Comment: The case for more countryside bike access

This article comes courtesy of contributor Richard Peace, who in today’s long read explores the often fraught issue of rights access for bike and e-Bike riders in the countryside.

The Lost Miles

What did the Romans ever do for us? So goes the famous refrain in Monty Python’s Life of Brian film, quoted a million times since. As it happened they pioneered good quality roads throughout much of the country and began a long history of laying down horse (and often cart) friendly rights of way in the pre-motor vehicle era, that could help provide a 21st century revolution in access for those on two wheels.

Many of these roads and tracks were major engineering achievements of their day, and it is likely the foundations of a good deal of them still exist today hidden under topsoil. Busy sections of Roman road would be cobbled, less busy ones topped with gravel, and were often 10m (33ft) or more wide and rarely less than than 3m (9ft). Fast forward to the 18th century and the next spurt of road building, driven by turnpike trusts and field enclosure. This stage added a whole new layer of public ways to the map.

Today, although many routes have become overgrown or laid over by modern roads, their long history has established an important principle; once a highway always a highway – in other words it’s very hard to erase a right to use a public way once established.

And so these roads and tracks form the basis of much of the UK’s rights of way network used by cyclists, often recreational mountain bikers who, in England, Wales and Northern Ireland are allowed on bridleways and byways (but not footpaths) whilst in Scotland the Land Reform Act of 2003 allows everyone access to most land for certain purposes – including cycling.

Unfortunately many ‘higher’ rights of way – i.e. those where bikes and horses were allowed – became omitted when local rights of way maps (so-called definitive maps) were compiled in the 1950s. Some were no doubt down to compilers’ mistakes in overlooking some routes, but there was also the fact that footpaths were less onerous in terms of maintenance obligations to local authorities than bridleways and byways, which acted as an incentive to surreptitiously downgrade.

Applications can still be made to reinstate these based on historic evidence, but the right to do this will disappear in 2026 as stipulated in the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 (commonly referred to as CROW).

Arguably, horseriders have been more active than the cycling community in their efforts to reclaim these ‘lost miles’ – for example with the British Horse Society’s efforts to reclaim them via their Project 2026 campaign and their key role in pioneering the Pennine Bridleway (see below), which was the idea of long distance equestrian Lady Mary Towneley. There is also an excellent mapping resource as part of the project.

As the BHS website points out, ‘On 1 January 2026, bridleways in England and Wales that aren’t formally recorded will be lost to the public. Our aim is to safeguard bridleways for public use so that equestrians (and cyclists…ed) today and in the future have safe off-road routes to ride on. These unrecorded routes actually exist in law, but have never been registered on the definitive map, the legal record of public rights of way.’

A further problem lies in the time and effort needed to ‘prove’ that these routes have historically had ‘higher’ rights of way along them and haven’t always been just footpaths. And this is in the main volunteer work, so there is a practical limit to how many applications can be made from the huge number of potential higher rights of way out there.

The rights of way network in England and Wales extends to 91,000 miles of footpaths, 20,000 miles of bridleways and 6,000 miles of byways, meaning cyclists have access to only a little over 20% of the rights of way that are out there – but there are clearly many more not recorded and signed as such that they are historically and legally entitled to use.

No one appears to really know the number of ‘lost miles’ out there that could be used by cyclists and horseriders, but it surely could play a very significant role in further opening up the countryside for safer cycling and horseriding.

The Current Situation – Overlooked and Underfunded

Not only have higher rights of way been officially removed from the record, the area of rights of way as a whole has been increasingly underfunded in recent years. A 2012 report by the Ramblers Association found that ‘nearly 70% of councils have cut their rights of way budgets over the last 3 years, and 41% of councils have cut their budgets by more than 20%.’ And government austerity has only very likely made the situation worse now.

Duncan Dollimore, Cycling UK’s Head of Campaigns, gave me his views on this apparent government blindspot:

“More people accessing the countryside by bike has multiple benefits including for public health, the environment, and the rural economy, but it does feel that removing some of the barriers to access, particularly in England, has gone into the “too hard to do” box for successive governments.

