Fears England risks losing historical footpaths forever in government U-turn

·3-min read
<span>Photograph: Gordon Scammell/Alamy</span>
Photograph: Gordon Scammell/Alamy

England is at risk of losing precious footpaths as walking groups accuse the government of a U-turn on its promise to scrap a deadline for registering them.

There are many historical pathways across England that are rights of way but have been “lost” and are now part of private land. Campaigners have been trying to register them to make them once again legally binding rights of way by using old maps where the paths appeared.

There was previously a 2026 deadline for registering such paths, but after campaigners complained this put too much pressure on local councils to verify and register the paths, the government said it would scrap the deadline.

However, it has been revealed today that the government has broken its commitment to abolishing the 2026 deadline for saving lost paths and has instead reinstated a deadline, which will now come into effect in 2031, in the levelling up bill.

The decision has been criticised by a coalition of organisations including the Ramblers, the British Horse Society, Byways & Bridleways Trust and the Open Spaces Society.

Jack Cornish, head of paths at the Ramblers, said: “Our paths are a national treasure, which should be cherished and protected. Last year, when the UK government announced it would scrap the deadline for saving lost paths, it was the right decision. But today’s U-turn is another broken promise, coming just weeks after it claimed to be committed to ensuring everyone is within a 15-minute walk of green space.

“The Ramblers currently has more than 600 volunteers working hard to do the research required to save the 41,000 miles of paths that are missing from the map in England,” Cornish added. “We will continue to submit applications to save these paths, but a deadline of any kind puts unnecessary pressure on under-resourced local authorities.

“We believe there is already a backlog of more than 4,000 applications waiting to be processed and the government has reintroduced a deadline without any plans to address the backlog. Unless the government rethinks today’s decision or puts the necessary funding in place to make it possible for paths to be researched, applied for and processed within the time limit they’ve imposed, historic paths will be lost for future generations.”

Kate Ashbrook, general secretary of the Open Spaces Society, said: “This is a shortsighted and obstructive decision by the secretary of state, and will lead to the loss of thousands of public paths. At a time when outdoor activity has never been more important for our health and wellbeing, government decides to reduce those opportunities.

“Users of the path network have already spent years researching the historic evidence needed to claim paths, but there is no way that they can research them all before the deadline, and the local authorities no longer have the resources to process the applications in a timely manner.”

A Defra spokesperson said: “We are committed to increasing access to nature and our Environmental Improvement Plan sets out our ambition for every household to be within a 15-minute walk of a green space or water.

“We are now moving forward with plans to reform existing bureaucratic processes and make it easier and faster to update the legal record of rights of way.”