The 30th of October is the 40th anniversary of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981.
This Act gave us the system of ‘continuous review’ of the Definitive Map and Statement (DMS), which is still in operation today.
It was the 1949 National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act that introduced the DMS. Indications of the beginnings of a recreational highways network go back to the 1820s. But it was not until the 1949 Act that the concept of a national, definitive, legal record of rights of way was enshrined in legislation, following recommendations in a report by the ‘Hobhouse Committee’.
The DMS was to be complied by a nationwide survey. Local authorities were given a statutory duty to undertake the survey for each of their areas and it was thought that the survey would take four years or so, after which attention could then turn to improving and adding to the network. However, the survey was never completed despite further statutory duties being imposed on local authorities.
By the time of the ‘81 Act, the Government had effectively given up on the idea of completing the survey. It instead opted for giving local authorities a statutory duty to keep the definitive map and statement under ‘continuous review’. This meant that authorities had to modify the DMS whenever they came across, or were presented with, evidence that it needed to be updated or corrected. The legislation also enabled the public to participate in the process by making applications for definitive map modification orders (DMMOs).
In the period leading up to the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000, the idea of completing the historical record (i.e. the definitive record of rights of way in existence up to 1949) was resurrected. This led to the 2026 cut-off date provisions.
In England, if progress on the rights of way reforms project, which includes implementation of the cut-off date, continues to founder, the cut-off date may be abandoned or at least deferred. Welsh Government officials have already confirmed that the cut-off date will not be implemented in Wales. In both cases, the current regime of continuous review would presumably continue to serve, while a decision is made on what to do next.
The continuous review system has been with us for 40 of the 70 years or so since the inception of the definitive map and statement. Arguably it has served well and it begs the question whether completion of the definitive map and statement is practicable, or indeed necessary?
The 1981 Act also gave us the definition of a ‘byway open to all traffic’ (or BOAT). Although BOATs, which were intended to replace ‘roads used as a public path’ (or RUPPs), were introduced in the 1968 Countryside Act, the term was not defined in legislation until the 1981 Act, where a definition can be found in section 66.
[The RUPPs to BOATs and Restricted Byways saga is interesting in itself and is worthy of a future News Post.]