Footpath woe for Banham couple

A couple could soon be forced to open-up a public footpath through their garden despite a two-year ongoing battle to try and convince the authorities it has never existed.

A COUPLE could soon be forced to open-up a public footpath through their garden despite a two-year ongoing battle to try and convince the authorities it has never existed.

Bryan and Cate McNerney, who live on the outskirts of Banham, near Attleborough, have been issued an enforcement order by Norfolk County Council to clear the pathway as marked on the Definitive Map.

But the pair claim the map, published in 1958, is incorrect as it plots the footpath along a steep escarpment running through an ancient hedgerow, believed to have stood for about 300 years, which they refuse to clear.

Since the council first asked them to open the route in June 2008, they have collected older maps and anecdotal evidence from former residents and elderly villagers which suggest that a public right of way has never run through the McNerney's garden.

The couple claim walkers have always used a path to the side of the hedgerow which runs along the headland of a neighbouring agricultural field and is currently waymarked. They have also found old maps which show a footpath in that position.

But the county council said this was only an 'informal route', which the landowner has exercised their right to close, and it has a legal duty to follow the Definitive Map.

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It has declined the McNerney's request not to take enforcement action until an investigation into whether the footpath can be re-positioned has been completed.

The pair claim the two-year fight has left them with 'huge financial implications' and caused them to take time off work through stress.

Mr McNerney, 57, who is a former television presenter of historical documentaries, said: 'If they (the county council) said they had found a 300 year old footpath running through our garden I would not have been happy about it but we would have bitten the bullet because footpaths have to be open.

'I'm not being NIMBY about this but it's an ancient hedgerow and the fact that someone drew a line through it 50 years ago points to a mistake.'

Mrs McNerney, 52, who works as a nurse, added: 'They want to put a footpath where a footpath can not be put. We just want someone to admit there has been an error and have the courage to say we have to do something about it.'

The couple said they consulted people in the village about the possibility of footpaths crisscrossing the property before they bought it in January 2007, but found no evidence of their presence at the time.

The secluded grounds, which were formerly a clay pit before being transformed into popular pleasure gardens in the 1930s, are home to bats, great crested newts and woodpeckers.

They worry about the effect a footpath would have on wildlife habitats, as well as their privacy and the value of their home.

'We would never have bought the property if there was any question of a footpath,' said Mrs McNerney.

Peter Barber, countryside access manager at Norfolk County Council, said: "The county council finds itself in a difficult position because the legal map shows that the proper route for this public right of way runs through Mr and Mrs McNerney's garden.

'For some time walkers have been using a diversion through a neighbouring field, but the landowner has exercised the right to close this informal route.

"The McNerneys have now applied to have this public right of way modified, but investigating and potentially acting on this is a lengthy legal process, likely to take more than a year, and in the meantime the county council has a duty by law to make sure that the existing public right of way is available to walkers.

'We have offered to help Mr and Mrs McNerney to do this and also gave them the option to open up access to the right of way themselves if they preferred. Ultimately, the situation as it stands is that this public right of way exists through the McNerney's garden and access to it has to be reinstated."