There are exciting developments on the horizon for mountain bikers in Wales. Earlier this month, government minister Hannah Blythyn announced the biggest shake-up of UK access laws since Scotland’s Land Reform Act.
For mountain bikers who use public rights of way (and that’s nearly all of us, at one time or another), the UK’s access laws are often more of a hindrance than a help. Legally, in England and Wales we only have the right to ride on bridleways, byways and roads. The access available to users on foot is far wider, and includes footpaths, urban commons and, following the Countryside and Rights of Way Act, fully open access to certain areas – the so-called “Right to Roam”.
So in England and Wales, mountain biking has often tended to concentrate around certain honeypot areas with a good network of routes. Think of places with a great reputation for mountain biking, like the Peaks, the Lakes or the Quantocks, and you’ll probably be thinking of areas with a high proportion of bridleways and byways. These are the places that tend to get featured in route guides and magazine articles, while the rest of the country remains terra incognita.
Head to Scotland though, and things are very different. The whole country is ready to be explored on foot, bike or horse (providing you observe a simple common-sense code). This groundbreaking legislation has coincided with the Scottish MTB scene really starting to flourish, and the country becoming a top destination for discerning riders.
While Scotland’s access legislation formalised rights that were already common law, the proposals for Wales would create a completely new system, based on how suitable a trail is for that type of user. It’s arguably the way things should have been done in the first place, and yet it’s still uncertain how such a system would work in practice, or how much of Wales’s trail network would be opened up as a response. Nevertheless it’s a refreshingly radical proposal that could benefit many aspects of cycling, reconnecting broken links in the network, letting riders use access land, encouraging everyday cycling, and creating epic new long-distance routes.
While it’s fair to say that no cycling organisations have opposed more access, the changes have come about thanks largely to the efforts of Cycling UK, whose detailed response to the Welsh Government’s original consultation clearly influenced the current proposals, and has remained involved in every subsequent stage of the process. We spoke to Duncan Dollimore, Cycling UK’s head of campaigning, and senior communications officer Sam Jones to take us through the journey that led to the Welsh Government’s announcement, and fill in some of the detail about how the new system might work.
Sam the man
Sam Jones has been involved with the campaign from the start, and oversaw a push that led to the Welsh Government’s consultation getting one of the largest responses in history, thanks to a coordinated approach which involved national bodies and grassroots mountain bike groups. As Sam explains:
“It was mid-summer in 2014 when Cycling UK member (and now our off-road policy advisor), Kieran Foster approached us, having noticed some exciting opportunities to improve off-road cycling access in a Welsh Government consultation. He introduced us to a newly-formed MTB Advocacy Group, which later became OpenMTB, and together our two organisations began work on a joint response to represent the views of the off-road cycling community.
“In the past when access had been debated, while landowners, walkers, fishermen and horse riders have made their own representation, there had been little to no coordinated national responses from mountain bikers. With our response submitted, our joint campaign Trails for Wales was born.
“The public campaign launched in September with the support of Tracy Moseley and both British Cycling and Welsh Cycling. The bike industry soon threw their weight behind the campaign too, as Cube, Giant, Greenover Sports, Howies, Raleigh, Silverfish, Storck, Swift Carbon, Trek, and Whyte all signed up. By 2 October, the consultation deadline, 4,050 people had written into the Welsh Government in support of increased access. There was a real rally of sign-ups in the last 24 hours, thanks in large part to the MTB media, like Singletrack, which helped drum up close to 500 new signatories.
“Back then, most of my spare time has been either cycle touring on the road, or walking and climbing – not riding off-road. I didn’t really understand the fuss or the difficulties the MTB community faced in England and Wales. Working on Trails for Wales completely changed that! Now I find myself happiest off-road on my Surly ECR – something I never would have expected to happen working on the campaign!”
As with most legislative reform, the Welsh access consultation moved slowly, but the strength of the response from the mountain biking community was starting to shape the process. Sam continues the story:
“In 2017 the Welsh Government published a follow-up consultation ‘Taking forward Wales’ sustainable management of natural resources’. It was filled with proposals we had called for, such as allowing cycling and horse riding on suitable footpaths, and the development of a statutory code of access similar to that of Scotland.
“The campaigning machine was ramped up again for Trails for Wales Mark 2, which more than doubled the amount of response the Welsh Government received from the MTB community with some 8,100 writing in using our online campaign action, and a further 3,000 who wrote in using a separate action created by British Cycling.
