RESIDENTS have accused council officers of bowing to pressure from a police commissioner’s office after appearing to state a police force had committed an offence by blocking a disputed public right of way.

Members of Newby Wiske Action Group, which is continuing to battle North Yorkshire Police’s plans to sell its former headquarters in the village near Northallerton to children’s holiday firm PGL, said North Yorkshire County Council had suddenly made a U-turn over whether the force had acted properly.

The latest row over the future of Newby Wiske Hall follows villagers applying for a permissive footpath around the historic property’s grounds to be designated a public right of way after the entrance gate was closed by the North Yorkshire Police, Fire and Crime Commissioner in January 2018. Residents said they have used the path since at least the mid-1970s and that it was highly valued as a local safe place to exercise. After workmen with a police escort erected a fence near the entrance to the hall without planning permission earlier this year, the force was forced to apply to Hambleton District Council for consent for the structure.

Three weeks ago, in its response to the application the county council’s highways department stated: “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.

“If there is a ‘claimed’ public right of way within or adjoining the application site boundary, the route is the subject of a formal application and should be regarded in the same way as a public right of way until such time as the application is resolved.”

After Newby Wiske Parish Council highlighted the statement to the commissioner’s office, the commissioner’s chief executive Simon Dennis replied stating “in the intervening period, following further enquiries made of them by North Yorkshire Police, North Yorkshire County Council as highways authority has made clear that highways law has not been contravened...”

Residents said they were “flabbergasted” by Mr Dennis’s claims and after being asked to clarify the apparently contradictory statements, Ian Fielding, the council’s assistant director for countryside cervices, said: “We have been consistent in our advice on this issue.

“The advice to Hambleton District Council in response to a consultation on a planning application constituted our recommendations as the highways authority. We advised that there is a claimed right of way within or adjoining the application site boundary.

“This advice was a standard response used for all planning applications affecting both recorded and claimed rights of way, and included the accurate comment that it is an offence to obstruct a public right of way.

“However, it is not an offence to obstruct a claimed right of way, and our advice to Hambleton District Council did not state or infer that any obstruction to the claimed right of way at Newby Wiske constituted an offence. Therefore, county council officers have not changed their view and, until such time as the claimed right of way at Newby Wiske is confirmed as a legal right of way, obstructing it does not constitute an offence.”

Residents said they should be able to rely on the advice of the county council as being accurate and unbiased, but the authority had issued contradictory statements.

Campaigner David Stockport said: “The fact Ian Fielding now claims the council has been consistent in its advice is nothing short of a joke. It is clear the council has bowed to pressure from their friends in the police commissioner’s office and has totally changed its stance.”