Friday, 5 January 2018

Secret Paths in Bedford and Beyond

No signpost on Thurleigh Bridleway No. 56 where it leaves Whitwick Green Road. Grid TL 04324 59026
(Click image to enlarge it)
The Bedford Times and Citizen (our free local newspaper) has published an article on the scandal of missing signposts in Bedford and beyond - See HERE. The article arises from a press release (in full below).

Thanks Times and Citizen - Bedford Borough Council has shown a greater interest in this issue now.

No sign of Thurleigh Bridleway No. 56 which runs across the cultivated field from the vicinity of the tree second from left.
(Click image to enlarge it)
No signpost on Thurleigh Footpath No. 37 where it leaves the far (south) side of Milton Road. Grid TL 03986 57834. The footpath is signed on the north side (although it can't be used because it is obstructed).
(Click image to enlarge it)


Fifty years on from the Countryside Act 1968, which required local authorities to signpost a public path where it leaves a road, many paths still lack signposts.

The Open Spaces Society*, Britain’s oldest national conservation body, now calls for an end to this scandal.

The society and the Ramblers were responsible for winning the signposting provision which was enshrined in section 27 of the Countryside Act 1968.  This states that a highway authority (county or unitary council) must erect and maintain a signpost where a public path leaves a metalled road.  The signpost must show the status of the path, eg whether it is a footpath (open only to pedestrians), a bridleway (walkers, horse-riders and cyclists) or a byway (open also to mechanically-propelled vehicles).  If the authority considers it convenient and appropriate, the destination of the path and distance to that destination may also be given.

Says Brian Cowling, the Open Spaces Society’s local correspondent for Bedford Borough: ‘Signposts are important because they give people the confidence to use and enjoy public paths, which are public rights of way and highways in law.  Walkers, riders and cyclists should be able to rely on the council to signpost paths where they leave metalled roads, but here they cannot.  Bedford Borough has failed in its statutory duty to signpost paths in the parish of Thurleigh (photographs attached) and elsewhere.

‘Although paths are marked on Ordnance Survey maps, many people are deterred from using them if there is no indication that a route is a public path.  In any case, paths can be closed or moved making the maps out of date.

‘Without a signpost, a path can be a well-kept secret.

‘That is why the Open Spaces Society pressed for the inclusion of the signposting duty in the Countryside Act and why I am dismayed to find that there are still many missing signposts.’

‘I am working to persuade the council to use its scant resources on its statutory duties, such as signposting and removing illegal obstructions.  Unfortunately, the borough continues to give too much attention to its discretionary powers of processing applications to move paths, often against the public interest.

‘In this fiftieth anniversary year of the Countryside Act 1968 which gave highway authorities a duty to signpost paths, we call on Bedford Borough and other councils to make a real effort to ensure all their paths are marked and to give priority to its statutory duties on public rights of way.’

Photos attached:

Missing signpost on Thurleigh Bridleway No. 56 where it leaves Whitwick Green Road.

Missing signpost on Thurleigh Footpath No. 37 where it leaves the far (south) side of Milton Road. The footpath is signposted on the north side.

Brian reported both these missing signposts to Bedford Borough Council in January 2015.

*The Open Spaces Society was founded in 1865 and is Britain’s oldest national conservation body.  It campaigns to protect common land, village greens, open spaces and public paths, and people’s right to enjoy them.

Saturday, 25 November 2017

Bedford Borough Council Officers Like To Do It (Part 2 of 2) Ultra Vires

Wilden Footpath No. 40
(Click image to enlarge it)
Last year, Bedford Borough Council officers made a total of 20 public path orders to create, extinguish and divert public rights of way under the provisions of the Highways Act 1980. Officers have since abandoned 16 of those orders because they did not follow the correct legal procedures when making them. However, it now turns out that none of the 20 orders should have been made in the first place because the officers did not have the authority to make them.
Council officers have claimed that the powers to make public path orders have been delegated to them by the Planning Committee. They have not.
Ironically, this has come to light because officers decided to stop publishing public path order details thereby making it more difficult for the public to find out what officers were doing but serving to make me more determined to do so.
This year, Bedford Borough Council officers have made a total of 8 public path orders (seven under the provisions of the Highways Act and one under the provisions of the Town and Country Planning Act). I considered them to be invalid and objected to them for that reason.
My claim that all the orders were invalid because officers had acted ultra vires in making them was dismissed by Chief Executive Philip Simpkins when I wrote to him in October. He said he was “confident” that all was well.
This month I was politely asked if I would withdraw my objections to the 8 orders. A deadline of 17 November was set – otherwise, I was told “ … the Authority currently intends to submit those orders to the Planning Inspectorate Office for determination by an Inspector appointed by the Secretary of State.”
However, the penny seems to have dropped because I have now been informed that all 8 path orders will be abandoned. I await answers to my awkward questions which I’m told will be addressed within the next two weeks (that’ll be by 5 December).
That’s 16 orders abandoned, 8 orders to be abandoned and 4 that should have been abandoned but weren’t out of the 28 Highways Act path orders made over the last two years – probably a local authority record. And that’s only counting the Highways Act orders. I’ve not added up those made under the provisions of the Town and Country Planning Act.
Why am I angry about this?
For a start it’s an appalling case of incompetence leading to the unnecessary waste of resources. I doubt the cost could be calculated in terms of time and working hours but in financial terms it must amount to thousands of pounds.
Bedford Borough Council has the legal duty: To assert and protect the rights of the public to the use and enjoyment of any highway for which they are the highway authority, including any roadside waste which forms part of it.” (Highways Act 1980, Section 130(1).
But the Council’s officers choose not to, to an extent, so numerous paths are unavailable.
The same various powers can be used at the Council's discretion for other, non-statutory rights of way purposes – things that it can do but doesn’t have to, like diverting paths for instance. But officers choose to, to an extent. And then cock it up.
There’s no sign that council officers are concerned nor will there be until elected members and the public do more to hold them to account.

