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More rights of way for bikes?

It’s been a while since anything terribly interesting happened to Rights of Way legislation for cyclists – 37 years, no less. The 1968 Highways Act gave bikes the right to use byways and bridleways, but since then not a great deal has happened.

Until last week, that is, when a campaign by cyclists’ organisation CTC got rights of way for bikes right at the forefront of MPs’ minds. The Bill in question is the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Bill, which contains a whole load of provisions about various things. The one CTC was interested in was the bit which aimed to prevent motorised vehicles from claiming byways based on evidence of past use by carriages.

As things stand, if there’s a trail on the ground of unknown or uncertain status, it could end up as a right of way if it can be demonstrated that it’s been used unhindered for a sufficiently long time. What right of way it ends up as depends on what evidence can be mustered – if people have been walking along it for ever, it could end up as a footpath. If horses have been ridden along it, it could become a bridleway. And, as things stand, if it’s been used by horse-drawn carriages it could become a byway, and as such become a right of way for motor vehicles.

The NERC Bill seeks to clarify the latter case, which has arisen thanks to most of the legislation being a couple of hundred years old. It seems fairly mad that you should be able to drive a car along a dirt track just because it used to be used by carriages, but that’s exactly the situation at the moment. The Bill is intended to stop that happening – it won’t remove vehicular rights from trails that currently have them, but it will make it harder to have those rights to trails that don’t.

But an upshot of the way the Bill was drafted raised the possibility that you wouldn’t be able to claim a right of way for bikes by showing evidence of bicycle use either, which makes less sense. As things stand, this is a somewhat grey area – a couple of recent decisions have seen such applications turned down on the grounds that evidence of bicycle use is insufficient to claim a byway. In current law, it’s not specified whether it is or it isn’t.

So CTC piloted an amendment, tabled by Emily Thornberry MP (chair of the All Party Parliamentary Cycling Group) to clarify the situation. If adopted, it would mean that historical bicycle use could be used to upgrade a right of way to “restricted byway” status – you’d be entitled to ride a bike along it, but not anything with an engine. And the good news is that the amendment has found its way into the Bill and will go before the House of Lords. The support of several thousand cyclists led ten MPs to speak in favour of the amendment, which undoubtedly helped to get it in there.

Kevin Mayne, CTC Director, said, “When I go out mountain biking, people always ask me what exactly we do for bikers. Well, this is what we do, and we are bloody good at it. CTC’s links to the cycling community, All Party Parliamentary Cycling Group and Members of Parliament, extensive campaigning experience and knowledge of the intricacies of the issues make us the perfect organisation to achieve such victories for cycling”.

Also contained in the debate was discussion of another amendment tabled by Roger Williams MP. Mr Williams’s constituency town of Llanwrtyd Wells has hosted the famous Man vs Horse race for years. Once upon a time it was Man vs Horse vs Bike, but legislation forbidding cycle racing on bridleways put paid to that. The amendment sought to remove that restriction. It wasn’t as successful as the CTC amendment, though – Jim Knight MP, Minister for Rural Affairs, agreed to meet with Mr Williams to discuss the matter further, but it looks unlikely to make it into this particular Bill. Mr Knight’s exact words were, “I shall have a chat with the hon. Gentleman to see whether anything can be done, but I advise him not to hold his breath.”

If you want to follow the whole debate (which is actually quite interesting), take a look at it on the excellent We particularly like the way that pictures of the MPs appear next to their words, making the transcripts look a bit like an unusually erudite web forum…


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