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Finding a path through the Agriculture Bill

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Finding a path through the Agriculture Bill and Public Rights of Way rules

Just prior to the social distancing rules coming into place in March, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to present to a number of farmers and landowners from across Shropshire.

My session was based around potential diversification and the new Agriculture Bill which largely replaces the Common Agricultural Policy – legislation the UK was signed up to while a member of the European Union.

As part of the new Bill, the Government says it will “reward” farmers for “public good” work such as clean air and water initiatives, reducing flooding and providing access to the countryside.

One of the ways people access and enjoy the countryside is through public rights of way, such as footpaths and bridleways. The new legislation proposes to reward landowners who provide better access for people such as walkers and horse riders. Such “reward” is expected to be incorporated within grants and loans.

In principle it is similar to the environmental land management schemes we already have.

The Bill has been welcomed by groups such as the British Horse Society, who say riders can only access about 22% of public rights of way at the moment, while the Ramblers say they support it but want farmers and landowners to be obliged to maintain and enhance these routes as part of their funding deal. So it has been a mixed bag reaction for different reasons.

Existing public rights of way are detailed on the “definitive map and statement” – a legal record kept by local authorities describing the location and status of different public rights of way.  They can also be acquired by “long use”. This means that if someone has been using a route without permission, but without force or secrecy, for 20 years then it could become a public right of way.

There are also private rights of way which benefit specific people or property and are usually dealt with in a sale or by separate deed, but can also be acquired by long use in the right circumstances. These are not linked to the Bill.

Diversification - If you’re a farmer or landowner thinking of diversifying, then you need to consider carefully the implications of any public or private rights of way affecting your land.  This could include public or private rights of way crossing your land or private rights of way that you benefit from over neighbouring land.

Over neighbouring land - If your access is a private right of way over your neighbour’s land, you need to consider whether you would still have the right to use it if you diversify in some way.

For neighbouring land - If your land is subject to a private right of way for neighbouring land, you need to consider if the deed originally granting the route provides a mechanism to divert it.

However, diverting isn’t always straightforward. With public rights of way various organisations such as ramblers groups can cause delay by making objections, while council planning processes will take time.

If you’re concerned that public rights of way are potentially being created by ‘long use’ then you need to take advice as early as possible. Despite others saying the opposite, it is possible to legally ‘stop the clock’ on such use being treated as a right and prevent that acquisition of new public rights of way - but only if 20 years’ use has not already been established.

That gives you the time to consider your options, work with all the interested parties and come up with a way that allows you to use the land the way you intended, do public good work and get what you’re entitled to.

Hannah Taylor is an Agricultural Property Solicitor within our Agriculture and Rural Affairs department. For further advice, readers can email or call Hannah directly through 01905 610410.