“Back in 2010, Natural England commissioned Stepping Forward on rights of way in England which considered whether the current classification of rights of way was still appropriate, recommending that the Government should give further consideration to the legal status of rights of way and consult on wider issues including how cycle tracks, which aren’t recorded on the definitive rights of way map, are created and recorded. Waiting for progress has however been like waiting for Godot, where nothing ever happens…”

Dollimore argues that, despite the valuable work of the BHS’s Project 2026, a ‘suitability test’ would be a better basis for new legislation.

“Our rights of way system is fundamentally based upon historic use, so whether a route has been used and for what purpose historically, rather than suitability and which user groups should reasonably be able to use that route today. Cycling UK has long argued that this focus on historic use rather than suitability is a fundamental barrier to progress, and to the creation of a viable off-road network for the 21st century for varied user groups, including cyclists.”

And it’s clear to Dollimore that the current Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) are a major stumbling block:

“Sadly, improving our rights of way system and opening up the countryside to people cycling doesn’t seem to be a priority for DEFRA. Whilst lack of funding does restrict their ability to deliver, it’s clear that the Department for Transport (DfT) gets the active travel agenda, and the vision and ambition for increasing cycling trips is admirable. The DfT is of course more focussed on utility and urban cycling, perhaps expecting DEFRA to lead on off-road access issues, upon which to date DEFRA have been largely silent.”

bike accessNational Trails – the Jewel in the Crown?

I recently rode the full length of the Pennine Bridleway National Trail, the longest continuous, signed off-road biking route in the UK and it proved a wonderful challenge ride for an older rider like myself on an e-mtb.

Initially funded with a £1.8 million grant back in 1999, the PBW took until 2012 for the whole 205 miles to be completed and opened, with a huge amount of trail improvement work in often very remote areas needed. I’d ridden some sections before they were improved and so I know impassable quagmires have been made to disappear and whole new sections of trail have opened up where cyclists were simply not previously allowed. For off-road cyclists like me, who want to avoid both busy roads and the hardest of hardcore technical trail, the PBW was a godsend.

So, given the heroic efforts that went into creating the PBW you might assume that it would be a well-funded, jewel in the crown of the National Trails. Not so, as the maintenance budget for the whole of the UK’s National Trails was cut by 5% for the 2019-2020 period – in the past government has attempted to slash the budget by 50% but intensive lobbying reversed that decision.

I spoke to Heather Procter, Pennine National Trails Partnership Manager, who pointed out the paucity of current funding and the huge uncertainty that lies ahead;

“….representatives of all the National Trails have been working together as an informal alliance to raise concerns with MPs and senior government officials about the lack of certainty around funding which could have a significant impact on the maintenance of National Trails and the ability of Trail Partnerships to carry out their function. National Trails provide access to some of the best landscapes in the country along their existing 2,200 miles, and the addition of the new 2,100 mile long England Coast Path will only add to the need for a sustainable long-term funding arrangement. The maintenance budget is now just £1.59m per year for all the existing English National Trails – that is less than £700/mile.”

Procter described how, whilst £700 a mile might sound a lot, it simply didn’t match the reality of all the inevitable trail maintenance needs. For example, heavy rains on very steep Pennine gradients mean washouts of track are a recurrent problem. The preferred option for longer term work to secure the surface costs more money which simply isn’t available, meaning the same section of path can be washed out again after being put back. There are also unforeseen costs like the recent example of a cracked trail bridge very possibly caused by a motor vehicle strike – costing £70,000 to repair – that also quickly eat into the budget.

And even bigger future projects are suffering from all this budget uncertainty; a short 5 mile ‘missing link’ in the trail forces trail users onto a main road. The off-road route here has been planned for years and indeed construction has started but stalled, partly because of question marks over the estimated £1.9 million price tag.

Then there is the original plan to hugely extend the Pennine Bridleway north across County Durham and Northumberland. Procter says much of the planning for this route extension has already been done, but her current estimate is that at least £5 million is needed. The existing Pennine Bridleway has already produced a Calder-Aire ‘feeder’ bridleway route, opening up the trail to more riders so they don’t need to make a car trip into the countryside. Extending it further north could provide the same impetus for more off-road access further north.

