British Cycling and a number of outdoor recreation organisations have written open letters to Environment Secretary Liz Truss and Welsh Environment Secretary Lesley Griffiths calling for people on bikes to have "responsible" access to some paths in the English and Welsh countrysides. Significantly, the Ramblers' Association has tentatively welcomed the proposals saying it shares a "vision of a Britain where everyone has easy access to the countryside."
Due to what British Cycling calls "archaic public access and rights of way laws" it is currently difficult for people on bikes to use many rural paths – they can be sued by landowners for any damage caused by "trespassing" on such paths.
Since 1968 cyclists have had access to the bridleway network of England and Wales thanks to lobbying by the Cyclists' Touring Club. However, cyclists do not have access rights on footpaths. At present, cyclists have access to less than a third of the 140,000 miles of public paths. There is also little access to the three million acres of Open Access Land or the 2,800 miles of newly created coastal access. Those on foot have free and open access to all of this land.
A YouGov poll commissioned by British Cycling has revealed that almost two-thirds of people do not know that they are not allowed to cycle on the majority of public paths in the countryside. The majority of those asked also believe they should be allowed to cycle on them.
Younger people are the least likely to know where they can cycle and also the most likely to support greater public access. There is also massive demand for more countryside cycling – despite only 6% of people cycling regularly in the countryside, half of the survey’s respondents would like to cycle there more.
British Cycling’s chief executive, Ian Drake, said: “England and Wales is packed with outstanding countryside on millions of people’s doorsteps but, due to outdated and confusing rights of way legislation, much of it is only open to you if you choose to walk.
“We know that many people will simply not consider cycling unless they can do it on a traffic-free route. While national and local government work on putting cycle lanes in place across our towns and cities, countryside paths are fantastic, free alternatives that could be enjoyed responsibly by mountain bikers and families alike.
“At a time when obesity levels and air pollution in our cities is at an all-time high, we call on the government to act to make sure that the massive opportunity to get active in the countryside is not wasted.”
The groups that have signed today’s letter believe that a version of this responsible access model should be explored for England and Wales. Piloting the responsible access model in suitable areas of the countryside will prove the viability and benefits of adopting the Scottish access model in England and Wales.
British Cycling has been joined in this campaign by other cycling bodies as well as the Sport and Recreation Alliance, the Welsh Sports Association, the British Mountaineering Council, and the British Horse Society. Notable by its absence is the Ramblers' Association, the lead body for recreational walking in the UK.
British Cycling's Chris Boardman said: “I love riding trails and in Scotland – it is so much easier to get to really remote areas and enjoy riding in some beautiful landscapes. The Land Reform Act in Scotland has proved that this can work and it is about time that England and Wales realise the massive opportunity this presents.”
However, Alan Kind, a rights of way and access specialist with over 35 years experience, doesn't believe the open letters will carry much truck with government:
"It’s really not as simple as these outdoor groups make it out to be. Scotland is a big place and it has a low population density, and most of those people are in the major cities. The land use systems and patterns in Wales and, particularly, England are very different. The political map of England now, and most likely even more in the future, is not exactly in alignment with the notion of giving the great unwashed considerably greater access rights over people's land.
"In my experience the great majority of the thousands of miles of bridleways and byways open to pedal cyclists gets little use by them, and family group cyclists want somewhere safe like country parks, not too far from where they live. And if you ask the pedestrians in the country park up the road from me they do not want more cycle access because of the appalling behaviour of some now.
"The phrase "archaic public access and rights of way laws" is one point of view, but these "archaic laws" are the very reason that we have such a superb network of public paths at all in this crowded island. These "outdoor groups" seldom seem to participate in the hard work involved in researching, recording and protecting the very paths they denounce, yet want to use them all the more.
"There certainly is a case to be made for more and better access to the countryside, but this sort of foghorn demand is, history suggests, not going to deliver it. Cyclists are much more likely to get better access from evolution rather than revolution."
Last year a number of mountain-bike trail specialists created the OpenMTB campaign to push for greater access for mountain bikers in England and Wales.
MTB campaigner Antony De Heveningham said: "Open access works in Edinburgh (1,786 people per km²) so why couldn't it work in Snowdonia (47 people per km² ) or the Brecon Beacons (25 people per km² )?
Fellow campaigner Kie Foster added "This is not a "cyclists want access to footpaths" debate - the open letters clearly discuss responsible access and access to the countryside, such as the 3.4 million acres of CROW (Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000) access land that is criss crossed with well surfaced paths and tracks, or the hundreds of miles of gravel tracks in the New Forest that remain off limits for cyclists? We need to move this debate on and talk about where cyclists should have access in the future, it's not about the mass opening of public footpaths."
In a move that has already upset some of its members the Ramblers' Association has broadly welcomed British Cycling's initiative. "Ramblers feel that ourselves and British Cycling share a vision of a Britain where everyone has easy access to the countryside and can enjoy its many benefits," said a statement from Britain's key body for walkers.
However, there are caveats, with the organisation saying that "any changes to the use of paths would need careful consideration, especially as some paths may not be suitable for all users."
The statement added that "where a case can be made for opening up a footpath to shared use we will engage in the process."
The Ramblers' Association said any process would be "determined by key factors such as the path’s width and whether there will be any physical separation between users, what surfacing and signage will be employed and how the path will be managed, and what the current and projected future usage is."
The organisation states that cyclists and walkers get along fine in Scotland. Here "shared use is accepted as normal and, on the whole, we believe it to be working well. At mountain bike trail centres in Scotland efforts are made to ensure mountain bikers are aware of walkers, and vice versa, and on Scotland’s newest long distance trail – The John Muir Way – cyclists, walkers and horse riders share the route but use ‘braided’ separated sections where the terrain is less suitable for one type of user."