CAMPAIGNERS battling controversial work to a Meon Valley bridleway have threatened legal action against civic chiefs after a barrister branded their decision "nonsense".
New legal advice has encouraged the Save our Bridleway pressure group that they can fix what they call an unsuitable new surface for horses and other users.
Many equestrians say new stone scalping will allow cars to illegally use the route and keep horses to a walk.
The county council and South Downs National Park Authority have argued they did not need planning consent as the work – resurfacing and widening the path, clearing mud and stripping foliage – was an improvement to the existing path rather than a new development.
But in advice commissioned by Save our Bridleway, Wayne Beglan, of Cornerstone Barristers, said: "It would in my view be nonsense to describe the work as either works or maintenance or mere improvement of the existing [path].
"It amounts to creating a newer much broader highway, rather than merely improving the old highway."
He added: "[The] works are not permitted development and accordingly require planning permission."
Earlier this year, Save our Bridleway raised £3,000 in just two days to commission Mr Beglan's opinion. The group marched through Wickham last month to show their opposition and has more than 2,500 followers on Facebook.
They are hoping to settle the issue out of court by persuading the councils to apply for retrospective consent and lay a split surface for horses, saying this would re-engage residents who feel they weren't consulted.
But if talks break down, the case could be taken to judicial review or the national planning ombudsman, according to organiser Martin Montague.
He said: “Believe it or not, there was £65,000 in the HCC/SDNP budget for route signage for this project and absolutely nothing allocated for consultation.
“If they had perhaps decided not to spend so much on signs and had used some of the money on consultation a lot of very unpopular mistakes could have been avoided.
“The fact that SDNP is a planning authority yet fails to obtain planning permission for its own work makes a mockery of the planning system.”
A spokesman for South Downs National Park Authority said: “As the planning authority we consider any new legal opinion on development and respond accordingly, as we will with the one commissioned by this group.”
Hampshire County Council said in a statement: “We can confirm that we met with representatives from the campaign group ... and we will be responding in due course.”