“When the consultation closed in October 2017, the Welsh Government had received 17,391 responses, with 16,468 of those supporting change to access laws – more than 12,000 of those from mountain bikers. Given the direction of the campaign so far, and the fact that we were broadly supportive of what it seemed the Welsh Government wanted, we thought we were on to a winner…but then the Welsh Government in June 2018 announced, “now is not the right time for substantive reform” citing “strong but differing views”.
As we reported last June, it appeared at this point that the reforms were going to be parked indefinitely. But then a surprise announcement changed all that. Back to Sam:
“It was sort of appropriate that the man who spotted the opportunity for improving access, also spotted the minister’s announcement on 4 April, as it was Kieran who told me the good news over the phone. As a campaigning organisation, we spend years working towards goals we might see realised much later down the line. Reading the minister’s statement and understanding we were on the cusp of receiving everything we asked for, apart from the ability to wild camp on access land and penalties for blocking paths, was mind blowing, particularly after the knock back we’d received in June.
“While we continued to hope that the access would be back on the Government’s agenda, nobody had seen it coming so soon. It was absolutely bloody awesome news – and there was some celebrating in the office once we had all taken stock and allowed it to sink in.”
A landmark moment
In the mountain biking world, the importance of changes to our access laws might not be immediately clear. But for anyone with an interest in policy, and the behind-the-scenes processes that shape our patterns of travel and recreation whether we realise it or not, it’s very exciting news.
“This is one of the most significant changes to access law in decades” says Duncan Dollimore, head of campaigns at Cycling UK. “It hasn’t received much publicity outside of outdoor user groups, but I genuinely think it will be looked upon as a landmark moment. What it does is create an assumption that cyclists and horse riders will be able to use footpaths where there was previously no right of access”
“It’s great news in Wales, not just for mountain biking but everyone who enjoys the outdoors” says Cycling UK’s Sam Jones. “The Welsh Government proposals will significantly increase riding opportunities with an estimated 15,000 miles worth of routes becoming potentially available and another 450,000 hectares of access land.”
Great news for guides
We asked Singletrack route guide contributor Tom Hutton to give us a more specific idea of how the changes could work for mountain bikers.
“My overall opinion is that the real winners will be visitors and tourists. The people from outside an area who rely on route guides or guided rides to show them around – currently, the majority of their riding will be within the rights of way system. Once guidebooks, guides and magazines can start publicising other routes, this will create a lot of new options for riders. Obvious big gains will be Snowdonia and the Brecon Beacons, where the bridleway network is limited but there are a lot of good paths that will now get ridden (mainly CROW/de facto access paths rather than footpaths). Lesser but significant gains will be made in the Berwynion and Clwydian Hills and mid Wales, in the Cambrian range, the Elan Valley and Elenydd.
“As a guide it will be a godsend, as we will actually be able to do our job properly and show people around the very best trails the country has to offer, rather than having our hands tied behind our backs.”
More than just mountain biking
It’s not just for mountain bikers: Wales committed to creating new cycle routes through its 2013 Active Travel Act, but is yet to follow through. Duncan thinks the access reforms may trigger some action:
“The Active Travel Act is a really visionary and far-reaching piece of legislation but as yet it hasn’t yielded much on the ground. However Wales has a new transport minister, who is already talking about the importance of rights of way, and how rights of way and urban routes can connect. This should hopefully end the frustrating situation where the council’s active travel team and its rights of way officers don’t talk to each other. There are definitely some instances where active travel and rights of way should overlap.”
Say “footpath” and your first thought might be of a concrete pavement, or a narrow, winding trail with steps and stiles. But often that’s not the case, as Duncan explains:
“Our current system is based on historic use. That means that cyclists only have access to 20% of the network. We have some footpaths which are eminently suitable for use by bikes, and some bridleways which are boggy quagmires.”
The new Welsh system will possibly be the first time that suitability will be used to decide what type of user has access to trails.
“I haven’t researched every other country’s access system so I can’t say whether it’s something unique” says Duncan. “However it does seem to be one of the simplest solutions. In Scotland they have blanket open access and any user can use any trail. However doing this in Wales would potentially put mountain bikers and horse riders on unsuitable trails and create problems.
“The next stage will be the creation of an Access Reform Group which will review how to set criteria for access”
And it’s these criteria for access that will decide whether a route can be used for mountain biking, or if it will remain a footpath. As Duncan says:
“Nailing down the criteria will be quite a lengthy exercise. It won’t just be on width or surface – we’ll be arguing for things like volume of use to be taken into account as well. For example, if there’s a narrow footpath in a honeypot area, that might not be suitable for an upgrade.”
