British Cycling have recently launched their new campaign, asking for changes to footpath legislation to allow cycles, especially mountain bikes, to access more footpaths. You can read more about the campaign, including letters to the British and Welsh governments, on the campaign page on the British Cycling website.
Many cyclists will be pleased to see British Cycling taking a more active role in campaigning for mountain cycling, as it’s often criticised for neglecting this branch of the sport. Many areas of countryside, especially in the hills, could be great for mountain biking – but restrictive rules on who can access Public Footpaths mean they are effectively excluded from many areas.
RoW jealously protected
Our Rights of Way network, and the legislation and rules underpinning it, is jealously guarded by many organisations. And rightly so. Many groups (not least groups like Peak & Northern Footpaths Society, Open Spaces Society and what has become Ramblers) spent many years campaigning for these laws to be recognised and respected, with battles from the 1800s to restore and protect ancient footpaths. This battle continues to the present day, with landowners illegally closing footpaths. The legislation in place protects these routes – and so any suggestion of changes to these rules is treated with immense suspicion.
There is also the issue of clashes between user groups on those routes that currently are shared between user groups. In the Peak District itself there have been issues between cyclists and other users on routes such as the Monsal Trail. The issue of cyclists on tow paths creates a huge amount of, often very acrimonious, debate on canal forums, with many calls for bikes to be banned. However, the fact cyclists are restricted in where they can go off road adds to these issues – increasing the routes available would help disperse people. It will therefore be interesting to see how many people react to British Cycling’s campaign.
There are other groups, both traditional users, those new and developing activities, and even ones that may at first not obviously rely on land-based Rights of Way. who would also benefit from either greater Shared Use of routes or opening of new works. Horse riders are subject to similar restrictions as cyclists, and would greatly benefit from a more liberal approach to developing routes for Shared Use. Sports like paragliding rely on footpaths to access areas to launch themselves – with ambiguity on the legality of this. Canoeists could use waterside footpaths to not only walk to the water, but also to launch onto rivers and lakes.
Part of the difficulty for many of these groups is ambiguity in terms such as ‘reasonable use’ (see CTC’s page on reasonable use), and ‘natural accompanyments’. This creates differences of opinion regarding, for example, whether carrying a kayak consitutes a natual accompanyment for a water-side footpath – or whether launching from the path is a reasonable use. With relatively little case law this is left to user groups, landowners, conservationsists and others to understand as best as they can – with as many different interpretations as there are users!
Though it was regarded as a giant leap forward at the time, and was the result of over a century of campaigning, the Countryside and Rights of Way Act (known as CROW 2000) effectively left many of these questions unanswered (and that’s before touching upon the decision to actively exclude canoeing from the Act!). As time progresses and new outdoor sports grow these issues become more and more exposed. In Scotland, such issues were given much greater clarity, and access secured for more groups to a much wider range of the countryside with a stronger Access Code. Paradoxically this has actually resulted in a reduction of issues between user groups (especially regarding the often toxic debate between canoeists and anglers) as everyone understands not only their rights, but also their responsibilities.
It would be great to see England and Wales moving towards a more Scottish system of countryside access – and it’s good to see a positive initial response to British Cycling’s campaign from Ramblers. For an move to greater Shared Use (and the creation of new and updated rights and responsibilities), I believe the government should support the outdoor sector to develop an approach which combines as many of the following objectives as possible:
- Ensures the continued protection of Rights of Way;
- Works to increase Shared Use on routes which appropriate;
- Engages landowners to give reassurance on liability and to promote Permissive Bridleways;
- Develop a strong access code
- Use groups such as Local Access Forums to continue developing partnership between users.
- Allow flexibility in approach to fit to local circumstances (e.g. lack of routes for any user group, suitability of routes for Shared Use etc).