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How wide is a public path?

by Chris Beney
last amended Jan 2015

This is an old article ?1990s but has been updated from time to time.

Defra has guidance at

The Planning Inspectorate has guidance at


# Context
# Widths and Widths, what is the difference?

# How do path widths come about?

# How are widths shown on Definitive Maps?

# How wide should they be?
# What if they are not currently defined?

# Widths and Wildlife & Countryside Act orders
# Town & Country Planning act orders
# Ploughing
# Bridges and other structures
# The use of limitations to increase legal width.

# Ideas for action by those involved with path changes

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Very few paths, at least in Hertfordshire, have their widths properly defined. Many paths are being restricted or fenced-in, often near urban areas, this can greatly reduce the enjoyment and the physical security of path users. Other paths are being diverted and the diverted path is sometimes unreasonably restrictive on width compared with the undiverted path.

Part of the government sponsored National Target for Rights of Way was for all paths to be legally defined: I suppose the minimum for legally defined is "it goes from A to B". Of course it must give start and finish but I think it also needs the route, any limitations like gates or stiles and the width.

The Planning Inspectorate now urge inspectors to define the widths, see planningpathwidths . In principle this is good but where the width is not known, sometimes 'standard' widths are inserted. Defra has non statutory detailed guidance at defrapathwidths this has not yet been taken on board in my local county, Hertfordshire.

There is no reason to stick to 19th/20th century narrow paths, I have a twenty three metre footpath and a thirty five metre bridleway both within half a mile of my house.

*The Definitive Map is the record of paths, produced by the Highway Authority, often the County Council, which serves to give those paths that are listed on it a conclusive status as public paths in law.

Widths and Widths, what is the difference?
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Some council officers and elected Members take the width of public paths to be the widths showing on the ground. That maybe the width worn through the grass (the beaten track) it may be the width of chippings put down across a muddy area, or in the urban context it may be the tarmac track, the latter often being 1.8 metres wide.

But these are not the actual (legal) widths of paths.

Leicester County had a 1.8 metre (6 foot) path policy but they actually had the firm surface width in mind and normally required another
three metres of grass on either side. So the effective recommended path width is 7.8 metres, nearly 25 feet.
If their 1.8 metres were made the legal width then, as with any path, it could be fenced in by the owners of the underlying land with six and a half foot high security fences to that width without any permission being needed. This would be quite horrid so when considering widths of paths the overall width not the hardened width should always be thought of.

And of course the legal width, in orders and so on, must always be that overall width, whether or not all of it is readily usable by the public.

How do path widths come about?  
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# Customary width. The rolling English drunkard made the rolling English road... Well maybe. Widths probably varied greatly depending on soil conditions.

# Some widths were created by Enclosure Acts.

# 19th Century diversions for the benefit of the 'big house', and the magistrates were told the path was only three foot wide, they were not told that it was a three foot strip whose exact route varied with the state of the land and being unfenced allowed several abreast. So diversions were formalised at narrow widths. The public suffers for this now.

# Old roads (green lanes and white roads), cattle or carts or whatever ensured reasonable widths. Some had very great widths as people bypassed the founderous parts. The extra width may or may not eventually form art of the highway width.

# Presumed dedication, the 20-year-use-without-objection rule.

# Diversion orders. These nowadays usually have the width(s) stated. There is a tendency to adopt an arbitrary and minimum width, sometimes two metres. Sometimes these orders are used imaginatively with greater width to create pleasant and practical routes.

# Explicit dedication and creation agreements. These vary greatly. In my local area they are quite good and always have width, widest dedication so far 23 metres for a footpath, narrowest is a short length at 1.5 metres.

# And there are various other ways for example adoption by the highway authority, and court decisions which tend up till now to be restrictive and based on minimum physical needs.

An important element often lost sight of is that by their nature many non-surfaced paths are fairly narrow but where they cross pasture or heath or meadow they 'wobble' about over a wider area dependent on surface condition over the seasons and the years (see 'Widths & Widths' above).

How are widths shown on Definitive Maps?  
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Current legislation marks paths as pure lines "the line coloured red", fine for caterpillars but unsatisfactory for humans.

