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Advice for Requesting Rights of Way Documents from UK Councils

There are a three different documents that most county and district councils must maintain (the Definitive Map, the Definitive Statement, and the List of Streets), and two problems to overcome if we want to use the data in OSM (getting hold of the information, and obtaining permission to re-use it). Details of the progress in getting hold of and obtaining permission to use these documents are tracked in the OSM wiki UK Local Councils page. What follows below is some person notes and advice for trying to request these documents for use in OSM.

The Definitive Map and Statement

With the exception of central London authorities, all county councils and unitary authorities have a legal duty to maintain a "Definitive Map and Statement" of public rights of way for their area. These two documents detail the four types of Public Right of Way: Public Footpaths, Public Bridleways, Restricted Byways, and Byways Open to All Traffic. By law, the council has to make these documents available for inspection by members of the public. Typically this will be by visiting the council offices in person during office hours. Sometimes an appointment will be necessary.

The Definitive Map

The "Definitive Map" usually exists as many sheets, and has the routes drawn on top of an Ordnance Survey base map. Thus the maps will be encumbered by OS's IP rights. Because of this, the council will usually be able to refuse requests for copies of the map that cover more than a single page. Moreover, even if copies copies could be obtained, Ordnance Survey have so far not given permission for any re-use of information in these full definitive maps, and it seems unlikely they will do so.

However, recent changes in the Public Sector Mapping Agreement that OS has with Councils means that there is now an exemption that can be used to release digitised versions of just the council's own added data in cases like this. Many councils now have digital GIS data-sets for their Public Rights of way, which are entirely separate from the base map from which they were derived. For advice about requesting this data-set and the rights to re-use it, please see my Advice for Requesting Rights of Way GIS Data from UK Councils page.

The Definitive Statement

The Definitive Statement contains a entry for each Public Right of Way. As a minimum each entry will include the parish name, a reference number (usually only unique to the parish), the classification, and a description of the route followed. The quality of the descriptions can vary significantly. Some will include a lot of detail, including OS grid references. Others may be very brief.

The statements can be quite useful in checking the classification of routes already mapped on OSM, and working out where routes have yet to be mapped. Combined with aerial imagery and some local knowledge, it may be possible to map the route too. But an on the ground survey is probably still advisable.

The Definitive Statements are not subject to any IP claim by Ordnance Survey. (Despite them potentially being based on a derivative work of their mapping, OS have explicitly stated that OS do not claim any IP rights in the Definitive Statements.) The Definitive Statements are therefore wholly owned by their respective councils. Therefore if we can obtain permission from the Council, we can make use of them for improving OpenStreetMap.

The List of Streets

Under the Highways Act 1980, Section 36(6), every highway authority has to keep a list of highways maintainable at public expense which may be inspected by the public. This is known as the 'list of streets'. The list details of classified and unclassified highways, and may also include some footpaths, alleyways and cycleways, particularly in urban areas.

The List of Streets often does not contain much information about the streets beyond the road name, so it may not be that much use for OSM. However, for some counties it also contains lengths, descriptions, and/or start-and-end points. The List of Streets may well be helpful in determining if a mapped road is a public highway or not though, and so help get the access tags correct. It may also help in providing reference numbers and classifications.

Obtaining a Copies of the Documents

The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) can be helpful when it comes to obtaining a copy of any of the documents. (See the ICO guidance on the FOIA.) However, the council may only hold the information in paper form, which could mean lots of pieces of paper would need to be copied. In this case, the maximum cost exclusion could be applied, and/or they may choose to charge you for the copying.

An unhelpful council could also refuse to supply you a copy (even if it is simple for them to do so) on the grounds that the information is "reasonably accessible" to you already, since you can inspect it at the council offices. (Being available for inspection is a legal requirement at least with respect to the Definitive Map and Statement.) You can probably get round that by saying it would be inconvenient for you to travel to the offices when they are open, or by getting a friend who lives on the other side of the country to request it for you.

FOIA gives you the rights to obtain a copy of the information. A request does not have to mention the FOIA for its provisions to apply, and it can be made to any suitable contact address at the council. Rather than making a formal request to the FOIA email address, it might be better to make a friendly request to the Highways Department (for the "List of Streets") or the Countryside / Rights of Way Department (for the "Definitive Statement") without mentioning FOIA. The rules technically still apply, but it may save the council some bureaucracy if they do not have to deal with it by following a strict FOIA procedure. If they refuse or prevaricate over the initial request, then you could mention FOIA.

