Northamptonshire has 1929 miles of rights of way in a network that includes footpaths, bridleways and byways used by walkers, cyclists and horse riders who enjoy getting out into the countryside. Together with landowners and farmers, the county ensures that routes are kept open and passable. At parish level, volunteer Path Wardens play an important role in the upkeep of rights of ways.
The purpose of the warden role is to help maintain the quality and accessibility of footpaths by monitoring the rights of way network locally and providing annual reports to the Parish Council. The Northamptonshire County Council Rights of Way Improvement plan, published in July 2020, said that the Parish Path Warden scheme was “very much up and running”.
The role is described as “an important link between the Rights of Way officers and each Parish and Town in the country”. Despite the recognition of the importance of the role, the former NCC withdrew support for the position due to the expense of insurance cover for volunteers operating on their behalf.
The actual expense of insuring the role is unknown. NCC insurance cover relating to volunteers forms part of the council’s general insurance policies. “Unfortunately premiums are not broken down to this level of detail,” the NCC said.
However, local parishes are encouraged to appoint a warden who can liaise with the new unitary authority about potential rights of way issues. Many parish councils in Northamptonshire have continued to appoint a Path Warden and sometimes cover the position under its own public liability insurance.
Danny Moody, Chief Executive of the Northamptonshire County Association of Local Councils said: “The Parish Paths Warden Scheme hasn’t been supported by NCC for quite a few years now, although there are still plenty of Parish Paths Wardens soldiering on informally. The creation of the new unitaries, and the re-procurement of the county’s highways contract, presents an opportunity to have a rethink.”
The nominated Path Warden for the Oundle parish is Tony Hoyle. “I am an active user of public rights of way as a walker, and I used to be a weekend horse rider,” says Mr Hoyle, “so I have an interest in maintaining and improving rights of way and access to the countryside.”
Mr Hoyle said he is “resigned to wait” until further progress is made by the new unitary authority on the Path Warden issue. In the meantime, he will aim to uphold the duties of the Path Warden, despite the lack of official recognition or support by the NNC.
“I will endeavor to walk each of the public rights of way within the Oundle parish, and report issues to the highways authority,” he says. Mr Hoyle assured me that he is, “no more than any other member of the public, exercising their right of access, except that it would be a systematic review of local rights of way,” and so insurance cover would be unnecessary.
Mr Hoyle is adamant that the position of Path Warden is an “effective way” for the council and unitary authorities to fulfill their responsibilities to maintain the quality of local paths and is therefore a worthwhile investment.
Leon Jolly, Head of Operational Delivery, Northamptonshire Highways said they “are supporting existing Parish Path Wardens and have not removed them” but new recruitment to the scheme was suspended until a revised Path Warden scheme could be developed.