The Definitive Map 2026; a questionable law?
For people with an interest in walking, or more specifically our right to be able to walk where we have in the past, January 2026 is an important date. To someone like myself, an ambling ‘hedge poker’ along arcane byways, tracks and green lanes, the Definitive Map legislation could stop some of this activity.
The Definitive map is being created by all local authorities as a legal record of all public rights of way in their specified area. The collation and recording of these routes are the responsibility of the local authority, but it relies on the public to inform them of their existence if originally missed off. Full details can be found here.
So when 2026 rolls along, if a route you have used all your life is not registered on the Definitive Map it will be lost; maybe it’s that ginnel or snicket you cut through to the shop or pub, or the shortcut to the football pitch that your father showed you, or the 3000-year-old lane, in legal terms still a highway, slowly disappearing under the plough. Your right to use them will be lost, and you could face a civil prosecution if you carry on traversing them, although in all likelihood at some point after 2026 the landowner will block them.
A complete mess but…
It is not the intention of this article to discuss the actions to be taken – see the links further down this article if interested – although taking photographs of paths and byways might one day help,. I want to question the principle of going through with this legislation in the first place.
I suspect this legislation was greeted with enthusiasm in some quarters – and not just the landowners – as some people thought that finally we would get it clear where we could walk and no one would stop us.
The imposed artificial cutoff date, 2026, (it was 2016), is drawing closer with little resources available to it, or the general public having been alerted to it. It might seem a long way away, but it can take many years to complete the legal procedures to get a route finally accepted by all parties. (Nothing like having a good idea (?) and setting a date for its completion without thinking through the scale of the operation). Local authorities had to allocate scarce resources – in a time of reducing budgets – to work on the project, which they did. We now find that the latest round of staff cuts have reduced those limited resources available for an ever increasing backlog of cases.
‘once a highway always a highway’
Enshrined in planning law, case law and many other statutes, ‘once a highway’ sets out our rights, something we have that cannot be taken away without an agreement. Can this fundamental principle be eradicated by statute? and if it is, should we not have a full and supported discussion, like for example, the current leave or remain EU debate. Remember it is for the public to find these routes and register them, but if the public is not aware of the legislation, how can they possibly be expected to do it.
Does the law support the ‘once a highway’ principle? Or has something else eroded it which is far more important, the right to quiet enjoyment of your private property? A quick walk around an area with a map and history book will reveal how many highways no longer exist, having disappeared under ancient or dubious circumstances. In truth, this principle was probably lost many years ago, ignored by the powerful and oblivious to the many. It seems likely that the Definitive Map will travel the same route, it will reduce rights and not add to them.
The history of the countryside has a storyline of continually restricting access, be it the Enclosure Acts over many centuries, the 1836 and 1936 Tithe Act, or the Public Rights of Way Act 1932 to name but a few. The legislation was about establishing boundaries, creating taxation values and establishing private ownership, the by-product was where we could walk, and by implication, it identified where we could not walk.
The Definitive Map is at the very least taking away some hope that one day we will be able to access the countryside as in the past, beyond the narrowly confined strips on the edges. European countries have a different perspective on land access;
Why do we want to list all the public rights of way or more likely remove ones that are unclear, when the net ‘benefit’ is to simply enhance land prices. If a piece of land has a public footpath on it, or potentially a right of way, it is worth less. Land has become an asset; the field is no longer judged by what income can be generated from farming, but by its long term asset value and the gain attached to it. The removal of future claims for public rights of way across the land will improve the balance sheet.
Therefore what benefit do the public get from assisting in the escalation of land prices? None. Surely far better to direct energies towards getting landowners to accept the values of a modern plural society, rather than allowing them to continually attempt to exert their manorial rights. Land ownership in this country is highly subsidised by the taxpayer, yet we get little in return.
As an inhabited country, we have roamed this land for at least 10000 years. The current epoch that has severely restricted our access to the countryside is only 400 hundred years old . The Definitive Map legislation states that there is no going back – therefore we are creating something that will impact on all subsequent generations. Will we be held responsible for not protecting their rights and heritage through either this complacency or greed?
Interestingly no group is yet demanding the obvious; stop the Definitive Map coming into existence. All ‘conservation’, and countryside ‘access’ groups are trying to get the public’s attention to help get the definitive map completed. This has ability to turn into a shambles – something that might have had a noble sentiment originally will probably do the opposite. When the first group declares its total opposition will be a day to celebrate; if only for the fact that we will have a genuine debate, and the powers that be will be forced to dedicate more resources, and a clearer head, to the problem.
For further information visit the following;
A few photographs of routes I use; not on the Definitive Map, or subject to a current lengthy process to get them on.