Proper investment in rights of way, with National Trails acting as cheerleaders, would surely be a truly sustainable, long-term investment in the countryside not to mention a fantastic potential dynamo powering future growth in off-road biking. The £2 billion announced for ‘cycling as transport’ early in the year puts into context the relatively modest sums needed to properly fund countryside access and to help spur a true post-COVID green recovery in rural tourism, with cycling playing its part. If those in government needed any more persuading there’s also the health dividend from improved access with some improved rights of way also able to act as effective commuter links between rural towns and villages, ticking the active travel box as well.

Cyclists to the Rescue?

The cycling industry and even individual cyclists can help promote access in several ways. As a National Trail the Pennine Bridleway will simply benefit from more users. They have a handy website and a period of more targeted promotion next spring which will see the publication of a single map that covers the whole trail. Look out for these resources and use them to get out on the trail! It is superb.

Organised bike events have used the PBW and have donated amounts raised to the PBW office to help with trail maintenance. Such events have included Hope Pre-Peaks and Ranger Ultras.

On a wider front Cycling UK have been instrumental in leading the way for greater countryside access and have had several campaigns on the issue. One of the most promising is Trails for Wales, that lead to proposals being announced in April 2019 which will open up many more opportunities for exploring the outdoors. The changes to public access will create an assumption of access rights to give cyclists and horse riders many more opportunities to enjoy the countryside.

Cycling UK Campaigns Officer Sophie Gordon gave me an update on the campaign:

“Cycling UK, OpenMTB and other user groups and landowner organisations are currently involved in expert advisory groups to assist in working out the details of how the proposed changes would work in practice. This process was delayed by Covid and should now be finished by January. The draft legislation should hopefully be debated in the Welsh Senedd next spring.”

At a local level trail associations lobby for more access and OpenMTB’s website makes clear involvement and rider behaviour are two key areas; “It is crucial that advocacy groups understand that they cannot simply ask for improved rights, they have to be prepared to contribute either practically or through influencing the behaviour of their members.”

Another recent Cycling UK campaign, Missing Links is a brilliant tool which anyone can use. The interactive map shows how many easily-used tracks already exist that are perfectly suitable for cycling and could be officially upgraded, often at relatively little extra cost. The map had only been live a few days at the time of writing but many many unofficial but practicable cycle routes had already been added.

The map is a graphic illustration of what could be relatively easily legalised if England followed the Welsh model of access. Duncan Dollimore of Cycling UK adds more detail on this point:

“Changing our rights of way legislation from a system based around historic use to one based upon suitability of use is the measure which would do most to open up cycling access to the countryside, though it’s worth saying that a much simpler and quicker process for upgrading and creating new routes, with funding for local authorities to actually do this, would be a fantastic initial step. Allowing cyclists to ride on open access land, something which is being actively considered by the Welsh Government as part of its access reforms, would be a huge benefit for mountain bikers and those wanting to explore more remote areas by bike.”

He remains pessimistic about the Scottish model being adopted in England any time soon:

“Cycling UK strongly supported the access reforms in Scotland which provided a right of responsible access over most land. Whilst we’d love to think that a similar approach could be adopted in England and Wales, it’s fair to say that this would require a significant shift in culture and societal attitudes towards both land and access, which is why the Welsh Government’s access reform proposals, the final details of which should be published within the next few months, are based around increasing access for cyclists and other users rather than the Scottish system. Looking at what’s happening in Wales from across the border in England, we’d be over the moon if we could get DEFRA to follow the lead being taken in Wales.”

bike accessLocal and National Resource

It’s not just these local missing links that are a vital resource. Imaginatively linked together we could end up with a series of iconic long distance off-road mountain bike style challenge routes of which the likes of the Pennine Bridleway are just the start.

Indeed Cycling UK has also done pioneering work here in the form of the Great North Trail and King Alfreds Way routes they have put together. They are also working towards making the eastern half of the Ridgeway National Trail rideable.

More and improved recognised long-distance rides like these, allied with greater cycle access at a local level would undoubtedly contribute a significant amount to a rural tourism industry decimated by COVID. In ‘open access’ Scotland it’s been estimated that cycling and mountain biking tourism add between £241 and £362 million to the economy every year.

Of course extra rights of way access would be largely in addition to existing networks that use minor roads, cycle tracks and Sustrans style railpaths and traffic-free routes and both networks would complement each other and interlink.

In short there is a bigger case for rights of way pushing up both the cycling industry and the government agendas.

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