A host of outdoor groups and cycling champions have written an open letter to the UK government urging more MTB access to paths and common land in England and Wales.
The letter, addressed to environment secretary Liz Truss and Welsh environment secretary Lesley Griffiths, has been signed and supported by organisations including British Cycling, Cycling UK, the British Mountaineering Council and the British Horse Society (we wonder what their ulterior motive could be?). It’s also been signed by cycling champions such as triple Enduro World Series champion Tracy Moseley, Rio 2016 Olympian Grant Ferguson and Olympic gold medallist Chris Boardman.
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The signatories are asking for the Scottish model of responsible open access to be trialled in other suitable areas of the UK, to prove the viability and benefits of increased access. This is likely to be suitable areas of open countryside.
Where you can and can’t ride in the UK
It calls for a reform of the UK’s public access and right of way laws, which currently only allow cyclists (of any discipline) to ride on roads, official bridleways and specifically designated routes or areas. This means that cyclists have access to under one-third of the 140,000 miles of public paths in England and Wales, plus limited access to the three million acres of not-quite-accurately-named Open Access Land and the newly created coastal access which covers a further 2,800 miles.
This is in contrast to Scotland, where the 2003 Scottish Land Reform Act gives much greater freedom of access to land across the country. It states that there is “a right of responsible non-motorised access, for recreational and other purposes, to land and inland water throughout Scotland with few exceptions”. In practice this means that you can, for the most part, walk or ride anywhere in Scotland, unless it is expressly stated otherwise, with the Scottish Outdoor Access code providing practical guidelines.
British Cycling has gone beyond simply putting a call out. It’s worked with YouGov, a market research and opinion gathering organisation, to research public awareness of the situation.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, it turns out that almost two-thirds of people aren’t aware of the laws prohibiting cycling on most public countryside paths in England and Wales – and, when asked, believe cyclists should be allowed on them. Young people in particular were least likely to know where they could cycle and most likely to want better access.
They survey also revealed that while only 6% of those questioned currently cycle in the countryside, 50% would like to cycle there more.
Making the case for greater access
Scotland has benefited greatly from the wider access allowed by the Scottish Land Reform Act, and has also seen the opportunities offered by mountain biking in terms of tourism and embraced it. The country has positively encouraged the sport, turning it into an international destination for mountain bikers, further helped by hosting world-class events such as the UCI Downhill World Cup in Fort William and the Enduro World Series events as part of the Tweedlove Festival in Peebles.
Research published by Scottish Cycling in 2014 quantified some of these impacts, showing a 10% growth in mountain biking from 2011 to 2014 and, at that point, evaluating it as worth £49.5 million per year to the Scottish economy.
“I grew up in Scotland being able to ride on any public path or trail.” said Grant Ferguson, who will be competing in the Rio 2016 Olympics, “Cycling gave me a feeling of freedom in the outdoors. When I moved to Manchester, I couldn’t believe how restricted I was in where I could go.
“It took me the first winter to find the legal bridleways in the Peak District and I often then stuck to the same trails, which felt congested,” he added. “When away training in other parts of the world like France or Italy, they have the same law as Scotland and it’s no wonder that they have a much more outdoors lifestyle than in England and Wales.”