Private keep out!

The ‘right to roam’ has a storied history. The first parliamentary bill was introduced in 1884, then re-introduced in successive years to 1914; this culminated in the mass trespass action and imprisonment of six activists on Kinder Scout in the Peak District in 1932 to draw attention to the lack of public access across the countryside. 

Fast forward to 2000 and the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 (CROWA 2000) finally granted the public a ‘right to roam’ over certain designated open country land and coastal margins.  CROWA was two faced.  While it secured a right to roam, under Part II, some historic footpaths and bridleways are now threatened with extinction.  Those rights of way that came into existence before 1949 but have not been recorded on any definitive map and statement by 1 January 2026, may be extinguished if section 56 is brought into force.

The definitive map and statement is a record of public rights of way held by every local authority (including county councils and London borough councils) in England and Wales.  Many of these unrecorded historical paths are still in use, and an application can be made for a modification to a definitive map on the basis of 20 years’ use under section 53 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981.

According to a Freedom of Information request by the Ramblers, there are over 4,000 outstanding applications to record historic rights of way on definitive maps, and DEFRA has estimated that 20,000 applications may be made before the proposed cut-off date of 2026.

There is currently little guidance on when/if section 56 of CROWA 2000 will be brought into force, and the longer it is delayed the likelihood increases that the 2026 cut-off date may be extended. The sensitivity of the issue was highlighted in a recent debate in the House of Lords regarding a potential five year extension to 2031.

Users of historic rights of way established before 1949 will have to collect sufficient evidence that supports an application for a presumed dedication of a public right of way based on 20 years’ use before 1949. This can be difficult given the intervening period, but manorial records, inclosure awards and maps, tithe and award maps, OS maps and Council records can assist.

For landowners to resist such an application, they will have to demonstrate that prior to 1949 the current or previous landowner did not intend to dedicate the route as a public right of way by:

  1. stopping people using the route, either by turning people away or by putting obstacles in their way;
  2. restricting use of the highway to a particular section of the public;
  3. lacking capacity to dedicate the land.

There is a prescribed procedure for making an application for a modification to a definitive map and for objections to be made. Whether one agrees with the potential cut-off date will depend on their particular views as landowner or right of way user.  However, if public rights of way were established before 1949 and are important to local people, there is potentially a limited opportunity to formalise that right of way and help to keep definitive maps up to date for the benefit of all.

Reserved Matters approval can be amended

In R (on the Application of Fulford Parish Council) v City of York Council [2019] EWCA Civ 1359 the Court of Appeal has generously confirmed that the statutory power conferred by section 96A of the Town and Country Planning Act (“the Act”) to make non-material changes to a planning permission includes the power to make non-material changes to conditional approvals of reserved matters.

Persimmon Homes’ outline planning permission was granted for approximately 700 dwellings subject to a large number of conditions.  A conditional approval of a reserved matters application was granted by York City Council that included the requirement to submit for approval a detailed Bat Mitigation Strategy prior to any development taking place.  York City Council then approved an application for a non-material amendment that permitted changes to the bat house types and layouts, and changes to the strategy.  In response, Fulford Parish Council brought a judicial review on the basis that section 96A’s statutory power is limited to making non-material amendments to “planning permissions”, and the approval of reserved matters did not constitute a “planning permission”.

Referring to the primary source of the power to grant planning permission (s.70(1) of the Act), the court decided that the grant of outline planning permission is the grant of planning permission defined by the Act and since the grant is “subject to” conditions, the conditions must be seen as an intrinsic part of the grant; therefore the conditional approval of a reserved matters application is itself a condition to which the planning permission has been granted. 

In the court’s judgment:

  1. the “planning permission” referred to in s.96A refers to a package consisting of the grant of planning permission itself, together with any conditions to which it is subject, whether the conditions are imposed at the time of the grant or subsequently; and
  2. the application for an amendment to an approval (or conditional approval) of reserved matters is an application for the alteration of an existing condition, which is expressly permitted by s.96A(3)(b).

Importantly, the court stressed that the power under s.96A is restricted to non-material changes otherwise the need for public participation will again be required and the change will be outside of the powers of s.96A.

Whilst this judgment will be welcomed by developers, a word of caution –  as the term “non-material change” is not defined by the Act it will be important for both developers and local planning authorities to consider sensibly whether proposed scheme amendments can rightly be classified as “non-material changes” especially in those situations where there is organised local opposition to a proposal.  One possible, and ironic, outcome of the case is that authorities become even more cautious about what they will accept as non material amendments.