This article is from the March 1996 issue of Kent Area News and
was a revision by the author of an article that first appeared in
"The Stile", the journal of the Hertfordshire &
North Middlesex Area of the Ramblers.
Perceptions and Management of Stiles
Stiles, Gates and Other Obstructions
What do most of us think when we see a stile? Ah! a public footpath!
What do most of us think when we see a gate? Hum! private property!
Not quite true? But near enough I expect.
Most people see stiles as an invitation to walk, a reassurance that it is a public path. Conversely an ordinary gate is seen as an indication that the way is not public, unless the clearest sign on it says so. This misunderstanding is not the only one that I have noticed; the reason for the very existence of this 'path furniture' is little understood by the public and the mechanism for adding stiles and gates (or removing them) is even less comprehended. It is not just the general public that is unclear, active walkers and some rights of way officers are just as unclear.
How do stiles and gates get to be there?
Some go back a very long time and are assumed to have been there when the path was dedicated, some even since 'time immemorial'. They were a restriction on the complete openness of the path when the landholder granted the right or acquiesced in the use of it. More modern path dedications may also have gates and stiles as restrictions.
Some have been put there by the authority of ihe Highways Act 1980 (s. 147). These can be put up to control animals on agricultural land with the permission of the highway authority.
Some, indeed dare I say most, have been put up entirely illegally and without any by-your-leave either of the users or of the highway authority.
A very few have been authorised by other legal means such as Side Roads
Orders for motorways, and just possibly to enhance safety under H.A.80 s.66(3).
Where are they listed?
They should be listed on the definitive Statement, but often are not. Legal ones should be added when the definitive map is revised, but that did not seem to happen in Hertfordshire last time round. We must try to see it happens.
Whose benefit are they for?
Many people think that stiles are for the convenience of the public to help people cross otherwise impassable or difficult fences or hedges. That view is quite the reverse of the true position but unfortunately it is a view shared by the public and the landholders. The 'legal' stile is there as a concession by the public to help the farmer stop his animals straying, the same purpose as his fence or hedge. A right of way has to be kept clear at all times and the stile is a legal restriction on that right. The 'illegal' stile is usually also for the landholder's benefit, but sometimes user groups go mad and put up stiles or gates just because they expect paths to have them. The M1 link road's diverted path in Watford had just such an unauthorised and unnecessary gate, put up by the County Council's contractors. My local group recycled it elsewhere.
How can they be authorised?
The landholder has no right whatever to put up stiles or gates where previously there were none.
If he wants them then the Highways Act
1980 s147 allows a local authority or highway authority to grant permission if the stile or gate is for the purpose of efficient agriculture or forestry and for preventing ihe ingress or egress of animals.
It cannot be granted for any other purpose. They do not have to grant it, they may make conditions to avoid undue inconvenience to the public's use of the path, and there is no appeal if they simply refuse to grant permission.
Remember that the highway authority must act to protect the rights of the public and act against those who seek to interrupt those rights (HA80 s130, R. v
S.C.C. ex parte Send , etc), so they need to be very circumspect about granting
permission for stiles which by their very nature restrict those rights. They need give no reasons for refusal and
there is no appeal against it. Permission for stiles should normally be refused unless some enhancement of the path is offered by the
landholder, simply because any stile is in itself undue inconvenience and needs some improvement elsewhere on the path to put it right.
A good quality gate, well marked to show that it is a Public Path (remember the perceptions at the start of this piece) might sometimes meet the undue inconvenience rule Where permission for stile or gate is in fact granted, then the landholder should show his gratitude and keep within the law by keeping them in good order.
Maintenance of stiles is the landholder's duty, not a kindness, for these stiles or gates.
They can reclaim 25% of their costs too, though I see no reason whatever for this rule.
How can they be taken down?
By the landholder whenever and however, remember they are for his benefit, not the public's. For illegal stiles or gates removal by users is not advised, though it may in certain circumstances be legal and will certainly be quicker. It is both interesting and welcome that my County Council, Hertfordshire, is beginning to tell landholders of onetime pasture, now arable, that they must remove the stiles.
Currently the gate, more particularly the 'kissing' gate, is preferred by many to the stile, even when the stile is to British Standard. A good kissing gate will allow passage by the infirm as well as those with pushchairs. At the rural edges of urban areas demand for pushchair passable paths is increasing. My Paths Association had a request from Watford for a wheelchair passable gate, which we and others were pleased to put up recently. We had an emergency test of one of our kissing gates earlier in the year when our treasurer broke his leg rather badly whilst clearing a path. Two of us and two ambulance men carried him on a strap-in chair through the gate. When he was recuperating in a wheelchair a few weeks later we took him out to the gate and told him to try to get through it by himself: he did so quite easily.
But the really modern view is not to have any stile or gate at all unless essential. We put that view into practice in 1993 and removed a stile and fence from the entrance to a path (legally), leaving a gap some four metres wide. One of our members feared that not having a stile or gate would cause the path to be lost to the public after a number of years! Another member worried greatly that motorcycles would soon be roaring in and out. There fears were unfounded, all we have had so far is the occasional horse.
My County Council has a book of stile designs but no kissing gate ones. I will happily send a detailed version of the design and the instructions to anyone wanting it. Because of the perception problem mentioned at the start of this article it is very important to say 'Public Footpath' on the gate and probably nearby as well.
Herts County now have a rather good approval form for stile and gate permissions. It is a fairly complicated matter, for instance landholder maintenance should normally be made a condition, then the landholder becomes responsible for 100% of the cost, not the normal 75%. (HA80 s146(l),(4) &(5)). The conditions can include the obligation to keep some fencing stock-proof, to 'harden' the surface near the gate or stile, or anything else to prevent undue inconvenience. The sanction if not done is that the gate or stile becomes an illegal obstruction.
The writer would like to hear about any activity involving stiles or gates that path workers or users are involved in.
He would like to see better understanding of stiles and gates, better quality ones, better administered. He would like to see both stiles and gates reduce in number over the years, he would like, on balance, to see more gates than stiles.
Finally some things still get decided on emotion rather than logic and who would dare say they do not prefer the sound of 'kissing gate' over
Readers interested in the topic of path structures may find the
following links useful:
the DEFRA Guidance on Public Path Structures
British Standard for Gaps, Gates and Stiles