In the past, landowners could use public rights of way to provide ‘permissive access’ over the land for the benefit of local residents to use for walking, cycling or horse riding, for example. This was so that it came within Countryside Stewardship Schemes run by Defra and managed by Natural England.
Permissive access provided landowners with a financial incentive to take care of and improve the environment, as well as resolving potential trespass issues and improving access for locals.
Things changed when the financial incentive for permissive access was removed from Higher Level Countryside Stewardship schemes some years ago although, in practice, many access routes are still open for public use. Post-March 2020, this has provided further unexpected benefits as the public are largely restricted to local walks due to the COVID-19 restrictions in place, not to mention those working from home.
I have written previously about the post-Brexit shift from traditional farm entitlements to new schemes. Environmental Land Management (ELM) schemes allow public money to be provided in exchange for public goods. It is not known yet if public access, whether that be using permissive routes or otherwise, is on the agenda. For the time being, landowners must make sure that they have everything in order. If there are no signs indicating rights of way and no method of controlling them, there is a risk that a new public right of way may come into existence or even that a claim could be made, in limited circumstances, for a town or village green. Correct fencing and signage are essential in order to avoid these situations.
Time will tell whether there are financial incentives for increased access to land by the public.