A tangle of trails?
Wales has over 20,000 miles of rights of way, so reclassifying all of these is potentially a daunting task. However the Welsh Government have said that the starting point of the process will be a presumption that access is allowed, which will not only make reform simpler, it’ll increase the number of trails opened up.
“Redesignation isn’t as big an exercise as you might imagine” says Duncan. “When we started campaigning for access reform, we spoke to the Welsh Government and it quickly became apparent that they just didn’t have the resources to assess every path. So Cycling UK and the British Horse Society suggested they start with a presumption of access, which is the approach they’ve taken.”
Could the process go both ways? Will existing bridleways be downgraded to footpaths? Duncan has a succinct answer:
“”No, because we’re not changing the status of bridleways – the reforms will only be creating access to footpaths. There’s a question mark over what proportion of paths will be suitable – it could be 90%, it could be 60%, but it’ll enable access where previously there wasn’t any.”
A long-standing issue with Wales’s current rights of way system is the prohibition on races of any kind on bridleways (but not, ironically, footpaths) and this has also been addressed in the reforms. Duncan explains:
“Cycling UK isn’t an organisation that’s known for racing and we didn’t lead on the benefits for race organisers. However other national organisations, particularly British Cycling, lobbied for these very effectively. In terms of what happens after the reforms, there won’t be races on every bridleway. Race organisers will still have to notify the police and apply for the appropriate provisions. However it does enable racing on more trails and it means organisers will be able to have races on appropriate trails. Earlier this year I raced in an off-road duathlon at Glentress, and more events like this will be possible in Wales.”
Changing the legal status of rights of way is one thing, but what about the tracks on the ground? Will stiles and steps deter riders from using a trail, even if its status changes?
“The issue of physical barriers will be looked at by the Access Reform Group – it wasn’t dealt with in the announcement. But as night follows day, it follows that if there’s a presumption of access, that will mean that over time routes will be made barrier-free.”
As we’ve already seen in Scotland, any changes which open up more of the countryside are likely to be vociferously opposed. Will the reforms be curtailed by lobbying from other groups? Duncan points out that a huge effort has already been made to build common ground and create a strong voice for reform across different user groups:
“The government haven’t said they’re considering it, they’ve said they’re committed to it. We’ve worked closely with a variety of other groups, and formed an alliance called Outdoor Access Wales which included The British Horse Society, British Mountaineering Council, Cambrian Caving Council, Open Spaces Society, Ramblers Cymru, Disabled Ramblers, OpenMTB, and Waters of Wales. There will undoubtedly be some groups we’ve haven’t been able to engage with, but we have attempted to work with as many as possible.”
Duncan is slightly reluctant to make predictions about how long it’ll be before the access reforms kick in.
“That’s a ‘how long is a piece of string?’ question! But legislation does tend to come in a bit quicker in devolved countries than it does in Westminster. We wouldn’t expect much to happen this year, but we would definitely expect to see progress within the next two years.”
Cycling UK definitely have their sights set on the long game though, and not just in Wales. Sam Jones explains how reform in Wales could have a knock-on effect in the remainder of the UK:
“Just as the Land Reform Act in Scotland helped inspire some of the changes in Wales, we’re hoping the pressure that comes with two of the home nations now having modern forward thinking access laws and the associated benefits will make our campaigning easier to achieve the same in England and Northern Ireland.”
Duncan is keen to make the same point:
“We’re very much hoping that this has a knock-on effect on the rest of the UK. I was in Northern Ireland last week which has an access system which is, let’s say, outdated. So we’re hoping that once Scotland and Wales have updated their access systems, we can use this in the rest of the UK.”
For the next stage of the process, Cycling UK have secured a place on the Access Reform Group, and are inviting mountain bikers to send a supportive email to the government minister responsible for access reform. Sam says:
“The devils are in the detail of the discussions to come, which Cycling UK will look to take part in, but in the meantime, given politicians rarely receive emails acknowledging the good work they do, we thought it would be good to give praise where it’s due.”
We’ll leave the last word to Sam, who worked on the campaign from the start:
“CTC / Cycling UK might seem more of a road focussed operation, but we’ve always been championing off-road cycling and picking the right battles to fight. We helped secured cycle access to bridleways through the Countryside Act back in 1968, made sure cycle access was included in the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 and now with Trails for Wales and the Agriculture Bill in England we’ve got quite plenty of work to get on with!”