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Eighty years of freedom to walk the nation's footpaths

By Western Daily Press  |  Posted: January 02, 2014

By Eva Jones

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Anybody who strode out for a New Year's Day walk yesterday may not have been aware they were celebrating a landmark anniversary with other riders and ramblers.

A law which made it easier for the public to claim the right to walk thousands of traditional footpaths in England and Wales is now 80 years old.

The Rights of Way Act 1932 came into effect on January 1 1934 and decreed that the public could claim a path after 20 years' unhindered use.

Before this there was no simple rule for the time over which a route had to be used before it could be regarded as public.

Members of the Open Spaces Society, which claims to be Britain's oldest national conservation body, are celebrating the 80th anniversary of the milestone act.

The society, formerly known as the Commons, Open Spaces and Footpaths Preservation Society, played a seminal role by drafting a bill in 1906, which eventually went on to become law.

"The 20-years' use rule remains the legal standard today, a vital milestone in the long struggle for public access to the countryside," said Kate Ashbrook, general secretary of the Society. "To this rule we owe thousands of public paths."

The law was a precurser to the Countryside and Rights of Way (or Crow) legislation which threw open more than five million acres to walkers and ramblers.

Although many landowners blame legal access for allowing the public to traipse all over their fields, often causing damage and leaving farm gates open, the society claims it actually helped them by providing an official way to deny such claims. It is then down to the public to prove 20 years' uninterrupted use in order to claim a public highway.

It was not until the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949 that local authorities were actually required to prepare official maps of public paths.

Kate Ashbrook says landowners only have themselves to blame for any surprises because they have failed to declare routes.

She added: 'We are proud to celebrate the eightieth anniversary of the act in which our society played such an important part. With good reason we were known as the 'People's Watchdog'."

Eighty years later the society and other members of a working group, which consists of walkers, councils, landowners and farmers, are encouraging the Government to introduce legislation to reduce the burden on local authorities by streamlining the process for claiming paths and making it a less contentious issue in the 21st century for the public to gain access to footpaths.

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