Trail Access: Government ‘Misses The Point’

November 3, 2016

In July we brought you news that a collective of cycle campaigning groups had written to the British and Welsh Governments seeking greater access to paths for cyclists.

The letters sent in July suggested that piloting the responsible access model in suitable areas of the countryside would prove the viability and benefits of adopting the Scottish access model in England and Wales. The letters ask the government:

“to work in partnership with sector stakeholders to commission research and support pilots in selected areas to test how enhanced responsible outdoor access could work in England [and Wales].”

The response from DEFRA (the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) Minister Lord Gardiner of Kimble states that the government does “not consider that it would be appropriate to introduce access in England on the lines of the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 as a Scottish model would not be a substitute for public rights of way.”

By way of reasoning, the letter states that in Scotland – where access all country paths is allowed – “access to lowland farmland remains inferior to similar land in England” and that “population density of England is different to that of Scotland.”

Let’s have a bit more Scotland in our lives, eh?

Commenting on the response, British Cycling’s campaigns manager, Martin Key, said:

“The response from DEFRA is a missed opportunity. Their unwillingness to consider the benefits that this could bring to everyone in Britain, not just those who live in the countryside, is frustrating.

“Using pithy excuses like Scotland’s population density compared with England also just highlights a lack of understanding of the issues at play. If the Minister would like to speak to Scottish Ministers he will see that there are locations of equal population density and land pressure in Scotland and England where responsible access has been a great success and we feel that DEFRA are missing the opportunity to see the positive economic impact of mountain biking and recreational cycling on the rural economy.

“The Scottish economy benefits from nearly £50 million a year due to Mountain Biking – England and Wales need to feel this benefit as well.”

The response from the DEFRA minister also states that “there are no plans to change legislation to upgrade all footpaths to bridleways” and that “structures such as stiles and kissing gates would also need to be replaced.”

Martin Key added:

“We’re not asking for footpaths to be made into bridleways or for stiles to be replaced. This misses the point.

“We’d like to see the government take some first steps to run pilots and commission additional research into this issue. Scotland has proved that responsible access can work and it is short-sighted of the government not to be open to the many benefits that it can bring.

“We would like to sit down with Lord Gardiner, discuss with him what we are calling for in more detail, and show that what we are calling for is sustainable and in the best interests of so many people nationwide.”

The DEFRA response states that “The decision to upgrade specific footpaths to bridleways, or to create new bridleways should be made locally. Members of your organisations may like to talk to their local highway authorities and local landowners about footpaths which do not suffer these constraints [stiles and kissing gates] and could be upgraded”.

We can’t help but suspect that this approach – devolving responsibility to Local Authorities – helpfully avoids the need to provide central government funding to support changes.

Readers may be interested to note that Lord Gardiner is a keen supporting of hunting, which might help explain his concern about kissing gates and stiles – which of course are less of a problem for mountain bikers than they are for horses.

We also asked our Welsh access contacts about how that Welsh consultation into more Scotland-like access was going. While there’s not really been much of a response, it sounds like the ministers are now going to be mostly focussed on Brexit issues for at least the next couple of years. And Britain’s departure from the EU is going to make any access to European development grant funding (the stuff that helped build most of the trail centres in Wales so far) very unlikely. So… unfortunately, the message is ‘don’t hold your breath.’

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