On the 12th of April 2012 the Daily Mail printed the following; “But stiles could soon be removed on Dartmoor – after ramblers claim some walkers are becoming too fat to get over them“. Many of the other national newspapers carried similar stories and very soon the topic became a national talking point. On the 16th of April BBC’s Jeremy Vine show hosted a phone-in on the subject and he actually commented on the large number of phone, text and email responses that had been recieved – obviously a contentious issue.
It is seldom that I have any sympathy with the Dartmoor National Park Authority but on this occasion it seems that they have caught the rough end of the stick and fallen foul of the media. At the April committee meeting the National Park’s policy for “Gaps, Gates & Stiles on Public Rights of Way‘ was discussed and a draft policy approved, (a pdf of the report can be found by following the link opposite). As head of Recreation, Access and Estates, Andrew Watson provided a background to the policy and probably the most important points as far as the media coverage went were numbers 1.5 and 4.2. The first one notes; “Many people such as those with limited mobility and families with pushchairs, find path structures (particularly stiles) a barrier to gaining access to and enjoying the countryside.” Then he states in 4.5; “The aim of this policy is to increase accessibility to the countryside for those with limited mobility…”. There is no mention specifically here of obese, overweight or fat people which were the terms that the majority of the media picked up on and headlined. Now it could be argued that the phrase ‘limited mobility‘ could apply in such circumstances but given the benefit of the doubt it’s more applicable to the disabled, elderly and people with pushchairs etc. Having read many of the remarks on the various comments sections of various websites, blogs etc (including my own) it is amazing the apparent dislike and distain for obese people. The sad thing about this aspect of the topic is that it has overshadowed many of the critical concerns of the policy.
It appears that this policy had to conform with various major directives and legislations; The Dartmoor National Park Authority’s ‘Recreation and Access Strategy, the ‘Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000,’ DEFRA’s ‘Good Practice Guidance for Local Authorities on compliance with the Equality Act 2010′, the ‘Equality Act 2010‘, the ‘Highways Act 1980‘ and the ‘British Standard on Gaps, Gates and Stiles‘ to name but a few. Accordingly the consultation process involved the Dartmoor National Park Authority’s Social Inclusion Group, their Ranger Team, Park Management Working Panel, Devon County Council’s Public Rights of Way Department, the Dartmoor Access Forum, the Recreation Sub Group of the Dartmoor Commoners Council plus Uncle Tom Cobley and All.
So now to try and make sense of the policy without using the normal jargon such as ‘field furniture‘ which I thought was frowned upon as the authority demanded the removal of the ‘Giant’s Chair‘. In the case of Dartmoor it appears that there are two distinct types of public access land, there is the normal footpaths and bridleways which run across smaller areas of enclosed land and then the open access areas that includes large tracts of open moor, woods, etc. The Dartmoor National Park Authority has an agreement with Devon County Council which states the authority; ‘protects and asserts the rights of the public to the use and enjoyment of public rights of way within the national park‘. This also includes the responsibility for maintaining and enforcing the majority of rights of way within the park. In most cases stiles and gates are built for the ‘convenience‘ of the landowner and are not deemed as part of the highway. Strictly speaking it should be the landowner’s responsibility to ensure the upkeep of any of these on their land although they can claim back at least 25% of any ‘reasonable‘ cost. However, in reality the Authority have previously provided, maintained and funded all rights of way ‘furniture‘. The Authority also have ‘discretionary‘ powers which enables them to authorise the building of gates and stiles along rights of way where deemed fit. These powers are normally brought into force where land is used or about to be used for agricultural purposes that necessitates the use of gates or stiles for livestock control.
Having said that the Authority are powerless to insist that any existing stiles are replaced by gates and in such a case the change will be achieved by; ‘negotiation or incentive‘. Where such an instance arises the Authority will try to get and agreement with the landowner that uses the; ‘least restrictive option‘. This means that initially they will attempt to get an agreement for a ‘gap’. If this fails because of the need for stock control the next preferred option is a field or hand gate, both with latches if on a bridleway. On a footpath the ideal option would be a ‘kissing gate’ where a normal gate was not practical, ever tried getting a pushchair through a kissing gate? In the ‘exceptional‘ situation where due to gradients or ground conditions etc, all of the above options are impractical then a stile would be considered.
Thankfully there is provision in the policy for where; ‘structures may be of local historical or cultural interest’, in this case, ‘local distinctiveness will need to be balanced with the needs of people with limited mobility‘. There are dotted around the moor many designs of old stiles which have great historical value and would fall into the above category, one such example can be seen opposite.
It has been proposed that where any stiles are replaced with gates or gaps or where gates have been repaired the Authority will, in normal circumstances cover the costs. If however any existing stiles need repairing and the Authority consider it should be replaced by a ‘less restrictive option‘ but the landowners refuse then the repair cost come down to them.
If a landowner ever wanted to put a new structure across a footpath or bridleway to; ‘prevent the ingress or egress of animals‘, (why not just say ‘movement’?) then the Authority has the right to allow or disallow such action. It is also stated that any new structures must be for ‘legitimate agricultural purposes’ only and must be of the ‘least restrictive option‘. Additionally only one structure per field will be allowed in order to reduce the inconvenience caused to the public.
So what guidelines are set to define the, ‘least restrictive option‘? Well, believe it or not these are laid out in ‘The British Standard BS5709:2006 – (ISBN 0 580 48107 7)’ which lays down the eight ‘golden rules’, the simplified bones of which have been taken from The Pittecroft Organisation’s on-line source found – HERE:
Rule 1: – The Least Restrictive Option – [3.1][3.1.3].
