In Lewes recently a question arose about a gate across a footpath that had been closed off on a new development. In Seaford people have complained that a path through fields that they have been using for ages has been blocked off. In Newhaven there has been a question about whether there will be a right of way on the new East Beach jetty. In Peacehaven a local activist is working on the large numbers of paths that are not on the rights of way map.
So this article tells you about how to check whether a path is on the rights of way map and how to get it put on if it is not.
Is it on the map?
The county council must maintain a definitive map of rights of way. You can inspect the map at County Hall, but the best way to check whether a route that you are interested in is on the map is to look at the on line rights of way map. The East Sussex map can be found here You can also look at recent ordnance survey maps, although they may not have recent changes.
There are a large number of urban and rural routes that people use every day that are not on the rights of way map, either because they were not existence in the 1950s when the map was first drawn up, or because they were overlooked, or for some other reason. For example there are more than 1,000 paths in Eastbourne that are not on the rights of way map. (This figure is for path separate from roads, not pavements by the side of the road.)
If it is on the map, but it is obstructed or damaged contact the council’s rights of way team. The East Sussex team can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. or by using their online form. Try to include a photo and details of where the problem is. Don’t leave it to someone else. The more people complain the quicker it will get sorted.
If it is not on the map
You may be able to get it put on. There are no fees for applying to add a right of way to the map. Read the paragraphs below.
Has it been in use for a long time?
Typically what happens is that people have been using a path for years, and then suddenly a new owner blocks it off, or an existing owner decides to block it off because they want to use the land in a new way. Everyone gets angry and a claim is often made to add the route. But it may be a good idea to apply to add the route even if it is not threatened because it takes years to process a claim for a right of way. (On the other hand a landowner who has not been bothered about people walking on their land may react badly if a formal claim is made.)
To add the route to the rights of way map you must show that people have been using the route as if they had the right to for a continuous period of 20 years without anyone stopping them. The land owner is then assumed in law to have dedicated the route as a right of way UNLESS:
- They can show that they have turned people back in the past OR
- They have erected signs at any point in that 20 years which say that the route is not a right of way but that people can use it for the time being (or similar words.
- They have erected signs at any point in that 20 years which say that the route is private, or not a right of way, or have obstructed the route by, for example, locking a gate once a year OR
- They have made a statement to the county council which says that they have no intention of dedicating a right of way. This is a legal declaration which has to be in a specific form. You can see the current statements for East Sussex here.
If one of these things has happened then you can still apply to add the right of way to the map, but your 20 year period ends on the date that one of the events described above happened. For example, if the landowner made a statement in 2019 then you must show that the path was in continuous use for the period 199-2019.
You have to make an application supported by evidence from people who have used the path. You can find advice about how to make an application, a form to apply on and evidence forms for people to fill in here. Your editor recommends trying to get at least 20 forms filled in. Many people will not have used the path for the full 20 years and it is suggested that you make sure you have at least 10 forms which cover each year of the 20 years. Often it is harder to find people for the earlier years. Your local parish or town council may be able to help.
Is it on a recent development ?
Check the planning permission. Was it a condition of planning permission that a public footpath be created? Or did the developer promise to create a public route?
If one of these things happened but the developer has not opened the path you can complain to the Planning Department that the conditions have not been complied with. In the National Park (including Lewes town) you should complain to the National Park authority: email@example.com. In the rest of Lewes District you should complain to Lewes Council (You may need to contact your councillor- Lewes Council is in some degree of chaos.)
The developer is usually allowed a little time. On the new Newhaven eastern jetty the Ramblers and the Open Spaces society have ensured that there is a clause in the planning permission that a right of way must be dedicated within a year of opening.
If the developer has opened the path, but you want to make sure that it stays open, you can apply to add it to the rights of way map provided that the land owner has agreed to a public path in the planning process and people have started using it. This is known as “common law” dedication. You do not need to wait 20 years because there is evidence that the land owner has dedicated the path. You will need to collect 20 or so evidence forms, but they need only date from when the path was first opened. You need to say on your application that this a “common law” dedication and send in a copy of the planning conditions or statement by the developer with your evidence forms.
Have you found it on an old map, or old deeds?
Up until the end of 2025 it is possible to add a route to the rights of way map if you can show that it used to be a public right of way, even if it is no longer in use. This can be a time consuming process, but a significant number of applications have been made in this way. Contact Lewes Eye for more information.
Your first port of call should be the council’s rights of way team. Parish and Town councils may also be helpful. The Ramblers and the Open Spaces Society have a lot of information, but they will expect you to be or become a member.
article updated 22/9/21. The article cannot cover all the details of rights of way law, which is very complicated, but is intended to be a general guide.