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Public rights of way FAQs

What exactly is a public right of way?

A Public Right of Way is a route over which the public have a right to pass and re-pass. Public Rights of Way are more commonly known as:

  • Footpath: for use on foot only
  • Bridleway: for use by horses, pedal cycle or on foot
  • Byway: for use by motor vehicles, horses, pedal cycle or on foot

Public footpaths are not to be confused with highway footways, which are pavements to the side of the road.

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

If it is practicable as they are considered a 'usual accompaniment' of a person on foot.

Do we provide access for people with disabilities?

A simple stile can often prove to be a major obstacle for many people. We operate a 'minimum barrier' policy, for new and diverted rights of way. Gaps are preferred to stiles, unless farm animals need to be kept out, in which case a gate or kissing gate will be installed. Requests for the replacement of stiles by stock-proof kissing gates on existing footpaths will be considered favourably, although we cannot guarantee to be able to do so in all cases.

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

Not without the prior consent of the landowner, otherwise you would be committing trespass against the landowner or occupier concerned.

Do riders, walkers and cyclists have equal rights on bridleways?

Horse riders and walkers have equal rights on bridleways, but cyclists are only allowed to use bridleways as of right provided they give way to pedestrians and horse riders. (Section 30, Countryside Act 1968)

Must a footpath be used once a year to keep it open?

Even if no-one has used it for years, it will still remain a public right of way. They can only be stopped up by a legal process, even if no-one has used them in living memory. This is where the saying 'Once a highway, always a highway' comes from.

What is a permissive path?

A permissive path is that which the landowner permits the public to use, with the intention that it should not become a public right of way. The landowner may erect notices to that effect and even close the path once a year. To ensure that the public does not acquire a right of way, as might happen if a notice was removed and not replaced, the owner can take advantage of Section 31 (6) deposit.

Unofficial diversions of Public Rights of Way made by landowners can be regarded as permissive paths, though if the above procedures are not used, the new route may in time become a public right of way.

How can I report a problem on a public right of way?

If you find a problem on a public right of way, you should contact the  or use the e-services form.

We carry out annual inspections of all public rights of way in the Borough to ensure that the public rights of way are kept in good condition.

What can I do about overgrown hedges and trees adjacent to public rights of way?

In most circumstances, the responsibilities of the Council do not extend to the maintenance of hedges and trees at the side of public rights of way. The landowner is responsible for ensuring that a hedge does not overhang a public right of way so as to obstruct it.

We do have a right to remove so much of the overgrowth to prevent obstruction to pedestrians and equestrians. Additionally, we have powers to require that the owners of overhanging hedges lop or cut back the hedge within a period of 14 days. (Highways Act 1980 section 154)

Please contact the Council to see if you need permission to carry out any work to a tree or hedgerow.

Can I wander off a public right of way?

The legal right to pass and repass relates solely to the right of way. Landowners can require 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 sufficiently to get past it.

Who is responsible for stiles and gates on footpaths and bridleways?

It is the duty of the landowner to ensure that any stiles and gates are kept in a good state of repair. Our duty only extends to ensuring that the landowner complies with this obligation and to provide a grant of 25% towards repairing or replacing such structures. (The Highways Act 1980 section 146)

If an occupier of land wishes to install additional stiles or gates on footpaths or bridleways, they must apply in writing to us for authority to do so. To erect stiles or gates without this authority is an unlawful obstruction and is a criminal offence. The only circumstance for which we can provide authorisation for the erection of new stiles or gates is that the structures are required for stock control purposes. (The Highways Act 1980 section 147)

Stiles and gates cannot be erected for security or other purposes and may be regarded as obstructions to the highway.

Who is responsible for the surfaces of public rights of way?

The Council is responsible for the surface of public rights of way that are publicly maintainable. Privately maintained public rights of way are maintained by the landowners. It is an offence to interfere with the surface of a public right of way to the detriment of users. We can take enforcement action to ensure the surface of a public right of way that are unlawfully disturbed are reinstated.

Occupiers of land can disturb the surface of a right of way by seeking permission from the Council to do so before any work is carried out, and by statutory licence in respect of ploughing.

For privately maintained public rights of way the Highways Act 1980 provides the Council with some enforcement powers but they can only be used in certain specified circumstances, for example in the case of a physical obstruction of the footpath. Unfortunately the powers do not extend to dealing with long grass or overhanging vegetation (unless the latter is physically obstructing use of the footpath). Plants growing across the path from beside it - is the responsibility of the landowner.

