Sunday, 19 October 2014

Objecting to a Solar Park Application

Latest Planning Application (Click image to expand it)

Last year, I objected to a planning application for the installation and operation of a solar park consisting of up to 65,800 solar panels on agricultural land.

You can see my letter of objection HERE. Regrettably, Bedford Borough Council did not agree. Planning permission was granted - see HERE.

One of my objections was that land used to produce food would be lost:

“The UK is a densely populated country and land is a non-renewable source. Solar power stations preclude land use for many purposes: food production – especially with regards to grain crops; and diminishing stock of ‘wild’ country or remote rural tranquility – important for recreation and tourism.

I understand that the land which it is proposed to be developed is classified as Grade 2. Grades 1, 2 and 3 are defined as the best and most versatile – this is the land which is most flexible, productive and efficient in delivering future crops.”

According to the BBC this morning – see HERE, Environment Secretary Liz Truss has said large-scale solar farms are "a blight on the landscape" and confirmed plans to cut a taxpayer subsidy to farmers and landowners for the schemes.

She told the Mail on Sunday the land could be better used for growing food. There is currently a £100-an-acre grant scheme in place, worth £2m a year. Ms Truss said: "I want Britain to lead the world in food and farming and to do that we need enough productive agricultural land."

A proposal for another solar park (68,640 panels covering 27 acres of agricultural land, shown in the image above) is to be considered by Bedford Borough Council on Monday 20 October 2014. There is very strong local resistance to this application - see HERE, reported in our local newspaper Bedfordshire on Sunday HERE (at page 15) but will the objections along with the new government minister’s comments be enough to stop another wasteful “blight on the landscape”.

UPDATE!  Later, Sunday 19 October 2014

The hard copy and online editions of the Bedfordshire on Sunday newspaper reports drawn to your attention above are not as detailed as another online report which can be found HERE.

Amongst other alarming things, the newspaper reports:

“Bedfordshire on Sunday has seen documents which suggest most of those who have responded favourably to the consultation are connected in some way to Prosolia UK [the applicant] or the landowner. StopTheSolarFarm campaigners say when you take these responses out, the true level of opposition is much clearer.”

StopTheSolarFarm have updated their WEBSITE to include newer details including a revised figure for the size of the proposed site which is now said to be over 50 acres (about 25 football pitches!). New details at this stage leave insufficient time for those with everyday lives to get on with (versus those paid to propose, recommend and decide, and those who will profit from something that will be a blight on the landscape) to prepare a considered response given that Bedford Borough Council's PLANNING COMMITTEE meets tomorrow.

UPDATE! Wednesday 22 October 2014

Bedfordshire on Sunday reports HERE that a decision on the planning application has been deferred until after a site visit to be taken by the Planning Committee. Why, I wonder, especially given such a controversial application hadn't the Committee visited the site in advance of their meeting.

Friday, 17 October 2014

Wyboston, Chawston & Colesden Footpath No. A11E

A public hearing will be held at Wyboston Parish Village Hall next week on Tuesday 21 October 2014 into a public path order that Bedford Borough Council has made to extinguish a public footpath in Wyboston, a hamlet about 10 miles north of Bedford. I wrote about the order HERE.
Anyone can object to a public path order and I have objected to the Wyboston Order on behalf of the OpenSpaces Society. The Bedfordshire Rights of Way Association has objected too. As has Mike Clarke - a member of the public who has probably done more than any one person locally to protect public rights of way in the historic county of Bedfordshire. When consulted in the lead up to the making of the order, The Ramblers Association informed Bedford Borough Council that they would object to the proposed order but in the event, shamefully, they did not object and most probably won’t show up at the hearing.
A highway authority (Bedford Borough Council in this case) cannot proceed with an opposed order other than to abandon it or send it to the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs who can appoint an Inspector to hear the arguments for and against at a formal full public inquiry, or at a less formal public hearing, or by a process of written representations. After careful consideration the Inspector will confirm the order as it stands, or confirm it with modifications, or reject it.
The public hearing on Tuesday will be a first for me. I have notched up one public inquiry and two written representations procedures.
My hope is that the arguments against closing the footpath forever will be strong enough to convince the Inspector to reject the order thereby keeping the footpath in public use. Public rights of way are part of our heritage, and, in my view they are part of our identity and need to be protected for the enjoyment of all. Bedford Borough Council does not seem to hold the same view.
A landowner should not obstruct a public right of way – not least because it is a criminal offence to do so. And Bedford Borough Council should not use its discretionary powers, at the expense of the public, especially at a time when it is trying to save money, to reward landowners who wilfully obstruct public rights of way.
Rather, it should carry out its legal duty to protect public rights of way for present and future generations.

