Gaps, gates and stiles

Guidance for landowners about their role in providing gaps, gates and stiles across their land.

These guidance notes refer to your responsibilities as the occupier for the provision and maintenance of gaps, gates and stiles on public rights of way where they cross your land. Remember:

  • as the landowner you are responsible for maintaining stiles and gates in a safe condition
  • poorly maintained stiles and gates may leave you liable for any injury sustained by the public attempting to use them
  • well maintained and clearly waymarked stiles and gates will help prevent people becoming lost and will mean less damage to boundary fences and walls.

Lawful stiles and gates

A stile or gate, although on a public right of way, is not a part of it. Such structures are for the advantage of the landowner, to permit enclosure of the land and to control the movement of livestock, rather than for the benefit of the public.

Therefore, stiles and gates cannot be erected on a public right of way at a landowner's or occupier's discretion. The public's free passage can only be interrupted by such structures certain circumstances:

  • where a stile or gate traditionally existed in a held boundary for many years and pre-dates recording the right of way
  • where we can authorise a new stile or gate. Under the Highways Act 1980, section 147, our powers as a county council are limited to authorising stiles and gates only where they are necessary for preventing the ingress or egress of animals on land that is used, or being brought into use, for agriculture or forestry.
  • note under s147ZA we have to have regard to the needs of people with disabilities when authorising structures
  • All gaps, gates, kissing gates and stiles should conform with British Standard 5709 where possible

Please note: agriculture includes horticulture, fruit growing, keeping livestock, grazing land, meadow land, market gardens and woodlands.

Existing stiles and gates

Do I have to maintain the stiles and gates on my land?

Yes. The landowner/occupier is responsible for maintaining all such structures on public rights of way in a safe and usable condition (Highways Act 1980, s.146). If you are a tenant the landowner may have passed the practical responsibility to you. If in doubt you should contact your landlord.

Can I replace an existing gate on a public footpath with a stile?

No, as this would normally result in undue inconvenience for the public. Generally the replacement of a gate with a stile will be more inconvenient because people will have to climb over a stile as opposed to opening a gate. If you are experiencing particular problems with people leaving gates open please contact your field officer (see help and advice at the bottom of this page).

Remember: You can replace a normal stile with a gate. Gates give much better access for the public and can be made stockproof.

If I remove a gate or stile and leave a gap instead do I retain the option to restore it at a later date?

Yes, the county council encourages the removal of stiles and gates where they are no longer needed for controlling animals.

Will the county council contribute towards the cost of maintaining existing stiles and gates?

Yes, a landowner is entitled to recover 25 per cent of reasonable costs incurred, but the work must be agreed beforehand. The county council's contribution may be in the form of labour to carry out the work using your materials.

Remember: Before you carry out any work you must contact your field officer (see help and advice at the bottom of this page) to discuss your plans.

Can I lock a gate on a right of way?

In most circumstances a locked gate would be an obstruction on a right of way and therefore cannot be permitted. However, if you are experiencing a particular problem then please contact your field officer (see help and advice at the bottom of this page).

Can I put a new gate or stile next to an existing gate?

You can do so, but it is an additional facility for the public. The existing gate remains on the definitive legal line of the path and must therefore be kept unlocked and available for the public at all times.

To what standard should my gates and stiles be maintained?

All stiles and gates must be maintained in a safe condition so that they are easy for all users to negotiate, this includes the elderly and the less agile. Please read the 'practical tips' section below. The British Standard for public rights of way gaps, gates and stiles is BS5709:

Remember: There are many local variations which form part of the rural fabric of Oxfordshire. As long as they meet the basic criteria we would not expect them to be replaced with a more modern design. Traditional features, such as Cotswolds stone stiles, should be retained whenever possible.

Is there a minimum width for existing gates on public rights of way?

Yes, on a bridleway it is 5 ft and on a restricted byway or byway open to all traffic (BOAT) it is 10 ft. There are no defined widths for gates or stiles on footpaths, however, the public must be able to negotiate them easily.

Please note: The width is measured between the gate posts and is not the measurement of the gate itself. We may require you to widen a gate to the minimum width or remove it if it is found to cause problems for the public.

New stiles and gates

Can I erect a new stile or gate across any right of way?

The Highways Act 1980 allows for a stile (on a footpath) or a gate (on a footpath or bridleway) to be erected in certain circumstances (see 'lawful stiles and gates' above). In addition, we will only consent to a new stile or gate which does not unduly inconvenience the public. The basic criteria set out in the 'practical tips' section below are examples of best practice which will enable your new stile or gate to receive approval.

Remember: you must obtain authorisation before any work is carried out. Please contact your field officer (see the 'help and advice' section below) to discuss your proposals. Unauthorised or unsuitable stiles and gates are unlawful obstructions. You must consider the needs of people with disabilities when planning access. 

What can I do if permission is not granted?

We will only refuse you permission to erect a new stile or gate if the conditions are not met. In this case, there is no right of appeal.

Remember: new stiles and gates are only permissible on public footpaths and bridleways. There is no authorisation procedure whereby a new structure can be erected across a byway open to all traffic (BOAT) or a restricted byway.

What are my obligations for any new stile or gate?

You will normally be expected to meet the full cost of installation. In addition, authorisation will normally be subject to the condition that you are fully responsible for subsequent maintenance. If the structure is not maintained it will be deemed unlawful and may be removed at your expense (Highways Act 1980, s.143 and s.147[4]).

Remember: when considering any new fencing requirements, especially horse paddocks, you should contact your field officer (see the 'help and advice' section below) prior to any work being started. The path must be fully provided for within the scheme.