Where do we sign public rights of way?

We are required to erect a sign at the point that each public footpath, bridleway or byway leaves a metalled road. This is usually in the form of metal fingerpost. The fingerpost will always indicate the status of the path.

Please note that sealed surface paths in urban areas will not be signed.

What do the different coloured arrows on the way markers mean?

We are required to provide signs along a public right of way where users unfamiliar with the area may need guidance. The small arrows used to do this are known as way markers. An agreed national colour scheme uses yellow arrows for public footpaths, blue arrows for bridleways and red arrows for byways open to all traffic. (Countryside Act 1968 section 27)

The path we have used for years has now been blocked/diverted - can you get it cleared?

The first thing to do is check that the path is recorded as a public right of way by contacting the Public Rights of Way Officer.

If the right of way is recorded, in most cases the Public Right of Way Officer will be able to take action to clear any obstructions on the right of way. 

If the path is not currently recorded it may be possible to claim it as such. This would require the claimants to obtain sufficient evidence to prove that public rights have indeed been established.

Public rights can be acquired through 20 years public usage (not including private access rights) with the following conditions:

  • the route was used without interruption in other words, always useable, no locked gates or prohibitive signs
  • users did not seek permission of the landowner
  • that there is no evidence that the landowner did not intend public use of the route

Public Rights of Way Officer will investigate the evidence once a claim has been submitted.

What about obstructions and encroachments?

The Council have a duty to remove all obstructions and encroachments to public rights of way. (The Highways Act 1980 section 130)

We also have a common law right to remove anything that it believes constitutes an obstruction, danger or encroachment without consultation with any other party. We deal with obstructions firstly by consultation and dialogue, requesting the offender to remove the obstruction. Depending on circumstances, offenders are normally given up to four weeks to comply. This informal notice will be confirmed in writing. If after that period, the offender has failed to comply, formal legal notice is served requiring the offender to remove the obstruction within a specified time. When that time expires, we will remove the obstruction and recover costs from the offender.

We would consider prosecution for obstruction for any subsequent offence, as well as taking the direct action outlined above. (The Highways Act 1980 section 143)

Can landowners grow crops on and plough up public rights of way?

Where a crop (other than grass) has been planted or sown on land crossed by a public right of way, the occupier has a duty to ensure that the line on the ground of the public right of way is indicated. Field edge (or "headland" footpaths and bridleways) should never be ploughed. Additionally, the occupier has a duty to prevent the crop from encroaching within that width throughout the growing season. Failure to fulfil this duty is a criminal offence. (Rights of Way Act 1990 section 137A)

Each public right of way may have a legal width recorded for part or all of the route, and in these cases this width should always be available. Where paths cross cultivated (arable) land and a width is not specified in the Definitive Statement, a guide to the minimum width that the path should be re-instated to is available below:

  • cross-field footpath - one metre
  • field-edge footpath - 1.5 metres
  • cross-field bridleway - two metres
  • field-edge bridleway - three metres
  • cross-field byway - three metres
  • field-edge byway - five metres

Please be aware that these minimum widths apply to arable land only and only where no other width for the path is recorded. It is the farmers' or landowners' responsibility to ensure that all public rights of way that pass over land they occupy and cultivate (under their care) are maintained to the standards required by law. If you are in any doubt about the width of paths, please contact the Public Rights of Way Officer.

Can bulls be kept in a field crossed by a public right of way?

It is an offence for the occupier of land crossed by a public right of way to allow a bull over 10 months old and on its own and/or any bull of a recognised dairy breed (even if accompanied by cows/heifers) to be at large on the land. Bulls which are less than 10 months old, or of a recognised beef breed and at large with cows/heifers are exceptions to this rule. Dairy breeds are: Ayrshire, Jersey, Dairy Shorthorn, Kerry, British Friesian, British Holstein, Guernsey.

If any animal, which is known to be dangerous by the keeper of the animal, causes injury to a member of the public using a Public Right of Way, an offence may be committed and the occupier could be sued by the injured party. (Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 section 59)

Are dogs allowed on public rights of way?

Dogs are allowed on public rights of way, but they must be kept under close control at all times. There is no requirement in law for a dog to be on a lead. A path user who allows a dog to wander off the public right of way becomes a trespasser and owners and occupiers have a right to ask them to leave the land. If a dog is likely to wander off the line of the path, or to worry livestock, the owners are advised to keep the dog on a lead.

Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981

Preparation of a Definitive Map for South Shields

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