A nice thing was pioneered by Hertfordshire. They showed the widths on Orders by cross hatching wherever it could not easily be said in words. They didn't just say "varies from three to five metres" but also said "as shown cross-hatched on the map attached to this order". The Definitive Statement also referred to this hatching. Now they use shading because of government guidance, see defrapathwidths but the writer finds that doesn't always reproduce clearly, in 2014 Herts CC issued copies of an order where no shading at all was visible.

This hatching or shading normally defines the actual widths at any point on the path. It is my view that the actual cross-hatched map should form part of the statement (as in definitive map and statement) since words alone don’t cover it but Hertfordshire has not yet accepted that view.

It should be noted that widths given in the Definitive Statement are conclusive in law, but that actually only means conclusive as to minimum width. There is no reason why a path should not be wider that the Statement records, that could come about by 20 years usage, by dedication, or simply because the original Definitive Statement makers simply recorded the visible or trodden width rather than the legal one (see Widths and Widths above).

How wide should they be?
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It depends. My view is that until we have some legislation restricting fencing-in and defining restrictions on land adjacent to them (as in planning law), then one should simply go for a minimum of five metres for footpaths (6 for bridle, 10 for Greenways) except on very firm ground, subject to negotiation in any particular case. The actual trodden width would quite often be less.

It is important to recognise that a path may at any time in the future legally be fenced in with tall (two metres without planning consent, more with consent) opaque fences and that should be imagined to have happened when considering a reasonable width. It would be better for landowner and path user if a restriction on fencing within a specified distance from the path could be built into path orders, but it is far from clear that it could have any legal force.

In pasture or meadow the width makes little difference to the landholder. On arable there is a real loss of crop area in greater widths. That might be resolved by having a token diversion order giving a good width but with a limitation allowing the owner to plough and grow crops on some part of that width. I think this might sit OK with the ploughing law. From the public's viewpoint of course an unrestricted but wider path is less likely to be ploughed-up at all because of the cost of reinstating it, making this even better for the public. The 1 metre (2 for bridleways) figure of HA80 for ploughing purposes should always be substantially exceeded when defining path widths in orders.

The only disadvantages of very wide paths to the public that I know are:
# the legal difficulty of putting a public seat or somesuch actually on the path in non-parished areas, not really a big problem.
# in semi-urban areas there might be restrictions on children playing (where that use could not be said to be incidental to using the right of way) and some kind of 'public open space' dedication might be better, possibly CROW Act s16 (access land) or Village Green, though technically a diversion or stop/creation with limitations would do it. My local group has already enabled a local landowner to make one such CROW Act access land dedication of a tiny area (which also happens to have been the first such dedication in the country, despite others who have claimed otherwise).

I would be interested to hear of other disadvantages (and advantages) of wide paths. I have heard people say it just doesn't feel like a path if too wide. I think that's like how chickens miss their cages when let free.

What if they are not currently defined?

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They may well be unlawfully narrowed. If not then they are at risk of this, relying on the goodwill or inertia of the underlying land holder.

If there is evidence of width then WCA1981 s.53 should be used to record it. If the evidence points to an unreasonably narrow path then either a HA 80 s25 creation agreement or failing that a HA80 s26 compulsory powers order can make it suitably wide. I expect the cost of these, which is a one off cost for fair compensation, could be treated as capital, not revenue, spend. Some local authorities sometimes have such money available. But such orders are very rare.

and Wildlife & Countryside Act orders

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The inspectorate have recently been told to put widths on orders before them (Advice Note 16) planningpathwidths
Defra have issued non statutory guidance at

When there is clear evidence as to the maximum width then that is commendable. Where there is little or no evidence, or where there is evidence only of a narrow used width (perhaps because of lack of clearance) then this new policy is unhelpful. It needs to allow of exceptions.

Although the definitive map is only conclusive as to minimum width not maximum, some highway authorities seem to assume it is conclusive for both. And if an inspector has recorded a width, it places a further hurdle to a claim for greater width.

Inspectors should be urged not to record widths that are not generous unless there are cogent reasons to believe the width to be recorded is really no more than that width.


Town & Country Planning Act orders.
Planning Opportunities.
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As stated above, the inspectorate have recently been told to put widths on orders before them (Advice Note 16) planningpathwidths  Defra have issued non statutory guidance at defrapathwidths

Planning applications sometimes directly impinge on public paths with talk of stopping up or of diversions. Planning applications sometimes create opportunities for path improvements. Increasing the width, or even a rededication at a given width for the avoidance of doubt are things you may get at planning consent time. At other times this tends to be a very low priority.

