CORNWALL has 4,500km of public rights of way but hundreds of paths across the Duchy are being illegally blocked by landowners.

One woman is fighting to protect this vital aspect of the countryside and is critical of Cornwall Council, claiming the local authority isn’t doing enough to hold farmers and landowners to account.

Cornwall Council has a responsibility to maintain and protect 2,760 miles (4,442 km) of public rights of way; obstruction of such paths is a criminal offence.

Lucy Wilson, who is a British Horse Society bridleways officer and Open Spaces Society (OSS) correspondent in Bude, says the council is not taking responsibility or taking the necessary legal action against landowners and, as a result, thousands of pounds of public money is being spent on reopening the paths.

Cornwall Council argues it is working with landowners to keep paths opened and maintained and says it will take the necessary action against landowners to remove obstructions where necessary.

Lucy said: “There are hundreds of offenders across Cornwall. Why should the public foot the bill? It’s a criminal offence to obstruct a public right of way. There’s an unlimited fine associated with that and up to 51 weeks in prison. So why are the council spending money on work that landowners should be paying for?”

There are currently 44 live enforcement cases against Cornwall Council in respect of public rights of way. This is where public path obstructions have remained, despite being reported, and where the complainant has then resorted to legal action in an attempt to compel the local authority to perform its statutory duty. This action paves the way to a magistrates court appearance as part of the Highways Act 1980.

“Don’t confuse this with the number of obstructed paths across Cornwall, of which there are hundreds,” said Lucy. “Forty four live enforcement cases is a lot, especially with only one enforcement officer within Cornwall Council. Each enforcement case will likely involve a number of obstructions.”

Of her battle to protect and open up paths across Cornwall, she added: “It’s quite lonely thing doing this and I don’t think people understand there’s a law that protects rights of way. They just think it grows over and that’s the end of it. We need to be able to access nature.”

RAF veteran Pete Greening is a keen walker who says the number of blocked public paths is “horrific”. “If it’s not near the coastpath or a major conurbation, say Truro or somewhere like that, all bets are off,” he said of paths which have been allowed to be obstructed.

Pete added: “We are very fortunate in having a right of way network which the public can use. One of the issues is it’s been over 70 years since the legislation came in and the definitive map was created. I think because Cornwall has always been a bit of an outpost and hasn’t had the huge amount of population, things have been allowed to slide.

South West Farmer: Keen walker Pete Greening says the number of blocked public paths in Cornwall is 'horrific' Keen walker Pete Greening says the number of blocked public paths in Cornwall is 'horrific' (Image: Lee Trewhela/LDRS)

“Landowners and farmers don’t necessarily want the hassle but actually it’s the law and they need to be dragged into the 21st century and understand they have a responsibility and they can be prosecuted. The only people who can do that are the council but the council appear to be afraid, or unwilling, to do so.”

He said: “People often comment, ‘well, it’s the farmer’s land’. It isn’t actually – the right of way is owned by the Crown. I know farming has a lot of other issues going on, but everyone has to abide by the law so what makes them special?”

Kate Ashbrook, secretary of the Open Spaces Society, says there are parallels today with the post-war period which produced the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949, known as ‘the People’s Charter’.

She said: “That Act, the 75th anniversary of which we celebrate next year, was groundbreaking, giving us national parks, areas of outstanding natural beauty, definitive maps of rights of way, and much more. Good things flowed in a time of austerity.

“We have austerity today, but there aren’t so many of the good things. Public paths and open spaces suffer when local authorities are starved of resources. We shall hit them with legal notices to force action, taking them to court if necessary, to show that they must prioritise spending on paths and access, which are so crucial to people’s health and well-being.”

Kate added: “We need more access close to home, to help those without the means, confidence or ability to reach the natural environment. Public paths, the most important means of gaining access to the outdoors, must be properly recorded, protected and maintained. A new government must repeal the cut-off for historic-path claims, use agricultural money for new access and provide enough funds to get our rights of way fully open and usable, among much else.”

Lucy cites cases in St Ervan, a hamlet near Wadebridge, over the past couple of years where Cornwall Council carried out work to remedy three blocked footpaths. The cost of the work was paid for with public money, which Freedom of Information (FOI) responses show was in the region of £55,000.

She told us: “I started looking into all of this in 2016, submitting FOIs and asking for information about how many obstructions there were across Cornwall. I was then asking the council, if there are that many why aren’t you putting more resources into it. Then I hear about another obstruction, another obstruction and another obstruction ….

“There’s only one senior enforcement officer and I feel sorry for her because she’s got hundreds of obstructions to deal with. It is true that staff on the ground at Cornwall Council do their best, but face an impossible job. The lack of support from management makes the job harder, as does the policy of a conciliatory approach towards landowners. Spending public money on clearing obstructions and not recouping losses from landowners depletes resources even further.”

A spokesperson for the local authority said: “Cornwall Council is committed to protecting the public rights of way across Cornwall and we are pleased that our interventions and actions secured the public’s right to use this path [concerning the most recent case in St Ervan]. Each case is determined on its own merits and we will consider the best course of action to ensure any obstructions are removed.

“We will work with landowners to keep paths opened and maintained, but we will take the necessary action against landowners to remove obstructions where necessary. The team is experiencing high volumes of work and are doing their utmost to work through this.”