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Maulden Footpath No. 28 - Confuscation (confusion & cock-up)

The Maulden Footpath No. 28 saga which I wrote about HERE and HERE continues.

Central Bedfordshire Council caused confusion, consternation and inconvenience by submitting a ridiculously late request to adjourn a court hearing – a hearing which it had applied for and which was scheduled for 8, 9 & 10 September 2014 at Luton Magistrates’ Court. The court agreed to adjourn the hearing but then, because of a court official’s cock-up, changed its mind, reinstating the hearing.  The Council then withdrew its application for the hearing with the reservation that it might be reinstated if it chose to re-apply next year. The court agreed. Officially, the court has “administratively vacated the hearing and withdrawn the proceedings”.

This particular chapter of the saga could be said to have started at a meeting on 13 February 2013, when Central Bedfordshire Council’s Development Management Committee considered three applications from landowner Mr Bowers of Maulden. The committee resolved to refuse the application (1) to delete the path under section 53 of the Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981; to approve the application (2) to extinguish the path under section 118 the Highways Act 1980 and; to approve the application (3) to stop up the path under the section 116 of the same Act. This may well be a unique situation; three applications made under separate legislation for the purpose of getting rid of the same public footpath; and then two separate legal processes (and possibly a third) set in train by a council for the same purpose - to close a public right of way forever.

(1) The deletion:
The landowner, Mr Bowers, appealed to the Secretary of State about the Council’s refusal to delete the path. This was dealt with under Schedule 14 of the Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981. The appeal was dismissed by an Inspector acting on behalf of the Secretary of State, thereby upholding the Council’s decision. The Inspector’s decision letter can be seen HERE. However, the Secretary of State then changed his mind - quashing his decision, choosing instead to determine the appeal at a public inquiry. An Inspector can dismiss the appeal or direct that the Council should make an order to delete the path.

The public inquiry will be held at Beadlow Manor Country Club on 21st January 2015. The inquiry is scheduled to last 2 days. A path can be deleted from the Definitive Map if there is cogent evidence that it should not be shown on the map; e.g., if the path is shown on the map in error. In Mr Bowers’ opinion, Maulden Footpath No. 28 should not be shown as a public right of way - hence his application. Although it seems to me that he prejudices that view because he acknowledges it is a public right of way if he also applies to extinguish and or stop it up.

And it seems to me that there is another inconsistency. The route of Footpath 28 shown on the map now is not the same route as that originally added to the map; part of that path was diverted. If the argument is that the path was shown incorrectly on the map then it is THAT route which is subject to deletion, not a different, DIVERTED route. And there can be no doubt of the diverted route’s status – it is a public right of way created by a public path diversion order.

(2) The extinguishment:
The Council made the extinguishment order which, because it was opposed, was the subject of a public inquiry held on 11 June 2014. A council has the power to make an extinguishment order if it seems to it that the path is not needed. It cannot confirm such an order if anyone objects to it on the ground that, but for the order, the path would be likely to be used by the public to a significant extent. The Inspector decided not to confirm the order so the order failed. You can read the Inspector’s decision letter HERE.

(3) The stopping up:
The Council made an application to Bedford Magistrates’ Court for the stopping up of the path. At a case management hearing on 17 July 2013 the court adjourned the proceedings until 15 Jan 2014. At the 15 Jan 2014 hearing the court scheduled the case to be heard at Luton Magistrates’ Court on 8, 9 and 10 September 2014.

Seven months after the court had directed that a hearing was to be held, and just three weeks before the hearing was to start, and crucially only one week before exchange of documents was to be completed, it came to my notice that Central Bedfordshire Council wanted to adjourn the case until September 2015. The council now wanted to await the outcome of the deletion order appeal. (The Bedfordshire on Sunday newspaper, which has published good reports on recent events surrounding Footpath 28, reported the latest twist HERE.)

