Access All Areas: A Rights of Way Officer’s view – Part 2

Our discussion of the issues surrounding access in the UK for mountain bikers continues with the second part of an in-depth article from a Rights of Way officer, we talk about Local Access Forums, what they do, why bikers are under-represented on them and there are some last thoughts and a bit of further reading if the issue has caught your imagination.

If you missed part one, which covered the different types of access, riding on different kinds of land, why ‘normal’ use can be ‘damage’ and much more interesting stuff then take a look here – PART ONE.

“Local Access Forums / Council departments

The Countryside and Rights of Way Act requires Highway (and national park) authorities to establish LAF’s with the function of acting as independent advisors. The Forum’s remit covers all aspects of ‘open air recreation’ for all aspects of society. Regulations state that a LAF should compromise of between 10 and 22 members (including a chair / vice-chair, with a secretary being employed by the appointing authority) and the Forum must meet at least twice a year, although most meet every other month. Some larger authorities have smaller sub-LAF’s (e.g. west and east of the area) and most Forums cooperate with their neighbours so there is uniformity over an even larger area.

The authority has a duty to ensure that the Forum remains as reasonably balanced as possible, so choose a mix of members between users, landowners and others (from business, tourism, etc). People become members by applying for them just like a job; the positions will be advertised, application forms filled in and interviews held. If successful, members are appointed for three years to reapply as normal if they want to. A typical interview panel would be a councillor/LAF chair, the PRoW section head or equivalent and someone from personnel/HR.

The selection criteria reads just like a job application form with ‘essential’ qualities of “To be committed to the function of the Forum and be willing and able to play a full part in all aspects of a LAF’s work” and two of the five ‘desirable’ qualities to “have a wide range of experience of access issues in the area; to have experience of working on, and contributing to, similar Forums in the past”. If a Forum is under-represented in an area they should be willing to take on an inexperienced member if they are keen to represent their particular area of interest.

All authorities should have on their website detailed information on their Forum (Terms of reference, Guidelines / best practice and Roles / duties / functions / etc), but if not will be on the CCW or Natural England website as they initially issued them.

The walking / horse riding contingent are very active and vocal, and in recent years 4 x 4 / scrambler groups are becoming more involved too. Generally speaking members are retired and / or have had previous or current similar positions with other committees or groups.

In my experience the reasons for the under-representation on LAF’s are because bikers: -

  • Would rather go out biking.
  • Prefer group-action, as although biking is indeed a ‘movement’ of sorts it still depends on key individuals / groups. As mentioned earlier, any problems on the ground can be dealt with there and then so many wonder what the point is in any bigger picture.
  • Are generally younger than other user groups, so see councils as being disinterested and out of touch (and in fairness we should do much more to open up on what we do and why, and that yes, we could do with help now and again from user groups).
  • Would rather go out biking!

I’m just as bad to put things off to go out biking instead too, but to commit to half a day every other month at the most isn’t that bad (compared to how much time you could spend comparing parts on the web!), so its worth a try to get involved with your LAF if you think you are suitable. If you don’t or if they aren’t accepting new members or if you are unsuccessful in applying for membership, they are still open to the public so become an observer and see what’s going on in your area. Meetings should end with an opportunity for the members of the public to have their say, so use it!

Perhaps ring your local Rights of Way Department, make yourself known and tell them that you are willing to help or advise with biking issues, or even let them know if you have some ideas on how to improve biking locally. Their Rights of Way Improvement Plan should be on their website, so see what priorities they give biking. Join a local club and talk to your LBS. Everything helps.

Last thoughts

I am a realist and prefer to actively manage conflict instead of just making people stop something outright. I accept that every biker will still make their own decision on where to ride, but hope those who chose to go where they shouldn’t to at least do so carefully and with respect for the land and other people. I will say that just because you can doesn’t mean you should, and just because you can’t be arrested for something it isn’t an open invitation to do whatever you want!

If you are where you know you shouldn’t be and get in trouble then that was your choice, but if you know that you are in the right (maybe the landowner is ok with you being there) and still get shouted at by someone, politely and calmly explain that as far as you’re concerned you are entitled to be there. Either way, it’s really not worth getting into an argument about so just leave it be.

I hope I’ve been able to answer all your questions, but if not I’ll try and answer more via the comments section below. If you would like to know more, the following website & wiki are useful places to start: -

http://www.iprow.co.uk/

http://www.iprow.co.uk/gpg/index.php/Main_Page

And if you would like to look at the relevant statutes, the other Acts I mostly use are the Highways Act (1980), the Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981) and the Countryside and Rights of Way Act (2000): -

http://www.legislation.gov.uk/

p.s. If you want to know, yes I ride occasionally where I shouldn’t, but I always do so respectfully. Does that make me a hypocrite? I don’t know, but what I do know is me being on the bike and me being in work are two different parts of my life, and sometimes they’re not perfectly in balance.

This just goes to show there is a problem with this whole issue when even a ‘professional’ like me runs into trouble. I understand the system is far from perfect but mountain biking is still relatively new and the PRoW network is old, clumsy and its foundations based on walking. For now though I think it’s who we’ve got that counts for more than what we’ve got.”
Where to now? Well, we’ve spoken to people and local groups that have been involved with their Local Access Forums and general access issues in their back yards to see what their experiences have been and what you should do if you’d like to get involved…

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Access Online Feature