Our enforcement powers and policy

We seek to work with landowners, tenants, the National Farmers' Union (NFU) and the Country Land and Business Association(CLA) to ensure that the requirements set out in the legislation are met. The majority of farmers maintain stiles and gates on their land in a safe and reasonable condition. However, we will take firm action when conciliation fails to resolve cases of unlawful obstruction or failure to maintain.

What powers do the county council have to take action?

We can take direct default action if you ignore requests to comply with your duties as explained in these advisory notes. Action is taken by serving a statutory notice under the Highways Act 1980. If you then still fail to carry out the necessary work the notice gives the authority power to enter upon your land, carry out the work and recover its costs from you.

What is a statutory notice and what should I do if I receive one?

A statutory notice is a written warning issued when default action is to be taken. It will be sent to the owner if the matter relates to maintenance of a structure. If the matter concerns an obstruction by an unauthorised stile or gate then it may be sent to the owner and / or the occupier. If neither is known then the notice can be posted on the structure itself.

The notice and accompanying papers will indicate:

  • the structures to which it relates
  • what action you have failed to take
  • details of the means of access and the work to be carried out
  • an estimate of costs of the work to be recharged to you
  • the time and date the power to take default action comes into effect.

If you receive a notice you may wish to seek professional advice from the NFU, CLA or another source. If you genuinely and immediately intend to take action, you should advise your field officer (see the 'help and advice' section below) at once by telephone. Similarly, if there is good reason why you cannot undertake the work you should contact your field officer without delay to discuss the problem. Should you fail to notify your field officer you may still be liable for any direct costs incurred by the county council, even if the work has been carried out.

Is it possible that I could be prosecuted?

It is expected that you will carry out what the law requires, as outlined in these advisory notes. If not you are committing a criminal offence and repeated failure to comply will result in the county council having to consider prosecution as an alternative to serving a statutory notice. In addition to the fine, it would be usual for the authority to be awarded costs against you.

Practical tips for stile building

The following tips are general guidance on best practice so that stiles are safe and convenient for the public to use (but consider replacing with a gap or a gate as less injury to users is likely to occur)

  • if it is necessary to run barbed wire across a stile it must be covered with rails, plastic pipe etc or have the barbs removed
  • leave one post longer than the other to act as a hand post. The public will find it easier to use the stile if the lower post is cut flush with the fence line
  • as a minimum any stile should have at least one step for convenience
  • if you need to use two steps they should be arranged in a cross rather than side by side
  • the height for any step should be no more than 300 mm (1 ft) from the ground or between steps
  • the top rail should ideally be no more than 900 mm (3 ft) high. If a higher fence is essential please contact your field officer for specific advice
  • be aware of changes in ground level either side of a fence, this may require two steps on the lower side to make it suitable
  • on popular paths for dog walkers it may be helpful to build a dog latch beside the stile. This will prevent possible damage to adjacent fences
  • it is always preferable to use new materials which are as durable as possible. The county council reserves the right to withdraw help with labour to carry out repairs if substandard materials are provided
  • remember to round any sharp edges on the stile, such as the edges of the top rail
  • steps should not be nailed to rails. This does not make them more stable
  • electric fences must be insulated. The wire can be placed inside a plastic pipe or be put underground to avoid crossing the footpath. You must attach warning signs either side of the stile
  • steps should be level, constructed from rough sawn rather than planed timber, and be large enough for people to use safely. 175mm (7") x 38mm (1 1/2") x 900mm (36") is a good standard.
  • stiles in fences or hedges running down a slope should have steps placed nearer to the lower post
  • once a stile has been built it may need to be waymarked, this can be arranged by your field officer
  • stiles can be purchased in kit form. Details of suppliers can be obtained from your field officer.

Practical tips for gate hanging

The following tips are general guidance on best practice so that gates are safe and convenient for the public to use:

  • a self-closing gate that easily latches shut saves time and inconvenience for all
  • gates on bridleways must be able to be opened by the rider without them dismounting. If a rider does have to dismount they may climb on the gate to remount, which could result in damage
  • when choosing a fastening remember horse riders prefer long-handled latches or a simple chain and hook
  • if you are using a chain and hook remember to locate it on the top rail of the gate and not halfway down
  • gates with adjustable hinges make for easier maintenance
  • particular care must be taken with electric fencing. This must be installed safely to avoid any danger for the public and their animals, e.g horses. You must attach warning signs either side of the gate. For further advice please contact the NFU or CLA
  • when locating a gate on a bridleway there should always be a section of fencing at the latch end of the gate which is free from barbed wire to enable horses to negotiate the gate safely
  • when locating a gate in the corner of a field always hang the gate with the hinges towards the corner, especially on a bridleway
  • position the gate latch on a bridlegate where it cannot become caught on or cause injury to the horse and rider
  • It is always preferable to use new materials which are as durable as possible. The county council reserves the right to withdraw help with labour to carry out repairs if substandard materials are provided
  • when installing a kissing gate there should always be sufficient space between the end of the gate and the frame to enable people to pass easily, including those with rucksacks, baby carriers etc. Further advice on kissing gates, gates to permit wheelchair access on footpaths etc is available from your field officer
  • gates and kissing gates can be purchased in kit form. Details of suppliers can be obtained from your Field Officer.

Help and advice

Your field officer will be pleased to offer help and advice on any of the points raised in these advisory notes, or on any other problem relating to public rights of way.

Every care has been taken in this guidance but no responsibility can be taken for the consequence of any errors or omissions.