Environment, Food and Rural Affairs CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by The Peak District Green Lane Alliance


1. We are an organisation called The Peak District Green Lane Alliance. This is an umbrella organisation seeking co-operation among national and local groups worried about the increasing effects of “off-roading” in the countryside, particularly within the Peak District. We believe these effects run counter to the general philosophy advanced by “The Natural Choice” and will thwart some of the specific outcomes sought by it. This is especially true with regard to the areas of “protecting and improving our natural environment” and “reconnecting people and nature.” We believe our comments are relevant to other national parks and the countryside generally.

The Phenomenon Of Off-Roading

2. By “off-roading” we mean the recreational use of 4x4 vehicles and motor cycle trail bikes on what may be termed “green lanes” ie lanes with unsealed surfaces. Under current legislation, this use is legal where these tracks are Byways Open to All Traffic (BOATs); may be legal where they are Unclassified County Roads (UCRs); but illegal, where the tracks are Restricted Byways, Bridleways or Footpaths.

3. Off-Roading seemed not to have been a problem until about 1994, when its practioners were few. There was minimal conflict with other green lane users, and the countryside could recover from any rutting or erosion caused. However, increasing availability of suitable vehicles has led to this pastime becoming a serious problem on many iconic routes. Examples of such iconic routes in the Peak District are Long Causeway, Chapel Gate and the Roych. The damage to the latter is particularly to be regretted as it forms part of the Pennine Bridleway, which was developed with significant public funding.

4. The growth of user forums on off-roading websites has also led to the greater popularisation of challenging routes—even attracting users from overseas.

5. The off-roading fraternity is split predominantly between 4x4 drivers and motor cycle riders, with an increasing number of quad bike users. Within these classes there is an organised group of adherents and an increasing number of informal users. Members of the former generally try to remain within the law and act responsibly but have limited influence over their members and none over informal users.

6. Many off-roaders claim to love the countryside and want to experience it just like walkers, cyclists and horse riders. We regard this claim as somewhat disingenuous, as privately there is admitted to be an element of testing, both of vehicle robustness and driving/riding skill, over difficult terrain. This element is demonstrated most vividly on the illegal side of the spectrum where, particularly with trail bike users, there can be deliberate seeking out of extreme terrain (often “off-piste”) and treating green lanes as race tracks, irrespective of width or gradient. This behaviour tends to discourage non-vehicular users who increasingly percieve their rights being overridden.

Ways In Which Off-Roading Militates Against Outcomes Sought by “The Natural Choice”

7. We have grouped our comments under two broad headings. References to paragraphs in “The Natural Choice” are given in square brackets [].

Protecting and Improving the Natural Environment

8. We agree with the concept of “natural capital” [1.18] and the need to maintain this in the same way as other capital assets. We feel off-roading degrades the environment both physically and through noise pollution and wastes what may be a diminishing natural resource (oil) needlessly. Because of the terrain vehicles have often to be driven in an inefficient manner.

9. Moreover, where public funds have been spent maintaining a surface appropriate to the nature of the way, it seems perverse to squander that investment through permitting unsustainable use.

10. Similarly, we feel the further extension of vehicle tracks in the countryside is the obverse of the concept of the “ecological network” [2.11/2.12] spreading from core areas through linear corridors to buffer zones around cities. Off-roading also causes damage to trackside vegetation. Such vegetation can aid biodiversity, since it is often less affected by agri-chemicals than surrounding land, and also form useful wildlife corridors.

11. Our experience suggests the local nature partnerships advocated in [2.15-2.23] would find it easier to garner support from the community if people felt their efforts were not in vain. We know of farmers and volunteer groups who would be willing to repair the damage done by off-roading if use then ceased but are naturally reluctant to waste time and resources if further damage is likely to occur. Offers of free repairs if traffic regulation orders were imposed on damaged lanes have been made at public meetings by farmers in the Brough and Shatton area of the Peak District.

12. We are sceptical about the likely success of any Localism Bill [2.25]. Whilst welcoming the opportunity for communities to have a greater say about environmental priorities, through having the power to call local referendums and draw up neighbourhood plans [4.22], we feel the essential conservatism of public bodies will defeat this. Giving local authorities “a general power of competence….. setting them free to innovate in response to local needs and environmental objectives” does not mean they will actually do this. Indeed our experience is that it is difficult, to get some local and national park authorities to fulfill their existing statutory duties to protect the environment and look after highways.

13. Similarly, we find it curious that Nature Improvement Areas are being proposed when it seems impossible to protect existing “crown jewels” such as the national parks.

Re-connecting People and Nature

14. The White Paper recognises the connection between young people and nature is weaker now than in the past and that this connection “enhances their education, personal and social skills, health and wellbeing and leads to the development of responsible citizens” [1.27]. We do not believe that the use of trail bikes on green lanes can be considered connecting with nature. We see some young trail bike users causing wanton destruction to the environment and to ancient monuments whilst terrorising and driving away walkers, cyclists and horse riders who are trying to connect with nature.

