vehicles on countryside rights of way are outlined in a public
consultation launched today by rural affairs minister Alun Michael.
by the use of mechanically propelled vehicles - including motorbikes,
quad bikes and 4x4s - whose users can currently claim rights of way
for such vehicles on the basis that the routes were historically
employed by horse-drawn carriages.
Alun Michael said: 'The way we use our public rights of way has
changed dramatically over the past hundred years.
'The use made of them today is often inconsistent with the uses for
which they were originally established - in many cases long before
the internal combustion engine was invented. Over time, the process
for acquiring rights for the use of modern vehicles has also become
inappropriate and unsustainable.
'I am acutely aware of the concern shared by members of the public,
and from conservation and recreation organisations, about evidence of
damage to fragile tracks and other aspects of our natural and
'These proposals now aim to balance the interests of individuals and
organisations with appropriate protection for the tranquility and
conservation value of the countryside.'
A public right of way can be established through historical
documentary sources, on the basis of long public use of a route, or
through express dedication. The Road Traffic Act 1930 made it a
criminal offence to drive a motor vehicle on a footpath, bridleway,
or elsewhere than on a road, which means that while some pre-1930
vehicular rights may have been acquired through motor vehicle use
most were acquired through use by horse and cart. Similarly, express
dedication of rights of way for vehicles largely arose before
mechanically propelled vehicles were in common use.
The consultation focus es on three main areas:
- The better enforcement of existing powers to manage vehicle use;
- A limit to the basis on which new rights of way may be acquired for
mechanically propelled vehicles, and
- An end to the situation whereby historic use by horse-drawn
vehicles, or dedications made before the existence of the internal
combustion engine, can give rise to a right of use by modern
mechanically propelled vehicles. This will provide greater
certainty about the public vehicular rights that exist.
New legislation would utilise the category of 'restricted byway',
introduced by the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000, to prevent
future use by non-mechanically vehicles giving rise to rights for
mechanically propelled vehicles.
The legislation would, with some exceptions, also introduce a cut-off
date a year from commencement, from when it would no longer be
possible to establish a 'byway open to all traffic' on the evidence
of past use by non-mechanically propelled vehicles.
Earlier government action towards addressing these problems has
included strengthening section 34 of the Road Traffic Act - so that
the burden of proof that vehicular rights exist now rests with the
defence, rather than the prosecution - and extending the scope of the
Act to include all mechanically propelled vehicles, since the legal
definition of a 'motor vehicle' did not cover some commonly used
vehicles including off-road bikes and quad bikes.
The new proposals also take account of the government's decision not
to proceed with implementation of the new section 34A of the Road
Traffic Act 1988. This had sought to limit the circumstances in which
a defence could be offered against the charge of driving on certain
rights of way, but now has been rejected because of its
incompatibility with European human rights legislation.
In its place, the consultation proposals acknowledge this as part of
a wider problem a nd take a more direct approach to the root of the
The consultation will run until 19 March 2004. The full consultation
document is published here.
1. Public rights of way include:
- footpaths, which give right of way on foot only;
- bridleways, which give right of way to horse riders, those leading
a horse, cyclists and pedestrians. The latter two must give way to
- roads used as public paths, which are highways other than a public
path, used mainly for the purposes for which footpaths or
bridleways are used;
- restricted byways, which give right of way on foot, horseback, to
those leading a horse, and to vehicles which are not mechanically
propelled, including cycles; and
- byways open to all traffic, which give public right of way for
vehicular traffic and all other kinds of traffic, but are used
mainly for the purposes for which footpaths and bridleways are used
2. The category known as 'roads used as public paths' does not
explicitly identify whether vehicular rights are available. Local
authorities were required by the Countryside Act 1968, and then the
Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, to reclassify each RUPP as either
a byway open to all traffic, bridleway or footpath, according to the
rights which could be proved to exist. However this exercise has not
been completed in the majority of cases, and to end uncertainty RUPPs
will be replaced by the new category of restricted byways, which
provide clarity on the precise rights available.
3. Powers under the Road Traffic Act 1988, Police Reform Act 2002,
Powers of Criminal Courts (Sentencing) Act 2000, Countryside and
Rights of Way Act 2000, and Road Traffic Regulation Act 1984, are
available to deal with vehicles using rights of way illegally,
anti-socially or, in sensitive areas, harmfully.
4. Penalti es for offences under section 34 of the Road Traffic Act
carry a maximum fine of level 3 on the standard scale, which is
currently £1,000. Under section 28P(6) of the Wildlife and
Countryside Act 1981, intentional or reckless damage to the features
of a Site of Special Scientific Interest is liable for a fine of up
to £20,000 in magistrate's court, or an unlimited fine in a higher