Agreement by interested parties had to be sought. Unfortunately, there was no co-ordinated effort to keep all interested parties informed. The court and the council certainly did not keep all parties informed so in this situation the passage of information seemed to rely on competence and good fortune, both of which were in short supply.

Although Mr Bowers’ (and possibly others) objected to the adjournment, the court agreed that the hearing could be adjourned, except that a 30 minute case management hearing should take place on 8 September 2014. But the court then changed its mind, reinstating the 8 – 10 Sept hearing. Apparently, a court official had failed to take the relevant Civil Procedure Rules into account when making the decision to adjourn the hearing.

It seems to me that Mr Bowers’ objection to the adjournment was perverse, as was the Council’s decision to request an adjournment rather than withdraw the application which it has now had to do.

At the 11 June public inquiry, Mr Bowers issued a statement orally (strangely, under oath) and on paper, to the effect that the public inquiry into the extinguishment should not proceed until after the 21 January 2015 public inquiry which would decide whether or not the Council should make an Order to delete the path. (That is, Mr Bowers wanted the extinguishment considered only if it was still necessary AFTER the decision about the deletion had been made.) Now though, Mr Bowers was objecting to the proposal that the decision to stop up the path should be heard BEFORE the decision on whether to delete or not. Confused?

For its part the Council could have withdrawn the application much earlier to spare interested parties the resulting inconvenience, expense and confuscation (which should be a legitimate word if it already isn’t). The Council hasn’t explained what had changed at such a late stage that it now considered warranted an adjournment.

Those enjoying this saga can look forward to next year when there will be a public inquiry and most likely a court case. Unless someone changes their mind.

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

The Open Spaces Society Needs You

Wymington FP5 - Unlawfully obstructed by Network Rail with Bedford Borough Council permission.
When a local authority makes a public path order to create, divert or extinguish a public right of way, anyone can object (oppose the order). Making a public path order is essentially a two-part process – making the order and then confirming it. If the order is opposed then the local authority cannot confirm it. The authority can abandon the order or forward it to the Secretary of State (DEFRA) who has the power to confirm an opposed order as it stands, confirm the order with amendments or to reject it.

The Secretary of State appoints an Inspector who takes into account the arguments for and against before making a decision. The objector has a right to be heard so a local public inquiry (a formal setting where evidence is heard and where witnesses are open to cross-examination) or a hearing (a discussion held by an Inspector - less formal, usually without formal cross-examination) may be convened. Alternatively, a decision may be made following an exchange of written representations.

I objected to the:

  • Stagsden Footpath No. 20 Diversion Order last year and Bedford Borough Council decided last month to abandon the order.

  • Maulden Footpath No. 28 Extinguishment Order last year. The case was heard last month at a public inquiry. The Inspector rejected the order.

  • Wyboston, Chawston & Colesden Footpath No. A11E Extinguishment Order last year. A public hearing is to be convened at Wyboston Parish Village Hall in October.

  • Kempston Urban Footpath No. 9 Diversion Order last year. The consideration of the Order is taking the form of an exchange of written statements and I have drafted my statement of case and comments for submission this month.

  • Sharnbrook Footpath No. 2 Rail Crossing Extinguishment Order last year. Bedford Borough Council and Network Rail agreed to my suggestion for works to improve the alternative route. I will withdraw my objection on completion of the works and the Council will confirm the order.

  • Wymington Footpaths Nos. 3, 4 & 5 and Podington Footpaths Nos. 6 & 27 Rail Crossing Diversion Order (me v “Counsel” for Bedford Borough Council and Network Rail!) and await news of how that case will be dealt with.

Bedford Borough Council is now consulting on a proposal to create and extinguish various paths in Willington and Cople. It seems to me that the proposals could be improved for the benefit of the public. I may have to object.

Anyone fancy joining the Open Spaces Society?

