No cabinet rethink over Norfolk’s footpath maintenance

Opposition councillors have failed to force a rethink of a controversial decision to cut back on routine footpath maintenance – but have secured a review of the new regime in nine months.

Norfolk County Council's ruling cabinet agreed earlier this month to stop the proactive cutting of the county's 2,355-mile network of public rights of way in order to save �578,000.

Instead, the authority wants to use a more reactive approach to clear overgrown paths when reported by walkers or parish councils, while using a more efficient enforcement regime to ensure landowners meet their own duties to clear obstructions and reinstate cross-field tracks after ploughing.

The decision was called in to the council's cabinet scrutiny committee yesterday by three Lib Dem councillors who fear the authority could fail its statutory responsibilities under the Highways Act.

They said the policy also exposed the council to legal action if anyone suffered an accident on an unmaintained path.

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But cabinet member Bill Borrett dismissed those concerns as 'scaremongering' and said the reactive approach was already in place across 40pc of the network, and would enable the council to meet its obligations while making a more efficient and focused use of public money.

The committee voted against a motion to send the decision back to the cabinet for reconsideration, but agreed instead to review the effectiveness of the new regime after nine months.

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Mr Borrett, Norfolk's portfolio holder for environment, said: 'In my opinion there is a lot of scaremongering going on. I think what we have here is a framework for protecting Norfolk's rights of way and I'm quite happy that framework will make sure we meet our statutory responsibilities.

'It is just a difference in the maintenance regime and to say we are not maintaining the network any more is incorrect, and it is also incorrect to say we will be encouraging people to sue us. We will pick up work that we think is a reasonable response to the council's duties.

'If a track is not passable and it is the county council's responsibility because there is vegetation growing on the footpath and it is not something like a fallen tree which belongs to the landowner, then it will be cleared.

'We are not proposing the council goes out on a limb and abandons its responsibilities.'

Mark Allen, the council's assistant director of environment, said the proposal was to implement the reactive approach already used across 40pc of the rights of way network – although he conceded this could raise the risk of litigation.

'We are not doing no maintenance – we are doing reactive maintenance when the need arises,' he said. 'For most of the network we are already in this situation, so this is nothing new. As we reduce the maintenance we do increase the risk but the council has to decide the balance of that against the gain of meeting its budgetary requirements.'

Mr Borrett said: 'Just because the risk has been increased, it does not make it an unacceptable risk.

'A lot of people are using footpaths under this regime already so we are not going into a Domesday scenario where we are constantly fighting legal actions. This is a proportionate and reasonable response to the issues that the county council is facing. It is an acceptable regime and I hope the people of Norfolk will help us to keep the network open.'

James Joyce, one of the councillors who called the decision before the committee, said the council was 'placing itself in a very precarious position' by opening itself up to legal challenges and litigation.

Another, Mervyn Scutter, said: 'The paper says we're not going to have an inspection regime in some rural areas for five years, and surely no court would regard a danger resulting from that as not being a reasonably forseeable danger. The cabinet paper did not give that kind of clarity that we need to make sure we don't fall foul of litigation.'

Other committee members questioned the legal definition of words like 'passable' and 'reasonable' and whether the potentially-heightened risk of litigation had been discussed with insurers.

David Lowens, a specialist highways solicitor working with the council, said: 'If someone is injured on one of these paths, the first question is whether the path was dangerous. Secondly, if it was not reasonably safe, could the council be reasonably aware of that danger? If we could not have been reasonably aware of it, it is unreasonable to say we should have rectified it. If it is not reasonably safe and we should have known about it, then there is a problem.'

Mr Borrett told the committee that parish councils would not be asked to pay the cost of clearing overgrown paths, but said he hoped they would use their local knowledge to report any problems in the same way they would with road issues.'

?Charles Boldero, who has submitted country walks to the EDP for 25 years and was interviewed in a feature on the footpath maintenance debate in Saturday's EDP, died on Saturday. See page 30 of today's EDP for more.

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