January 26, 2011
As you might be aware, last November the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) outlined their plans to sell off a massive amount of publicly owned Forestry Commission woodland in England as part of the ‘Big Society’ shift to move away from public ownership. The move prompted a massive outcry from the general public as well as MPs and celebrity types. A petition has been put up at the 38 Degrees site and has received over 200,000 signatures. While some say that this could mean some popular Forestry Commission riding spots such as the Forest of Dean could be turned into Center Parcs style tourist attractions or housing developments, DEFRA has said that “Full measures will remain in place to preserve the public benefits of woods and forests under any new ownership arrangements. Tree felling is controlled through the licensing system managed by the Forestry Commission, public rights of way and access will be unaffected, statutory protection for wildlife will remain in force and there will be grant incentives for new planting that can be applied for.”
Indeed, public rights of way are protected for walkers under the Countryside Rights of Way (CROW) Act 2000, but cyclists and any users that are “not foot only” are not specifically covered under this legislation. While there are many private woodlands that have mountain bike trails built in them, the sell off of Forestry Land could jeopardise existing unsanctioned trails and make many tracks off limit to riders as private owners seek to limit their liability in case of accidents.
The Guardian’s piece is a good starting point to understand what’s going on – you can read it here.
We absolutely don’t agree with the idea of selling off public land to private bodies who, by their very nature, will seek to maximise their profits while minimising any exposure to the risks of having the public use that land and we’d suggest that as well as signing the petition you should also get in touch with your local MP to raise your concerns directly. A consultation on the future of Forestry Commission land is due some time this week and is likely to be published tomorrow on the DEFRA website. It’s likely that the sell off is nigh on impossible to stop, but access rights and the landowners responsibilities to maintain the access should be safeguarded – and as cyclists we should be especially vocal, considering a lot of what we take for granted isn’t safeguarded as much as it is for other outdoors users.
All this also means there are also possibilities for well organised local access groups to fill the void and use this to their own benefit, as we said in our piece about Natural England. We also suggest you get behind the CTC, who are the most organised and powerful group willing to protect and fight for the interests of cyclists. You can join them here and they are ready and willing to use their resources and knowledge to help fight your own local access battles. They have a document on the issue here.
There is also a rally being held by the Campaign to Save Lakeland’s Forests this weekend at the meadow next to the main car park at Grizedale Forest at 1pm on Sunday 30th January.
MoD Bylaw review
A new threat has also appeared, again broken by the Guardian website. It seems that as part of their review of bylaws relating to military training land, the Ministry of Defence is likely to start limiting access to cyclists. These bylaws already exist – it is a prosecutable offence to stray from “a carriageway of a road suitably constructed and made up for use by vehicular traffic” on military training land, but they’ve been lax in enforcement since their introduction in 1976 and many riders will know and ride trails on training grounds.
Speaking to the Guardian, a MOD spokesman said:
“The MoD holds its estate for one reason – military training – and this must be enabled as part of any balance with public access. It is not anticipated that cyclists will be given an open right of access across this part of the estate.
Aside from disruption to training, there have been instances of cyclists injuring themselves off road and as landowner we have a duty of care to anyone on our property. We therefore try to remove that risk by application of the byelaw excluding cycling from off road areas.
There are cases in other areas where prosecutions have occurred or injunctions have been taken out.”
It would seem from this piece that the construction of obvious man made trail elements has become a problem – yet again, ‘North Shore’ construction rears its head in the article as an obvious sign of a mountain biking presence, especially in areas where the land is also a Site of Special Scientific Interest or a Special Protected Area. The ethics of cheeky trails to not mess with where you’re riding or make it obvious that it’s being used should always apply no matter where people ride, but even this is a short term solution that will not solve the underlying issues.
Again, if you ride responsibly and ethically on military land, it’s time to stand up and be counted. The CTC and local access forums are a good starting point. Remember that the shirking of governmental responsibility under ‘Big Society’ is a big opportunity if you’re ready and willing to get involved where others will not. Sort out you local access issues and we can start working towards a national goal.