Friday, 1 April 2016

Bedford Borough Public Rights of Way - Good news?

Bedford Borough Council is to buck the national (English and Welsh) trend of cutting public rights of way budgets. I’m very pleased to say that there are plans to allocate new funds in order to form a small Definitive Map Team.

The Council currently employs one temporary definitive map officer on a short-term contract following the recent resignation of the full time officer. The temporary officer’s contract ends this month.

News of the new team has not been broadcast generally because the posts are ring-fenced to current Council employees. But it is expected to be formally announced shortly when the posts will be more widely advertised and open to all.

A source at Borough Hall has told me that the Council had quietly accepted that it had not been properly carrying out it its legal duties to protect our public rights of way, that some councillors had been making a noise because they wanted to see progress in reaching targets set out in the Council’s Rights of Way Improvement Plan, and that they wanted council officers to work urgently to catch up with the Council’s duties which affect the Definitive Map and Statement, whilst acknowledging that the current staffing levels made the task impossible. The Definitive Map and Statement is the legal record of public rights of way which the Council, as the Surveying Authority, has the legal duty to maintain.

The new team’s priority will be to carry out the research necessary to find and record all public rights of way in the Borough. There is no Definitive Map and Statement for the inner part of Bedford, which in this context is known as “The Excluded Area”, despite the Council having the legal duty to publish one. And it is known that there are unrecorded rights of way elsewhere in the Borough, which will be lost forever if not recorded before the Government’s “Cut-off date” on 1 January 2026.

It is likely that the Council will impose a moratorium on the processing of new applications from landowners wanting to divert or extinguish footpaths and bridleways. This would allow the new team to concentrate on its legal duty to consolidate (periodically legally update) the Definitive Map and Statement which the Council had promised it would do by December 2014, and to clear the backlog of current applications some of which have been in progress for years. My source said that a new team would allow more time for other rights of way officers (all part time) to take a stronger stance and enforcement in cases where footpaths were obstructed because they had not been reinstated after cultivation.

This will be a feather in Mayor Dave’s cap and of the Deputy Mayor’s, Councillor Charles Royden, who is the Portfolio Holder responsible for public rights of way in Bedford Borough, although some may think that it is a politically motivated move rather than a love of footpaths.

Good news eh? Or is it wishful thinking? Or is it today’s date?

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