Keep an eye on local planning applications for path impact or opportunity and ask for conditions to be applied or an agreement (Section 106) to be negotiated by the planners. Get a few key councillors on side too if possible.
And I suggest you don't just oppose bad planning diversions and stoppings up, but try to negotiate improvements overall as a price for non-objection.


Note: it is helpful to get statements or policies in the Local Authority's formal plan which support wide and comfortable paths. Even a statement in the plan that paths must be and seem safe would be helpful. Better still get a good width e.g. four or five metres legal width (see widths & widths, above) in the plan as an aim, or better still as a policy. This makes it far more likely that the planners will take some useful action when a suitable case comes up.

Local Plans are being replaced by the Local Development Framework (LDF) but remain in place until then. Each authority must first produce a 'Statement of Community Involvement' (SCI) document which explains how the authority takes into account the public's view.  This document is subject to formal objections from the public, and referral to an inspector.  The inspector's decision is binding on the authority.  It would be very helpful to get a reference in the SCI to consulting local path groups before planning permission for a development affecting a path is given, as well as a statement of support for wide, safe, paths. 


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The Highways Act 1980 s.134 rules on ploughing are useful and well known in rights of way circles. Dimensions called 'minimum width' and 'maximum width' are defined when the width is not known (and only then). They refer to the width to be restored after disturbance if the legal width is not known. The rules give as I expect was intended a realistic chance of avoiding crop and furrow obstruction, but at the minimum level.

There rules do not lay down any general standards for widths. I am told they might influence the courts when considering widths of paths not specifically covered by these rules, they should only do so in the context of 'paths just might be OK as narrow as the ploughing rules minima' and then only for unfenced paths, and ones very unlikely ever to be fenced, two metres or more should be added if fences are a possibility in the future, which is nearly always. 

The point is that in the case of crops one can nearly always step aside if say someone with several dogs approaches, you can't do that when paths are fenced.


Bridges and other structures
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No one would expect a motorway to narrow down to one lane whenever it crossed a stream or another road. Somehow it is OK for bridges on rights of way to be much narrower than the right of way they carry.

Pedestrian bridges can be places to play Pooh sticks, things to lean over and look for trout or shopping trolleys from, depending on location. Room to pause with pushchair (or wheelchair) without blocking the way.

The extra cost of full-path-width bridges is quite small, nowhere near proportional to the width provided, maybe 20% or less increase for a 50% width increase.

Other structures such as gates (other than wide farm gates) inevitably restrict widths. British Standard BS5709 defines minimum widths through or over such structures and for new structures should always be specified as a minimum standard.

The use of limitations in Path Orders to increase legal width.
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Where there are trees or shrubs on a path line it is sometimes suggested that the width should be narrowed to fit between them. There is no reason why the width should not be wider, but stated to be e.g. “subject to trees, so long as at least two metres clear width remains”. I have used that to good effect on some orders which I have been involved with.

Another method is for the Highway Authority to grant a conditional licence for the life of the trees.

Ideas for action by those in any way involved with path changes
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# Except when there are clear reasons against (e.g. a risk of very narrow width being recorded), ensure all diversion etc. orders define widths. Assume they will be eventually fenced in and get as wide a width as possible.

# Some orders have been made with the word 'unfenced' That may help inhibit fencing or ensure it is put up away from the edge of the path. But its legal effect is unclear.

# Ensure that widths are appropriate for the long term and for possible land use changes.

# Get spacious bridges.

# Get gap, gate, stile structures to be required to be to BS5709
See for a summary of the BS requirements.

# Use limitations (see above) to get wider overall paths.

# Initiate or encourage mini-schemes where landholder, council and public all gain something (larger schemes have a habit of failure and wasted effort and should be avoided).

# Above all don’t be conned into accepting the hardened width as necessarily representing the full legal width of a path, see “Widths and Widths” near the start of this paper.

I would be pleased to get comment on this paper or by phone or post.

Chris Beney
12 Woodlands Road
Bushey, Herts, WD23 2LR
Phone: 01923 211113  
E mail: chrisbeney@


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