on the way to another meeting.’ I kept thinking about that phrase. A council employee happened to be passing a woodland right of way over a mile down an off-road track soon after I emailed about it, and sprang into action? Really? It seemed too efficient by far. I sent them another email asking whether a member of the department happened to already know this particular householder or their staff? No response. So I must assume not.

One thing I can do is register that footpath on the database. We all have only until 1 January 2026 to safeguard the footpaths and bridleways we love by lodging them with our local councils on the Definitive Map of Rights of Way.

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