Monday, 20 November 2017

Bedford Borough Council Officers Like To Do It (Part 1 of 2) Behind Closed Doors

In 2013, the then Assistant Director of Environment and Communities at Bedford Borough Council approved public path order making procedures. It’s a well-written set of procedures contained in a three-and-a-half A4-sized page document offering: council officers clear, comprehensive working practices and; the public an explanation of a transparent, accountable process, snappily entitled: “Procedure for exercise of delegated powers in respect of public path orders under the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 (TCPA90), the Highways Act 1980 (HA80) and the Cycle Tracks Act 1984 (CTA84)". It’s a good and proper title but I’ll refer to it as the “Procedures Document”.

  • “What’s delegated powers?” I hear someone mumble. 
  • A local authority can delegate any of its functions to its officers. For example, it can direct that public path orders will be determined by council officers rather than, say, the council’s planning committee.
  • Bedford Borough Council has done just that; it has delegated particular public path order making powers to nominated council officers as set out in the “Planning Committee Scheme of Delegations to Officers” which is contained in the Council’s Constitution. 
Back to the Procedures Document: where one of the procedures requires a Case Officer to submit a report relating to a public path order proposal to a Deciding Officer. The report sets out the case for or against a proposal with a recommendation that the proposal be approved or refused. At the same time (seven working days before a decision is scheduled to be taken) the Case Officer’s Report is published on the Council’s website. This is good practice and one that the Council can fairly claim is in accordance with the Local Government Transparency Code it says they adhere to.

Recently, following a review behind closed doors and without any consultation, a decision was taken to change the procedures. Despite requests for information, I haven’t been able to establish what the amendments amount to nor who approved them, although the immediate effects are that consultation periods have been reduced and reports have not been published. Since abandoning the Procedures document, in August I think, officers have administered the public path order process as they see fit.

In September, council officers made their first public path orders of the year – eight of them. No reports were published prior to the making of the Orders and none have been published since.

In October, when the path orders appeared, I requested copies of the reports. They can be mine to read, I was eventually told, but it would have to be treated as a request pursuant to the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act, the reports would be redacted, it could take up to 20 working days to supply them, and I’d have to pay £50. Yes Dear Reader, just £50 for something previously free, un-redacted and available before a decision was taken.

A compromise was called for (that’s me compromising with me) – fifty quid is a bit steep: I’d request just two for starters and save for the full set, to be told that there’ll be no charge for two reports. Buy eight for £50 or two at a time free strikes me as an odd business model.

It’s November and I now have three reports. I’d asked for Report Nos. 1 and 2 but was sent Nos. 1 and 3 (both incomplete) but have since received the missing parts and the absent No. 2. The next two are on order. I’ve been given different reasons at different times why the reports haven’t been published, none of which add up. I have had my own suspicion which is essentially that they’d rather do it without us watching.

It made me even more curious because I couldn’t help thinking that delaying tactics, among other things, were in play here. Or is it just me: CLICK

My curiosity led me to the Council’s Constitution and what I found was .. well, quite shocking but you’ll have to wait to find out until the next instalment later this week:

Bedford Borough Council Officers Like To Do It (Part 2 of 2) Ultra Vires.

Monday, 16 October 2017

Souldrop Village Green - Update

Knotting and Souldrop Parish Council developed part of Souldrop Village Green (VG42) as a car park – unlawfully, it seemed to me. And as a simple matter, rather than a legal one, I thought it was wrong that a council should spoil the very thing it had been given to protect.
I wrote about it HERE
Bedford Borough Council’s Planning Committee considered the issue at its meeting on 21st August 2017, and decided to defer their decision until after a site visit had taken place. At their following meeting on 25th September 2017, the Planning Committee resolved that the parish council’s retrospective planning application to develop the village green should be refused.
Well done that committee.
Bedford Borough Council has now issued an enforcement notice requiring that the village green be restored. You can see the notice HERE.
Well done Bedford Borough Council.
There’s a way to go yet; the parish council (who can appeal) is required to:
  • Cease the use of the village green for parking of motorised vehicles.
  • Remove the hard standing (loose shingle).
  • Reinstate the land by laying top soil, then laying turf or sowing grass seed.
  • Remove the resultant waste or debris.
Thanks to a brave Souldrop gentleman who was prepared to stand up for his (and others’) rights, there’s a better chance of Souldrop Village Green surviving in whole for the enjoyment of future generations.

