Making off-road access better in Wales

Trails for Wales begins to change the access landscape, with more opportunities proposed by the Welsh Government to enjoy recreational cycling from your doorstep.

Something is stirring in the dragon’s belly following the Trails for Wales campaign launched by Cycling UK and OpenMTB in 2015. Over 4000 people supported that campaign, writing to the Welsh Government in response to its consultation on improving access to the outdoors for responsible recreation.

We now need you to take action once again, and contact the Welsh Government to support the next stage of the Trails for Wales campaign.

Accessing more than 21%

Over 70% of the total responses to the Government's initial consultation called for greater access for recreational cycling, showing the appetite to change archaic rights of way and access legislation. Whether a trail is classed as a bridleway (which you have rights to cycle on) or a footpath (where you don’t), depends upon historic records of user rights rather than its suitability. Absurdly, that means you only have rights to cycle - or indeed to ride a horse - along 21% of the Welsh rights of way network. Worse still, that 21% includes many bridleways and byways which are unrideable in practice, whereas many footpaths have widths and surfaces that would be perfectly suitable, even for motor vehicles!

Of course those seeking pedal access to the countryside are obliged to tip their hats to the Ramblers. Their mass trespass on Kinder Scout in 1932 highlighted the denial of access to walkers in the countryside, ultimately leading to change. Yet eighty five years on, the system determining how and where you can access the English and Welsh countryside remains outdated, and is far from fit for purpose in the 21st century.  

Fortunately, the Welsh Government appears to have listened both to broader concerns regarding the lost opportunities to promote non-motorised leisure activities, and the voices of cyclists expressed through our Trails for Wales campaign. Taking the next step towards what could be a historic legislative change, they’ve now commenced a further consultation, Taking Forward Wales, Sustainable Management of Natural Resources, which closes on 30 September, with specific proposals including:

  • Opening up a further 14,000 miles of rights of way to cyclists and horse riders;
  • Creating a Welsh version of the Scottish Outdoor Access Code, to ensure a right of responsible access to the countryside.

Cycling UK fully supports these proposals, and our joint consultation response with OpenMTB also argues for a removal of restrictions on cyclists accessing open access land, which currently would not apply if you were riding a horse or driving a vehicle.

Opportunities of opening up access

I know that when Governments say they are consulting, there is often a degree of scepticism about whether the process is genuine or cosmetic. So far however, the Welsh Government has listened to the message sent via Trails for Wales, but we need you to repeat it by taking action and supporting our Trails for Wales campaign.  

Our consultation response supports opening up the Welsh countryside for recreation and enjoyment, whilst protecting the natural environment. Doing this opens up fantastic opportunities including:

  • Recreation starting from the front door, for everyone, on any day at no cost;
  • Improving physical and mental health;
  • Strengthening rural economies;
  • Increasing cycle tourism;
  • Protection of the natural environment whilst unlocking natural capital;
  • Connecting places using routes free of motor traffic, for day-to-day cycling as well as leisure.

Wales is not the first devolved nation to realise that its policies on access to the countryside had to be reviewed. Following work by CTC, as Cycling UK was then, Scotland made decisive and progressive policy changes in 2003 with the adoption of the Land Reform Act. Since then, Scotland has reaped a number of benefits with a Transform Scotland report estimating that off-road and leisure cycling now contribute between £236 and £350 million each year to the Scottish economy.

Devolved nations leading the way

The proposals in Wales are different to those enacted in Scotland, but the principles of improved access with a responsible access code are similar, and if this can be achieved In Wales, the obvious next question is why not in England?

The support for improvements in off-road cycling and understanding of the current opportunities and barriers were well documented in Cycling UK’s recent Rides of Way survey, a compilation of over 11,000 responses to 53 questions on off-road cycling. The need for change in access laws to enable cyclists  to enjoy the countryside was displayed by the survey’s findings showing that:

  • 85% of respondents found it difficult to put together a legally permissible route on the rights of way network;
  • 37% of respondents would ride more, and 44% would ride from home more, if they were permitted  to ride on footpaths;
  • 67% off all off- road rides start from people’s front door, making access to the rights of way network vitally important in encouraging regular recreational activity close to home;
  • Off- road riding was fairly or very important for the physical health of 90% of respondents ( 91% for mental health).

Exclusion should be the exception

Of course, not every footpath will be suitable for cycling, so Cycling UK is not calling for a blanket right to cycle on all footpaths (note 'footpaths' are different from the paved 'footways' that you find alongside roads). However it must surely be possible to implement a system where excluding cyclists and equestrians from footpaths happens on an exceptional (and objectively justified) basis, rather than being the rule.

Outdoor Access Wales

Whilst cyclists have a particular interest in access to trails, there are interests common to various groups and people who enjoy the outdoors, which is why Cycling UK has collaborated with other outdoor user groups to show unity on the need to lift restrictions on access to the countryside.

Some of those organisations, including British Horse Society, Ramblers, OpenMTB, Waters of Wales, Open Spaces Society, Disabled Ramblers and the Cambrian Caving Society have come together to form the Outdoor Access Wales alliance, with a common call in response to the Welsh Government consultation for “improved access to the Welsh outdoors for non-motorised recreation”.

The fact that these different groups have been able to form an alliance, and agree a common call, shows that in the vast majority of cases, walkers, cyclists and horse riders get along fine on the thousands of miles of existing bridleway across England and Wales. These existing routes have never been assessed or allocated on the basis of width, surface, sight lines or suitability, but merely classified on the basis of historic use. There’s no logical reason why allowing cyclists and horse riders to use footpaths, which look no different to many bridleways, would suddenly create conflict.

We need your support to make sure the Welsh Government follows through on these proposals, and is not blown off course by scaremongering from those who want to stick with restrictions on access, because it’s always been that way!

Please help us make Trails for Wales happen by clicking here to send a supportive email to the Welsh Government. Together, we can make this happen!