Agriculture Bill

Written evidence submitted by the Essex Bridleways Association (AB35)

Summary

1. Essex Bridleways Association (EBA) is concerned that the wording of the Agriculture Bill 1(1)(b) is vague, needs strengthening and clarified as to what public access is being supported and to whom; public access needs to be a priority within the Bill rather than the current inclusion which is woolly and does nothing to secure public access to ALL user groups, especially horse riders, carriage drivers, cyclists and the disabled.

2. Previous attempts at schemes where paid-for access was created has not been successful as this resulted in short-term creation of permissive public paths which only lasted for the duration of those payments giving poor value for money. There is an opportunity now to create lasting routes, being paid for and kept in perpetuity for the public good.

3. The off-road network will help to deliver the Government’s aspirations relating to sustainable transport, health and wellbeing, the economy (especially the rural economy), public health and clean air improvements and as such should be given greater priority within this Bill, which we see as a significant once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to deliver a safe, off road network for ALL non-motorised users and one that CANNOT be missed.

Evidence

4. Essex Bridleways Association (EBA) is a registered charity set up in 1979 to preserve and develop the Bridleway network in Essex.  Run entirely by volunteers, it works to campaign to improve, restore and create a safe riding environment for riders in EssexFunds raised through membership and pleasure rides pay to employ a Bridleway Development Officer and Historic Researcher; both help to further its work.

5. My name is Sue Dobson and I work for EBA as their Bridleway Development Officer, my role being to seek further off-road routes for horse riders, whether via new creations as a result of planning conditions, upgrades to the existing footpath network, or new permissive networks as appropriate.

6. Essex has seen, and will be seeing, extensive housing development with the resultant increase in traffic to our once-quiet lanes which has made safe, off-road routes an absolute necessity. BHS accident figures show that injuries and deaths on the road to horse riders and carriage drivers to be increasing – since 2010 there have been 4229 road incidents reported nationally (although this figure is likely to be higher as many incidents go unreported). These figures include 43 human deaths and 315 horse deaths, with 945 horses injured; the majority of these incidents are caused because of vehicles passing horses too fast or too close. This figure is likely to rise unless new off-road access is created.

7. Whilst the existing Public Rights of Way network in the UK is significant, only around 20% of this nationally is accessible to horse riders and cyclists, and carriage drivers around 5%. Many of those paths which are fully accessible are often unusable as they begin or end at major roads where the traffic is just too dangerous for vulnerable road users to use.

8. To give an example from a local perspective, Maldon District has 457.86km of public footpaths, yet only 34.73km of bridleways and 2.82km byways – meaning that only 7% of the network is available to horse riders, and there are many examples like this throughout both this county and nationally.

9. Horse riding and ownership contributes in no small way to the local economy – many rural businesses’ existence being dependent upon horse ownership, with horse riding being worth an average of £5548 per horse to the economy [1] (excluding the racing industry). With the increase in vehicular traffic resulting in our country lanes becoming unsafe, recreational riding and horse ownership is likely to drastically reduce over the next few years unless more off-road access is created. This will impact significantly to many rural economies throughout the country.

10. Horse riding and ownership contributes greatly to the health and wellbeing of significant numbers of people with around 1.8m people riding regularly, many of whom are over 45 or are disabled; the greater majority of riders are women and children, two groups who are most commonly targeted to increase their uptake of exercise. Whether this is purely riding or expending energy in the usual daily tasks in horse ownership, it is beneficial to those peoples’ health as it is often the case that those groups do not participate in any other form of exercise.

11. Equestrians at present may only use roads, some designated open spaces, and the bridleway or byway network, with carriage drivers only the byway network which is minimal and fragmented. The opportunities for public access within this Bill are immense and will greatly benefit those vulnerable road users – equestrians, cyclists, pedestrians and the disabled. It will positively contribute both to the health and wellbeing of people and the local/national economy and will promote a better understanding of the work that is carried out in the countryside.

12. Increasing off-road access for all non-motorised users will also contribute to the use of sustainable transport – a better safer network will enable all-purpose travel, whether for commuting to work or school, recreation, sport and connecting communities which over the years has been lost due to the over-reliance on the car and the unsafe connecting road network. Such connectivity can combat loneliness and increase tourism opportunities where none existed before.

13. We ask that clause 1(1)(b) in the Bill relating to public access: ‘supporting access to and enjoyment of the countryside, farmland or woodland and better understanding of the environment’ is supported, allowing for farmers and landowners to be remunerated if they provide public access for ALL non-motorised users; however we are concerned that this clause is too vague and gives no indication of what access and for whom. We would prefer that this clause is clarified, to include the aim to provide a cohesive, fully accessible (to all non-motorised users) public network for the purpose of recreation, sustainable transport, leisure and an improved understanding of the environment, food production and farming.

14. Any new network created must be multi user, with the default classification for all new or upgraded paths being bridleway, offering use by foot, bike, horse and mobility scooter/pram with easy access (without gates, stiles or similar) and surfaces that can be hard or natural dependent upon location and likely use. This will open up opportunities for families to go out together – for example parents with children either on horseback, walking or on a bike.

15. There should be a presumption against the creation of cycle tracks in the countryside – the focus should be on multi user as each user group has an equal right to be able to use safe off-road routes, and ensuring that these are not surfaced with tarmac – there are other far more user friendly surfaces that can be used.

16. It should be noted that previous higher level stewardship public access schemes have not been successful; they were not widely publicised so few people knew about them as they were not to be found on any maps, and resulted in short-term creation of permissive public paths which only lasted for the duration of those payments giving poor value for money. There is an opportunity now to create lasting routes, being paid for and kept in perpetuity for the public good.

17. We therefore ask that clause 1(b) is clarified and given a long-term target; we feel that far more of a priority on public access should be placed within the Bill – after all, it contributes significantly to sustainable transport, health and wellbeing, the local and national economy, (especially the rural economy), helping the public health and obesity crisis, lessening the number of accidents to non-motorised users on the roads and increasing the understanding and enjoyment of the countryside to a greater number of people.

18. We would ask how, in the current words of the Bill, can ‘peoples’ enjoyment of the natural environment’ be enabled without an increase in the amount of off-road access they can use?

Sue Dobson

Essex Bridleways Association

18 February 2020


[1] Source: Statistics for Equestrian Access in England and Wales, 2020, BHS

 

Prepared 25th February 2020