Don’t ignore unlawful use of your land
The unlawful use of agricultural land by neighbours is a common sight in the countryside. Walk the boundaries of any field with neighbouring houses and you might see garden waste deposited over fences and gates giving access for dog walking. I have seen neighbours build bonfires, lay patios and erect washing lines, all without permission. Where there are wide field margins, these are often used by walkers and horse riders. Usually, neighbours are respectful and landowners are often inclined to tolerate these activities, provided they do not interfere with agricultural operations.
Difficulties can arise where a landowner needs to stop certain activities, perhaps in order to allow development to proceed or because the activities are damaging the land. People who are accustomed to doing certain things can be unwilling to relinquish what they perceive to be their rights, even where they know they never had permission. The trouble for landowners is that, in some cases, the law might side with the unlawful users.
Broadly, when looking at unlawful use of land, three kinds of right pose a problem. First, if a neighbour can show that he or she (together with any previous owners of his or her property) has carried out a particular activity for 20 years without permission, that property may acquire a permanent, private right to carry out that activity. Often, this applies to rights of way via gates installed in boundary fences. Secondly, if the public at large have used a route for access for 20 years without permission, a new public right of way (such as a footpath or bridleway) might be created. Thirdly, and most problematically, if a significant number of people in the locality have used the land for lawful sports or pastimes for at least 20 years, the land may be registered as a town or village green. As the litigation over the registration of Mistley Quay demonstrated, a village green need not necessarily be ‘green’.
Landowners should be vigilant about unlawful use of land and take steps to minimise the risks of neighbours or the public acquiring permanent rights. This does not mean that you must stop everyone using your land; but it would be sensible to speak to each user and give them personal, written permission (which can be revoked if necessary), to erect signs prohibiting unauthorised use and to take steps to stop use with which you are not happy.
Miles Coates is a solicitor specialising in agricultural law in the Property department at Barker Gotelee Solicitors in Suffolk.