Cave Hill in Belfast has been a point of contention among its users for some time. Way back in 2002 a report was commissioned to see whether dedicated mountain bike trails could be established on the hill, however local opposition from residents and walkers meant the idea wasn’t pursued and the plan was shelved in 2006. Again in 2008, Belfast City Council heard from council officers that mountain biking on the site needed to be managed, and that banning it was unlikely to be successful:
“Talks with some local mountain bikers have taken place, with Officers explaining that they are currently repairing some paths within Cave Hill Country Park and Officers fear that if mountain biking on the site is not managed correctly then the damage caused to these new paths could be substantial.
To try to remove mountain biking from Cave Hill CountryPark would be a very costly exercise in terms of man hours and possibly with little success given the nature of the sport.”
To try and address these issues, the officers were seeking approval to ‘ ..try to accommodate the sport within the Country Park and to explore avenues of funding available’. Permission was granted, and engagement with local riders appears to have resulted in a reduction in issues on the Cave Hill site, as reported to the Parks and Leisure Committee in 2009. At the same time, a study with input from a professional trail builder Dafydd Davis (who has an MBE for all his trail building efforts) determined that Cave Hill could not satisfactorily accommodate mountain biking trails. Instead it was determined that a dedicated trail should be pursued at the nearby Mary Peters location – the tone of the officer’s reports does seem to suggest that the gap in provision of legal trails needs addressing, and recognises the growing interest in mountain biking. In principle plans for a £340,000 trail and skills facilities were approved in 2010 – and although they appear not to deliver the same downhill style of riding that Cave Hill offers, the trails opened in 2013.
It is notable that in 2010, at the same time as approving the idea for a dedicated trail, the Council also approved the following recommendation:
‘Agree to deploying extra resources to enforce the by-laws at CHCP. This would include employing Park Rangers at the weekends and summer evenings.’
The park bylaws state:
‘A person shall not ride any bicycle in a manner which is unsafe or likely to cause damage to the park or give reasonable cause for annoyance or alarm to other persons in the park’.
In a report to the committee in 2012, seeking permission to relocate a race to Cave Hill following an outbreak of larch disease in Tollymore Forest, the Assistant Director of Parks and Leisure noted that ‘management had engaged with mountain bikers for over a decade and had dealt previously with issues of public safety and illegal biking within the park‘, suggesting perhaps that relations with the riding community were good. Various assurances were put in place to ensure environmental sensitivities were taken into account.
By the Council’s own admission, the activities of downhill riders at the Cave Hill site remained under the radar until 2015 when there were allegations of sabotage to the unsanctioned trails – the kind of sabotage intended to cause a rider to crash and injure themselves. At that point park officials appear to have overlooked the unsanctioned nature of the trails and instead it’s stated that they attempted to keep an eye out for any obstacles.
Again in 2017, riders approached the Council, this time with video footage of people sabotaging the trails. However, while the police did investigate, the council decided that after 15 years or trying to find a resolution, it was now necessary to ban riding in the park. Effectively an escalation of the 2010 decision by the Council to enforce the by-laws.
Phew. So now we’re caught up with where we are today, and the point at which national press coverage starts.
In considering the decision to prevent mountain biking on Cave Hill, the Council cited three issues here bullet pointed.
- The dangerous nature of this activity on this site has been highlighted as a serious public safety issue and would draw Members attention to two recent, high profile incidents involving the death of a walker in Colin Glen Forest Park in a collision with a scrambler and also the death of a pedestrian knocked down by a cyclist in London.
– this justification has been criticised, as neither example relates to mountain biking. The walker that was killed was hit by a scrambler – a motorbike – and the London pedestrian was hit on the road by someone with a non road legal fixie.
- The police investigation noted that riders can reach speeds of up to 30mph.
– Ben McClure, a local rider has been quoted in the press as disputing this claim. Sadly, a quick look on Strava shows that the police are right – on this segment the lead rider had a maximum speed of 33.8mph – a section of path rather than the more technical downhill trails, and likely the kind of spot where you’re more likely to run into conflict with pedestrians. A further bit of Strava digging reveals one of the downhill trails, where the leader has an average speed of 17mph, and a maximum speed of 27.7mph. As Hannah predicted, riders are sharing their data and it will be used against us. It might be that the data could also be used to demonstrate a decline in use since the 2010 enforcement activities, but that’s not something readily accessible. Strava Heatmaps does show a number on relatively lightly used trails criss crossing the steep hillside, compared to heavier use on the more established footpaths.
- ‘A suggestion that an area of the park could be segregated for the sole or part-time use by mountain bikers is not feasible. Council would then be seen to be actively encouraging mountain bikers into the park and therefore would be responsible for the safety of mountain bikers and the consequences of any subsequent conflicts between users.’
– It seems clear that the Council has attempted to broker some kind of solution in the area. It’s not clear how they would be responsible for the consequences of conflicts when there are other riding facilities elsewhere where presumably a walker could run into a rider, but maybe this is the effect of the bylaw – if it says you mustn’t cause alarm, and the Council doesn’t enforce that, they could be liable?
All is not lost however – the Council deferred the decision – so did not approve the recommendations in the report, and there are to be further investigations and likely working parties set up to look at the issue.
From this distance, it’s hard to be too critical of the Council – many local groups would be delighted to experience this level of engagement from their local authority. There’s a significant amount of officer time gone into the issue so far, and we await the outcome of the latest round of consultation with interest.
What do you think? Should we have the right to ride everywhere, or do we sometimes need to accept that some places are out of bounds? Are riders and/or the Council acting reasonably?