Light the blue touch paper for deregulation…

“Light Touch” was a recurring theme at the two conferences into the changes proposed to rights of way law in the Deregulation Bill this month.

The problem is simple to identify.  Many authorities have significant backlogs in processing claims to add to or modify the definitive map of rights of way.  They have similar delays when handling diversion applications.  These backlogs occurred when times were good but now times are hard and rights of way budgets sit at the top of the list for cuts.  Add to that an increasing pressure on the Planning Inspectorate and the mess looks even worse.

So the buzz word is “light touch”.  Do more with less because you have to.

The Leeds conference was sceptical.  Maybe the realistic northerners had it right.

London, however, was more positive.  The big guns were out in London – Open Spaces, Ramblers, BHS, Byways and Bridleways Trust, South Pennine Packhorse Trails et al.

Yes I am used to having Kate Ashbrook in the room ready to pounce on my diversion proposal being explained to a Parish Council.  Or to sit opposite Alan Kind as an opposing advocate at a public inquiry.  Having all the guns primed and loaded and ready to fire was, however, a different matter.

Yet in London any scepticism for my suggestions for a lighter touch came from the landowner side.  You won’t achieve it, I was told.  But if you don’t ask you don’t get.

At the end of the day as we packed up I was approached by a delegate.  She was from an authority in the Midlands.  She found my ideas to be a “breathe of fresh air” .  The applicant handling their own diversion application; the council not having to support every order that it made.  These were things (already practised by a few enlightened authorities) that her own authority had told her were not possible and could not be contemplated.

I felt that like many she is struggling to find a solution to reaching the top of the mountain and others are holding her back.  So DEFRA must now play its part and look for best practice that cuts costs and delay.  It must issue guidance to authorities to use the powers they have and guide them in the use of those powers constructively.  As practitioners we must expect that the right things are done the most expedient way.

“Light Touch” is good but it needs a change of attitude at every level and for those in councils and at DEFRA to ask whether the things we have always done still need to be done.  If, as some authorities have already discovered, there is a quicker, cheaper, way then that should be the standard.  So much of this needs no change in the legislation particularly when orders come to be progressed.

The proof will come in the New Year once the Deregulation Bill is under way.  As MPs debate it, DEFRA will have the time to look at existing arrangements and put guidance together based on what emerged from the Leeds and London conferences.

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