John Baker, Public Rights of Way warden, gave a presentation.
He confirmed that his duty was to protect Devon’s rights of way and he did this by:
· Supporting landowners,
· informing the public,
· liaising with Parish Councils (P3) and district councils, and
· cooperating with the Police and dog wardens.
The legal rationale for wardens’ work was embodied in the Highways Act 1980, s130
o It is the duty of the Highway Authority to assert and protect the rights of the pubic to the use and enjoyment of any highway…
o It is the duty of a Highway Authority to prevent, as far as possible, the stopping up or obstruction of the highway…
Devon County Council had 5000km of footpaths, bridleways, byways open to all traffic and restricted byways. In addition, there were 560km of unsurfaced roads and 225km of off-road trails.
A map showing the warden areas for the County was displayed. The wardens carried out work on off-road trails and unsurfaced roads in the National Park areas. The National Park rangers dealt with public rights of way on an agency basis.
Wardens inspected public rights of way on a three-yearly cycle, ensuring they were signed at the road, free from obstruction and clearly waymarked. Ease of use was also assessed using condition criteria and 97% of the public rights of way in Devon met the criteria. In addition, off-road trails and the South West Coast Path were inspected annually. Wardens also responded to reports from the public and recorded findings. A number of legal and technical publications informed warden work.
Wardens were responsible for maintenance. This included signs and waymarking; vegetation; stiles and gates; surfaces – including bridges and boardwalks; removing obstructions and working with approved contractors. Wardens made increasing use of technology, for example What’s App to share photos with contractors.
Interesting photographs illustrated ‘before’ and ‘after’ shots of maintenance work. Gates were authorised where there were forestry or stock control issues although it was acknowledged this could impact on use by buggies and scooters.
The Enforcement Protocol worked through goodwill and cooperation with the public and landowners. This worked most of the time. The occasional enforcement notice was also effective most of the time. Prosecution was rarely used in Devon as this was unnecessarily stressful, time consuming and expensive. It was important to ascertain why a landowner had obstructed a path and what could be done to resolve issues.
Wardens were proactive in seeking improvements and making a difference. Stiles were upgraded to gates with landowner permission and this had been easier with improved self-closing gates. Surfaces were upgraded, signs were improved and diversions (paid for by landowners) were secured. Diversions went out to formal consultation.
The wardens’ improvement schedule was usually reliant on capital bids and budget allocations. For example, improvements had been made to the SWCP surface and, on the Tarka Trail, a least restrictive option had been put in place with manoeuvring space and easy to use latches. In Iddesleigh, a diversion was planned to remove one bridge crossing and take a footpath away from a farmyard.
The Strava app showed the level of use and a map was displayed which indicated use of public rights of way and recreational trails in Hatherleigh over the last two months. The lighter the colour of the route showed more use. The whole network was well-used especially the off-road trails.
A number of questions were asked.
What are the maintenance priorities?
John responded that it was based in priority order of Health and Safety issues; high usage paths such as cycle/multi-use trails, promoted routes and village/town centres.
How do wardens work with groups, for example South West Riders?
SW Riders report problems in a constructive way. They have identified diversions and also recognise the need to identify priorities. For example, improving bridleway access across Hollow Moor would be disproportionately expensive meaning less budget for other routes. John would be attending their AGM. North Devon Ramblers reports problems. He had not had so much contact with the Trail Riders Fellowship.
Is it possible to go around obstructions or deal with them?
The public can make a reasonable route around an Obstruction but not remove the obstruction itself. It is best to report obstructions to the public rights of way team to avoid the risk of causing criminal damage. Wardens had to notify landowners of their intentions with regard to obstructions.
Is there any say on amenity value?
Not as such. An improvement to surface may be needed to ensure access can continue.
What is liaison like with the roads team?
Public Rights of Way can raise an objection to a proposal and the roads team
(Highway Development Control Officers) may defer to that advice. The Public Rights of Way team has a good relationship with the Highway Development Control Officers who may refer matters to the PROW Team. John mentioned he had worked with highways colleagues to improve surfaces for horses.
The Chair thanked John and the warden team for all their work. It emphasised the value of goodwill and working with people.