The NFU has joined forces with the Country Land and Business Association (CLA), Countryside Alliance (CA) and Tenant Farmers Association (TFA) to write to Rural Affairs Minister Lord Gardiner calling for an amendment to the Highways Act 1980 that would enable farmers to temporarily divert public rights of way where livestock are present to improve safety.
This would help reduce the risk of serious incidents and allow farmers to operate their businesses safely and effectively. The proposal provides a temporary diversion for a limited period of time, following a short notice period with clear notices placed at either end of the route.
NFU Deputy President Stuart Roberts said:
“Sadly, we have learnt of several incidents recently in which members of the public have lost their lives. The countryside is a busy working environment, so we need to ensure that the millions of people who visit every year can continue to do so safely and responsibly. This proposed change in the law would allow farmers to quickly, easily and temporarily divert public rights of way where livestock are present to further reduce the risks.”
The existing process for permanently diverting public rights of way does not provide the flexibility to allow for temporary diversions in this way; it is complex and bureaucratic, poorly adapted to provide the necessary flexibility for agricultural operations and some Highway Authorities have backlogs of orders to process stretching out for decades.
Historically there has also been no right for a landowner to have a diversion application processed and time pressured Highway Authorities have often not acted on these. This situation will be improved with new regulations as a result of Section 23 Deregulation Act 2015 which provides for a right of appeal to the Secretary of State if a council in England does not process a diversion application or refuses to. However, the new rules will have no effect on the outcome of diversion applications. Furthermore, the cost to the landowner is also likely to increase considerably.
The NFU has been fighting for a long time for a new and more purposeful approach to the temporary diversion of public rights of way. We believe that this option provides the necessary flexibility to deal with the changing needs of modern agriculture but that also provides sufficient safeguards to satisfy the public that the rights of way network will not be adversely affected by such changes.
The NFU has worked collaboratively with the CLA to develop an amendment to the Highways Act 1980 that, if taken forward by government, will allow for temporary diversions to be put in place easily and quickly where livestock are present for the safety of the users.
Such a process would provide the necessary flexibility to ensure that farmers can make best use of their available grazing and enhance the safety of public rights of way users. In order to be successful it would also need to provide adequate safeguards for the rights of way network, so provision has been made to ensure that the alternative route offered is suitable.
If taken forward, we expect that Defra is likely to make amends to the draft proposal. Given the spate of tragic events recently, we hope improvements in safety can be made. We believe our suggested proposal offers a useful tool in the box for farmers to use in some circumstances, saving lives without detriment to the network.
Joining together to keep people safe
This idea for this proposal was sparked by a pilot scheme in Cornwall, which used permissive paths (a route landowners allow the public to use) to offer an alternative route when livestock are being grazed on the land. The temporary diversion would solve the current problems without these drawbacks, which includes existing rights of way remaining permanently open.
Although it’s an option that remains a useful tool for landowners, permissive paths are not suitable in all instances as the original route must remain open, leaving walkers exposed to potential risk. The current process for permanently diverting public rights is complex and inflexible.
Deputy president of the CLA Mark Tufnell said:
“We believe that our proposal will help save lives. There have been a number of tragic incidents recently of walkers being killed by livestock while visiting the countryside. Our priority is people’s safety, and by amending the Highways Act landowners will be empowered to take the necessary steps to protect the public.”
Head of politics at Countryside Alliance James Legge said:
“The law must recognise that the countryside is a place of work as well as recreation. The current Highways Act fails to balance the needs of farmers and land managers to raise livestock while also being able to take necessary steps to protect public safety. The proposed change in the law would enable farmers and land managers to raise livestock and protect public safety, without reducing the ability of the public to enjoy the countryside. The government needs to recognise the problem and act to ensure the law is fair and workable, and most importantly helps prevent any further tragic loss of life.”
TFA national vice chairman Robert Martin said:
“The devastating loss of life that we have experienced recently in the countryside could be prevented easily by taking the simple and reasonable approach we have outlined. We want walkers to be able to enjoy the countryside safely alongside farmers going about their day-to-day business.”
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