Sunday, 6 July 2014

Maulden Footpath No. 28 - Post-public inquiry

Battered and unkempt but hanging in there. Footpath No. 28 could do with a bit of TLC.
Good News!
Central Bedfordshire Council’s Maulden Footpath No. 28 Extinguishment Order has been rejected by an independent inspector following the public inquiry last month.
The footpath, which leads to Maulden Wood and the Greensand Ridge Walk, survives - for the time being.
Central Bedfordshire Council made an application to Bedford Magistrates’ Court to close the path but the case was referred to Luton Magistrates’ Court (because the government is pursuing its own case for the eventual closure of the Bedford court). The case is scheduled to be heard on 9th, 10th and 11th September in Luton.
The Open Spaces Society considers this to be a further waste of public money, particularly when the council is so short-staffed and strapped for cash. The Society urges the Council HERE to abandon its plan to close this popular route and instead to accept that it should remain a public footpath, open for all to enjoy.
The Bedfordshire on Sunday newspaper reports HERE that a spokesman for Central Bedfordshire Council said that they are disappointed at the decision and they will now be considering its implications and their options for next steps.

Thursday, 26 June 2014

Maulden Footpath No. 28

It’s not unusual for an unrecorded public right of way to come to light when a path that has been used by the public for many years is obstructed by a new landowner. By unrecorded, I mean not shown on the definitive map and statement.

Mr Bowers of Maulden (a village and parish formerly in the county of Bedfordshire, now in the unitary authority of Central Bedfordshire) purchased a field in 1989. In 1992, he fenced it off thereby obstructing a path in use by the public which prompted an application for a definitive map modification order (DMMO) to add a footpath to the definitive map. Anyone can apply for a DMMO which the local authority then has a duty to investigate.

In 1993, during the course of the DMMO application (a time-consuming exercise which includes investigating user statements showing that the path has been used without interruption for 20 years, researching historic documentary evidence, and carrying out legal and policy procedures), Mr Bowers bought adjoining land and applied for planning permission to develop the whole plot (demolish one dwelling and build another). Planning permission was refused but granted on appeal in 1995, the same year as the DMMO was made to add the footpath to the definitive map. The DMMO was objected to but, following a public inquiry, it was confirmed in 1997. The path (Maulden Footpath No. 28) was now legally recorded as a public footpath. Despite this, Mr Bowers built the house in the period Sept 1996 to April 1997 which had the effect of obstructing the path.

What followed has not been pretty and seems never ending! Among other things it has resulted in mounds of paperwork, numerous councils’ committee meetings, public inquiries, magistrates’ court prosecutions and hearings, and recriminations and talk of common sense where “sense” is anything but common. And all of which has consumed vast amounts of time and money; tens of thousands of pounds at the expense of (1) the landowner, Mr Bowers, who does not believe the path is a public right of way, and (2) by various councils, and therefore the public purse, and (3) members of the public, local user groups such  as the Bedfordshire Rights of Way Association and the East Herts Footpath Society, and national user groups such as the Open Spaces Society and the Ramblers, all of whom are determined to keep the path.

On 11 June, I attended the latest (fourth) local public inquiry on behalf of the Open Spaces Society. Central Bedfordshire Council had made an order in 2013 (against the advice of its officers) to extinguish Maulden Footpath No. 28 to which the Society is opposed.

A public inquiry is not a fun event. And the inquiry into the extinguishment of Maulden Footpath No. 28 was no exception. It was held at a conference centre in Central Bedfordshire by an Inspector appointed by the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA). The Inspector heard the arguments for and against and will make a decision in due course; he can confirm the order as it stands, confirm it with amendments or refuse to confirm the order. Central Bedfordshire Council’s case in support of the order was presented by a top barrister, a rights of way consultant and the Council’s solicitor. Those in support or opposed to an order and choosing to speak at a public inquiry must state their case and then be subject to cross-examination.

With such strong opposing views, this long-running saga will continue. Already a magistrates’ court hearing has been scheduled for three days in September. Central Bedfordshire Council have applied to stop up the path (close it for ever) using different legislation.

And it seems that there may be another public inquiry in the pipeline. Mr Bowers made an application for a DMMO to delete the path from the definitive map. Central Bedfordshire Council refused the application and Mr Bowers appealed to the Secretary of State. The appeal was dismissed in September 2013 by an Inspector appointed by DEFRA but a public inquiry may be held to review that decision.