Obtaining Permission to Use the Information in OSM

Getting permission to make use of the data in OSM can also be tricky. The FOIA has previsions to force the Council to supply the information, but says nothing about transferring any rights to publish or re-use it. Many council people will not understand what OSM is all about, will not appreciate the need for licensing, and/or may be concerned about their own liability if OSM were to accidentally mislead the public.

Fortunately, the Open Government Licence can help here. It is a standard Government-backed license, designed specifically to enable the people to re-use public-sector information. Its terms should provide protection for the council, and at the same time give OSM the rights it needs.

The less-well-known Re-use of Public Sector Information Regulations (2015), will also be very useful when requesting permission. Since the 2015 Regulations came in to force, Public Bodies must licence for reuse most documents for which they own the relevant copyrights. However, they can still charge a fee for permitting reuse (though usually not more than the marginal cost of "reproduction, provision and dissemination") and they can potentially impose conditions that would be incompatible with use in OpenStreetMap. The regulations also say that requests must be replied to within 20 working days (unless they're particularly complex), and that the body cannot discriminate between different people wanting to re-use the same information for similar purposes.

Councils should be able to allow re-use of the Definitive Statement and the List of Streets under the Open Government Licence, as they own all the relevant rights to that data. Recent changes to the Public Sector Mapping Agreement with OS also allows them to release Public Rights of Way GIS data (though not the Definitive Maps themselves) under the Open Government Licence too.

If/when permission is given to use the information under a suitable licence, it may be on the condition that an attribution statement and/or disclaimer is provided. This can be achieved in OSM by added the requested statement to OSM Contributors page. Several councils already have entries under the Public Rights of Way Data from local councils heading.

Sample Emails to councils

So, with the all of the above in mind, here is the simple email I sent to some Council Countryside / public rights of way contacts when the definitive statements were already available online:

I see that you provide access online to the "Definitive Statements" for public rights of way in the county at

I would like to ask for permission to re-use the information contained in these statements to help with the inclusion and accurate classification of public rights of way in a map that I am helping to compile.

Specifically, could I ask for permission for us to reuse your Definitive Statements under the terms of the official "Open Government License" for Public Sector Information at ?

And here is what I sent when the statements were not available online:

I am interested in obtaining a copy of the Definitive Statement of Public Rights of Way in the County of XXXX. Do you currently have a copy of this in electronic form? If so, I'd be grateful if you could send me a copy.

Secondly, if you are able to provide a copy, I would like to ask for permission to re-use the information contained in these Statements to help with the inclusion and accurate classification of public rights of way in a map that I'm helping to compile.

Specifically, could I ask for permission for us to reuse your Definitive Statements under the terms of the Open Government License at ?

If the reply came back that the Definitive Statements were only held in paper form, I decided not to pursue the matter further. While the FOIA could possibly be used to force the council to provide a copy of some or all of the statements, it would be a lot of effort for them, for the amount of gain for us. I thought it would be better to wait until either they create an electronic version themselves or take up Ordnance Survey's deal to be able to release the Definitive Maps.

If the council asked for more details about how the definitive statements would be used, I replied with something along the following lines:

I am helping to compile a map of the UK that, unlike Ordnance Survey and other commercial maps, is completely free for others to use. The map is compiled by the combined work of lots of volunteers in a similar way to how Wikipedia works. You can see our progress online at

I have a particular interest in mapping Public Rights of Way. Many rights of way have already been mapped using GPS traces of routes on the ground, and often the status (Footpath, Bridleway, BOAT, etc) has been added by observing the signs. The idea would be to use the information in the Definitive Statements to (a) verify that routes already mapped have the correct route and status, (b) add the status to routes that have been mapped without a status, and (c) identify gaps in the mapping where missing footpaths need to be surveyed on the ground. Sometimes it may be possible to use aerial imagery (donated by Bing maps) together with the Definitive Statement information to add a route directly without having to survey it on the ground, but we're wary about doing this for obvious reasons.

Because we want to make sure the resulting map is free for anyone to use, it must not be "contaminated" by any third-party IP rights that would prevent us from giving a free license to others to use the map. Hence my request to make use of the Definitive Statements under the Open Government Licence. This gives us the rights we need to be able to release our map (which would become a derivative work of the Statements) to others under an Open licence.

Some councils have been wary about their data being used to mislead the public, and them then being liable. Hence my reply tries to emphasise how Rights of Way are already being mapped, and their data will only help improve the accuracy of the map. They may also not appreciate the need for a specific licence to use the data, so I've attempted to explain that too.