The Countryside Agency established the Discovering Lost Ways (DLW) Project following publication of the Rural White Paper Implementation Plan of March 2001, using funds provided by DEFRA under the authority of the then Environment Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West and Royton (Mr. Meacher).
Section 53 of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 provided for the extinguishment, in 2026, of public rights of way that existed prior to 1949, unless recorded by 2026 on the definitive map and statement maintained by the highway authority. The DLW project trialled the use of systematic data collection techniques to fulfil the Government's aim as set out in the 2000 Rural White Paper, of recording of such rights before 2026.
Natural England, the successor body to the Countryside Agency, has now reviewed the DLW Project. Its investigations found that even this systematic research approach could not remove the requirement for further detailed research into cases by the highway authority, and for a public inquiry to be held whenever the recording of such a right was opposed. As a result it considers there is no prospect of processing of the evidence collected by the 2026 cut-off date and accordingly Natural England is terminating the research contract. I do not consider any further investigation to be necessary.
Natural England is preparing to convene a Stakeholder Working Group to consider the scope for an agreed package of the reforms in this area. The Government have endorsed this as an appropriate way forward, and will consider any recommendations from the Group in due course, although this does not mean that the Government are, at this stage, committing to further legislative reform. We have written to stakeholders indicating that we will not bring section 53 into effect at least until we know the outcome of this Group's work.