Sunday, 28 February 2010

Swannington Path Inquiry

Swannington N28 and N108. Gates have been erected at V and X.
Location: SK413170

A landowner blocks an attractive path walked for over seventy years with an electric gate, chain-saws stiles provided by the County Council, hacks down marker posts erected by the local authority then the County solicitor argues that the path should be diverted to a new route along a muddy ditch with poor views. This is what has happened at Swannington in Leicestershire and was the subject of a public enquiry for two days this week.

When landowner Damian Spence bought his property in 2006 he knew that a public path crossed a paddock 60 feet from his small farmhouse. The stiles on the path had been maintained by the previous owners of the land for years and recently the County Council had looked after them and erected footpath markers and a signpost from the main road. However, returning home one evening he found some youngsters were playing with his animals and he determined that the path needed to be diverted. Here an error by Leicestershire County Council came to his aid.

The path walked for seventy years is not on the exact route of the Definitive Map entry. When council housing was built in 1936 at one end of the path the original route must have been diverted. Unfortunately the paperwork of Ashby Rural District Council seems to have been lost and the order cannot be found. When the Parish Survey was undertaken in 1951 (for the 1949 Act) the route marked on the map was the old route though the written description of the route makes it clear that locals were walking the diversion. The parish council had been provided with a map of 1925 which did not include the new housing and still showed the old path.

Leicestershire County Council had even worked with the local Heritage Trust producing publicity for walks on the path in the 1980s. Ordnance Survey maps have shown the route (not on the Definitive Map) since the 1960s onwards. There is a requirement of the 1949 act that the Definitive Map should be updated on a regular basis. The Council failed to do this (and has blamed the Parish Council for the mapping error).

So what does the Council propose should happen? Well, firstly they want to add the path walked since 1936 to the Definitive Map and extinguish the old route which on the map runs through gardens of two council houses built at that time. Great! But then once this route is added to the Definitive Map they want to divert it along a strip of land purchased by Mr Spence which is often waterlogged and runs by a murky ditch. Of course this takes the path well away from his house and horses, prevents the public from experiencing pleasant views towards Charnwood Forest and crossing a rare stretch of ridge and furrow for this part of Leicestershire. Given the landowner's attitude to footpaths, can we expect him to keep the diverted path in a good state?

Are we to have all paths diverted now that pass through paddocks with horses?

The case by Leicestershire County Council was shoddy. The maps produced were inaccurate and it seemed as if the ROW officer present had never been up to look at the proposed diversion route (at least he didn't seem to have much knowledge of it when we went on the site visit). Worse still was the behaviour of the County Solicitor who acted more like an advocate for the landowner.

Swannington Parish Council presented their evidence with dignity and restraint despite the fact that they were very angry about the situation which has been going on for four years. Also backing up their case was retired solicitor Dr Sheila Smith who had done mountains of research and presented her case brilliantly. Anyone involved in a footpath dispute would love to have her on their side. Representatives from the Ramblers and the Leicestershire Footpaths Association also made strong cases against the diversion.

We will now have to wait a few months for the decision of the inspector.

There is a discussion on The Ramblers forum here.

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