15. There is also a desire to get young people to re-connect through education—”schools should be able to teach outdoors when they wish to do so” [4.14]; “the pupil premium….could be used for funding school trips to experience the natural environment for pupils from deprived backgrounds” [4.15]. Our experience sadly is that even village schools, such as Great Longstone in the Peak District, with the countryside on their doorstep, are stopping nature projects on one local route because of the danger from off-roading. Children at Great Hucklow are in danger from off-roading even gaining access to their school.

16. The White Paper states that people can also connect with nature through the choices they make in their everyday lives [4.3]. Nature is said to be good for health [4.5], while access to attractive green space and footpaths encourages walking [1.27], lowers crime and encourage greater social activity [1.30]. We do not consider that access in this sense should be equated with vehicle access, which is what the off-roading lobby often claims. Riding about the countryside cocooned in a vehicle is not connecting with nature and neither is it the active recreation advocated in [4.9]. In the Peak District there is an extensive network of minor sealed routes which already caters for those wishing to see the countryside from a vehicle.

17. We acknowledge that some of the more responsible 4x4 users do take people with limited mobility out into the countryside using green lanes. We consider, however, that taking them on the minor road network mentioned above or to well surfaced, vehicular free routes, suitable for disabled users, would be a preferable option. An example of such a route is the Monsal Trail in the Peak District, which has recently received public money to provide wheel chair access and re-open old tunnels.

18. A desire to reduce noise and air pollution is expressed in [4.10/4.11]. We accept that vehicles cause only a part of this although the use of trail bikes in the countryside does produce an irritating whine over significant distances. It seems contradictory to promote urban quiet areas [4.31] whilst allowing the natural quiet of the countryside to be increasingly disturbed by the growth of this hobby. Similarly, there seems to be a contradiction between seeking to reduce the use of cars to reach national parks, areas of outstanding natural beauty and national nature reserves [4.35] whilst not limiting the use of vehicles for recreational purposes within them.

Possible Ways To Mitigate These Effects

19. Our sister organisation, the Yorkshire Dales Green Lane Alliance has a slogan “Where the tarmac stops, vehicles should stop”. We feel this is a vivid expression of what would be a desirable general principle of legislation in this area—that with the exception of access to land and property by owners; and use by emergency services; vehicles should only be used on rights of way which have been specifically designed and constructed to accommodate their use. Ancient ways self-evidently do not fall into this category and there are numerous examples showing vehicular use is generally not sustainable. The destruction of the medieval “setts” paving the descent to the delightful packhorse bridge over the Dove at Washgate on the Derbyshire/Staffordhire border is a vivid example.

20. We consider the adoption of such a principle would have two favourable effects. Firstly, it would assist the change in public attitude to nature and the countryside which we feel the White Paper is promulgating. Secondly, it would greatly assist the enforcement of the law against the already illegal use of vehicles on footpaths, bridleways and restricted byways. Successful enforcement depends upon clarity and simplicity. We find the police and Crown Prosecution Service are reluctant to pursue offenders until the status of routes has been formally determined and relevant signage is in place. The latter is encouraging a minor industry based on removing signs as soon as they are put up and selling them for scrap.

21. Currently, rights of way legislation is based on historic usage, from times when modern forms of transport would have been inconceivable. Such usage has to be inferred from maps and documents which were developed for quite different purposes. Interpretation of the evidence can therefore be a matter of chance. The Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006 was intended to move away from this situation, whilst protecting access to properties over minor roads. Unfortunately, unhappy draughting has led to numerous claims of general vehicular rights by means of these equivocal historical sources. Processing these claims overloads the legal departments of councils. Contesting decisions through public inquiries delays their resolution further and until the situation is resolved, preventing vehicular use is impossible, in practical terms, whatever the current status of the route.

22. If such an approach was considered too radical, we feel that there is scope to tighten up existing legislation. The decision in the Winchester case has helped greatly where the claimed routes were footpaths, bridleways and restricted byways but the problem of UCRs remains. We feel legislative changes could usefully be directed at this area and to the treatment of any BOATs which end in cul-de-sacs.

23. We are not experts in drafting such legislation but would be willing to talk further with DEFRA officials and parliamentary draughtsmen about the objectives to which such changes should be directed. Generally we feel the Highway Authority should have the option of making UCRs part of the normal road network, if they are sealed. Otherwise they should become Bridleways or Restricted Byways depending upon suitable criteria such as width, gradient and character.

24. We feel cul-de-sac BOATs should only be allowed where they lead to a tourist feature or viewpoint recognised by the local authority and where there is adequate parking and turning space.

25. Finally, we feel the police should have the power to prosecute mechanically propelled vehicle users driving on those unsealed routes, which are not defined as BOATs on the definitive map, regardless of the presence of signage. In other words the onus should be on the driver to check the status of a “non normal” route before driving on it.

22 September 2011

Prepared 16th July 2012