Friday, 13 June 2014

Sharnbrook Footpath No. 2 - Update

Back in January, I reported that Bedford Borough Council had made an order to close Sharnbrook Footpath No. 2 - see HERE. It seemed a great shame to me that such an old path should be lost to the public forever, or that it could not, in part at least, be diverted, but Network Rail and the Council argued that it should be closed for safety reasons because the public right of way crossed the railway tracks.

Fair enough. But in my opinion the alternative route (Park Lane, Sharnbrook) was also a dangerous place for pedestrians. It is a busy road - especially so on school days and something of a rat run between Sharnbrook and the A6. Pedestrians have to be extra vigilant when walking on the road and very careful when forced onto the grass verge which is narrow, has an uneven surface and is usually overgrown with underlying and overhanging vegetation.

The order plan can be seen HERE.

I objected to the order, as did Bedfordshire Rights of Way Association.

When someone objects to an order then the order making authority (Bedford Borough Council in this case) cannot complete the process by confirming it. The order can be abandoned or it can be sent to DEFRA who can appoint an official to hear the arguments for and against at some form of public inquiry before deciding whether or not to confirm or reject the order.

However, if objections are withdrawn then the order making authority can proceed. Although in this case there may be a typing error in the order - a legal discrepancy which may mean that Council has to forward the order to DEFRA. The Council does not have the power to amend an order whereas the Secretary of State does.

I said that I would be prepared to withdraw my objection if Network Rail would pay for works to provide a safer and better surfaced path within the verge for pedestrians. They agreed and the council has almost finished the works at a cost to Network Rail of £7,500. (Further works are required to retain parts of the new path, and overhanging vegetation is yet to be cut back.)

If I said that it was a shame to lose this old footpath then it is also a shame that more people did not show an interest, including Sharnbrook Parish Council. I have been informed that when consulted, the parish council considered the proposed extinguishment order and resolved to support it rather than to ask for highway improvements. Bedford Borough Council did not receive a response from the parish council anyway. Poor show parish councillors.

Nevertheless, a good result I think.

Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Get Your Skates On (Bedford Borough Council)

And now for something completely different - I'm off to Somerset and Devon for a couple of weeks. (The video may be taken down for copyright reasons.) ....

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Handbags At Dawn

You ever get the impression that you are a nuisance?

If in doubt then write to Bedford Borough Council and ask a question or two. It’s not for the faint-hearted and it will take up quite a lot of your time. And don’t expect answers or to be told that you are indeed a nuisance. The Council’s response and their tone should serve to confirm that you are though.

Here’s a recent sequence of emails initiated by me to elicit information (edited only to save space and embarrassment, and with what are intended as helpful comments contained in the square brackets).

1 April – My query:

May I ask what proposals are in train to open up the [public rights of way] network please?

Are there other proposals unconnected with opening up the network, and will any take priority over those dealing with anomalies [Council speak for unusable/unconnected paths]?

And when is it hoped that current proposals will reach the report stage [when one council officer asks another officer if an order to create, close or divert a path can be made]?

3 April – Council reply:

Thank you for this email:

I have only formally taken responsibility for this time and so it will be some time before I fully understand their workload and priorities. I will bear your comments in mind when looking at workloads etc.

4 April – My chaser:

I’m disappointed that you weren’t able to answer any of my questions and note that you didn’t give me any indication when you might do so.Therefore, may I ask again, that I be provided with the following information please?

1. What path proposals (anomalies) are in train to open up the network?

2. Are there other proposals (applications, schemes) unconnected with opening up the network, and will any take priority over those dealing with anomalies?

3. When is it hoped that the above (current) proposals will reach the report stage?

16 April – My second chaser:

I wrote to you on 1st April asking questions which it seems to me you brushed aside in your reply of 3rd April. I wrote to you again on 4th April and I have not received any response.

Regrettably, I cannot say that it’s a situation that surprises me; all too often Council officers and elected members do not respond to my letters without me having to chase a reply. It seems inexcusable to me that anyone at the Council should not respond to correspondence from the public as a matter of obvious working practice, let alone good manners and your Customer Care Response Standards policy.

I would be grateful if you would answer the questions posed in my emails of 1st and 4th April please.

