Unified front shows no conflict in the countryside
The British Horse Society joined Cycling UK and the Ramblers to present evidence to the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (EFRA) select committee, and shared very much the same message: “Conflict? What conflict?”
You’d be forgiven for thinking that when you mix cyclists, horse riders and ramblers, you’ve a recipe for disaster.
But when the British Horse Society (BHS), Cycling UK, and the Ramblers were called to give evidence for the EFRA inquiry into the rural economy on Wednesday 25 January, there was no conflict, only consensus, as is so often the reality on our trails when encounters between such groups take place.
The EFRA Committee is currently holding the oral evidence sessions for its Rural Tourism in England inquiry, and is inviting witnesses to discuss the challenges in balancing environmental issues with expanding rural tourism.
The potential for conflict between the three different groups was understandably brought up by committee member, David Simpson MP, who asked what work was being done by each group to ensure there was the right balance on the Rights of Way (RoW) network.
The answer could not have been clearer, as Mark Weston, Director of Access at the BHS, explained that there was no evidence of systematic conflict between horse riders and other RoW users, though he acknowledged there was a perception it existed.
Elaborating on this topic, Weston called for increased access to the RoW network for both cycling and horse riding, which are currently only legally allowed on 22 per cent of the whole network in England. He reasoned that, despite these activities only being concentrated in a limited area, the conflict is down to individual behaviour, rather than whole user groups.
This was a point picked up by Cycling UK’s Policy Director Roger Geffen MBE. He noted that conflict between different user groups is not inherent, but can arise when there are too many users in too little space. This is not the case though on the vast majority of the rights of way network, and adopting the Scottish approach of creating a right of responsible outdoor access would help prevent conflict by spreading the concentrations of cycling and horse-riding across a wider network.
Citing an example from his own journey to work, he added that many (though by no means all) footpaths are perfectly suitable for cycling or horse-riding, whereas bridleways and byways (where cycling and equestrian rights exist) can sometimes be totally unrideable in practice. Geffen explained that Cycling UK is not calling for a “blanket right to ride on footpaths”. However, instead of limiting cycling and equestrian use to routes which happen to have historic rights (but which might be wholly unsuitable), he argued that signing could be used to guide cyclists and horse riders to the most suitable routes.
He passed on some feedback received from Andrew Wakeford - former head of the Countryside Agency and then head of Environment for the Scottish Government. Wakeford had told Cycling UK that Scotland's access laws had not led to any of the conflict that some had feared before they were passed. Kate Conto, Senior Policy Officer, accepted that increased access for cyclists and horse riders is possible without conflict with walkers, but would require careful management, as had been done in Scotland.
The panel agreed that Scottish-style access laws could not only benefit health and wellbeing of anyone taking advantage of them, but also the rural economy.
Scotland’s off-road and leisure cycling industry contributes significantly to its economy, generating between £236.2m and £358m a year. Similar benefits could be realised in England and Wales – a point made by Cycling UK to the committee as based on the evidence from their off-road survey conducted last year, which also helped shape their written response to the inquiry.
As the session closed, with Committee Chair Jim Fitzpatrick MP thanking the witnesses for their “clear and concise responses”, the united front presented by the chief representatives for walking, cycling and horse riding on the issues of conflict and access had been heard.
For access campaigners, it is now a question of waiting for the EFRA Committee to publish its findings, and seeing whether the Government will take heed.
You can view the full evidence session on the Parliament UK's website.