How to manage organised events on private land

We explain what rights landowners have when organised events take place without consent on public rights of way on private land
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Opinions differ as to whether lacing up your trainers and going for a run is the ideal way to enjoy access land or the public rights of way network. But what are the legalities when large numbers of people start making use of public access routes on private land for organised events?

It is worth remembering that commercial activity of any kind cannot take place on open access land as designated by the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 without the specific consent of the landowner. This includes running events, cycle races or even a dog walking business.

However, such events would still be able to make use of any footpaths, bridleways, restricted byways or byways that cross the access land. Organisers may also make use of other public rights of way that do not cross access land but organisers and participants must only make use of these publicly available rights and not go beyond these - this is a subtle and yet clear distinction.

To set up a hydration station or similar on the public right of way would need the consent of the landowner because such a use would be unlikely to count as being reasonably ancillary to the highway use.

An organiser who blocks a public right of way would not just have committed an act of trespass against the landowner, but has also potentially committed an offence under the Highways Act 1980 by wilfully obstructing the highway without lawful excuse. It is difficult to erect signage and aid stations without creating a potential obstruction of the public right of way.

If the organisers instead place this infrastructure off the width of the right of way without consent or take vehicles on paths where no vehicular rights exist, then they have trespassed against the person in possession of it . The landowner would therefore be fully within their rights to ask participants to leave their land.

There is also an argument that races of sufficient size and intensity could also cause a nuisance under S149 of the Highways Act 1980. A nuisance is usually viewed in this context as “any wrongful act or omission upon or near a highway, whereby the public are prevented from freely, safely and conveniently passing along the highway”. To this end, many local authorities will require organisers to apply for a licence before holding the event.

Next steps for the landowner

There are practical measures to consider for members who have public rights of way across their land which are proving popular with organised events but have no desire to host or secure payment in return for hosting events.

A reasonable step for any such landowner would be to speak with their local Rights of Way Officer. There would be scope for the member to explore the definitive map and statement with the officer to see if their right of way has a defined width or a width that can otherwise be established. The landowner would then be in a position to discuss fencing a suitable width along the entirety of the route. This would hopefully have the desired effect of making the route unattractive to event organisers who might then look for alternative locations.

The widths of public rights of way and the full range of offences under the Highways Act where rights of way are blocked are not something we have scope to delve into in this blog, but if you do need assistance with concerns relating to organised events and public access, do not hesitate to contact us for further support.

Read our guidelines for the next government to deliver responsible access for all

Key contact:

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Claire Wright National Access Adviser, London