16 April – Council reply:

Thank you for this email. I not been in the office recently as I have been on annual leave.

I replied to your email of 1 April and explained my position in that I am getting to understand work loads, priorities etc of the team since I became their line manager on 1 April. I will need time to look at how the team can maximise its potential and, as I stated at the LAF [Local Access Forum], to raise its profile within the Council.

I will be asking [named council officer] to provide you with the information that you require.

16 April – My response:

Your explanation regarding your position as line manager is inadequate and you neglect to give me any indication as to when you will provide me with the information that I seek. The council has a policy regarding correspondence and you don’t seem to have adhered to it. If my email to you of 4th April was received before you were absent on leave then you should have informed me of what you would or were unable to do. If my email arrived when you were absent on leave then I should have been informed automatically that you were out of office. If you are recently returned then perhaps you could have found time for an explanation.

You had warning of the Rights of Way Team’s move to Highways [Department] so I do not fully accept your reasons …..

16 April – A council Officer provides me with most of the information that I sought.

That is the end of the sequence. You will draw your own conclusions. I would like to emphasise that there were no apologies to edit out of the emails. And I would like to clarify that the Council's Rights of Way Team moved officially from one department to another but within the same directorate on 1 April. It was a move planned last year - although "notified" might be a better description than "planned". 

I'm not sure who a council officer serves; the council's elected members, its chief executive, the public, themselves or all of these? If Bedford Borough Council officers' serve the public then do they think that they do it well?

My view is that local authorities are closer than any other public body to their communities. They should understand and articulate the needs of their residents, through officers as well as local councillors. As finances become more squeezed and councils cut back to only the top priorities, community engagement will become even more important. In days like these, the support of local people and a mutual trusting relationship between councils and the residents they serve is even more important.

Thursday, 17 April 2014

Bedford Borough Council should work harder to meet its targets

The situation in Bedford Borough where many public paths cannot be used because they are obstructed is unchanged. Two years ago Bedford Borough Council endorsed a plan to open up 15 kilometres of unusable paths, using public path orders, over a four year period (Rights of Way Improvement Plan, paragraph 3.1.a). At the start of the third year (1 April 2014), not even 1 metre had been opened up. Other public path orders have been made but none which will serve to open up the public rights of way network.

That is fact.

The Council is not even trying to open up the rights of way network. Instead, it continues to concentrate on other public path orders, all of which have been objected to (there is a period after the Council has made an order when the public may object to it. That temporarily stops the process until the objections are withdrawn or the case is heard and decided by The Planning Inspectorate):

Kempston Urban Footpath No. 9 - an unnecessary diversion.

Wyboston Footpath No. A11E - an outrageous extinguishment where public money is being used in the interests of a landowner who has unlawfully obstructed a public path to prevent the public from using it.

Riseley Footpath No. 70 - a creation order linked to an extinguishment order (such orders can be made concurrently to create a path as a replacement for the other). The extinguishment order has been confirmed and the path closed forever. Somewhat unfairly, the creation order will now be abandoned so there will be no new path.

Stagsden Footpath No. 20 – an application for a diversion order which the Council had to process to enable development but which must now be abandoned and made anew because of Council incompetence. A house has now been built on the path.

Wymington Footpaths Nos 3, 4 & 5 - an application for a diversion order from Network Rail which the Council had to process but which, in my opinion, provides an unreasonably long new route. Network Rail has unlawfully closed one of the footpaths anyway.

Sharnbrook Footpath No. 2 - an application for an extinguishment order from Network Rail which the Council had to process but which, in my opinion, relies on a dangerous alternative route. Objections to the order may force Network Rail to pay for works to improve the alternative route. The Council should have required such works in the first place without objectors having to force the issue.

The public most likely would not know it but it is being short changed here. The few proposals/projects listed above plus a similar amount including those not yet fully in the public domain comprise a meagre total when compared with what could be in train.

Other targets in the Council’s improvement plan have not started either, including:

  • To quantify, identify and cost out routes which could offer benefits to reduce fragmentation through Public Path Orders. (ROWIP paragraph 3.1.b.)

