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Background

Public and private roads

The difference between public and private roads is perhaps more complicated than you might think.

Public roads - the roads on which everyone drives to and fro - are public in the sense that: 

They belong to the local authority (usually the County Council)

  • The local authority is under a legal duty to maintain them
  • They are highways (more precisely, "carriageways", meaning that there is generally a public right of way for all classes of traffic).

Private roads (also known as "unadopted roads") are different in that they don't belong to the local authority, and the local authority is not under a legal duty to maintain them. But a private road may nonetheless be a highway for one or more classes of traffic. A private road can become a highway through use by the public over a period of time. Private through-roads sometimes become highways in this way, though private cul-de-sacs rarely do so. (Whether a public right of way still exists for mechanically-propelled vehicles depends also upon the effect of Part 6 of the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006, which came into effect on 2 May 2006. This extinguished public rights of way for mechanically-propelled vehicles in most private roads.)

Numbers

No official figures exist, but there are thought to be about 40,000 private roads in England and Wales. There are many in the Home Counties - Surrey, for example, has more than 2,000 - but other parts of England and Wales also have substantial numbers. Some are ancient; many reflect suburban development in the late-nineteenth to mid-twentieth century period; and many modern developments are built around private roads, for the benefits which they confer. The ownership of older roads is often unknown, though residents may be able to register title.

Organisation

Since residents cannot look to the local authority to maintain their road, they must do so themselves. Residents usually form an association or a private company, collect contributions, organise maintenance and deal with other issues such as insurance, parking, tree surgery, rights of way etc. Some private roads are organised in a very formal way, others less so.  This is a matter of choice; but a degree of organisation is essential if the benefits of private status are to be enjoyed and problems avoided. Generally, a company will be a better option than an unincorporated residents' association, especially if it is to own the road.