The “tortuous” process of establishing and diverting historic rights of way is to be sped up under ministers’ plans to cut red tape.
Homeowners would find it easier to divert paths away from their land under the proposals and councils would be forced to tackle the massive backlog of applications to establish routes.
Environment Secretary Owen Paterson wants to prevent conflict between homeowners and walkers, when evidence comes to light of routes that are often centuries old. The move comes after years of campaigning by residential groups who claim their lives have been blighted by local authorities invoking ancient rights of way through private land.
Campaigners for access have welcomed the changes under the Deregulation Bill to amend rules which first came into law 80 years ago this week.
Kate Ashbrook, general secretary of the Open Spaces Society, said property owners will still have to meet various tests and pay for diverting the path.
But she said the new legislation could allow for more compromises, avoiding bitter, protracted disputes and reducing costs for councils, campaigners and landowners.
Ms Ashbrook, a long-time campaigner on Dartmoor, said: “There are problems with claiming paths and getting them on to the map so we are absolutely backing the package, which makes it easier for paths to be processed more quickly.
“It has grown over the years and is very complicated – it is a tortuous process and the proposals in the Bill speed it up and make it more efficient.”
The legal rule that a path becomes a right of way after 20 years’ unhindered public use – The Rights of Way Act 1932 – came into effect 80 years ago on January 1, 1934.
Before this there was no simple rule for the time over which a route had to be used before it could be regarded as public.
Where walkers wish to officially establish a right of way, users state their experiences over the 20-year time period.
In most cases property owners would be aware of the route, though they are able to dispute the claims.
However, there are other ways to enshrine a path in the so-called definitive map, such as citing ancient public records, such as finance maps from as far back as 1910.
The general rule of rights of way is “once a highway always a highway”, so property owners could in theory be completely surprised by a claim for a route which is almost totally unheard of.
In these cases, the landowner will have the right to ask for a public path to be diverted so it goes round a house, garden or farmyard rather than straight through it, provided it is not substantially less convenient for walkers.
Peers and MPs examining the Bill have expressed concern about the current backlog of applications in local authorities for paths to be recorded on definitive maps.
A spokesman for Mr Paterson told The Times: “We’re simplifying rights of way regulations and working with interested groups, including the National Farmers Union (NFU) and the Ramblers Association to find a solution that makes it easier for landowners to divert rights of way without affecting walkers’ enjoyment of the countryside.”
The NFU has backed the move, saying that it would be much safer for walkers if routes were diverted round farmyards rather than going through them.
“Farmyards are often full of large machines and farmers have a constant fear that accidents could happen,” Andrew Clark, the head of policy at the NFU, said.
But the 12-strong Alternative Stakeholders Group, led by Richard Connaughton, a former soldier, argues that the concessions do not go far enough.
Mr Connaughton said: “This is not about wealthy landowners, it’s about simple ordinary people who have been overwhelmed by planning laws and officials.
“They have had their lives wrecked and spent tens of thousands of pounds protecting their land.”
Mr Connaughton has been fighting against the reinstatement of a public path in his garden in Nettlecombe, in Dorset, for the past 15 years. He claims that the dispute has cost him £65,000 in legal fees as a result of court cases and inquiries, but ramblers still use the path.