  • To work with Highways to develop an action plan to improve strategic/significant road crossings and maximise access opportunities associated with management of verges. (ROWIP paragraph 3.1.c.)

Bedford Borough Council should do more to meet its published aims. Instead, the Council is considering revising its targets down.

Monday, 24 March 2014

Kempston Urban Footpath No. 9 - Update

At the end of this month, Bedford Borough Council will reach the half-way point of its four year programme (as set out in the council’s Rights of Way Improvement Plan) to open up 15 kilometres of unusable public rights of way by 2016. So far it has not opened up even one metre. Nor is it seen to be trying to. Instead, the council continues to waste time and money on other rights of way issues. And it seems to be making slow progress in doing that.
Take the issue of Kempston Urban Footpath No. 9 for example.
An 80 metre section of Kempston Urban Footpath No. 9 crosses a small, mostly public open space beside the River Great Ouse – see bold black line on the image below. Most of the land belongs to Bedford Borough Council. A small part belongs to Kempston Mill Limited.
The council has the power to make an order to divert a footpath. If no one is opposed, then the council can complete the process by confirming the order. The new route then comes into operation and the old one is extinguished.
If someone is opposed to an order, that is to say submits an objection, then the council cannot confirm it. The council can however, ask the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to confirm an opposed order. He has the power to confirm such orders but he first appoints an Inspector to deal with the case at some form of public inquiry. An Inspector can confirm an order with or without amendments or refuse to confirm an order.
The council made an order to divert part of Kempston Urban Footpath No. 9 in August 2013 - see HERE, but it is opposed. The Council has asked the Secretary of State to confirm the order (I understand with amendments because the council had not described the position of the new route correctly), and he has appointed an Inspector. However, the council has been informed that they have not carried out the diversion order procedure correctly. They must now re-advertise the diversion order with notices on site and in a local newspaper for a minimum of 28 days.
If the order is confirmed then it will not serve to open up the public rights of way network.
The part of Footpath No. 9 to be diverted has been cleared and is now available for use but the council continues to waste time and money dealing with a pointless diversion instead of trying to open up unusable paths as it has said it would.

Saturday, 8 March 2014

Wymington Footpath No. 5 - Update

Network Rail erected barriers on Wymington Footpath No. 5 to prevent the public from using the path. See blog posts 13 January, 5 February - and 17 February where I explained that I had served notice on Bedford Borough Council to secure the removal of the obstructions.

The council has the power (Highways Act 1980, section 143) to require the removal from a highway of any structure which has been set up other than under statutory powers. The procedure is simple. The council serves notice on the person having control of or possession of the structure(s). If the structures are not removed then the council may itself remove them and recover the reasonable expenses in doing so. There is no requirement to give a second warning but the council is not allowed to remove any structure until a month after the notice has been served.

Bedford Borough Council has informed me that it has served notice on Network Rail. See S130(A) FORM 3.

That’s a council step in the right direction. Possibly the first time the council has taken such a step.

Will Network Rail oblige and open the path? What will the council do if it doesn't?

Network Rail is considering posting an employee on site (on arable land in the countryside) to temporarily remove the barriers and to escort members of the public over the railway lines when walkers arrive on site, and when Network Rail’s Control Centre in Derby gives permission. I suspect that the sentry will encourage members of the public to use another route where they will unknowingly trespass on private land, and commit a criminal offence by walking along part of a footpath that has been temporarily closed under the terms of the Road Traffic Regulation Act.

On its website, Network Rail states “We own and operate Britain’s rail infrastructure.” They seem to be acting as if they own and operate public rights of way as well.

Monday, 17 February 2014

Wymington Footpath No. 5 - Highways Act 1980, Section 130A

Wymington Footpath No. 5 remains obstructed - see earlier post, so I have more formally requested that Bedford Borough Council have the obstructions removed.

Anyone walking the path would not know until they arrived at the point where the path is physically obstructed that their onward route was blocked. Realistically, they would then have to turn back. It is unlawful to obstruct a highway so there is no difference in that respect between obstructing a footpath or a road. If there is a difference otherwise then it would be the greater number of people inconvenienced by any obstructions on a road and the swifter and decisive reaction of Bedford Borough Council and others to have the obstructions removed.

