But what happened next was not good . . .
In 2001 the responsibility for rights of way was transferred from the DETR to the newly formed Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA).
The Right to Roam
The CROW Act (Part I) had also created a new duty for local authorities to map and provide open access to uncultivated land for people on foot. The Countryside Agency addressed this first, with the result that it took precedence over the rights of way work for which we had waited 50 years.
In so doing (it was later revealed) the Agency had underestimated the cost of delivering the right to roam. In December 2000 they had estimated that the project would cost £28 million, whereas the actual cost was £52.6 million of Agency expenditure, and a total cost to central government amounting to £69 million. This meant that the plans for National Trails and a new initiative called Discovering Lost Ways had to be deferred.
Discovering Lost Ways (DLW)
The profile of the unrecorded bridleways and byways had been raised during discussions on the CROW Act. At this point, with a fairly reasonable timescale of 25 years, user groups and local authorities were relatively geared up to get on with the task of recording them. The Minister, Michael Meacher, promised £750,000 in 2002, rising to £2 million in later years, for the voluntary sector to undertake the necessary research to claim historical rights of way. Substantial funding was also promised to local highway authorities from 2003 onwards (letter from Michael Meacher to Susan Carter, chair of the NFBA, 2 April 2001).
The promised funding never reached the voluntary sector. The Countryside Agency, which was tasked with administering the fund, instead commissioned an exploratory contract led by Gloucester University. This concluded that the task would be too big for the voluntary sector and councils to tackle alone; it required a more systematic approach. Based on this finding the Countryside Agency then outsourced a contract to provide an Archive Research Unit, which was won by a company called LandAspects which had no experience of researching rights of way.
This had the effect of reassuring the public that something was being done, but meanwhile many local authorities ceased to process claims at all, as they were awaiting the outcome of this pilot project.
A full account of the historical background can be read here: DLW Report 2008 – Annex 1
In 2006 the Countryside Agency was replaced by Natural England (NE), which took over the management of the DLWs project. From the outset its future was clearly under review. Budget reductions were needed which would affect their Corporate Plan for 2006/2007 to 2008/2009. It was decided to ‘slow down the roll out of the Discovering Lost Ways Project’ – Natural England Board Paper AP06-10. DLWs was officially abandoned by NE in 2008, having cost £8.5 million, but without having added any ‘new’ rights of way to the definitive map (see DLW Review Report).