The selection of a gap, gate or stile, which permits people to use a path crossing a field boundary such as a hedge fence or stone wall, shall result in as little restriction as possible for potential users, while meeting the actual agricultural needs of the landowners (principle of least restrictive option).
Rule 2: Reasonableness – [3.1.2].
Except where a gap is chosen, an assessment of reasonableness of putting a structure across a path must be made This basically means is there any other possible option to avoid the placing of ‘field furniture’ such as diverting livestock movement paths thus negating the need for such a structure.
Rule 3: Manoeuvring Space – [4.3.e , 4.4.e, 4.5.d].
It appears that this was hard to actually define when the guidelines were originally set out but basically refers to the fact that with any gate or fixed structure it should allow enough clear space for people to open, pass through and close. This must accommodate people with disabilities and any conveyance they may be using, people with pushchairs and in the case of bridleways, horse riders. Therefore it can now be seen how hard it would be to define an actual size specification due the variety of users.
Rule 4: Location of Structures – [4.1.6].
At vehicular roads, structures must be set back at least four metres from the (usually metalled) carriageway. The exception being any footpath which probably will not be used by the public and does continue on the other side of the road. In this case the structure can be set back two metres.
Rule 5: Continuous and on going Satisfaction – [4.1.8].
This states that once a structure has been put in place and conforms to the set standards it must always be maintained to that level.
Rule 6: – Ground – [4.1.5].
Ground within two metres of the structure to be free of surface water and provide a firm surface. There is an allowance for the period following rain although these is defined as ‘immediately after’?.
Rule 7: – Barbed Wire Etc – [4.1.1].
No barbed wire, electric fence etc within one metre of the structure or the manoeuvring space.
Rule 8: – Protrusions. [4.1.2.] [4.1.3] [4.1.4].
No protrusions likely to catch clothes or cause injury. This means that any protruding edges must have a radius of no more than 2mm or be chamfered to a minimum of 3mm. Additionally protruding finger posts or guide posts must comply with other requirements as do the possible hazards caused by gate latches or other structural moving parts.
In the case of ‘Open Access Land’ the Authority is ‘responsible for managing and implementing the right of access‘ and the policy states that they will always specify that all ‘furniture’ adheres to the ‘least restrictive option’. This means where possible only one means of access will be allowed on each parcel of access land as with adjoining land parcels where there are two linked access points. In every such case the means of entry will be via a gap or gate. The exceptions to this will be where there is a ‘lengthy boundary‘ such as found in some of the larger newtakes etc and stiles will be allowed. Any existing ladder stiles on access land will be allowed to remain in-situ but will when necessary be replaced by ones of an ‘improved design standard‘.
Where landowners are not conforming to the new policy it has been laid out that there will be a site visit at which the Authority’s representative will conduct a ‘face to face’ meeting in order to reach a mutually agreeable resolution. A record of the discussion will be made noting any agreed actions and a timescale for their completion. Should no agreement with regards to an obstruction to a right of way be made then the Authority will invoke the powers of the 1980 Highways Act – section 143. This empowers them to remove any obstacle and recover all reasonable cost incurred from the landowner. In certain circumstances this may also be deemed as committing a criminal offence then under section 137 of the Highways Act a prosecution may also take place.
Perhaps now it can be seen the exaggeration and misrepresentation placed on the Dartmoor National Park Authority by certain parts of the media (although it pains me to say this). However, leaving the non-PC and possible discriminatory aspects of this saga to one side there are some practical flaws in this policy. Firstly from a livestock farmers point of view, it is all well and good to have gates providing people bother to shut them which is seldom. Who will be responsible for rounding up the stock that have found ‘egress‘ from an open gate? Secondly, due to the very nature of gate hanging it is never possible to maintain a gate latch that easily opens. After time gate posts may sink thus placing a greater amount of pressure on the latch, consequently some people will not be strong enough to lift the gate in order to open the latch. This would result in two things, such a person being unable to gain easy access and/or people climbing over the gate which after time may cause damage. Thirdly imagine the scenario where a disable person gained access to a field (which previously had a stile they could not get over) thanks to the newly installed gate and that field held a herd of young cattle. Having gained access to the field and made their way halfway across the cattle decide to stampede towards them, how will they manage to extract themselves from such a situation?
Last week I visited Bellever and parked the car by Cherrybrook Bridge in order to follow the footpath up to Lakehead Hill. According to the new policy this footpath had the recommended access, namely a gate which would have allowed access to any walker and also a family with a pushchair or a person in a wheelchair. However, there would be no way a pushchair or wheelchair would have got beyond three metres of the gate due to the deep rutted footpath. So had this been a stile what would have been the point of replacing it with ‘furniture‘ of ‘least restrictive access‘ because anyone with ‘limited mobility‘ would not be able to go any further. Take a look below and decide for yourself, would you want to navigate that with a pushchair etc?
This is but one example of numerous other similar access points across Dartmoor but according to the new policy it is non-compliant. Incidentally there is a sign on that gate saying about the ponies that are grazing there and when you reach the top of the footpath there is another gate leading into the plantation where the ponies are actually grazing. The gate latch has broken and could easily swing open thus allowing the ponies to ‘egress‘ – they couldn’t with a stile !!!
So there you have it and I now have a headache from trawling through policy documents and numerous other legislations and guidelines. Should you wish to read the entire policy then it can be found at the link opposite. My sympathy goes out to poor Mr Watson who was charged with formulating the new policy, it must have been an extreme juggling act having to satisfy the needs of the public, their Human Rights, the myriad of legislations and guidelines, the Dartmoor landowners, the Dartmoor National Park Authority and anyone else who has an interest. A task not made easier by the various media folk, maybe this will address the balance a bit – not too much though, we are talking about the D.N.P.A.