IT MAY well have escaped the notice of most people, but a consultation on Craven's public rights of way is currently underway.

The consultation, which runs for just another couple of weeks until March 19, does not include routes inside the Yorkshire Dales National Park, which are maintained for North Yorkshire County Council by the park authority.

But it does include all other Craven footpaths, bridlepaths and other rights of way, where access is permitted without the permission of the landowner - and could well have both short and long term consequences.

The county council, which continues to face swingeing budget cuts, like every other local authority, is looking to cut the money it spends on highways, including rights of way, which it maintains along with landowners and a small number of officers.

Now, it plans to categorise rights of way with those deemed to be the most important - both nationally, such as the Pennine Way, and to communities.

By putting the paths in levels of importance, which it plans to do with input from communities, those occupying the highest level will be prioritised in terms of maintenance, receiving the lion's share of the council's ever-dwindling resources.

Skipton councillor, Robert Heseltine, North Yorkshire County Council's representative on the Local Access Forum, said it was a rare opportunity for the public to comment on the area's rights of way.

"It is of critical importance that people take part in the rights of way consultation, they don't come along very often," he said.

Cllr Heseltine said routes such as the Pennine Way and the Dales Way would continue to receive high levels of care, because of their importance, but it was less popular and well used paths that could be at risk.

He also thought there was a case for additional rights of way to be included in the definitive map.

And he was confident that people in Craven would continue to fight to protect their rights of way.

"People who use these paths in North Yorkshire are not backwards in coming forwards in reporting defects and difficulties.

North Yorkshire as a whole has one of the longest network of paths in the whole country, and every year, those who use them will report around 3, 000 defects.

They range from broken footbridges and damage stiles, to missing footpath signs, paths being ploughed over or badly overgrown.

Maintenance of the network is carried out by a small team of officers with support from landowners, contractors and a dedicated group of countryside volunteers.

Fellow Skipton councillor, Andy Solloway, agreed that it was important to protect rights of way and urged people to take part in the consultation.

"Public rights of way are important, they need to be protected and we need to be careful that we don's lose any of them," he said.

He said there were also potential problems with paths when a developer sought permission to re-route them.

And he added it was important for people to use public rights of way if they were to avoid being lost.

Cllr Don Mackenzie, North Yorkshire's executive member for highways, also urged people to take part in the consultation and help the council form its list of prioritised routes.

"I would encourage local people to have their say on this important consultation and help us to shape our plans," he said.

“A key objective for the council is to make sure our public rights of way network is safe and usable for both residents and visitors alike. The changes proposed as part of the consultation will allow us to prioritise the work involved in doing so."

He added: "Measuring the value that different communities place on particular routes is intended to make sure that resources are allocated to maintaining paths that benefit users and local communities the most."

The council plans to focus routine maintenance in areas where paths are agreed as being more important, or better used.

It says categorising routes will also help it to plan how it respond to defects - whether they are reported to the council, or it finds itself.

Categorising paths will take into account whether they are a route taken by children to school, or in an area of outstanding natural beauty. They will also be judged on how important they are considered by the community.

The closing date for the consultation is Sunday, March 19. To take part, go to the website