Are Lancashire's age-old footpaths running out of road?

Are the signs good for Lancashire's historic routes?
Are the signs good for Lancashire's historic routes?
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Applications to have historic rights of way recognised in Lancashire are being dismissed “on the whim” of government-appointed planning inspectors.

That was the message from a Lancashire county councillor and member of the region’s Public Rights of Way Forum, which was discussing the latest proposed modifications to the so-called “definitive map”.

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The document demarcates all public footpaths, bridleways and byways in the area. But it is an ever-evolving piece of work - with claims regularly made for forgotten routes to be added to it.

County Coun Cosima Towneley, who represents the Burnley rural division, condemned the wasted effort which can be put in by those researching the routes - only for some applications to be rejected.

“People work very hard, often over many years, to gather the necessary evidence and then it gets chucked out by the Planning Inspectorate. When we have the evidence...it shouldn’t be able to be thrown out on the whim of an inspector,” County Coun Townley said.

She won support for a call to write to the Inspectorate outlining the forum’s concerns.

Chris Peat, a committee member representing horse riders, added that she would “question the training” of the people making the decisions.

“People have no idea how much work is involved for the applicant - it is a stupid and laborious system even before it gets to the Inspectorate,” she added.

“It involves legal people coming out and taking statements. A recent application took [the equivalent of] six working days [to submit].”

Local authorities can make orders to update the definitive map, but only if no objections are raised to an individual proposal. Otherwise, the decision rests with an inspector who will decide whether, “on the balance of probabilities”, the existence of a right of way has been demonstrated.

There are currently 101 applications for modification orders lodged with Lancashire County Council - almost half of which have been the subject of objections.

The forum also heard concern that time was running out for the map to be updated with historical routes - because of plans to “freeze” it in 2026.

Committee chair Richard Toon said that a “sword of Damocles” was hanging over those with an interest in the issue.

“It worries me that we have this deadline rapidly approaching - particularly with the speed of the [process],” he said. “We can’t then come back and look at things that were wrong fifty or a hundred years ago.”

Rights of Way officer Steve Williams told the meeting that the 2026 cut-off date - which will extinguish any undocumented rights of way which existed prior to 1949 - had been expected to prompt a flurry of applications for map modifications, but that they hadn’t materialised.

He added that Lancashire had learned nothing from the “Lost Ways” project, launched by the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) back in the 2000s.

“DEFRA realised, to their horror, that this all takes a lot of time - and you are reliant on volunteers,” Mr Williams said.

A spokesperson for the Planning Inspectorate said: “Inspectors are appointed by the Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to make decisions on public rights of way casework in line with the principles of openness, fairness and impartiality. Inspectors make their decisions strictly on the evidence before them, taking account of legislation, case law and Government policy and guidance.

“Inspectors are appointed for their professional knowledge, experience and skills. They undergo rigorous and on-going training to ensure that their knowledge of public rights of way casework, and their decision-writing skills are comprehensive and up to date.”