'Bonkers and spiteful'
A Bill currently before Parliament will make it illegal to use a motor vehicle to get to many outdoor pursuits and even to some rural properties, warns Mark Williams
Lembit Öpik had it about right when he said, "This Bill is like a big duffel-bag filled with lots of unconnected bits and pieces which various lobbying organisations have portrayed as the Government's view, and which may well have terrible consequences for other citizens."
The Liberal Democrat MP was bemoaning the effects of the Natural Environment and Rural Community Bill (Nerc), and most specifically Clauses 61 and 62. These, quite literally, will change the face of rural England and Wales forever, inasmuch as they will in effect end the right of vehicles to use the centuries-old network of unsurfaced roads known as "green lanes".
Clause 61 seeks to downgrade what are now known as Roads Used as Public Paths (Rupps) to "Restricted Byways". Vehicular travel on them will then be outlawed, despite their having robustly sustained such use over many decades.
Rupps represent about three per cent of the country's rights of way network, leaving just two per cent of our green lanes still open to vehicles in the guise of Byways open to All Traffic (Boats). In other words, walkers and equestrians will have 98 per cent to themselves.
Clause 62, on the other hand, will end the public's right to apply for Rupps to be upgraded to Boats, overturning a law that the Government passed in 2000 because county councils had long since failed to make the necessary wholesale changes to what is known as the "Definitive Map".
This is all of obvious concern to anyone who currently enjoys the farther reaches of the rural landscape using a 4x4 or a motorcycle but, as Öpik says, it has far wider political, legal, social and economic implications.
Virtually ignored by the national media, Clauses 61 and 62 passed through the Commons only after the rural affairs minister, Jim Knight, did a monumental U-turn on agreements he'd made with off-road vehicle user groups and certain rural MPs, such as Öpik, to assess upgrade claims on the basis of whether a byway could physically and environmentally sustain vehicular use.
A low turnout was dominated by MPs who were sympathetic to (or members of) a small, well-funded organisation called the Green Lane Environmental Movement (Gleam) and/or the Ramblers Association, both vigorously opposed to anything but traffic with two or four legs travelling the nation's unsurfaced roads.
Moreover, they convinced the House and apparently the minister that vehicle-user groups had submitted an "avalanche" of upgrade claims that proved such groups couldn't be trusted to honour the self-same agreements made with the minister. These accusations were later shown to be both grossly and malevolently exaggerated, but the damage was already done.
Defra officials continued to misinform MPs made sceptical by aggrieved constituents, and now the Lords, that the byway network would not actually be reduced. Worse still, when Nerc reached the Lords - where it is now being debated - the anti-vehicle lobby had convinced the politicians that the cut-off date for upgrade claims should be clawed back to May 19 2005.
This ignored Defra's original recommendation that following Royal Assent, a year (as opposed to the existing 25 years) should be allowed for further claims, not least those relating to the many byways that begin as Boats but turn into Rupps. It also undermines the thousands of hours of voluntary work that went into making hitherto legitimate claims, which raises crucial human rights issues.
And retrospective law is bad law or, as Öpik put it, "bonkers - and in this case it's bonkers and spiteful".
Gwent Police Inspector Fran Richley, who has already mounted "sting" operations against hooligans racing unlicensed motocross bikes on bridleways, commented that "Nerc will lead to an increase in unpoliceable illegal activity". Like the Hunting and Handgun Acts before it, it's bad law in that sense too. Only responsible, law-abiding vehicle users will be affected, while irresponsible, illegal activity is likely to continue.
Furthermore, as Öpik suggests, such bad laws could have consequences unintended by the walkers whose ill-will towards the wheel ushered them in. Those who remain determined to keep riding and driving legally along the few remaining green lanes will create heavier traffic flows that might well upset the militant ramblers even more.
They might also create more of the damage to sensitive terrain that is often cited (not always convincingly) as justification for this legislation, perhaps leading to even more punitive measures such as total closure, which is ironic, as agricultural machinery, cattle, horses and mountain bicycles can cause just as much, if not more, damage to soft and boggy ground.
What the Bill will certainly do is criminalise anyone who owns property that is only accessible by what will now become Restricted Byways, unless they can readily prove the existence of vehicular rights. Otherwise they must apply to a Crown Court, using expert witnesses and historical research, or be willing to make a Boat claim that could take many years to negotiate local authority red tape.
These are the direct consequences of the Bill, but the fabric and economy of rural society will also suffer. Many smaller farmers, urged by Defra to diversify their business in the face of globalised and industrialised agriculture, will have their legal 4x4, quadbiking and trail-riding enterprises crushed. Hoteliers and inn-keepers in areas where "trail-riding tourism" is a major economic reality will slip further into decline.
Having already experienced the devastating financial effects of foot and mouth, the Chamber of Trade in Rhayader, Powys, estimates that this could mean £250,000-£400,000 in lost income per annum. Several trail-bike, 4x4 and off-road accessory dealers and importers will probably cease trading, adding to the pressures on a rural economy struggling meet the challenges of the 21st century.
The cruel irony of this is not lost on Öpik, who cites many cases of landowners coming to his surgery complaining of the damage caused by walkers who leave gates open, allow cattle to escape, or perhaps worse, "in our litigious society try and sue them for having tripped into a hole in their field or owning what they regard as a dangerous animal.
"Bikers and 4x4 drivers don't object to ramblers, but they do object to prejudice," he adds. "The people who drive their gas-guzzling cars into the countryside to go walking need to be a little more humble, a little more contrite."
So at this late stage, Öpik and other concerned MPs, together with the off-road vehicle groups and even the Central Council for Physical Recreation, are taking a more aggressive stance and trying to persuade the Lords, especially the Law Lords, to introduce amendments that will at least reinstate the original cut-off date for upgrade claims.
If they fail, then it will make a mockery of Knight's own assertion that: "We must ensure that both now and in the future, our byways are protected for the enjoyment of everyone who uses these important parts of our countryside."
Which of course includes anyone who drives or rides (able bodied or not) in a vehicle on a green lane in order to reach an event venue, to watch or take part in motorsport, or to go boating, fishing, canoeing, pony-trekking, bird-watching, cycling, hang-gliding, mountaineering, hunting or even rambling, who might soon find that their pursuit of pleasure has been made illegal.