A POLICE force has dismissed claims it has committed an offence by blocking residents’ access to footpath, despite there having been no known issues in several decades of the route being used.

North Yorkshire Police said it had “secured” the grounds of its former headquarters, Newby Wiske Hall, near Northallerton, to safeguard residents from encountering dangers, such a pond, close to the claimed right of way.

The statement follows North Yorkshire County Council highways officials responding to a retrospective planning application by the force to erect a fence to block a gap in a hedge beside the entrance to the historic property to stop residents from accessing the footpath. 

Council highways officers said: “It is an offence to obstruct a public right of way and enforcement action can be taken by the highway authority to remove any obstruction.”

Newby Wiske residents have complained that while the force has insisted people should exercise locally during the coronavirus pandemic, it has continued to block a permissive path which has been used by locals for decades at a time when such resources have become even more precious.

The force, which has been trying to sell its former headquarters since 2016, hopes to sell to children’s holidays firm PGL, which has proposed removal of access to the path.

The force is understood to be contesting an application by residents to have the path designated as a public right of way. 

A police spokeswoman said the council’s statement about the path being blocked had only been advisory and the fence did not form part of the main gateway entrance.

She said: “Whilst we understand the concerns of local residents about this claimed right of way, the decision was taken to secure the private site of Newby Wiske Hall in order to protect the public from a number of health and safety hazards which are present there, including a body of water.

“We have a responsibility to keep the public safe and felt that such a large site could pose significant risks.

“Whilst North Yorkshire County Council recommends that where a claimed right of way exists, it should be regarded in the same way as an existing public right of way, this is only a recommendation and is not based on law.

“Accordingly, no offences have been committed by securing the site.”

Residents, who are battling to stop PGL launching a 550-bed children’s holidays centre, said the force’s reasons for blocking the footpath had changed.

David Stockport, of Newby Wiske Action Group, said the force had initially claimed that the fence was for “security”, but it had been shown the majority of the site, including the pond beside the hall’s boundary, has little or no security with broken or missing fencing.  

He said: “Now their story has changed.  It is no longer for security, but now they laughingly claim health and safety grounds to protect members of the public from injury. Could these be the same members of the public who have been managing to use the path for over 30 years without any incident?  

“Perhaps if they really cared about the health and safety of local residents they would allow the path to be opened for local people to exercise during these troubled times.

“No matter how many different excuses they try to come up with, they can’t get away from the fact they have erected the fence in breach of planning law and are now trying to ignore highways law as well. This is nothing to do with health and safety it is about misplaced pride and arrogance.”