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Frequently asked questions

Are all footpaths rights of way?

No. There are plenty of paths that the public can use but that are not legally rights of way. They do not enjoy the same protection in law. 

Paths crossing public parks and open spaces, commons and other sites that the public has access to may not necessarily be rights of way, though some of them are.

Permissive paths are open to the public because the owner has given permission for them to be used. Often the landowner places a notice on the path making clear they have no intention of dedicating the path as a right of way. They reserve the right to withdraw the permission at any time. These paths are sometimes closed for one day a year, with a view to preventing applications to claim them as rights of way.

Off-road multi-user routes, such as those created as part of the Sustrans National Cycle Network, are available for public use but may not be rights of way.

The Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 now provides a new form of legal protection for public access to open countryside and common land in addition to the existing provisions for rights of way.

Who owns the paths?

The surface of the path is for most purposes considered to belong to the highway authority. What this means is that the authority owns the surface of the way to the depth of two spits (about 18 inches) and so much of the soil below and the air above as is necessary for the control, protection and maintenance of the highway.

Who looks after and manages public rights of way?

The countryside team is responsible for the protection, maintenance and signposting of Darlington's 347 footpaths, bridleways and byways. As the highway authority, the council has a duty to erect signposts where a public right of way meets a metalled (tarmaced) road. It also has the power and the duty to sign public rights of way to help users who are unfamiliar with the route. 

Public rights of way pass over land owned by private individuals, and in some cases, companies. These are our landowners, and their support and goodwill are essential in maintaining the public rights of way network to a good standard.

Parish councils have important rights and powers with regard to public rights of way, and can have a crucial role to play in looking after their local network of paths.

There are a number of associations who help the council by monitoring the condition of rights of way and informing the countryside team about any problems.

What is a permissive path?

A permissive path (sometimes called a ‘concessionary path’) is one which the landowner allows the public to use, with the intention that it does not become a public right of way.

What is open access?

The Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 provides a right of access on foot to mapped areas of uncultivated open countryside. Open countryside is defined as mountain, moor, heath, down, registered common land or land which has been voluntarily dedicated for access by the landowner.

Open access is often referred to as "the right to roam". You can walk, run or jog on open access land, but you cannot ride a horse, a bike or walk a dog (unless you are on a public right of way which passes through open access land).

South Burdon Community Woodland (east Darlington) is currently the only area of Darlington with open access.

More information about open access is available on the Ramblers' website [external link].

What is a gating order?

Councils have the power to gate certain routes if there are high levels of anti-social behaviour, crime or disorder and complaints have been made.

The gating order may be full or part time (for example, a highway may be gated at night, but open during the day). We have to make sure that members of the public would not be inconvenienced by a gating order.

Only one gating order is in place at Darlington, at Nelson's Lane (Brafferton). The order was applied because of a long history of complaints from landowners, members of the public and utilities providers about fly tipping, abandoned vehicles, burglaries and theft.

A field gate has been installed across the lane, for which there are designated key holders. There is an emergency contact number if the gate needs to be opened. Next to the field gate is a bridle gate, allowing pedestrians and equestrians access to the public footpaths and bridleway accessed through Nelson’s Lane.

Nelson's Lane map [pdf document, 482kb]

Can I wander off a public right of way?

No, the legal right to pass relates solely to the right of way. Landowners can ask you to leave land to which you have no right of access. However, you may take a short route around an illegal obstruction, or remove it to get past it.

Can I ride a horse, or a bike on a footpath?

No, not without the prior consent of the landowner, otherwise you would be committing trespass.

Can I take a pram, pushchair or wheelchair on a right of way?

Yes, as they are considered a 'usual accompaniment' to a person on foot.

Is it illegal to drive cars or motorcycles on public paths?

Anyone who drives a motor vehicle on a footpath or bridleway without permission from the landowner is committing an offence. 

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 gives consent.

Who is responsible for cutting hedges growing alongside public rights of way?

The landowner, or occupier, is responsible for controlling side and overhead vegetation so it does not block or overhang public rights of way.

The council, as the highway authority, has a duty to control surface vegetation, although this is distinct from crops.

Who is supposed to look after stiles and gates on a path?

This is the landowner's responsibility, but in certain cases the highway authority must contribute 25% of the cost if asked. It may contribute more if it wishes. If stiles and gates are not kept in proper repair the authority can, after 14 days' notice, carry out the work and send the invoice to the landowner.

Can a landowner put up new gates and stiles?

A gate, stile or other barrier can only be erected if:

  • The definitive map and statement has recorded the presence of a structure on a public right of way - we can check this for you
  • OR the structure has been authorised by the council using the powers of the Highways Act 1980 section 147. We can give you permission to erect a structure if you need it to control livestock. The law does not allow new structure to be erected on byways open to all traffic (BOATS) or restricted byways

If a structure is erected without permission, it is an unlawful obstruction. The land manager is committing an offence and we will take action to have the structure removed.

Structures must be accessible - we will normally give permission for simple hand gates unless you can make the case for a more restrictive structure such as a kissing gate.

The land manager is responsible for providing and looking after the structure. When there is an existing structure we may contribute 25% towards the costs of repair or replacement. 

There are times when we need to install a barrier for the safety of public users - this is justified through the Highways Act section 66.

Application form [PDF document]

Can I cut back vegetation from a path or stile?