Saturday, 9 September 2017

Bedford Borough Council - Wasting Time

Wilden Footpath No. 6 - obstructed through gardens
(Click image to enlarge it)
Part of Wilden Footpath No. 6 cannot be used because it is obstructed through gardens as it has been for years. See HERE.
September 2016: Bedford Borough Council consults on a proposal to divert the path. See the consultation plan HERE
I reply by return: “The Open Spaces Society is very pleased to see your proposal and wholeheartedly supports it.” Other consultees including Wilden Parish Council, I know, are just as pleased.
October 2016: Consultation period ends.
When consultations are complete the procedure for the case officer is to compile, submit and publish a report recommending that orders should be made or not. A week after publication, another council officer approves or refuses the recommendation. If approved the way is clear to make orders which shouldn’t really take more than a couple of weeks.
January 2017: I write to ask about what I consider to be the inordinate delay.
The terse reply (in my own words) – "we only have a small team and we are busy doing other things as well. The two orders are being drafted,"
[An hour or so with a cuppa? A morning with more than one cuppa - max!]
"a decision to make the orders is expected within the next 6 weeks and orders made by the end of May."
[Whole morning writing a report? Cuppa? Ten minutes to read and approve it.]
May 2017. No report. No orders. No proper explanation or apology.
July 2017. I request information to be told that a report will be published within 4 weeks and the orders made by 25 August.
September 2017: End of year one. No report. No orders. No proper explanation (other than to say, after I contact the council, that they will get back to me in two weeks), No apology, and no footpath of course. I lodge an official complaint and wait.
It has to be done but I suspect that I am wasting my time just like the Borough Council is wasting it.

Tuesday, 22 August 2017

Bedford Borough Council - Wasting Public Money

Wilstead Footpath No. 8
Obstructed by stable block, shed, gates and fences

Bedford Borough Council has wasted thousands of pounds of public money by making an order to divert a footpath and then formally abandoning it because council officers forgot to tell anyone that an order had been made. Unapologetic and unrepentant, council officers plan to spend thousands more on a new order to divert the path.
The path in question is Wilstead Footpath No. 8.
Earlier this year I wrote about a proposal to divert the path. See HERE. What I didn’t know at the time of writing was that an order had already been made in 2013. No one outside the council knew either - because the council never gave notice of the making of the order which is a statutory requirement.
The path cannot be used because it is obstructed by the landowner. It seems reasonable to me that the council, whose legal duty it is to protect our public rights of way, should either take enforcement action against the obstructions or require the landowner to apply and pay for a diversion. It should not be for the council to assist a landowner to get round path law, and when it does choose to do so it shouldn’t cock up the procedure. Having wasted thousands, the council will use more public money to pay (to the tune of £3000 according to a council estimate) for a new diversion order.
See the council’s letter withdrawing the order HERE.
Despite what is said in the first paragraph of the letter, neither I nor the Open Spaces Society were consulted about the 2013 order (not that we have to be consulted). “The Authority” does not mean “Bedford Borough Council”; it means council officers on behalf of the council. And you won’t find any mention of costs, reasons for the delay or an apology for the cock up which I attribute to council officer incompetence and lack of elected councillors’ interest.
Regrettably, Bedford Borough Council has wasted more public money. On 4 August, “the Authority” also resolved to withdraw another twelve public path orders because they are flawed, with an officer resolution awaited on a further two flawed orders. The letter regarding the twelve (but not the cheque) is in the post I think.

Wednesday, 5 July 2017

Souldrop Village Green - Unlawful Development Update

Souldrop Village Green
(Click the image to enlarge it)
Knotting and Souldrop Parish Council has developed part of Souldrop Village Green (VG42) - unlawfully, in my opinion. I wrote about it HERE.

Following complaints (mine and one village resident’s) and requests to have the green restored to its pre-developed condition, Bedford Borough Council required the parish council to submit a retrospective planning application which was subsequently abandoned. A new, amended application has been submitted although it still retains the original application date – see Application 16/03052/S73A HERE. (I have found that the Council's website is unreliable so the link may not work.)
My view is that the application should be refused not least because it seems to me that the Borough Council does not have the power to authorise planning permission on a registered village green.
I make my case HERE.
Village and town greens are wonderful assets which should be treasured not spoilt. Souldrop Village Green should be restored to its former pre-developed condition.