Public Rights of Way during the Coronavirus
As the weather improves, and with little else for people to do, we can expect to see public rights of way being used more intensively in the coming weeks. Landowners will understandably be concerned that this will increase the spread of the Coronavirus, particularly in places where large groups are using rights of way, or where the paths are near to houses or working farmyards.
Although the public must comply with the new restrictions on movement, the government has been clear that public rights of way in England remain open, and many people will choose to use them when taking their permitted daily exercise. The Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 and the BPS regime have not been changed by the emergency laws, and when it comes to public rights of way, landowners should remember the following:
- It is an offence to obstruct a public right of way and you can be fined for doing so. It will not be an excuse to say that the obstruction was designed to minimise the spread of the Coronavirus.
- It is a breach of the cross compliance conditions to obstruct a public right of way and you could lose some or all of your 2020 BPS claim.
- It is an offence to put up signs which deter the public from using rights of way. If you put up signs relating to the Coronavirus, you must take care that you do not inadvertently commit this offence. NFU Members can obtain approved signs from the members’ area of the NFU website.
It is perfectly acceptable to put up signs reminding people that they are passing through a garden or a working farm, and asking them to take care to observe social distancing as they cross your land. Where possible, you may wish to leave gates open, to reduce the risk of transmission by people touching them.
It is also acceptable to create alternative paths, further away from buildings and yards, and to put up signs inviting the public to use those alternative paths in order to reduce the spread of the Coronavirus. You must not discourage them from using the original path, but you can offer the alternative route and explain that it is to help maintain social distancing. You should make sure that the alternative route is safe for all the lawful uses that apply to the existing path.
Miles Coates is a solicitor specialising in agricultural law in the Property department at Barker Gotelee Solicitors in Suffolk.