Local authorities with statutory responsibilities for maintaining rights of way in the North York Moors are to be given notice the national park could hand back a host of responsibilities for the routes, following a heated debate which saw Conservative councilors have their duties questioned.

A meeting of the usually harmonious North York Moors National Park Authority saw its government and council appointed membership divided over rights of way maintenance, with a review of how the work should be funded passed by a narrow majority.

Members were told while the park authority would always look to work on some rights of way, if no agreement was reached with North Yorkshire and Redcar and Cleveland councils in the next 12 months, the park authority could offload both its responsibility for maintaining many routes as well as potentially costly liabilities to maintain bridges and paths.

The meeting heard concerns if maintaining the rights of way are eventually handed back to the councils, the standards of the routes was likely to significantly drop, but the park authority would concentrate its resources on prioritised rights of way.

The national park’s only rights of way not included in the dispute are the Cleveland Way and Coast to Coast routes, which as national trails receive ringfenced funding from Natural England.

The meeting heard the authority was examining how it could maintain its vast network of routes with diminishing resources as a result of its government funding having been frozen for several years and North Yorkshire and Redcar and Cleveland councils not contributing to their statutory responsibility for the routes for at least five years.

While the authority has been successful in attracting grants from numerous bodies for many projects, members were told external organisations were not interested in funding footpath maintenance, partly because it was a statutory duty.

The meeting heard the park authority intended to “negotiate a better balance of responsibilities” with the councils, as well as look at a greater use of volunteers for low level work and look to build enhancing rights of way into future external funding bids.

Park authority officers said although councils had a statutory duty to help the park authority achieve its aims and that there was a “huge social return on investment”, their hopes of getting some of the government’s Network North monies given to highway authorities in October had been dashed.

Officers underlined they had already spent five months examining options alongside the authority’s recreation and wellbeing forum, and the park authority had reached “the end of the footpath”.

However, three members of North Yorkshire Council’s ruling Conservative group called for the authority to carry out more research before agreeing any move, accusing the authority of failing to supply evidence to support the proposed move.

A fourth Tory councillor then called on the park authority to consider “other ways” of funding rights of way maintenance.

George Jabbour, who represents Helmsley division on the council, warned the park authority against souring its relationship with local authorities and said it was particularly important the authority focused on its priorities as it was set to spend “millions of pounds on brand new offices”.

He suggested if the park authority could find funds to pay interest on loans for the building scheme it could also find some money to deal with the rights of way.

Nevertheless, member Christine Robertson said the proposal to renogotiate the maintenance deal would give the councils the opportunity to “stump up on what is their obligation”.

She urged members of the park authority who served on the councils not to forget their duty to the park or “land the park with a big bill, effectively”.

The park authority’s chair, Jim Bailey, added: “The national park will and should spend a huge amount of its efforts on its rights of way network because I think think they are the most valuable thing we do as a national park authority.

“They are the most valuable tool we have for delivering health and wellbeing and the most valuable economic draw both for the local authorities and national park in serving our duty to the social and economic wellbeing of our local people as well as visitors.”