Public Rights of Way
Essex County Council as the highway authority has a statutory duty to record and keep public rights of way open.
Public rights of way are predominately rural routes through the countryside. They are all a type of highway and came about through historic usage as routes for farm workers to get to their places of work, for people walking to church or to schools and as tracks to drive livestock to markets. These days they are mostly used for leisure purposes.
They all pass through privately owned land, which is often working farmland so the County Council work closely with the landowners to keep the routes accessible.
Most of these rights of way are rural or form access to rural areas, and so the standard of maintenance would be very basic; ensuring they are safe whilst at the same time protecting the rights of the public to enjoy a rural environment.
Types of Right of Way
There are four types of right of way which have different access rights. Each is maintained with these public rights in mind.
A footpath is a highway over which the public has a right of way on foot only.
A bridleway is a highway over which the public has a right of way on foot, horseback and on all types of bicycle.
A byway open to all traffic (BOAT) is a highway over which the public has a right of way on foot, horseback or bicycle and by vehicle of all kinds, including horse-drawn and motorised vehicles.
A restricted byway
A restricted byway allows right of way on foot, on horseback, riding a bicycle or using any other vehicle that is not mechanically propelled, for example a horse and carriage.
Public Rights of Way serving as access to private property or land
Some of our rights of way network serve as access to properties. The County Council are obliged to ensure that the surface of the right of way is safe and suitable for the public users but are not responsible for making good damage or wear and tear on paths that has been caused by those exercising their private rights. The County Council is also not responsible for providing access suitable for the private rights. For instance, if a public footpath or bridleway forms vehicular access to land or property, we have no duty to ensure it is suitable for vehicles, because a public footpath or bridleway carries no public vehicular rights.
In such instances, residents or landowners possessing private rights for vehicular access are entitled to make this access useable for their purposes, but all works must be approved in advance by us, and only suitable contractors may be used, because the right of way is a highway.
Some public rights of way are also ‘private streets’, which are public highways which must be maintained privately, i.e. by the residents.
Essex County Council maintenance responsibilities
We carry out a number of actions to ensure that Public Rights of Way are kept in good order. We undertake to:
- Put fingerposts where paths leave a road
- Waymark path junctions
- Install and repair bridges over waterways
- Maintain the vegetation upgrowth on routes so as not to cause an impassable obstruction (except cross field paths through arable crops where the landowner has a responsibility)
- Repair surfaces
- Remind landowners to keep hedgerows clear from overhanging and obstructing passage along a PROW
- Ensure that the landowner keeps their stiles and gates in good repair and are easy to use
Fingerposts and waymarkers
Fingerposts are erected where a path leaves a road. Waymarkers are shorter posts with circular disks that direct walkers at junctions with other paths. Where defects are logged regarding either of these they are treated as a low priority and will be repaired or replaced as part of a local planned programme of works. Typically each parish is surveyed in full once every 5 years, when all defects will be picked up by our inspection team and jobs raised to replace and repair items as necessary.
Bridges that carry PROW are not always the responsibility of the PROW team, sometimes they are within private ownership and we will need to work with the owners to ensure the public’s safe passage.
If the bridge is over 8m in length they are managed by our Structures team and will require a fully engineered solution. Depending on the nature of the issue, we may need to close the PROW over the structure to ensure your safety until we are in a position to fix the problem. This can take a significant time from design to completion on the ground and requires significant funding.
Bridges smaller than 8m are more easily repaired or replaced but may still require a short term closure and may take up to 12 weeks to fix.
Cutting and clearance of vegetation upgrowth
We undertake an annual programme cutting the natural seasonal upgrowth on our PROW network which is undertaken between April and October.
We deliver this service through the following schemes:
Maintenance Teams have an established annual cutting programme, which allows for the most cost-effective programming of routine work. Visit our Highways Information Map to see whether the paths near you are on our schedule. These paths will be cut during June and July, as conditions permit.
Where cutting is requested on a path not contained in the programme an assessment will be made on site as to whether it should be added to future programmes or cut on an ad hoc basis, please report this online.
We also support Community Schemes to cut vegetation.
- Parish councils are able to enter into a service level agreement with us to maintain the vegetation on their priority routes. We support the parishes through a grant payment.
- Community groups volunteer through the Parish Paths Partnership scheme to clear seasonal upgrowth. See our Volunteering page for more information.
- Over 75 farmers and landowners also cut paths on their land or land within their control under the headland management scheme.
See which parishes are cutting under a service level agreement or who is volunteering under the Parish Paths Partnership scheme.
Surface repairs or improvements
We are responsible for the surface condition of Public Rights of Way. We aim to maintain them in keeping with their rural nature and to a standard that allows members of the public to pass safely.
Drainage problems often lead to surface issues on PROW and the causes of waterlogging on the path can be very complex and sometimes occur only seasonally. These issues will be monitored and investigated, sometimes over several months before action is taken to resolve them. Where a path is regularly muddy or waterlogged, the first consideration will look at enabling the water to drain or evaporate. Often, a path surface will dry out if the vegetation around it is cleared and this is likely to be the first step that you see us take to resolve the problem before we look at altering the surface to improve drainage.
If the solution is to add hard surfacing material over long lengths of the path, then often funding will need to be sought before any action can be taken. Funding comes available in an annual cycle and all schemes are prioritised according to a score given to them through our Asset Management Matrix.
We are not responsible for maintaining a path for private rights nor are they responsible for fixing damage caused by those exercising private rights. For example, where cars using a bridleway to access residential property, have created potholes, it is for the landowner to make good the surface.
Gates and stiles
Gates and stiles are erected by landowners for the purpose of preventing the ingress or egress of animals on land in use or being brought in to use for agriculture, forestry, and the breeding or keeping of horses. They should be either licenced by us or have been accepted as a limitation of the highway by virtue or their existence when the right came into being.
The law does not allow for the provision of gates and stiles in other circumstances, eg they are not allowed when a landowner or householder makes an application simply to secure their boundaries. In this situation, either a gap should be left in the boundary fencing or the farmer/owner may seek a diversion at their own expense.
These access structures should be kept in good condition. Any poorly maintained or difficult to use structures can be reported online. Our Inspection team will then liaise with the landowner to improve the situation which may result in complete removal of the structure or replacement with a safer or more easily accessible one.
We will work with landowners to ensure that the PROW network is as accessible as possible, looking to make all new structures the least restrictive possible, for example stiles can be limiting to people with mobility issues and so the authority generally insists on a kissing gate as a minimum. The highway authority is empowered to replace existing structures with less restrictive ones by agreement with the landowner/occupier.