A pair of pocket secateurs may be carried to cut back vegetation that stops progress along a path. No more than necessary should be done to allow you to make your way easily along the path. If anything more than this is done, for example you go out with the express intention of clearing a particular path, equipped with tools such as a saw, spade or pick-axe, this risks going beyond what is necessary to enable convenient progress.

Can I take a dog on a public right of way?

Yes. A dog is considered a 'usual accompaniment' of a person on foot. This is confined to the line of the path and only exists while the owner/keeper is with the dog. It is trespass if the dog is allowed to run off the defined line of the path, or if the owner/keeper stands at a gate and allows their dog to run free. 

Your dog must be kept under close control (this does not mean they have to be on a lead). It is an offence to allow a dog to chase/attack livestock, or be off a lead/not under close control in a field or enclosure where there are sheep.

What is a definitive map?

The definitive map is the official record of public rights of way and was first compiled from local knowledge (often provided by parish councils).

Each path on the definitive map is numbered and specific to its parish.

Ordnance Survey (OS) maps detailed enough to show public rights of way get their information from the definitive map. The most useful OS maps for countryside recreation purposes are the 1:25,000 Explorer series, which shows public rights of way with green dashed lines. The 1:50,000 Landranger maps show public rights of way with pink dashed lines.
OS maps cannot show changes that have occurred after they have been published. The only up to date source of information is the definitive map itself, which is held in the borough solicitor's department at the Town Hall. 
Theparish councilshould also have a copy of its local network of paths, which is usually kept by the parish clerk.

How can a right of way be added to the definitive map?

There are two main ways that this can be done:

Dedication: If the landowner owns the land over which the right of way crosses, they can dedicate a footpath or a bridleway.

Modification order: If the public have used a route for 20 or more years as of public right and without interruption, they may apply for a modification order under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. Footpaths, bridleways and byways can be modified using this process.

Can a right of way be diverted?

Yes, footpaths and bridleways can be diverted under the Highway Act or the Town and Country Planning Act, if there is a planning application pending. The alteration of a byway must go before a Magistrates' Court.

Can a right of way be extinguished?

Yes, it is possible to extinguish a right of way under the Highways Act, the Town & Country Planning Act or the Wildlife and Countryside Act. However such applications receive a lot of objection and are often not processed or confirmed as a result.

Can a landowner close or divert a path?

Landowners cannot divert rights of way, but they can apply to the council to do so. There are laws controlling what, where and how diversions may be made. Diverting any public path involves a lengthy legal process, for which we are obliged to charge a fee, which is currently £2,400.

Public path order application form and guidance [PDF document]

Path closures

Under the most common procedure a highway authority 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 private hearing, or they may be considered in writing if the objectors agree.

Path diversions

These may not take place if the new route will be less convenient to the public than the existing one. Account must also be taken of the effect the diversion will have on public enjoyment of the path as a whole. The procedure is the same as for closure orders.

Paths may also be closed or diverted "to allow development to be carried out in accordance with planning permission". There are also provisions for highway authorities to apply to magistrates' courts for closure or diversion of paths, and for orders to be made in other circumstances such as the construction of new roads, railways and reservoirs, both on a permanent and temporary basis.

Notice of temporary orders must be given on site; however there is no specified procedure for objections.

Is a bull allowed in a field where a public right of way passes?

Not if it is a dairy bull over 10 months old, or any other breed over 10 months old that is not accompanied by cows or heifers. If there is any question about a bull’s temperament, it should not be allowed in a field where a public right of way passes. The recognised dairy breeds are Ayrshire, British Friesian, British Holstein, Dairy Shorthorn, Guernsey, Jersey and Kerry.

What if a public right of way is ploughed over?

Farmers must uphold the 1990 Rights of Way Act [external link] The Act states that a farmer must not:

a) Plough a headland footpath or bridleway (that's a ‘path’ that runs alongside the hedge) at all.

b) Plough a cross-field path if it can be avoided. Once a cross-field path has been ploughed it must be reinstated within fourteen days. This means that it must be rolled/cleared so that the line of the path is visible. 

The path must be kept clear of growing crops: The minimum widths for ‘paths’ are:

  • one metre for a cross-field footpath
  • two metres for a cross field bridleway
  • one and a half metres for a headland footpath
  • three metres for a headland bridleway
  • The full width of the path must be kept clear and visible at all times.

c) Plough a byway or an unclassified county road at all. 

As a last resort, we would have to serve statutory notice on the farmer. This would legally oblige them to reinstate the line of the path, within a specified time limit. If this was unsuccessful, then we would then carry out the necessary works, and recover the full cost (including officer time) from the farmer. If the problem recurred, it could mean an appearance in court, a fine or even imprisonment.

We make every effort to encourage and sustain good relationships with local landowners and farmers. We can help by promoting public awareness of rights and responsibilities and by encouraging the farmers to fulfil their legal obligations. 

It is much easier to restore a right of way at the time of seed sowing than for us to have to cut down a path through a grown crop.

What if there are crops in a field?

It is an offence to plant crops, with the exception of hay and silage, across a public right of way.

What is a misleading notice?

This is a sign intended to deter you from using the public right of way (for example, a sign saying ‘Private’ or ‘Bull in field’) at the point where a path enters a field. Such notices should be reported immediately to the highway authority. They are illegal on paths shown on the definitive map.

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