Sections 130A-130D of the Highways Act 1980 enable any person to serve a notice on a local highway authority, requesting it to secure the removal of an obstruction on a public right of way. Should the authority refuse or fail to take action, the applicant can seek a Magistrates' Court order compelling the authority to act.

Here's the sequence as I understand it:

1. Complainant must serve a request notice on the highway authority, detailing the alleged obstruction and providing details of the offender if known.

2. Within one month the highway authority must serve a notice on the person named and any other persons who they believe are responsible informing that a notice has been served on the authority.

3. The highway authority must also inform the complainant advising him of the landowners they have served notice on and stating what its intention is, if any, to remove the obstruction.

4. If the highway authority fails to respond within one month or its response does not satisfy the complainant then the complainant can take his case to the magistrates' court. Before doing so the complainant must serve notice on the highway authority of his intention to do so.

5. The court will hear the case and decide whether the case meets the requirements of S130A and if so whether or not to make an order to have the obstruction removed.

Here's a copy of my letter dated 31 January where I served notice on the council:

Chief Executive
Bedford Borough Council
Cauldwell Street,
MK42 9AP                                                                                                     31 January 2014
Dear Sir,
Wymington Footpath No. 5
Notice pursuant to Section 130A(1), Highways Act 1980

I wrote to your Council on 7th January about the obstructions which have been erected either side of the railway lines on Wymington Footpath No. 5. However, I now know that the Council were aware of the obstructions before Christmas last year.

What makes these obstructions more serious is that Footpath No. 5 is subject to a diversion order (Bedford Borough Council (Wymington: Part of Footpath Nos 3, 4 and 5; Podington: Part of Footpath Nos 6 and 27) Rail Crossing Diversion Order 2013).

In my letter dated 28 January 2014, I made the strongest possible representations against the Council and Network Rail for preventing the public from walking the routes to be diverted during the course, of what now seems to be, the whole of the objection period.

When called upon to do so, the Council has not had the obstructions removed.

For this reason I now serve notice on your council, pursuant to Section 130A(1), Highways Act 1980, requesting it to secure the removal of the obstructions without delay.

I would be grateful if you would acknowledge receipt of this notice.

Yours faithfully,

Brian Cowling
OSS Local Correspondent, Bedford Borough

Form 1 pursuant to Section 130A(1), Highways Act 1980
Open Spaces Society letter dated 28 January 2014
Copy of order plan
Photo print of obstruction on northern side of railway lines

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

A Letter To A Newspaper

The Bedfordshire on Sunday newspaper published an article on 26th January about Bedford Borough Council's public rights of way performance. It began:

"A COUNCIL'S pledge to open up 15km of public footpaths by 2017 is 'aspirational' rather than binding officers have said. Bedford Borough Council set a target back in 2012 to open up 15km of blocked rights of way by 2017 but as yet hasn't reopened any of it."

I wrote a letter in response which was published (slightly edited) on 2nd February.

Here's my letter in full:

Dear Editor yourletters,

I hope that you will allow me to respond to your article (January 26, 2014 - "Pathway target is not legal but aspirational") in some way:

"Bedford Borough Council’s claim (Bedfordshire on Sunday - January 26, 2014) that its aim to open up 15km of obstructed paths by 2016 (not 2017, as reported) is “aspirational” and therefore not binding is a lame excuse for what may turn out to be a spectacular failure. The council’s objectives and targets are clearly defined in its Rights of Way Improvement Plan. “Aspiration” – hoping to achieve, does not feature in the Plan. “Target” - trying to achieve, does.

Having set targets, aims, practical actions and objectives (other descriptions in the Improvement Plan), the council has a moral duty to try to open up the rights of way network. And that should not hide the fact that the council has an explicit legal duty to keep all paths open anyway.

Nothing has been opened so far because the council hasn’t tried. It has focussed limited resources on discretionary rights of way issues rather than concentrating on its legal duties and promises.

The council relies on unnamed council officers to make excuses about what is binding or not, and it has delegated powers to council officers to make all rights of way decisions. The Portfolio Holder, Councillor Sarah-Jayne Holland who endorsed the Rights of Way Improvement Plan should admit that targets are not being met, and explain what measures will be taken to meet them."