Why can’t all the UK have the right to roam the countryside on their bikes, asks Neil Pedoe. Why can’t England and Wales be more like Scotland?
Should we have the right to roam by bike?
Ever since the 1980s, when knobbly-tyred bikes found their way from California’s dusty Marin County trails to the UK’s muddy tracks, there has been a large section of the British bike riding masses whose cycling fun starts where the tarmac ends.
We all know about the frictions caused by cars and bikes sharing road space but you’d think there would be enough space in the countryside for everyone.
Apparently not; on our small and crowded (at least compared to California) island landowners, in particular farmers, have always been reluctant to share. After all, they say, you can’t have people cycling all over the British countryside, disrupting crops and livestock and generally causing a nuisance now can you?
Funnily enough – save for the pedalling machines, these were pretty much the same arguments that were fought against, and occasionally defeated by walking lobby groups in the mid-1920s.
But even after victories such as that first right of access legislation in 1925, and the mass ‘trespass’ at Kinder Scout in 1932, it still took another 68 years for any British official ‘right to roam’ to be established.
That was the Countryside and Rights of Way Act in 2000, under which open countryside such as mountains, moors, heaths and downs are designated open access areas where you can roam free – regardless of footpaths. This covers some 3 million acres across the UK.
Sadly, such is the double-edged sword of English law making, that the definition of one freedom seems to rule out others. So, while in these ‘CRoW’ areas you now have the right to wander and dance around like Heidi, on foot, don’t even think about cycling anywhere unless you’re on a defined bridleway or byway.
Meanwhile those lucky Scots, had their right to roam formally written into law in 2003, which included cycling as well as any other form of non-motorised transport. What’s more, the same law includes the right to swim, play or paddle in all its waterways and inland water – something that England and Wales’ CRoW legislation specifically excluded.
If only we could enjoy the same freedom for adventure in England and Wales! But how? According to cycling lobbyist charity Cycling UK (formerly the CTC), an interim measure is to push for an extension of access in those CRoW areas. There are many thousands of miles of farm, forest and moorland vehicle tracks on CRoW land where cycles remain prohibited – and yet if it’s good enough for a Land Rover what harm can responsibly ridden bikes do? Cycling UK says it is working hard behind the scenes with big property owners such as the MoD and the Forestry Commission already.
The first place we might actually see change is in Wales. According to Cycling UK we currently have rights to cycle on just 21 percent of Wales’ Rights of Way network, and that’s determined not by where is most suitable, useful or even least potentially disruptive to ride.
The opportunity to push for change opened in 2015, when the government opened a consultation on access to the countryside. The results showed that open access support was easily as strong as that for preserving the status quo, as lobbied for by landowner groups such as the NFU.
Since then the pro-access support has gained momentum with a campaign for a Scottish level of ‘presumed access’ started by a coalition lobbying force of British Cycling, Cycling UK, Welsh Cycling and the newly formed access group OpenMTB.
It’s not just mountain bikers who stand to gain from opening up the wild wonders of the countryside either – there’s the obvious benefits for the health of the nation of getting everyone more active in any way possible. Plus it’s been proven that roaming cyclists bring economic well-being to the parts other activities can’t reach too, with off-road and leisure cycling alone boosting the Scottish economy by an estimated £358m a year.
So, Scotland is won, Wales could be next, then England? To add your support to the campaign, see CyclingUK.org or OpenMTB’s Facebook page.